In the run-up to Remembrance Day, my local branch of the Quakers has been displaying a sign on the front door. It reads, with ever-so-slightly combative bold type: ‘Remembering all who have lost their lives in war’. They’re willing to mourn, as long as they don’t have to be patriotic about it. Temperamentally, I’m with the Quakers on this one: I struggle to get emotional at national symbols like the royal wedding or the sight of the Union Flag. But I know people who are moved by these things, and I’m not sure this is because they’re less enlightened than me and the Quakers. It seems more likely that we’re the ones who are missing something.
Patriotism is irrational if it means believing, as George Monbiot has suggested it does, that ‘whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others’. That does seem ridiculous, but patriotism isn’t really about judging who’s better: it’s a movement of affection. Of course we should aspire to love everybody equally, and see the whole world as our brothers and sisters. But opening your heart to even one person is really hard; loving every single person everywhere isn’t something you can do just by snapping your fingers. On the way to loving the cosmos, you have to start by loving something, and it makes sense to start with something close: this object of sentimental value, this person, this place – and this country.
One of the WW1 dead we commemorate today, the poet Edward Thomas, was asked by a friend why he was going to fight. He scooped up a bit of soil and said, ‘For this’. In his poem ‘This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong’, Thomas rejected wartime jingoism. He didn’t have some theory of why England was the best: ‘she’ was just there, and he loved her.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate our foe.
That closing line invites an obvious response: that the whole problem with patriotism is how it can turn sentimental attachment into millions of pointless deaths. But just because the love of one’s country is responsible for terrible things – war, xenophobia, the hounding of Sienna Miller for not wearing a poppy – doesn’t mean it can’t do any good. For one thing, people are probably more likely to improve a place if they feel affection for it than because they believe in some set of abstract values. Patriotism is irrational, yes – as irrational as preferring your own child to some random stranger’s.