Why Young People Are Wrong to Abandon Patriotism

In our VICE Census, 25 percent of readers said they would give themselves a 0 out of 10 for patriotism.

by Gavin Haynes
19 September 2016, 12:00pm

Photo by Jake Krushell

We spoke to over 2,500 18 to 34-year-olds living in the UK to explore and document what life is like for young people in Britain in 2016. From Blackpool to Belfast, from country fairs to council estates, the nation's youth told us exactly how they felt about money, politics, drugs, sex, music, clothes and everything else that matters. This is the VICELAND Census, all this week on VICELAND and VICE.COM

People are jumping from motorway bridges onto moving trucks to get into Britain. But apparently we're not that bothered about the old bird. If you wanted to solve the problem of the Calais camp, don't send in the bulldozers and the men from G4S; just lend the French a few shruggy 20-somethings.

"It's just this shitty Tory government, man," they'd explain to someone who'd lived their entire life under the Afwerki regime in Eritrea.

"Patriotism means you're a racist," they'd explain to a man who'd recently been hung by his thumbs for being an Alawite.

This, it seems, is the least patriotic generation Britain has ever raised. You ticked the boxes. The answers to VICE Census are in. On a scale of 1 to 10, a quarter of VICE readers gave themselves a big fat zero when describing how patriotic they feel. Only three in 100 gave themselves top marks. Between those two extremes, the average score came in at an explosively underwhelmed 3.8.

Compare those numbers to old people. A YouGov poll suggested that 49 percent of the over-60s classed themselves as "very patriotic", compared to only 15 percent of young people. The same poll pointed out that 25 to 39-year-olds are less patriotic than the 40 to 59-year-olds.

As it stands, this generation is pulling up the ladder on the entire concept of patriotism. It's being bred out of the population. Put a fork in us for another 20 years, the data seems to be saying, and people will talk about patriotism in the same mystified way they do the divine right of Kings.

So what's gone wrong with our patriotism glands? Why does the idea of being impaled on an Argentinian bayonet as we fight for the freedom of Britain's South American sheep stocks no longer thrill young people? If we died in battle, there'd be a corner of some foreign field that'd be forever... what? E8? SNP? Yorkshire? Man City? Emo? Trans-vegan-Momentum?

We're not exactly lacking for sub-categories of identity. In fact, if there's anything that defines youth politics in the past decade, it's a tedious religiosity when it comes to identity. We demand to be recognised and accepted for all our foibles and preferences, just never the big overtopping one on our passports.

It's unsurprising that the most pro-EU generation see themselves as borderless beings. And there's also a sad little footnote in these figures that suggests the youth no longer have a passion for a shared future because they no longer feel like it is something they have a share in. Eighty-one percent of VICE Census respondents believe the government doesn't care about them. Perhaps this is their version of the have-nots lashing out in Brexit – a sense that if Britain won't care for them, then why should they give a damn about it?

But to go from a well-nursed grudge to the abolition of giving-a-shit is a leap too far. In truth, "we're all international now" is the not-bothered shrug of a generation who have never had to consider who really has their back when the chips are down. It's an attempt to remain aloof, elegantly distanced, a very teenage over-assertion of personal independence.

In part, it rests on the notion that technology has already trumped the nation-state, that our world is already standardised around HTML5 and LAN-ing with Colombians. Yet, for all the the illusion of seamlessness, it is also its own political project. Underneath every "one world" platitude on the internet, you'll find a crusty Silicon Valley libertarian, babbling about how The Blockchain can replace a wide range of social and political goods, and y'know, basically we should all just vape homegrown-hydro at Burning Man till the end of days.

Never has "we're all the same" sounded so much like a curse.

In a more bricks and mortar way, our world has also been turned into one big airport lounge in the past 15 years, and Britain has certainly been at the forefront of that. This country, with its fantastic makes-yer-proud equity markets, able to magnetise together huge piles of capital in an afternoon, has outstripped even America in its capacity to turn itself into a strip mall of the lowest order. In modern Britain, you have peace of mind that whether it is a Latvian, a Brazilian or a Spaniard who serves you your kaffir lime smoothie in EAT, this new wallah class of foreign drudge-labour will have been beaten into the same smiley shape by the motivating forces of modern Human Resources Management and £7.20 an hour. Never has "we're all the same" sounded so much like a curse.

The worker bee model of the economic migrant, induced into the hive purely by economic incentives, has become central to what we talk about when we talk about mass migration. It has become increasingly impolite to talk about other, less tangible, more value-led reasons why people might want to come to Britain. Besides, to do so is to start digging into what might be seen as "their business" – and nothing could be more un-British than that.

At the root of that is the fear of being labelled racist by the racist-finder generals who direct the flows of our social media. From Emily Thornberry's over-assuming flag tweets to the attempts to tar all Leave voters as cinder-eyed golliwog-gobblers, the message is clear: having a feeling that Britain is worth celebrating means you hide a sickness in your heart as bad today as being gay was 30 years ago.

But as Kate Fox – who wrote the paperback classic of UK anthropology, Watching The English – points out, "national identity" is really just shorthand for "culture". We've become suspicious of "national identity", because it conflicts with our attachment to the multi-culture. But culture is everywhere – unavoidable, moving, yes, but rooted in what came before. The fact that Britishness warrants the odd bit of un-showy chauvinism seems lost on us. The industrial revolution, or Greggs, "could have happened anywhere". True. But the fact is it happened here. That context is worth being proud of – and the continuity of it is worth defending. If the stories we tell ourselves about our past can shape the sort of common purpose that can improve all of our lives, then we need patriotism

Unfortunately, the default youth position now seems to be an awkward straddle of leftie globalism with neoliberal globalisation with woolly Palo-Alto libertarianism. It's a dullard's credo of "everybody loves iPhones" and "we're all just people" that combines mass credulity with individual avarice. It assumes away how those iPhones got made, and assumes away the culture that goes into making the people.

It's seen ever more as a value of the far-right – paranoiac and selfish – but at its best, patriotism is a feeling of utterly unearned optimism that allows us all to pour a bit of ourselves into a shared future. The fact is, the more porous or confusing that our relationship with the wider world becomes, the more we need to remember where we came from.


More on the VICELAND UK Census:

The VICELAND UK Census: Britain, Politics and Discrimination

I Tried To Ingratiate Myself With Britain's Remaining Style Tribes

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