India’s supreme court has just ruled that all cinemas must play the national anthem before each screening and that everyone must stand up for it – with arrest and criminal charges for those who refuse to comply. Reminds us of Britain in the early Sixties, when the anthem was still played at the end of every film and it was regarded as your patriotic duty to rise obediently to your feet – only of course there were no sanctions for the increasing numbers of us who made a point of not budging until, by default, the whole anachronistic business was dropped.
Most of us are glad to be British, English or however we’d describe ourselves if push came to shove, while knowing that we’d die of embarrassment making a thing of it. After all, what does it actually mean to be British, English or whatever? Your glorious parade of royal sovereigns is my Peasants’ Revolt, your rich-man-in-his-castle nostalgia my Swing Riots, your enclosures my right to roam, and so incompatibly on.
Dr Johnson famously described patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, and suddenly there are plenty of scoundrels about – rabble rousers, always from the right of the spectrum, who insist that we behave in a prescribed way and mouth prescribed sentiments or be condemned for betraying the national cause.
We see it the suggestion of Sajid Javid, the community secretary, that public officials and new citizens should swear an oath of allegiance to uphold ‘British values’ – an idea immediately, and rightly, lampooned as impractical, but which raises the above question of what Britishness means. We know what Javld and his kind would like it to mean, but no, it doesn’t mean a member of the Conservative Party.
Here’s Ofsted’s version, for what it’s worth: ‘Democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.’
By all means encourage those values in our schools, but let’s not pretend that we have a monopoly on them. (And let’s not even begin to explore the ways in which they’re so often grievously broken in our own green and pleasant land.)
Brexit has brought out the scoundrels in their droves. Supreme Court judges simply doing their job are derided as ‘enemies of the people’ simply because their ruling means that the terms of our separation from the EU must be debated by Parliament. Our ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigns because of a total lack of joined-up government Brexit planning and is swiftly damned as being remainer-friendly. Anyone who has a word to say against a ‘hard Brexit’ is regarded as a traitor attempting to thwart the so-called ‘will of the people’.
The aim of these Little Englanders is to frighten us into submission, in effect to make us question our birthright. To which we reply that if Nigel Farage epitomises what it is to be British, English or whatever, then count us out – but to swiftly add that you only have to hear him bray about his patriotism to know that he himself isn’t, quite, the genuine article.