No to patriotism

07 January 2023

I'm in a bad place right now - not emotionally, I just mean I'm in England.
I wrote this late at night in December, intending to write notes to turn into a Tiktok post. I'm dumping it here instead as I'm not likely to get around to making such a long series of videos, and it doesn't really feel safe to put something like this out on an algorithmically-driven platform.

I've seen some takes saying that in England, we need to reclaim patriotism for the left. I understand the value of this - belonging is very important to people, and you can motivate a lot of people by showing that belonging in the way that they are used to is still possible while working together to improve conditions for all members of your imagined community. We live in a time when it can feel like there has been a huge loss of meaning, and you can get a lot of people on your side if you offer them meaning while opposing traditional power structures. I mean, that's exactly what fascists do and it's working great for them!

But no to be fair, I can see how reclaiming English identity as something inclusive that celebrates diversity could be a great force for change. But personally, this approach is not right for me. Fit starters I can't take pride in my national identity because on a fundamental level, I don't support the existence of nation states, and I know that’s impractical, obviously nation states will probably continue to exist long after I leave this world, but I just can't get that excited about them.

Aside from that though, I specifically can't get excited about THIS nation state. To me, it feels like there is something uniquely wrong with England that makes it particularly troubling to celebrate. I believe that England is intentionally hostile to outsiders of all kinds, while at the same time basing almost all of its culture on colonial theft. Does that seem too harsh? Well, consider how many people think an English identity is expressed in the practice of drinking tea! Where the fuck do people think the tea comes from!? The only thing that makes tea quintessentially English is that we completely destroyed it through industrialisation, turning it so bitter that it's unpalatable unless mixed with milk and sugar, another plantation crop grown in the colonies.

This shit makes me feel so unhinged, and yeah maybe I need to stop being so online and just go touch grass, but even that doesn't help me because then I'm reminded that our countryside quietly embodies a peculiarly English propensity to violently erase everything that is inconvenient to the aristocracy. Like, did you know that this used to be a fucking forest? Did you know we used to have complex ecosystems that could sustain charismatic fauna? Now we can't even tolerate the presence of badgers without periodically having a debate about culling them. Nothing here is natural and nothing here is normal.

One point of reference that I've seen used in the discussion in England about reclaiming patriotism for the left is the US and Canada, and the progress that has been made there in taking pride in the place you live, alongside an insistence that despite being figured as a minority, you do in fact belong there and you are in fact an embodiment of what it means to be American or Canadian. However, I think context matters here, and this reclamation of American and Canadian identity has come alongside significant conversations about decolonisation, steps toward reconciliation (however small and inadequate they may be), and everyday practices of place-based critique of the nation state itself, such as you see in land acknowledgements.

I know land acknowledgements have themselves been extensively criticised for being inclusivity theatre and contributing very little materially to creating justice for the indigenous people they claim to honour, and I am at serious risk of speaking out of turn here, but to me, when I hear a land acknowledgment, I hear a recognition that the cost of establishing and maintaining a colonial state is too high to bear forever, and a refusal to normalise something that fundamentally should not exist.

As far as I'm aware, we have no parallel movement here in England. In fact it's quite surreal at the moment when I'm in zoom events with people from around the world. Everyone else is like “Hi I'm Amber, my pronouns are they/them and I live on the ancestral lands of the Shoshone people and I acknowledge them as custodians of this land and hope for a future of justice and cooperation” and then the next person is just like “I'm Mark, I live in Leeds, he/him”. Being British at these things is so awkward, because we really stand out among the rest of the English-speaking world for not having any decolonisation rituals integrated into our self introductions, even though we were the fucking colonisers!

It seems particularly fraught to not be addressing colonialism as part of our identity when a big chunk of the people leading the country right now are the descendants of people who moved from South Asia to Africa under British rule to enforce colonialism, as part of a racist hierarchy that considered Indians to be superior to Africans. Superficially, this is the most ethnically diverse government we've ever had, but materially they are simply extremely wealthy people whose elite status is a direct result of colonialism. It's very hard to see this as just a piece of history that we can put behind us when the descendants of colonial officials are at this very moment making arrangements to ship migrants off to Rwanda.

Canadians in particular are quick to remind me that it's not just Britain that's bad, their country is problematic too. I think I just feel a little bit more sympathetic to patriotism in a context where the fundamentally problematic nature of your imagined community is recognised and explicitly acknowledged as part of everyday life.

The patriotism discussion is particularly happening with regard to England I think, which is key because patriotism in Scotland and Wales is by nature a sort of decolonising project (I'm sure people have different opinions on the use of the term "colony" in these contexts but please bear with me).

At the moment, it's difficult to separate English identity from British identity. On some level it even feels easier to say I'm British because that's the bigger and more inclusive term. I associate “English” with racist movements like the EDL, or low key supremacist tendencies like when English people criticise American English and say that our version of the language is the “proper” one. Indeed, our overuse of the word “proper” is one of the things I hate about us.

But from the perspective of decolonisation, I probably should be more in favour of an English identity because the UK itself very clearly should not exist. The Scottish don't want to be part of it, Irish reunification seems like an inevitability in the fullness of time, and the Welsh will probably warm up to the idea of independence once those two get out of this toxic relationship. The UK right now is like a really bad polycule where you kind of know that everyone is only there because of the admiration they once had for this one person who used to be kind of internet famous, but now it's very obvious to everyone that this person is just a manipulative jerk, and you know it's all going to fall apart eventually and the breakup is going to be really messy. (This sounds weirdly specific, but if you're polyam I bet you can't even tell which problematic polyamorist I'm thinking of right now.)

So I do get the need for an English patriotism that can ease the transition from the Britain that exists today to the Balkanised future that's on the horizon. But like Taylor Swift, England is clearly not healthy when left to its own devices. England is the Tory heartland, our capital city is unliveable because it's basically just a really expensive Minecraft server for the billionaire rulers of former colonies, our town centres are deserted, and all our new housing instantly falls apart and looks like it was designed by a neural network. Our newspapers are incubators for new strains of transphobia that then get spread all around the world. Our arts and culture organisations are still, in the year of Luigi, doing shit like, and this is a real example, firing every Chinese person from a museum of Chinese art, installing white people in their place but hiring a freelance panel of advisors from the Chinese community, and then firing that panel of advisors because of, and this was literally what they said in their statement on the matter, “our white fragility”.

I could rant about the things I hate about this country for hours, and I do, frequently, but I guess my point is that I have absolutely no interest in a leftist patriotism that is grounded in a shallow sense of cultural pride. I can maybe get behind a patriotism that is about working every fucking day to make England a tiny bit less of a hellscape for anyone who doesn't perfectly belong to its boring vision of property-hoarding Daily Mail readers. But honestly, any work that I do to contribute to that effort has fuck all to do with an English identity, and everything to do with the fact that I'm literally trapped here until some other country gives me the right to live somewhere else, and almost everyone around me is even more trapped than I am. Since we've had our freedom of movement taken away, we have to try to do something with the place we're in, and the reality is that every year our ability to do that gets knocked down a little further by the Tories, and I don't really see an end to this.