Demos Daily: A Place for Pride


For years now, patriotism has been a political football: a dirty word akin to nationalism to some, and a rousing exercise in belief and identity for others. Yet has patriotism been misrepresented, on both sides of the spectrum? Back in 2010, we found that modern British pride is based on a profound, emotional connection to the everyday acts, manners and kindnesses that British people see in themselves and each other. With frequent acts of kindness spreading around communities, the current crisis has brought this sense of pride among us to the fore. But is it patriotism? Time will tell.

Read A Place for Pride here, and the introduction to the pamphlet below.

Introduction: pride’s place

Politics can no longer be distilled into questions of money and law. The bad things that we can bear to ban are – for the most part – banned. The good things that we can afford to provide are – for the most part – provided. Political clashes between libertarianism and welfarism, capitalism and socialism, or liberalism and fascism are – for the most part – historic rather than contemporary; they are certainly wars that we fight more elsewhere or against minority interest than they are genuine struggles for majority support. None of which is to say, of course, that politics is any easier or more straightforward now.

The conflicts may not be as big and bold as they once were but it is in their nuance and complexity that they come to life. The debate that captured the general election was, superficially, an old fashioned one about the size and form of the state. On the one side we saw Conservatives, with their freshly minted (if not tested) Big Society vision of a Britain with a smaller government. On the other stood Labour – still wedded to the good that the state can do and certain that the Big Society was little more than a beard for Thatcherism reborn. But buried beneath the big-state–small-state dingdong to which it was reduced, this argument told us a lot about where the real dividing lines of British politics are.

For the Conservative leadership the Big Society was buildable because of people’s innate altruism, kindness and generosity – attributes that would kick in once government ceased to misdirect people through its meddling and regulatory interventionism. For Labour this was nonsense – people rely on the state because they need it, not because they have been perversely induced to do so. What is more – once the state abdicates from swathes of public life, people will have less, not more, control over how society functions; equality, fairness and accountability will inevitably suffer as a result.

This argument may seem at once old-fashioned and petty – it talks of the size of the state and results in quibbling about which Sure Start centres stay and which go. But in truth it is both relevant and profound – this is a debate about human motivation and identity that Adam Smith would recognise well and which goes to the very heart of the question of how society ought to be formed. Of course, neither of these descriptions of human nature is an entirely fair representation of the whole of either of the political movements discussed. There are some on the left – Blue Labour being the most recent and high-profile home of this argument – who are passionately convinced of the need to move away from the Fabian state. And there are many on the right – from the neoliberal economic libertarians to the experts of the ‘Nudge Unit’ – who see that pro-social behaviour must be driven by the state, not simply left to flourish. But these conflicting perspectives on who people are have nonetheless driven the deepest political wedge between the parties that we have seen in recent years.

The truth is that neither side has got this quite right. As Patrick Diamond suggests in his essay, From the Big Society to the Good Society, neither the left nor the right has stood up to ‘the crisis of society’ – the fundamental importance of shared values and traditions in our common life, which are being eroded and undermined.

The left’s pessimism about human nature, and its natural trust in government to restrain our impulses, rubbed against a desire for autonomy and for more tangible, local and practical power for communities to exercise over themselves and their environment. The right’s optimism depends too much on altruism, generosity and – when that fails – financial incentives. For most people altruism does not sufficiently motivate real behaviour change – if it did then surely there would be no need for a drive towards a ‘Big Society’, we would have one already delivered through the milk of human kindness. Of course the right acknowledge that this is probably so – and so they fall back on much the same levers as the left in order to try to solve it once they decide that, after all, rational self-interest is the mechanism that will deliver for them. But while incentives may work for simple policy objectives they do not work (or at least they do not work as well) for more complex objectives and long-term cultural change. A higher tax on aircraft fuel – an old-fashioned, incentive-based policy intervention – may well prohibit aircraft travel for some, lessen the number of flights and cut carbon emissions from air travel. But such an intervention will not lead to the cultural change that is required to really tackle global warming – it cannot inspire greater recycling or a more deeply felt individual responsibility to ration and restrain consumption in the interests of the wider environment. So called wicked problems – those issues that are fundamentally complex and cultural – are on the increase; they require a new set of interventions and a fresh approach to policy, one that places culture at the heart of both the problem and the solution.

In attempting to understand policy through culture, and to devise cultural solutions to political problems, we have to move beyond simplistic altruism too. The Big Society is in danger of being washed up on the shores of its own naivety – its own mistaken and self-evidently false perception of human nature. Conservatives have sought to deny the dark side of the self; yes, people can be generous, but they can also be selfish; yes, people can be persuaded to behave selflessly, but they are also prone to look out for their own and exploit others’ kindness. What is needed is a more nuanced, more realistic paradigm through which to understand human nature, culture and how each may be changed and channelled. That paradigm must be premised on a truer feeling for why people do good things, what forges a shared sense of achievement, worth and esteem, and of what it is that prevents some from doing things that might serve their immediate interest but which are uncivil or antisocial.
That paradigm is pride and, naturally, its countervailing sentiment of shame.

What your granny already knows

Speaking at a Demos panel event in May 2010, the New York Times columnist and author David Brooks gleefully admitted that most of what was contained in his new book on happiness and success was ‘what your granny already knows’. He argued that many of the key debates in modern policy are not about discovering some all-encompassing new idea but about rediscovering, and finding ways to measure and prove the value of ideas and beliefs that society has partially forgotten. This pamphlet can be seen in that light.

