Andrew Wilson: When love of country is questioned

Keith Vaz asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, pictured: Do you love this country?' Picture: Jane Barlow
Keith Vaz asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, pictured: Do you love this country?' Picture: Jane Barlow
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DO YOU love this country? Simple question, really. But loaded, acidic and sneering in the wrong context. I can barely think of the right one.

Well, I guess Keith Vaz MP had just about found one with his attempt at a friendly assist when he put this question to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger at the Home Affairs Select Committee last week. With chairman’s prerogative, he was seeking to spike any attempt to suggest Rusbridger was unpatriotic for pursuing a story involving “national secrets”.

The Guardian had published the story of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents revealing the extent of US-UK state surveillance. A story that led all the way to revelations of snooping on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Utterly bizarre conduct by the states deemed by many as the cradle and pinnacle of democracy.

This same story led to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, eventually conceding that his entire security apparatus was out of control and unaccountable. Like I said, thank goodness for a free press pursuing big, dangerous stories on behalf of us all. Where would that story have come from without them?

But the minute it was published, the sneering began that it somehow represented unpatriotic behaviour, hence this question to the editor at the parliamentary committee enquiry.

The idea that any politician, of any creed or party colour, can claim to command and control the definition of what is or isn’t patriotic is, in my humble opinion, a modern absurdity.

Many have tried throughout history, of course. But the very idea that one side could ask of the other, “Do you love your country?”, and do so with a sneer, is surely laid bare in the story of Nelson Mandela. Who loved their country more and in a better way, ever? Yet his country sent him to prison. And still he loved his country. More than his captors, of course. Because love never grips, controls and imprisons. Love lets go.

In truth, of course, the status of country, nationhood and nationality in what makes our identity in the modern world is changing, and diminishing fast. There is so much more to us as individuals and citizens now. Just look at the Facebook page of any teenager in your family and you will see what I mean.

Our identity is increasingly layered and complex, overlapping and often contradictory. So what? It is who we are and choose to be and we are all the richer for it.

Family matters, of course, and friends. So does where we are from and the people our lives touch in our home community. Culture, religions, shared beliefs, passions, sports, teams, tribes and choices, choices, choices. Always, the choices we make 
define us. These are what count.

What doesn’t count is some politician or powerful agent of the state telling us what our definition of ourselves is, or should be. What doesn’t count is the cry of “treason” from the people whose control is threatened.

As Gerry Hassan argued in The Scotsman yesterday, patriotism should not be abandoned to the right wing of politics. I can see his point. But my view would be that patriotism shouldn’t be abandoned to anyone or anything. Nor should it, ever, be the most important thing. .

Of course I believe that countries matter. In their best form they are the closest form of association we can get to determine how we best govern ourselves on the big issues that count most.

If the national identity that goes with them is open-hearted, open to newcomers and embracing of difference then it is a great layer in our identity. If it is domineering or über alles it is not.

Nations and countries do matter for the way we govern ourselves. After all, government does more in more complex ways on behalf of the citizen than probably at any point in history. And there are more countries now as properly constituted modern states than at any point in modern times. Of course they matter. So why wouldn’t we want to be one on our own terms?

But they are not, should not and need not be the be-all and end-all. The idea that loving the current construct of whatever country we happen to live in at any one point in time? Well that’s a nonsense, isn’t it? Did Gandhi love India? Of course. Did he want revolution? Yes. Mandela and South Africa? Obviously the same.

So I shudder whenever I hear anyone question the loyalty, patriotism and love of their country of anyone. Especially someone charged with the stewardship of an institution of free democracy, like a newspaper.

The very presence of a troublesome press makes such a country more lovable. And sneering attackers should ponder that before they cast the next stone.

It’s easy to love your country when you rule it. That love means little unless you embrace all that you rule with the same concern. Even those that would overthrow you.

Finding rulers able to demonstrate that depth of love? Now that’s a good challenge for modern democracy. Let’s go seek. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW