What is C21st patriotism?
Today Demos launches a new report on pride and patriotism in 21st Century Britain. The impulse for this research was two-fold: one, we wanted to know whether patriotism and civic or national pride are important to policy and whether the hand-wringing about their perceived decline is justified; and two, we wanted to know what people identify with about Britain and what makes them feel proud of our country. The answer to question one was an emphatic 'yes'. Polling revealed that people overwhelmingly want more opportunities to express their pride in Britain, that they feel we are less proud of our collective self than were our forebears and - crucially - that greater levels of patriotism and pride in individuals leads to greater volunteering, community engagement and interpersonal trust. To question two the answers were more nuanced.
British people accept a very traditional narrative of what it means to be patriotic. They don’t believe that it means worshiping the flag, rejoicing in the Queen and singing Jerusalem at the Proms. Unfortunately, for most people, these rituals and fetishes of 'Britishness' ring hollow. They don't loathe them, they're not scared of them, but neither do they evoke the sentiment of pride.
Even less appealing to our focus groups and poll respondents were 'Brownite' notions of patriotism. People pooh-poohed the idea of patriotism as somehow bound up in what a nice, liberal, tolerant bunch we are. They're not proud of Britain because we're a democracy – because so are lots of other countries – and, importantly, because to be proud of Britain for that reason feels too conditional, too contrived and too temporary. Instead, people turn to the fabric of daily British life to find inspiration for patriotism. They are proud of our culture of volunteering and social action, they are proud of our manners and our respect for each other, they are proud of our politeness and our eccentricities. It's behaviour, more than either institutions or symbols, that the British take pride in. And this feeling was backed up by when and why people feel shame, too. People are embarrassed of Britain when they see British people behaving badly abroad or when they see rudeness and callousness on the street. Patriotism, it seems, stems from the littler things in life rather than either the grandiose claims of history or the semi-mystic symbols of nation.
This all gives us great cause for hope. Because the things that British people are proud of are things that British people are, genuinely, good at. At least 66 per cent of British people volunteered in the last 12 months. We saw the kind of social action that inspires patriotism when hundreds took their brooms to the streets in the wake of the summer riots. And whatever else may be in decline, we do still queue! From our research, it seems, that the more we see of ourselves, the prouder we become.