I cannot remember when I first heard of the Cambridge spies, though I am sure it was my mother who first mentioned them to me when I was (probably) a teenager. (She is a committed admirer of John Le Carre’s novels.) Because I cannot date this exactly the names Burgess, Blunt, Maclean and Philby became, like many others’ names, names I had ‘heard of’ without knowing all that much about them or what they had done short of being spies and, more importantly, traitors.
There is an affect that that word, ‘traitor’, has on the person speaking it. It seems not to be possible to speak it without wrinkling the nose and the voice acknowledging at least a mild disgust. I have heard terms such as ‘murderer’, ‘rapist’ and ‘child-abuser’ uttered with complete indifference by the speaker to what they are describing, yet ‘traitor’ seems to pull out from the throat or the gut some emotional phlegm or bile to help the word along. Is it worse to be a traitor than a rapist? It seems to be.
One can murder and rape and all the rest; can lie to family and friends and cheat them and steal from them, and these crimes come with defences, not all of them satisfactory, but they exist. Betraying one’s country, it seems, cannot be justified and appears to be the highest act of wrong-doing, the one ‘crime’ of which all seem to despise. Well, perhaps not all but certainly a majority, and I would hazard a guess that many persons take the view that ‘my country, right or wrong’ is a perfectly good basis on which to decide their ultimate loyalties.
If you tell a person that they are made of different components: skin, blood, muscle, hair and all the rest and they told you that they were not those things, that they were a ‘person’, you could be forgiven for being a little irritated. It is unlikely that any person you said this to would reply in that way. (A well-known journalist pointed out recently – and for some reason, chillingly – that we do not ‘have’ bodies, we ‘are’ bodies.) Love for a person seems rational and sensible, yet love for a collection of cells and a few yards of skin seems less so.
When I hear a person say that they ‘love’ their country, I cannot prevent myself from feeling a small knot of annoyance in my gut, and it happens every time. After the knot loosens and its sensation fades, I then feel pity for the person in question. It’s a pity that one might have for a wretched and filthy starving person, or an educationally sub-normal child; by which I mean, the pity is mixed – in a 70/30 split – with disgust.
Whatever patriotism is, it is dammed effective. It would be, if it remained in the shallower parts of the psyche, quite harmless and would sit alongside sentimentality; yet this would leave states without the nose-ring to tug along their people when those states decide that they need the support of the majority. Governments need to force patriotism further down into minds to a place from which it can never be removed; so deeply inserted into the mind that even the blood pumping through the veins carries a patriotic hue. Patriotism, to be most effective, needs to be not a choice for the individual, but something which is assumed to exist automatically and considered normal and healthy: A loyalty which is presupposed.
There have been occasions when I have been involved in discussions with those who say that they are patriots because they ‘support’ their country or their country’s troops while those troops are involved in dangerous adventures abroad. I have noticed that patriotism is usually mentioned when ‘our boys’ are discussed. It seems to me to be perfectly correct to support the troops by calling for their return home, where they can spend time with their families and friends and enjoy their time on the earth, rather than becoming hideously maimed or killed for whichever disgusting politician sent them there.
Correct patriotism, at least to me, is a question about culture and lifestyle and the defence of them from another culture which seeks not only to sit side by side, as an equal, but seeks to rid the world of the other. The basics of western culture should be the thing which patriots show their devotion to. The English, French, Germans – all countries in Western Europe – have individual national differences, differences within their borders, yet the governing principle which overarches these countries remains the same. The persons in those countries can vote in elections, stage protests and call public meetings and so on. The food might be different but the freedom tastes the same.
When an Englishman looks about the place and decides he loves his country he might not be able to say precisely what he loves or why he loves it. A similar thing occurs when the armed forces are discussed. An Englishman knows that Britain has the ‘best’ armed forces in the world. But what exactly does that mean? The best at what? The best in what way? Does it mean the best Generals, tacticians and so on? Does it mean the best training? The bravest men? The best fighters? The best equipped? Are our soldiers better shots than soldiers from other countries? Does it mean best after checking the historic record? If Britain has the best armed forces in the world (and I am not saying Britain does not, I cannot know that) what makes it so?
I am, I think, making points which I have already accepted. It is my belief that Britain has excellent armed forces: well trained and motivated with a professional attitude to any task they are given, but the same could be said for most countries’ forces.
What interests me are those who are patriotic to the point where they have abandoned logic and reason, which brings me back to the Cambridge spies. The question I keep being drawn back to is this one: must a person show loyalty to the state which governs the bordered land-mass within or upon which they were born by accident? The first answer, from the point of view of government, is no. Why should a person show loyalty to a government they did not vote for and do not believe in? But the argument gets trickier after that. The questions then transcends government and it becomes a question of state, of nation and, ultimately, of national interests. The patriot might argue that a person is free to criticise the government, but they should never act against their own national interest. That is superficially attractive, and seems to make sense but remains a position which demands loyalty without question and assumes that one’s ultimate interests must be the same as the country they were born to. Why?
Take Kim Philby as an example. He was a communist. The Soviet Union was under communism, and, because he believed in it, he supported the Soviet Union; indeed, he worked for the Soviet Union for almost all of his adult life as an officer of their intelligence agency. He did not consider himself disloyal to ‘his’ country because he did not support the system of government which ‘his’ country was run by. He rejected the notion of automatic loyalty and decided to choose for himself. This seems admirable and the ultimate example of independence of mind. Many persons who have little interest in political philosophy and high ideals – might say he was a traitor, and no doubt they would say it with all the hate that that word can carry with it. It helps the hate if the person being discussed was upper-class: it makes hating the person more fun.
The point, of course, is not the evil nature of Stalin’s Soviet Union, but the question of loyalty, demanded without argument. I do not believe that ‘my’ country has any right to demand loyalty from me; rather, I have the right to offer my loyalty to it, as and when I choose, on whatever topic takes my fancy. To support the ‘national interest’ without question seems to me no different from keeping to the party-line or whatever policy is spewed out from the Central Committee. Ultimately, with patriotism, loyalty is more than demanded, it’s assumed to already exist. This is disagreeable if a person demands the right to choose 100% of his opinions.