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Blogs Coffee House From the archive

Who knows what patriotism will feel like if Scotland becomes independent

26 July 2014

3:30 PM

26 July 2014

3:30 PM

If Scotland goes independent in September, who knows what patriotism will feel like. This may be a last chance to savour some of this magazine’s most passionate expressions of British pride. In 1828, this article laid out the difference between a ‘genuine Briton’ and a Liberal.

‘The disposition of a genuine Briton is to make up his mind upon what he ought to do, and having once determined that, to adhere to his resolution with a fixedness of purpose, which more frequently proceeds to the length of obstinacy, than deviates into vacillation and uncertainty. Now this is a character quite opposite to that of the Liberals, and much to be preferred before it; for while the Briton of the old school may possibly carry his principle to an extent which is not right, he of the new or Liberal school will most probably tumble through sheer weakness into what is wrong. In the Liberal there is a total absence of the sound healthy firmness, which is absolutely essential to eminent usefulness – he yields this; he concedes that; he compromises the other thing; he winds, and twists, and hesitates; and when he wants to accomplish a thing, chooses rather to do it by a trick or stratagem, than by candour and plain dealing. You are never sure of him; you are doubtful as to his object, and quite uncertain as to the means he will adopt. Even his principles he yields to circumstances, and he is particularly deferential to a vague impalpable something, which he is pleased to call the spirit of the age, but which, on investigation, appears to be nothing more than the affected tone of the weak trash which the press pours forth in such quantity. Your Liberal has cast away the anchors of the old law, and national feeling, and exclusive privileges of Britons, as mere prejudices, and useless shackles to his enlarged comprehension.’

It turns out that this mysterious emotion often finds itself at the centre of a battle between progressives and patriots. Nearly 150 years later, W.F Wentworth-Shields expressed similar sentiments in the letters page:

‘Sir: Nobody with any claim to be ‘progressive’ could regard himself/herself as a patriot. Patriotic sentiments are as benighted as was heresy to the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Modern patriots, like former heretics, are outside the pale of the modern community. Modern fashion does not allow death by fire; but it can, at least, punish the patriot by making him/her feel a social outcast — a grim fate, when the prevailing doctrine is that every one clamours to belong to a national, or social, group.

Well, Sir, I am a patriot, without equivocation, shame or regret. I am heartily proud to be British; and I believe that the way out of our ‘progressive’ difficulties, as they crowd upon us — spiritual, economic, political and social — is the recovery of national faith and purpose and, with them, of the historic qualities of British self-respect, self-reliance and self-responsibility.’

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In the middle of the First World War, there was a debate about how to instill the principles of patriotism into children. The Spectator acknowledged that ‘you cannot define the mystery of patriotism any more than you can define love, or sleep, or death,’ but argued that did not make it unteachable:

We do not want a vainglorious and militaristic conception of life; but we do want—what is the exact reverse—such a well-applied love of one’s country that every child may grow-up to think it worth while to devote his life so far as he can, or to lay it down if necessary, in order to maintain this country as the inviolate home of liberty, and as a great exemplar of the political art of conceding liberty to others. A child can be taught that it is base to consent to tyranny, and it is nonsense to say that such teaching as this is impossible. You can justify patriotism even though you cannot dissect it. You can tell children how great and good men spent their lives or lost them in stamping out cruelty or injustice; and how our administrative services throughout the Empire labour in the tradition that we must govern for the good of the governed, and not, as was the way of ancient Rome, to enrich the central Treasury. If those things be taught successfully, ceremonial reverence for a flag may be, and ought to be, practised with spiritual profit because every child will know that the flag is respected for what it represents.

Without Scotland, the English won’t have Walter Scott or Dr Livingstone (a point reiterated by James Forsyth in The Spectator a few weeks ago); without England, the Scots won’t have Charles Dickens or the Duke of Wellington, but if it’s as instinctive as the article suggests, perhaps we’ll all feel just the same when Jerusalem echoes around a sports field. There’s just one final warning in the article: patriotism ‘can scarcely be handled without being defiled. It is simply for the elementary schools to make it noble or detestable.’

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