Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.
It is ironic that one of the most distinctive British traits is a desire not to be seen to be overly patriotic. Not for us the flag waving, star-spangled brashness of our cousins over the pond; nor for the Brits the haughty, aloof self-confidence of our Gallic friends on the other side of the channel.
No, for us, a quiet, polite pride in who we are and what we stand for. Understated, unspoken, inoffensive, British.
A couple of minutes silence in November to commemorate our war dead; a parade one morning in early June to celebrate the birthday of the Queen; the closest the United Kingdom gets to national commemoration, celebration or recognition of who we are and what our nation has achieved.
Compare to the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris or the 4th of July fireworks in the USA.
Britain never needed these displays of greatness. Our nation was not forged from war or revolution, nor liberated from tyranny and fascism. Never have we suffered invasion and the indignity of occupation; we were not liberated from a foreign power. Never have we, unlike the Founding Fathers or Charles De Gaulle, had to reinvent ourselves, rebuild, or build anew our national identity.
To be British was understood; our greatness self-evident and accepted. We didn’t need to shout it from the roof tops. This is the country that abolished slavery, that fought with our Commonwealth, Empire, and allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism, and Communism; helped found the United Nations and NATO; and stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.
Of course, there are moments in our national story that we cannot be proud of. Our cities and empire grew on the back of the vile trade in human life long before we abolished it, and peoples across the world suffered from episodes of ill-judged and aggressive expansionism and exploitation at our hands and the hands of other European powers. We must understand and accept that in history, there is not, ever, one single view.
But I think, one of the glories of modern Britain is that have been, unlike many other countries with similarly blemished histories, confident enough in who we are to be able to reflect, debate, and discuss the rights and wrongs of our past without feeling ashamed of who we are or who what we represent.
So why this recent bout of uncertainty? Why this national vacillation about what Britain is? For what reason are we deemed to be in the middle of a culture war when in many ways the celebration of different cultures is what has made this country great since it was created through the binding together of our island in the Act of Union in 1707?
This week’s debate on whether or not the BBC should allow the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms is symbolic of the national lack of confidence in ourselves. A lack of certainty in the future – in who we, the British, are. In what our country is and what we want it to be.
In Scotland, the SNP agitate for separation. On streets in our great cities, protests erupt and previous national heroes are held up as symbols of imperial oppression. People are questioning what Brexit means for our national identity. It is a time of confusion for many.
But I also know that this is a great country. A truly great country. A country that leads the world in so many ways. In foreign aid and charitable giving to the poorest on our planet. In combating climate change through government action, such as our determination to reach net zero carbon emissions or in the investment and research into green technology at our renowned research institutions. Our universities are the envy of most of the world. On the sporting field, in theatres, galleries, film and television and in technology, this country punches above its weight.
Our Armed Forces remain respected and relied upon by our allies, ready to fight and defend our friends and promote democracy and the rule of law wherever and whenever we are called upon to do so.
Ours is a tolerant nation. A proud multi-cultural nation. Survey after survey has found that Britain is one of the least racist and most accepting countries in the world. That is not to say that racism does not exist, and where it does we must call it out. but compared to many of our European neighbours, we are more welcoming and understanding than most. We are one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world.
We have so much work to do. We must address our imperfections. We must examine this national downbeat mood. We must answer why we so lack confidence in who we are that our national broadcaster can contemplate not devoting fifteen minutes of one Saturday evening to a patriotic sing-song.
We must bring our country together; our people together. Uniting our country. That, for me, is the great challenge of this Government – of our generation. That is what ‘levelling up’ means.
I would not recognise a country that was more aggressively patriotic. More flags are not for me. I like the quiet, unspoken pride we share in being British.
But I am confident in Britain and our future. And if we can be confident in who we are and what our national mission is, then we have no need to erase our past. Let us instead build on it. Good and ill. Victory and defeat. Fair and unfair. It is our history. We should own it just as we own our future
*Article for Conservative Home, September 2020