A Point of View: What does it mean to be a modern patriot?

Reveller at the Last Night of the Proms

What does patriotism mean in the 21st Century, asks novelist Will Self.

One of that great phrase-maker Samuel Johnson's most famous remarks was: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". This bon mot was noted down by Johnson's amanuensis, Boswell, as was his inveterate habit. However, uncharacteristically, he failed to note the context. One thing we can be certain of - Johnson by no means intended by this that patriotism was an ignoble emotion. What he meant was that the scoundrel, having worn all other cloaks of virtue until they are threadbare, dons the patriotic one to hide his shamelessness. Johnson himself was a great patriot, and one of the most affecting incidents in his life came towards its end, when George III invited the great lexicographer into his own library so he could practise regal reading habits.

For Johnson, royalism and patriotism were completely entwined - and I think he was right about this. Which is not to say that a republican state cannot have its patriots, only that they, like the subjects of a monarchy, need some thing or one in which to invest their loyalty - the entire nation is too amorphous for this. We can see this if we analyse what "loving one's country" might involve. Does one need to feel passionate about every blade of grass and each sticky crumb of asphalt? Need we love all our fellow countrywomen and men - or only some? And what about its institutions, its customs and its folkways? Again, is pick-and-mix allowed, or does the true patriot embrace everything unswervingly?

Find out more

Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on BBC Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

Surely not. To love so indiscriminately is to love not at all, so instead we invest the idea of sovereignty - which in turn, is sort of idealisation of the national will - in an individual. In Britain this individual is the Queen - or rather, it is an idealisation of who she is, decoupled from the living, breathing, perspiring and micturating reality. This Queen is unfailingly wise, calm, pacific - a true mother of the nation. And if her government happens to do things that are at variance with her goodliness, that is only because their power is contingent upon an evanescent electoral mandate, while her shadow-power-play is founded upon time-out-of-mind heredity - and at least residually, upon the Lord's will. Naturally, patriotic Britons are reluctant to admit to all of this, preferring to be seen as modern and up-to-date, but if they examine their consciences carefully I think they will concede that a discrete love-of-country object is required for full patriotic attachment.

The accidental genius of the British system is that the sovereign is practically decoupled from the exercise of sovereign power. In order to understand the consequences for a nation of the two roles being combined, we need look no further than our cousins. In the USA, the presidency incorporates both the actuality and the mystique of power - and by extension the living, breathing person of the president embodies these attributes. I always remember an American friend of mine - a savvy, liberally-inclined publisher - describing a close encounter he had at the White House during the Clinton administration. Having attended some wonk-ish briefing, he was in the lift down when it stopped and the president himself stepped in. My friend was stunned to be in Bill's presence - not least because the Great Triangulator was in his shirtsleeves, said "hi" just like a regular guy, and (this was the paradoxical confirmation of his ethereal nature) was carrying a tray with a couple of sandwiches on it. "It looked to me," my friend gasped, "like he'd just been down to the kitchen and made them himself for him and Hillary." The idea of these Olympians eating late night snacks just like any other middle-aged couple overawed him - yet Clinton was his own age and came from the same part of the south.

Child with flag at US naturalisation ceremony

E pluribus unum - out of the many, one, indeed. The reverence accorded to this one president, then the next, and then his successor is separable from the multifarious mudslinging of US politics, but arguably it has played its part in encouraging a hubristic and imperialist exercise of power. However, the true patriot - whether British, American or a Pitcairn Islander - always distinguishes between the merely contingent and temporal aspects of her nation, and the eternal and inviolable ones. It is this patria which it is a great and glorious thing to die for - in droves if necessary - and the inculcation in the armed forces of a belief in nationhood as a kind of super-consciousness is a necessary part of steeling their homicidal purpose, and inculcating discipline. To ask someone to lay down their own life - or indeed accept the sacrifice of a close relative's life - purely in order that some stranger should be able to continue selling life insurance or going fishing, or running a cafe, is a very big ask indeed. So the universalised national interest is the carrot that's matched with the existential threat of an evil enemy in order to goad us all - civilian and soldier alike - into bellicosity.

Samuel Johnson 1709-1784
samuel Johnson
  • Poet, critic, lexicographer, and one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 18th Century
  • Among his publications were the Dictionary of the English Language, Lives of the English Poets and the novel Rasselas
  • Many of his sayings were recorded by his friend, James Boswell, whose book, Life of Johnson, is one of the most famous biographies ever written

Except that we really aren't that goaded. The more comfortable and anaesthetised our lives become, and the more polyglot and culturally heterogeneous our societies become, the less manifestly patriotic we are. For the state, and all that sail in her, this is worrying, and so it - or rather, they - try to arouse our flagging patriotic desire with flags and ceremonials. Lavish regal weddings are counterpointed with footage of scions of the Royal House dealing militarily with the existential threat. But in a largely secular society, where people have lost the habit of connecting individual conviction with collective action through ritual, these efforts are pretty unsuccessful. We will insist on wandering off abroad, otherwise ignoring them - professing allegiance instead to some other entity, such as a Premier League football club, and worse, confusing the Queen's personification of British nationhood with other, cheesier forms of celebrity with which we like to amuse ourselves. Under such parlous conditions we have to ask who it is who maintains a strong sense of patriotism.

