16 January, 2006

Lions, unicorns

The fallout to Gordon Brown's speech about Britishness continues to centre chiefly around his suggestion for a national UK holiday on a par with Independence Day in the United States or Bastille Day in France.

This somewhat overlooks the main thrust of his argument: exploring how to make being proud of your country a sentiment with which everyone can associate in a positive way, and to decouple patriotism from nationalism and the far-Right.

These kind of debates always seem to end up finding their way back to the writings of George Orwell (as did Gordon Brown), and how he managed to reconcile being liberal with being patriotic like nobody else before or since.

Any excuse, though, to reproduce one of the man's finest pieces of prose, from 'The Lion And The Unicorn', an essay Orwell wrote in 1940. It encapsulates a view I suspect has always been somewhere inside me, even though at times I've fought hard to deny and surpress it. I would argue there's nothing essentially ideological about endorsing the passage below; more a doffing of the cap to that fine tradition within this country of being affectionately critical and stubbornly emotional about the land we live in. And all of the following 66-year old text is still true, none more so than the closing sentence:

"There is something distinctive and recognisable in English civilisation...It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature...And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time."


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