Sorry Orwell: patriotism is conservative

Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. 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.

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (1941)

As hard as it is for me to say this about Orwell, his claim simply isn’t true. The above passage, from his wartime essay on ‘socialism and the English genius,’ has always jarred with his usual astute thinking and clear writing. For a start, he never backs up his bold assertion; immediately after he veers into one of his attacks on ‘sniggering’ left wing intellectuals, and by the time he’s calmed down for the conclusion, he’s forgotten all about it. Consequently, he never clears up that ambiguous description of the supposed object of patriotism, ‘something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.’

What could Orwell have meant? His mention of a bridge between the future and the past suggests he may have subscribed to the idea of the nation as a project, a view advocated by philosophers such as Alisdair MacIntyre, who says: ‘What the patriot is committed to is a particular way of linking a past with a future for the project which is his or her nation, which it is his or her responsibility to bring into being.’

Essentially, this is the view that we, as citizens of a country, should look for the worthy causes our country has championed in the past and commit ourselves to continuing them into the future. For Orwell, this meant championing English democracy, however imperfect, against the very real threat of Nazi totalitarianism across the Channel.

There’s nothing intrinsically conservative or progressive about the nation-as-a-project idea. You could, like Orwell, look back at England’s radical, left-leaning tradition and continue that particular project, believing it to be the most worthy your country has to offer. However, if a patriot is searching for the principles or the project of their nation – whether it’s English democracy, American liberalism or French fraternity – it’s inevitable that they will look backwards. As we discovered in our post on patriotism and nostalgia, patriots are often deeply concerned with finding and preserving (or reviving) some established essence of a country, a mind-set that chimes well with conservative aims of stability, continuity and tradition.

Why Orwell should try to disentangle patriotism from conservatism is therefore confusing. First of all, his claim isn’t supported by any statistics. According to data from a 2015 YouGov survey, in the 2010 UK general election, those who described themselves as ‘very patriotic’ were 37 per cent more likely to vote Conservative than those who described themselves as ‘not at all patriotic.’ These unpatriotic voters, meanwhile, were 32 per cent more likely to vote for the left-leaning Labour party than they were the Conservatives.

A similar pattern is apparent in American politics. The combined data of 13 polls collated by the American Enterprise Institue show that those who describe themselves as ‘extremely proud’ to be an American are significantly more likely to vote Republican than Democratic. A further study by Pew Research Center found that conservative-leaning social groups are up to 44 per cent more likely to vote Republican than left-leaning groups.

Not only that, but in a 2007 survey by Pew Research Center, 73 per cent of Republicans said they displayed the stars and stripes at home, work or in their car, compared 55 per cent of Democrats. And during last year’s presidential election, the Republican personal best for number of flags on stage at one time was 36, far outstripping the Democrat’s 19. (Trump would also complain that the Democrat’s flags weren’t big enough.)

Of course, we should take survey results with a pinch of salt – as comedian Rich Hall has pointed out, they represent the views of ‘people who can’t even cut a wide berth when they see somebody coming towards them with a clipboard.’

But it’s not only statistics that disagree with Orwell’s assertion: politics too begs to differ. Indeed, the last people to agree with his statement would be conservatives themselves, who regularly trumpet their patriotism as one of their defining virtues. At the UK Conservative party conference in October 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May attacked ‘politicians and commentators’ who consider patriotism ‘distasteful.’ On his election as leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, Paul Nuttall promised to ‘make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people.’ Even far-right groups, such as the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, consider themselves patriotic.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, left-wing groups and writers are constantly berating themselves for failing to present themselves as patriotic – for instance here, here, here and here (and here). If patriotism is the opposite of conservatism, as Orwell maintains, shouldn’t the left have an easier time claiming it as their own? It may be that many on the left are sincere, progressive patriots, as Orwell would have hoped, but it’s clear they have a hard time convincing others that their standpoint makes sense.

I haven’t been able to find another piece by Orwell discussing this idea, so I can’t say whether he gave a clearer opinion on the issue elsewhere. I hope he did, because it’s a shame he gave so little time to such an interesting matter. Without wishing to get too psychological, could it be that he was simply trying to square his socialist views with his English patriotism – which he admitted, with characteristic honesty, was beaten into him at school?

If nothing else, this provides yet another example of the flexibility of patriotism as an idea, able to bend and confirm to various ideas and preconceptions – whether or not the evidence supports it.

I’d still recommend 1984, though.


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