Liverpool fans bear flags proclaiming their allegiance Flying the flag for your football team: A different sort of allegiance

Well, for a start, there are those who have a vested interest in the state's monopolistic practices. Nowadays almost everything that can be done by governments has been hived off to one private company or another, but there remains an understandable urge to hang on to the use of force - abroad in the form of military intervention, and at home in the form of policing prevention. So it's no surprise that the armed and so-called security services should both cloak themselves in patriotism, and boast a lot of patriots in their ranks, that "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("it is sweet and proper to die for one's country") is an increasingly speculative fiction to maintain in the mill race of trans-national capital flows and turbulent geopolitics, but maintain it they must... And then there are still the old-school patriots, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe there simply is something intrinsically superior about Britain. When asked to identify what this might be they speak of landscape, tradition and democracy readily enough - but if pressed the mask often slips and they acknowledge that by "the country"' they mean its people, and specifically its indigenous people, whoever they may be.

More thoughts on patriotism

"No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach." William Cowper

"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober." GK Chesterton

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." EM Forster

French officer salutes French flag while police and fire workers stand to attention

It seems to me that the politics of the past 40-odd years has been marked by a profound shift. In the past, ideologues of both right and left propounded the view that a better society could be achieved so long as we recognised that most individuals' salient attributes - especially their class - were contingent, and that change should be effected by effacing these with forms of equality. However, with the rise of identity politics, wholly arbitrary aspects of individuals have begun to be viewed as essential to both them and to a properly constituted civil society. I have no problem with the historical abuses suffered by people because of their ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or religion being rectified, but the idea that these should be considered as fundamental to their nature makes them uncomfortable bedfellows with patriots who also believe that their British or US citizenship is integral to who they are, rather than a mere accident of birth.

Under such topsy-turvy circumstances we might counter Dr Johnson by observing that patriotism, far from being the scoundrel's last refuge, is more often than not his or hers first - not, I hasten to add, that the British patriot ever considers themselves to be a refugee, or a slave for that matter.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Here is a selection of your comments.

To me, patriotism has always been a dirty word; a convenient defence or rationale for bestiality and selfishness. The notion that one particular heap of soil with a flag stuck in it is better or more worthy than any other heap of soil with a flag stuck in it is ridiculous. We are all passengers on spaceship Earth, interdependent and vulnerable. Why should anyone be proud of belonging to a particular nation, race or religion? What matters is that we are good people and loyal to the planet. Sermon over.

Charles Markuss, Bridgend

The U.S. Constitution is the focus of American patriotic fervour and loyalty, not the presidency. Americans will try to impeach a president and will openly, and vociferously, disagree with his idealogy. The press and Congressmen will sling mud at him, and cartoonists will mock him. But almost no one, and no organisation, will mock, demean, or unduly criticise the U.S. Constitution, unless they fancy being seen as traitors to everything that the United States stands for. The President may be our figurehead, but it is the Constitution that gives him power and the Constitution to which Americans with a consuming patriotic sensibility swear allegiance.

Katie Haas Sentance, Belfast, Northern Ireland/ NJ, USA

Interesting article, but I couldn't agree less with the proposition that royalism and patriotism are completely entwined; I regard myself as a very patriotic person and an ardent republican. There does seem to be an ongoing problem with the definition of patriotism however, often being conflated with nationalism and/or jingoism. For me patriotism is simply loving one's country and wanting it to be the best place it can possibly be, without slight or denigration towards any other of the many great countries or the people that inhabit them around the world. Patriotic pride is a funny one, as it would be (or is) very presumptious to be proud of the achievements of forebears one had nothing to do with, but as long as people retain this perspective, I think it can be inspirational to consider the incredible legacy in so many fields of human endeavour that has been left by those previously inhabiting these small islands.

