|I was here before you|
You hear this in the play area and elsewhere where kids want to stake out their territories. Taken literally, it’s simply a statement of fact, but it brings with it a claim to the right to be there to the exclusion of everyone else. I don’t know why the fact of being there gives a right to exclude others. There’s no obvious logic to it, but it seems to be a common conception. And it’s not confined to kids. The very idea of a queue depends on the same principle and, in view of our reputation for queuing, we can say that we British must be very territorial. On the other hand, we teach our kids to be courteous, to say “No after you, I insist”. So then, to maintain at all costs our position in a queue seems to be a bit inconsistent. I suppose it could be explained in terms of the psychological principle of our exaggerated aversion to loss. The person arriving at the queue later, and who is therefore at its end, had nothing to start with and so, in that sense, has nothing to lose. All of which indicates, maybe, that we are psychologically different to certain of our Latin cousins?
But this idea is fundamental on a larger scale. We see it in virtually every country: opposition to immigration. We were here before you. It’s our country and you don’t even have the right to enter without our authorisation. It wasn’t like this in the remote past, when the predecessor of Nigel Farage, Cheddar Man, came here with his dark skin and blue eyes, but this wasn’t because man behaved differently then. It was because there was no group sufficiently big, homogeneous and widespread in the country to think of the stranger who came from anther continent differently from the stranger from the next village or part of the forest. We were always suspicious of strangers and usually loyal to our particular group. But over the years we have created alliances which have produced bigger, more widespread groups and, in the end, after many wars, we have the map of the countries of the world which exists now, at least for the moment.
I referred earlier to our being territorial, a word used more by David Attenborough in the context of animals. To make the distinction, therefore, the word normally used for we humans is 'patriotism' or 'nationalism', both of which contain many layers of meaning, whether neutral, cynical or bellicose. There are numerous philosophical theories of patriotism. They try by logic to justify the concept of feeling the necessity to stand up for ones country.
The example of Robert E Lee illustrates the problem being addressed. Lee was well know as a military genius and so Abraham Lincoln invited him to take command of the Unionist army for the forthcoming civil war. The story is told that Lee asked to think about it overnight so that he could consider his options. He tried to see which principle he should give more weight to – he was against slavery, but felt his loyalty to the South (where he had been born) to be of considerable importance. In the end he chose loyalty to the land where he was born over loyalty to an abstract principle - his anti-slavery views.
One of the theories of patriotism is that the feeling of connection with house and home is usually very strong. It gives us the willingness to do things which normally we wouldn’t wish to do, or at least to accept a situation, a set of policies or a government which is not really to our taste. We can perhaps see this in our recent dealings with Europe. Personally, even though I am unhappy with the mentality behind the decision to opt for Brexit, I don’t intend, at the moment, to emigrate. I do though have a strong connection with France and I could create similar links with Italy without too much difficulty. The reason for my present ‘patriotism’ is a combination of laziness and doubt that the grass is actually greener on the other side of the Channel. I feel comfortable here because I understand how the country functions, but I’ve never really felt very patriotic. For me it is not: “My country right or wrong”.
Which brings us to another theory of patriotism, one proposed by Kant. He suggested that we owe our loyalty to the state if it provides laws which any reasonable person would consider to be just. In a democratic society, however, such a criterion would be very limiting. I am not persuaded that all of our laws are just, but those which fall into that category are not sufficient to make me a revolutionary – yet. Thus I would suggest that we can add to the formulation put forward by Kant (for whom the compromises necessary in a democracy were unknown) the words - “or which, in their totality, a reasonable person would consider to be just in a democratic society”.
But there is another somewhat less intellectually rigorous theory, this time attributed to the famously robust Doctor Samuel Johnson. He expressed the view that patriotism was: “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, an opinion which seems to me to be prophetic in the light of where we are today. We shall see what that other Johnson, Boris, says in his speech next week regarding Brexit, but the description seems particularly apt for our Foreign Secretary, who sees Brexit, like Dr Fox and others, to be a road towards personal fame and power. In the name of patriotism, UKIP has profited (in all senses) from its flagrant hypocrisy over the years in sending MEPs to the European Parliament and who were very well paid in consequence. They persuaded a large percentage of the population that the EU was the enemy of our country, a country, according to them, with a history and traditions without equal. They succeeded particularly well in the more disadvantaged parts of Britain, as the voters were told that their situation was all the fault of Brussels, its 'Elf and Safety’ and rules against bent bananas.
Which means that the Brexiteer in the street is now in the curious position of believing that the disadvantage of living in one of the poorer areas of Britain is the fault of the EU, when it is actually the fault of successive governments. Although they may not know it, for them it is not obvious that the law would pass the test proposed by Kant, even as modified by me. I don’t want to imply that the laws are unjust in themselves, but that their application has been obviously unjust. I am thinking here of the persistent lack of investment by the government in the North, in the East Midlands and in Wales and the consequent lack of growth in these areas. Thus, it seems to me that the most patriotic section of the population has the least reason for its loyalty. And the scoundrels who profited from that loyalty don’t care.
13 February 2018