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Middle-class patriotism goes underground

St Bartholomew the Great, London.

February 9, 2020 - 8:00am

If you’re in London on the first Thursday of the month I highly recommend Evensong at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield.

The Norman church dates back to 1123 and a man called Rahere, who may have been a courtier or even a jester, and who had fallen sick while on pilgrimage to Rome. Pledging to build a priory when he returned if he survived his illness, Rahere convinced his friend Henry I to give him the land. Almost 900 years later and, well, not that much has changed.

The service was in celebration of Henry’s descendent Elizabeth II, who had come to the throne 68 years earlier upon the death of her father, and parish priest Fr Marcus Walker gave a sermon in praise of our sovereign and governor. God Save the Queen was sung, as well as I Vow to Thee My Country and Jerusalem. It all left me with an emotion that I suddenly realised I hadn’t felt for some time: patriotism.

If you’re middle-class, vaguely young or based in a city, there will be very few occasions for expressions of communal patriotism, with the exception of sporting events.

Patriotism-by-sport usually leaves me a bit cold because it’s ultimately artificial, just an ersatz modern-day combat played by hugely overpaid playboys. And the older I get, the more it feels like a lowbrow distraction from the reality that people are losing their country around them.

Outside of these occasions most middle-class people my age and younger find expressions of patriotism not just politically unsound but cringey; they have evolved a more global identity as part of the worldwide liberal ummah of the educated and tolerant.

That working-class patriotism — often expressed at football and involving the combination of testosterone and alcohol — can be intimidating and even violent only further drives this bourgeois prejudice that the concept is somehow ugly or aggressive.

Like lots of social trends, this contains a positive feedback mechanism so that as more moderate people are repulsed by an activity, in this case expressions of patriots, only more marginal people will engage in it.

In the case of the Brexit debate, forms of patriotism have also appeared highly divisive, more akin to sectarianism than patriotism. It’s why I felt empty on “Brexit Day”; why would I cheer about something that many of my loved ones found devastating?

But this denial of healthy group-feeling leaves something of a hole in some people’s lives, because we are not solitary animals and crave the oxytocin we get from belonging, a desire to be part of something bigger than us, something timeless. Well, I do anyway, and the Evensong service jolted me a bit by reminding me. I’m clearly not the only one — the service was packed.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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