Apparently we may no longer poke fun at politicians or their furnishings, let alone the PM’s new Press Room: it’s now declared unpatriotic to do so.
Things came to a head this week when BBC Breakfast co-host Charlie Stayt observed, while interviewing a government minister, that the Union flag in the background of the Communities Secretary’s office was “just a little bit small”. His colleague Naga Munchetty joined in the fun.
Friday’s Times reported that Stayt “subsequently clarified that his comments were a light-hearted reference to the number of Conservative ministers who ornament their video-call backgrounds with Union flags”.
Any sane person would have understood without explanation. Such gentle mockery, the pricking of pretention, is a hallmark of us Brits (and I mean Brits, not English). Moreover, many of us have remarked on the recent proliferation of Union flags flanking our politicians, even when they’re apparently speaking from their own homes. Indeed, just today the Mail reports: “Union flag will be flown on Government buildings every day of the year under plans to celebrate the UK’s heritage and pride”.
The extravagance and sheer blue-ness of the PM’s new Press Room is in the same vein as this development, and similarly goes against the grain. Though I don’t much care whether or not buildings fly the flag, in this country (unlike others), we tend not to salute flags or put our hands on our hearts while intoning “God bless the UK”: our patriotism, like all our repressed emotions, is understated, private even, and few of us like having it thrust in our faces.
Yes, any sane person would have got it. But these aren’t sane times, and that brief BBC scene drew howls of outrage from people eager to take offence at any comment on our history or our politicians which can be remotely construed as, or extrapolated into, a criticism of our country, its history, its heritage or its emblems.
As the BBC lost its nerve, it appears Stayt was forced to explain and Munchetty to apologise on Twitter. When newsreader Huw Edwards ironically posted a Tweet with the Welsh flag as his background, he was obliged to take it down.
This class of thin-skinned self-styled patriot hates the BBC with even more venom than the hard left does. Not for nothing did eminent Northumberland resident and former MP Chris Mullin write recently that “The Tories are coming for the BBC”, just when the Daily Telegraph chose to whip up this non-incident into a scandal by heading its leader The BBC must stop employing those who despise their own country.
There’s more behind this excessive reaction than mere sense-of-humour failure, more even than the manipulated nastiness that lost our friend and fellow Voice of the North founder Keith Hann his job recently – though both elements threaten to damage our society and, indeed, our democracy.
The Conservative government is consciously, if quietly, identifying itself with both nation and crown. True, it is our elected administration: but this is what Blackadder’s Baldrick would call a cunning plan.
The carefully-judged branding suggests that the government actually embodies the UK, that it both speaks for and is the country: “l’état, c’est nous”. This invites the implication that, if you disagree with government, you’re knocking your country. Criticism is characterised as unpatriotic, a line the PM and his ministers constantly push at the Opposition in parliament.
This calculated populist strategy, of which government’s current “war on woke” forms part, provides a cloak for its shortcomings – in, for instance, tackling the pandemic. BBC presenters questioning its flag-waving, the National Trust seeking to add context to stately homes built on the profits of slavery, historians investigating statues of controversial (or downright wicked) historical figures: all are subjected to savage attacks, accused of hating their country or undermining its proud history. Populism, it appears, works as easily here in the formerly easy-going UK as in, say, Hungary or Poland, whose nasty right-wing regimes we’re quick to deplore.
It suppresses divergent views under the guise of promoting patriotism. An outstanding example at present is provided by leading Times journalist, Sathnam Sanghera, author of EmpireLand.
EmpireLand, and how Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain (no. 2 in the Sunday Timesbestseller list today) is a painstakingly researched investigation by a forty-something British Indian into the lasting effects of the British Empire on our current society: it’s written very much as a personal quest to understand the varying attitudes he has inherited, encountered and been taught and reveals the author’s deep love of his country (he was born and grew up in Wolverhampton, where I was his headmaster) and his delightfully entertaining, self-deprecating sense of humour.
Of course, it describes the horrors carried out in the name of empire: they are a matter of record, if frequently ignored. As a result, the flag-wavers have gone for Sathnam. He knew what to expect, and bravely went ahead with publication: but even he has been shocked by the sheer vileness of the social media reactions.
Few, if any, of Sathnam’s trolls have bothered to read his book. They’ve merely picked up the idea that he’s criticising the Empire, thus becoming a target for attack. In fact, the book analyses and critiques the Empire and its legacy, which is not at all the same thing.
But who cares about that crucial difference? Not these morons, not when there’s someone to accuse of a traitorous lack of patriotism. So the usual accusation is made of Sathnam “hating his country”, while other trolls more suggest he “eff off” back to his own country (they don’t even read the author details on the book’s cover).
There’s a sickness in our society at present: it’s being fuelled by government’s entirely confected emphasis on a false, populist form of patriotism, and by its appropriation as a political symbol of our country’s flag, the flag that belongs to all of us, not to one party.
Being a patriot doesn’t mean singing sentimental songs while imagining your country exists in a centuries-long golden age where all is wonderful and everything bad is an illusion. It doesn’t mean refusing to examine your history, sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “Na, na, na!” if anyone suggests that it’s less than glorious and that it could be better in the present or future.
Patriotism isn’t about wrapping yourself in the flag: it involves looking at your country critically, admitting its shortcomings and working to make it a better place for all.
It’s time we got that straight – for the sake of the country that we all love, warts and all.