Nearly all of us hold a special place in our hearts for the land where we were born and raised. That is a normal, human, positive connection to the Earth and our place on it, which can inspire us to cherish and steward our heritage. But when we turn that sense of place into ‘patriotism’ it acquires toxic overtones of superiority, privilege and exclusiveness that deny our common humanity.
The “nation state” as a concept evolved in Europe during the 16th and 17th century. It was a response to the disintegration of Catholic Christendom following the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism – instead of identifying as Catholic Christians, people were asked to define themselves by the political region in which they lived.
In England, the concept of nationality was cemented into the culture during the reign of Elizabeth I. Instead of owing allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, as God’s intermediary, people owed allegiance to the monarch, the “Defender of the Faith.” Protestant England, standing firm against the power of Catholic Europe – and particularly the power of Spain – was the ‘sceptred isle’, to be defended with the heart of a lion, and Elizabeth could have had no better propagandist for this vision than William Shakespeare. The subtle messages of his plays has spread throughout the English-speaking world.
It was a story that came to the fore during two World Wars, particularly WW2 when Churchill mined these tropes to consolidate support for British resistance to Nazi expansionism. It is worth noting, however, that for most ordinary Brits, Britain and the Allies were fighting against an aggressive vision of white (Aryan) supremacy which happened to arise in Germany.
It is a vision that could equally well have gained power in Britain. Images of a special place and a special people, blessed by a Protestant god, spawn the idea of a superior people who have the right to dominate and exploit others. Hence, Elizabeth’s reign ushers in the blossoming of the British Empire, together with the myth that it was ‘better’ than other Empires, carrying democracy, bureaucracy, the Protestant religion and the Protestant work ethic on its shoulders.
This mythical Britain has reached all around the world, and underpins the culture of former Imperial colonies, notably in America and Australia. Substitute the ‘sceptred isle’ for the ‘land of the free’ and the story is just the same.
It is time to part company with that story, and all the Imperialist notions that go with it. The exploitational Imperial model the European nations created majors on trade and continuous economic growth, and it has brought us to the brink of environmental disaster. We have just the one world to live in, and we have only our common humanity to guide us in how we survive the environmental crisis. So let us truly love our land, and work with others who love their land, to keep it rich and bountiful for generations to come.