As Adam Smith explained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ‘The most sincere praise can give little pleasure when it cannot be considered as some sort of proof of praise-worthiness.’

This pamphlet is concerned with how public forms of pride – both the civic and the national – might be better understood, better cultivated and better used to serve broader policy and behavioural objectives. We find that pride in the personal is deeply related to pride in the civic, which in turn is key to patriotism and – confusingly – that chain of pride works backwards as well as forwards. People who are proud of their house, friends or town are more patriotic and those who love their country are more likely to feel proud of the community around them.

We also find that pride in Britain is strong but that people are alienated by the way in which politicians talk about patriotism. British people are highly dubious of efforts to politicise their everyday, felt patriotic sentiments and they deeply distrust efforts to intellectualise their pride in their country. British politicians are at risk – through their wide-of-the-mark ventures into the discourse of patriotism – of turning British people off their sense of themselves.

And that is dangerous. Because many of the policy objectives that our politics widely agrees on – the need for more interpersonal trust, social cohesion, self-policing and greater levels of voluntarism – can be motivated by pride much more effectively than they can by either diktat or blind altruism. People respond to pride in their community and their country by behaving in positive ways.

All of which, as it were, my granny could tell you. And indeed, our polling showed that British people understand the positive role of pride as a motivator and signifier of positive behaviour. Our focus groups also told us something surprising and important – while they may not like talk of ‘values’ or of esoteric concepts of justice, British people have a very clear idea of what British culture and British pride is all about:

When you ask about what’s best about being British I think of all the people that give up their time to help other people, or to do good things in the community. That’s what makes me proud of this country.

Not only are volunteerism, social action and greater cohesion the products of pride but they are the things British people say they are proud of about our country.

Defining pride

Throughout this pamphlet a number of terms are used to describe different kinds of pride. It’s important to clarify what we mean from the start. After all, pride has long suffered from a duality of meaning and a contradiction of place – it both ‘comes before the fall’ but is also a sign of strength, consistency and moral righteousness.

The first thing to say is that pride is roughly analogous to, but not identical to, love. To be proud of one’s self is to love one’s self. To be proud of one’s family is to love them. To be patriotic, to be proud of one’s nation, is to love one’s country. Like love, pride can be felt in different ways towards different people, things, ideas, places and institutions. We can love both our parents and our partners, but not in the same way. So it is that we have divided pride into three broad types – in order to better describe what we mean by it and better understand how different forms of pride relate to each other and to behaviour:

  • Personal pride is pride in things that are unique to an individual, under the control of the individual or affect only the individual. Included in this category are pride in one’s appearance, one’s family, one’s friends and one’s home.
  • Civic pride is pride in one’s locality or one’s community. This means pride in things that are not universal but which are collective, shared and not solely under one’s control. Included in this category is pride in things such as one’s town, region, religion and class.
  • National pride is pride in one’s country. This is the simplest category; it refers essentially to patriotism.

Like love, pride is not an exclusive sentiment. To feel proud of one’s haircut does not prevent one being proud of one’s garden too. But how proud one is of one thing can affect how one feels about another. This pamphlet aims to understand those relationships and, also, to understand how pride in different things leads to different outcomes and actions.

The truth about pride

In order to establish what British people are proud of, how they express that pride and how they feel about it we ran focus groups with representative samples of British citizens and polled over 2,000 British people from England, Wales and Scotland. We asked them about everything from their self-esteem to their view of the royal family. Many of the results are included in this pamphlet and there is a list of key findings included as an appendix. The full tables are available from the Demos website.

The truth about pride – as expressed to us by British people – should encourage us and also forewarn us of the difficulty we will have in promoting and cultivating it. Pride is a virtuous circle – pride in oneself makes one prouder of one’s family, community, identity and nation, and the same is true in reverse. Interventions to bolster and support pride at one end of this spectrum will have ripples elsewhere on it. The virtuous circle also applies to the impact that pride has – prouder people, for instance, volunteer more, while volunteering inspires greater levels of pride. Promoting positive behaviours will, therefore, have the neat side-effect of producing a prouder populace while promoting pride should also provoke people to act in ways we approve of and celebrate. The difficulty comes – as it does with any complex system or network – in identifying where in these cycles intervention is best placed to make a positive difference and to improve the shape and nature of our society.

This pamphlet urges government to rediscover a concern for patriotism – which lies at one end of the spectrum of pride – with the intent of bolstering it, supporting it and producing the cascade in pride that will follow. Concurrently, it urges a feeling for the other end of that scale, for the small and the local – for grassroots pride. Here, public agencies can develop robust identities and frameworks for pride and shame that feel rooted in people’s lives, make visible difference and drive achievable change. These two ends of the spectrum, if tended to with due care and attention, will spread to fill the middle.

Most important, more important than action, is attention, understanding and concern. Government must pay regard to pride as both an end, a means and a symptom. Pride is what government should hope its citizens will feel; it is a means of persuading people to do (and to avoid) without using either money or the law and it is a sentiment that must be measured and tested in order to understand whether society is fulfilling its members.

Pride matters; this pamphlet aims to help us to understand why and how it matters and to give pride its proper place in policy.