Alex, London

I think there is a profound difference between patriotism and the xenophopbic rantings of many of those who hide behind it. To be proud of your own background and culture, and willing to defend your country (whichever one it happens to be) with it's traditions and way of life, perhaps to the death, in a war situation, is a very different thing to maintaining that it's society is necessarily better than, or it's people by definition racially superior to, others. It is a question that I suspect many of my fellow Welsh, Scots, and Ulstermen have pondered as citizens of a 'United Kingdom', but that fewer English people will have, due to the dominance of England in the Union. This is itself a result of the inevitable historical success of an England which could draw upon far greater military and economic resources than the rest of us put together (which we never were) and certainly no evidence that the English were superior in any other way. In my own case, I regard myself as Welsh first and British next, then sort of generally European. I support Wales in sporting events, and am proud to be Welsh, but it does not follow (at least in my case) that national pride means that I think that Welsh people are per se superior (or inferior!) to anyone else! I am also of the belief that anyone who immigrates here and feels themselves to be Welsh, or British, is fully entitled both to that view and to my support for it; as British citizens, I regard them them as every bit as Welsh or British as I am. If they do not feel this, then I am happy to support them in that as well, but am more likely to regard them as visitors... But an attack on any part of the Union will elicit a defensive response from me. I am also a republican and a socialist, but will swear loyalty to the death to the Queen if the country is under direct threat, as I will to the leadership of a Prime Minister of a political persuasion that I despise. In this centenary year of the start of the Great War, typified by images of millions of ordinary citizens flocking enthusiastically to their respective colours only to be butchered on an industrial scale in the meat grinders of the Western Front, one wonders why they did it, and one is often told that it is down to national pride and patriotism of a type that is no longer seen in modern times. It is a tragedy that the xenophobes and racists have hi-jacked the concept of patriotism, and an insult to the memory of the sacrifice of those millions, and the millions more who died for their countries in the Second World War (including those Germans who were not overtly Nazi). We are often given the impression that the rush to the colours in 1914 was a sort of brainwashing of the masses, but I think I might have joined up in that situation; yet I do not consider myself to be particularly brainwashed. I would have felt that Kaiser Willhelm was trying to impose his will on Europe by force and needed to be stopped by force, and that I was making an informed choice. Patriotism, real patriotism, not xenophobia, not flag waving cant, not a delusional belief in an illusory racial superiority, but the normal human pride in your culture and where you came from, is alive and well in modern times, and is a Good Thing, wherever you are from.

John Richards, Cardiff, Wales

An interesting read for Brits and Americans alike. As an American living and studying in London who self-identifies as patriotic, I am acutely aware of the unease many Brits feel when discussing patriotism. I was pleased this article did not conflate patriotism with outright nationalism, which is too often the case. My own take is that patriotism is not, as Mr Self describes members of the old school as believing, the idea that "there is something intrinsically superior about Britain [or America, or your nation]". I don't see patriotism as placing my country above others in greatness, righteousness, or anything else. To me, patriotism is loving the good qualities and principles that define one's nation. This view does not hinge on a superiority to other nations, but on a nationally more introspective reflection (which may, of course, be influenced by comparing to the good qualities of other nations).

Zander Goss, London/Chicago

Patriotism is taking pride in the country you are from, but the aspects of our collective identity and culture which are considered worthy of such merit are totally subjective to each compatriot.

Neil Galligan, Port Ellen, Scotland, UK

If I were asked 'am I proud of my country', I would say 'no'. But this doesn't mean the same thing as saying that I am 'ashamed' of my country, which is what I have often found it to be interpreted as meaning. Will's reference to the UK (or whatever you want to call it) being "amorphous" is the key. What is it to be proud? Proud of what? The UK is a massive slab of land jutting out of the sea, covered in plants and fields and so on. How can I logically be 'proud' of this geography? It's existence has nothing to do with me, except that I behold it. Thus, when people claim to be patriotic and enjoin others to be the same, the soil itself is not what they feel proud of. So, what else is it? It can only be the humans that live here and that have lived here. Once again, being 'proud' of things like the weather and the flora and fauna doesn't even make sense. So, patriotism is feeling proud of the collective achievements of the UK's peoples. But for me there's a problem here too. This is a list of Brits who I think are at the very least admirable: Shakespeare, David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell, Dickens, George Eliot, Clement Attlee, David Bowie. I think the achievements of these individuals are marvellous - but do they make me proud to be British? Once again, it needs to be looked at logically. How are these people connected to me? I don't know any of them personally. I seem to share these characteristics with them: I speak the same language (or a close approximation in some cases) as them; I was born on the same island they were born. And that's it. So, how can I feel 'proud' of their achievements? Logically, I can't. I suppose I could, in the words of Homer Simpson, bask in their reflected glory - but pride? The UK, just like all other countries, is an idea. I find people who insist on proudly displaying the Union Jack and people who loathe it as symbol of nationalism equally baffling. The country is too big, too vague and too unfathomable to comprehend as a whole entity - let alone a whole entity you can feel pride in. Writing a decent poem; cooking a great meal; being nice to everyone etc - those are the sort of things one can take pride in. Countries just aren't the sort thing that you can do that with.

Max Salsbury, Hereford, UK

To anyone familiar with Johnson's writings and their historical context, it is immediately obvious that the quotation refers to the adoption of the word "patriots" by New Englanders (Bostonians in particular) who were seeking independence for the British-American colonies. No English writer was more fervently opposed to the American Revolution. Unless this is understood, discussion of the quotation is futile.

Dick Lloyd Thomas, Cheltenham, England

What does it mean to be a modern patriot?

More on This Story

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • TravelAround the world

    BBC Travel takes a look at the most striking images from the past seven days


  • A bicycle with a Copenhagen WheelClick Watch

    The wheel giving push bikes an extra boost by turning them into smart electric hybrids

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.