But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.
Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians
In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty. In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?
The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..
In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:
Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand
What is Shelley saying? He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:
And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?
I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.
…..But Was it Enough?
Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue. This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action. It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.
It is a fundamental principle of a free society that we should only live under only those laws and rules which we ourselves have agreed to (or insisted upon) and not simply changed, deleted or subverted by the will of a dictator (or a tyrant in Shelley’s terms).
But a dictator does not need to be a single all-powerful and evil person such as a Hitler or Stalin. There are all sorts of autocratic and unaccountable actions short of this, including collective autocracy. It is the reason why the Brexit Great Repeal Bill (actually titled the European Union (Withdrawal Bill)) currently working its way through Parliament is so dangerous (you can find a copy here). Not only does it give Government Ministers the power to change existing Parliamentary laws, but it gives them the power to change the Great Repeal Bill itself once it has been agreed by Parliament and passed!
Henry VIII Powers; The Common Enemy of the Friends of Liberty!
Those so-called Henry VIII powers (the name itself should strike terror in the heart of friends of liberty) can also be used to repeal parliamentary legislation. It is difficult to imagine wider executive powers: ministers are authorised to “make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament.” The real dangers are described by leading constitutional lawyer Mark Elliot in this article.. He writes:
And it is plain that these powers will not be used merely to make minor, technical amendments to the post-exit statute book. The Bill, for instance, explicitly contemplates that ministers will be able to use their authority both to establish new regulatory regimes and institutions and to invest them with law-making authority.
But it is likely that the real motive behind such a move is not to do with law-making powers but law-destroying powers. Theresa May has repeatedly stated that she wants to repeal the (our!) Human Rights Act and even withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, statements by Conservatives such as Daniel Hannan stress the importance of ‘cutting red tape’ which is a synonym for ending protections which we enjoy as citizens. In this post I described the rise of neo-conservatism and its insidious and autocratic nature. While pointing to the various differences between this ideology and neo-Liberalism currently battling for dominance in the Conservative party it is clear why the neo-cons, temporarily at least, hold the upper hand.
Libertarianism, and to a certain extent classical Liberalism have struggled with ideas of patriotism. This is largely due to their view of an individual disembedded from the society in which he or she lives. Since this view holds that the best interests of a society is only realized when individuals pursue their self-interests, patriotism becomes problematic. But as Shelley’s view demonstrates, patriotism is a much more comfortable fit for Republicans (in the European sense) who regard the freedom of the individual as being dependent upon the rights and responsibilities he/she has in relation to their fellow citizens.
in a world where some Britons feel more affinity with Germans, French or Italians than their compatriots a view of patriotism as commitment to shared values of politics and liberty seem especially relevant. Likewise we can guess that both Shelley and Demosthenes would view the proposed Henry VIII powers as a repulsive, regressive and deeply unpatriotic step. That such a Bill is enthusiatically promoted by those who regularly lecture us on patriotism is both inronic an disingenuous.