By James Ibechi
Many years ago, precisely two months after I left Champion Newspapers work as foreign desk editor, a job I combined with being a sub editor, I got invited to attend poetry festival and I went to UK, where an American-born British citizen friend of mine took me to attend a ceremony in Dunfermline to mark his naturalisation as a British citizen.l
There were nothing like rousing speeches, no singing of the national anthem, no pledge of allegiance to the Queen of England. The only overt expressions of Britishness were the cup of tea and a Hobnob after the ceremony.
Something nevertheless struck me about that event. The Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Afghanis, Somalis and the few Americans present were immensely proud to be, suddenly, British. This wasn’t just relief. It was genuine patriotism.
After the ceremony, I got to thinking: where is that patriotism among the native-born Brits? Don’t they love their country? Don’t they feel fortunate to be able to live in a stable nation with a healthy economy, a fair system of justice and a tolerant attitude toward diversity? Perhaps the answer lies in the question. Perhaps British stability and tolerance breed a sort of quiet complacency.
I have read and come to discover that this lack of overt pride has been borne out by the British Social Attitudes survey, a well-respected barometer of public opinion.
Comparing trends over a 10-year period, the survey found that in 2003, 43 per cent said they were “very proud” of their nationality, with 39 per cent confessing to be only “somewhat” proud. A decade later, in 2013, 35 per cent expressed strong pride, with 47 per cent “somewhat proud”.
Before we start fretting, let’s state the obvious: the percentage of those who feel proud of being British was exactly the same in 2013 as in 2003. The barometer of pride is stuck at 82 per cent; the only thing that has changed is the depth of feeling. But one thing does seem clear: the enthusiasm for being British is in decline among young people there. If this trend continues, a time might come when most people feel only lukewarm attachment. Britain?
Perhaps this is entirely understandable, since patriotism is highest in times of adversity. It was easy to be patriotic during the Blitz. To a lesser extent, I can recall how quickly the flames of jingoism were stoked during the Falklands War of 1982. Events of that sort have not occurred during the lifetime of today’s young Brits. Recent conflicts in the Middle East have inspired at best a grudging sense of duty, at worst a deep regret, but not pride.
Yet the young British people are still capable of bursts of excitable flag-waving. We saw that at the royal wedding of 2011 and again at the Olympics the following year.
I was in a newsroom back in Nigeria and working for Independent Newspapers, Lagos, when Major Tim Peake was blasted into space.
I was watching BBC and saw many Brits rivet to the televised launch. In other words, young or old, Britons still get excited about noble British achievements. The sort of patriotism inspired by pride of accomplishment, rather than by fear, aggression or bigotry, unlike Americans.
Perhaps, then, the young are just less outspoken about their love of country. This might be an unanticipated effect of expanded higher education. Universities are very international places.
In common places, it’s rude to be openly proud of one’s country. It’s not a good idea to chant “USA! USA!” in a place full of sophisticated Europeans. They learn to be cosmopolitan or they leave.
The globalisation of education has also taught the young that there are plenty of other good places on earth. As a result, patriotism, which has too often been based on a sense of exclusivity and can so easily morph into xenophobia, has been replaced by a quiet sense of pride in nationality – a sense of belonging that is strong but understated, harmless but formidable.
It’s perhaps no wonder that nearly 65 per cent of Americans boast of being “very proud” of their country, given that only 46 per cent of them have passports. It’s easy to believe that you live in the best country on earth if you’ve never been anywhere else.
Patriotism is like Ogogoro: a little of it is wonderful, a lot dangerous. Americans have been bingeing on the stuff of late. A few days ago, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when those young cheerleaders decked in American flags shouted the Donald Trump Jam:
“When freedom rings, answer the call! On your feet, stand up tall! Freedom’s on our shoulders, USA!
Enemies of freedom face the music, C’mon boys, take them down. President Donald Trump knows how to make America great.”
If that’s patriotism, I’ll take the understated British version. Shouting is a sign of insecurity; discretion an indicator of strength. Watching those cheerleaders made me very proud to be Nigerian.
*Ibechi is Special Assistant on ICT/Media to Benue State Commissioner for Information and Orientation. firstname.lastname@example.org