Can an intelligent person be patriotic? Or is national loyalty a base emotion, fit only for the tabloid-reading masses? In the 1940s, George Orwell remarked that Colonel Blimps and highbrow intellectuals both accepted as a law of nature that patriotism and intelligence were divorced.
England was, he thought, the only great country whose intellectuals were ashamed of their own nationality and felt it their “duty to snigger at every English institution”.
The recent re-publication of Our Island Story (1905), Henrietta Marshall’s patriotic and beautifully written children’s history, which encouraged legitimate pride in British achievements, has sparked some reactions that Orwell would have recognised.
Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, A. N. Wilson even went so far as to claim that from “Charlemagne to Frederick the Great, the story of Europe is very largely a German story”.
The necessity to look up the dates of these two monarchs may distract a little from the audacity of this claim. Charlemagne assumed the Frankish throne in 768 and Frederick the Great died in 1786, a period during which, in Britain, the long struggle for liberty and democracy was taking place, culminating in the founding of parliamentary democracy and the entrenching of the idea that the power of the state was limited by law.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the foundations for totalitarianism – the absolute power of the unchecked ruler – were being laid. Wilson’s Anglophobia has found recent support from no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury: Dr Rowan Williams apologised at an international conference for the sin of making “cultural captives” of people subject to missionary work by the Anglican Church during the days of Empire.
Yet this hostility seems increasingly like an anachronistic outburst. Patriotism as Orwell defined it – “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people” – is making a comeback among members of the intelligentsia.
In the week before his enthronement as Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu urged the English to stop being embarrassed by their own culture. He owed his own success to Anglican missionaries in Uganda, he said.
The English way of life was democratic, based on reason, and allowed “genuine dissent without resort to violence”. And while in office he intended to remind everyone that English culture was rooted in Christianity.
Prospect magazine has put the idea of national loyalty to core beliefs back on the map of intellectual respectability. Consciousness of the threat from Islamist extremists has given added impetus, but the debate stimulated by its editor, David Goodhart, had begun earlier.
Among academics, Oxford’s David Miller had been quietly restoring respectability to legitimate national pride through his book Nationality, and Professor Robert Rowthorn of Cambridge had warned, also in Prospect, of the dangers of multiculturalism to the sense of solidarity on which any free people must rely.
The Anglophobia that Orwell noticed within the intelligentsia of the 1930s and 1940s is still a powerful presence.
During the Second World War, various highbrows did not actually want Germany and Japan to win, he said, but they were pleased when Singapore fell because they “could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated”.
Occasional reverses suffered in modern Iraq provoke the same ambiguous, gloating reaction from today’s Anglophobe intellectuals.
But the success of Our Island Story – boosted by a hearty recommendation from this newspaper’s education editor, John Clare – suggests that the tide has turned.
Not only has the book sold more than 20,000 copies in a couple of months, but it has earned unexpected praise from bien pensant quarters.
The Guardian reviewer remarked that Antonia Fraser, an undisputed progressive heroine, had expressed her “lifelong gratitude” to the book. And so did the reviewer – on the grounds that, in the Peasants’ Revolt, Henrietta Marshall had been on the side of the peasants, who had been ruthlessly exploited by a cruel ruling class and betrayed by the king.
Time Out, always a handy guide to the mental assumptions of the fashion-conscious Left, also came out in favour, finding “its tight focus on the virtues of courage, wisdom and patriotism” both valuable and relevant. And the Sunday Mirror declared it approved reading for the Labour-voting working class: it was “one of the great children’s history books of all time”.
The Economist, meanwhile, called it an “impeccably postmodern” contribution to the new political fashion of musing about the meaning of being British.
Perhaps the most interesting and encouraging feature of this debate is that it is taking place above the tribal loyalties of party politics. Orwell would have approved. “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism,” he wrote.
“It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.”
The author is director of Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society.