The response is instinctive and emotional. This is where I was born, and this is the land that imprinted itself upon my senses from infancy. The process may be compared to the experience of a newly hatched duckling that forms an unbreakable attachment to the first living thing it sees. The landscapes, weather, literature, music, history, and distinctive peculiarities of England are dear to me because I have always known them. They have been instrumental in forming my sensibilities, tastes, and beliefs.
I do not think it insular to record that Elgar and Shakespeare quicken my pulse not only by their genius, but because there is an indefinable spirit in their art which communicates a common understanding of place and custom.
Neither do I consider it to be evidence of romantic flag-waving to record that, in the unlikely event that a middle-aged female Quaker is required to make some corner of a foreign field forever England, I would be sustained at the last by an image of the purple shadows of clouds racing across Skiddaw.
YET because patriotism has always been associated with conservatism, progressives are often uncomfortable about owning its nourishing qualities. Anxious to avoid any hint of jingoism, the Left has historically preferred to emphasise the concepts of internationalism and universal brotherhood. Such sentiments are noble, but unfortunately they are easily parodied as the vapourings of ideologues who secretly despise their own country.
The countervailing argument should be that love of country, subject to the exercise of imaginative empathy, is the best engine of true fraternity. If that case is not made, the calumny will continue to find a receptive audience among those who hold an uncritical view of their own country’s superiority, and are consequently myopic about that which is common to us all.
This mindset provides fertile ground for groups such as the BNP and the English Defence League, who sow division by exploiting an impoverished view of the real potential of deeply felt national identity. Just as the knowledge of love and suffering teaches empathy, so should patriotism, properly understood, inoculate against nationalism, xenophobia, and racism.
It is arrogant and unintelligent to imagine that those who look on different landscapes and read other histories could hold their experiences of place and identity less dear. Love of country is dangerous only when it becomes exclusive. My allegiance to England is cultural and topographical. It neither deceives me into believing that an accident of birth bestows superiority, nor does it blind me to the shortcomings of the country I love.
G. K. Chesterton made a memorable distinction between patriotism and nationalism, when he wrote that “my country right or wrong” is on the same moral level as “my mother drunk or sober”. It can be neither love nor patriotism that is unable to countenance criticism, or requires a suspension of the moral faculties for its survival.
AS BORDERS become more porous, and the need for multinational co-operation in the face of climate change and terrorism grows, a progressive approach to genuine internationalism is essential. This is unlikely to develop if understanding is not grounded in the particular and the local. It is the ground of fellow-feeling to understand that leap of the heart experienced on returning after absence to a much-loved landscape. Reference to transferable experience stands a far better chance of changing attitudes than do lofty abstractions.
The furore over the publicity-seeking antics of Islam4UK might give us pause for thought here. By threatening to march through the streets of Wootton Bassett with empty coffins representing the Muslim dead of Afghanistan, this extremist organisation touched a raw nerve. In the difficult interface between public respect, private grief, and that partial understanding of patriotism which finds its expression in military ceremonial, the troublemaking intent of a minority has made it difficult for us to see a truth behind the malice.
Despite the provocative choice of location, the emotion felt at the return of the British army dead may not be claimed as unique. If honestly examined, our own deepest experiences of what is loved and may have been lost should enable us to acknowledge that.
All Afghans killed in the current conflict, whether they be insurgents, children, civilians, or police, rose from their beds on the morning of their deaths surrounded by cherished landscapes, sounds, symbols, and people. Their loss devastates families and communities that may appear strange to us, but whose emotional and spiritual lives are to be counted in the same tally of meaning and relationship as our own.
This should serve to remind us that the substance of human experience is common, however different its externals may be. Deficient as we so often are in loving our neighbours, empathy with far-away people and their cultures may seem beyond us. But to consider the possibility that whatever we treasure in our own environment, legends, and customs could have a parallel in the hearts of others is to begin to mix the mortar that will eventually bind us together.
Jill Segger is a freelance writer.