With apologies to those who have already read it, I reproduce a letter from today's Guardian. I couldn't have put it better myself. Indeed I didn't put it as well the other day when I wrote to some friends about British food and culture being so varied and mixed up, ethnically and otherwise, because there is no sound agreed basis of what is British.
It is so easy for the British fascists and their self-avowedly Parliament-wrecking fellow-travellers (who together got more than 20% of the vote on Sunday, and who are very different from, and considerably nastier than, other countries' Eurosceptics) to make a lot of noise about the symbols when the substance is so clearly lacking.
The Guardian letter is followed by my translation of the same point made by the late Spanish poet Antonio Gala. It is a piece that I use as a translation exercise with my students. The attitude described in it comes across as utterly bizarre in modern Spain, even more now than when it was written. But, mutatis mutandis, it is the view of a good number of modern British patriots.
Real national identities (Battle with Les Rosbifs leaves France cool, June 12) are founded on economics, not sport. The French live their nationalism every day. Tricolours fluttering from car windows are unnecessary because the cars are French. They celebrate their Gallic passion daily by drinking a glass of wine, manufacturing a train or going to the cinema.
In our open, free-market economy, many home industries have disappeared and property booms and high rents have denuded our town centres of their diverse local communities. Bistros, bakeries, delicatessens, fishmongers and butchers exemplify French life in the same way that consumer-driven, branch-populated high streets express our increasingly fragile, homogenised character.
Ordering a coffee at a pavement café in Paris is a simple tradition undiluted by the bewildering pseudo-choice of flavoured milky drinks on offer here. The French are French every day, but we have very little left to us with which to be British. Thus, our understandable confusion between a substantive national identity and the empty symbolism of a dogged defence of the pound and the flag of St George.
The argument, if his monologue could be called an argument, began with a light-hearted anecdote. I told him how a flag waving in the wind outside the window of my hotel room had prevented me seeing the monument which interested me. ‘This sort of thing often happens,’ I concluded, ‘with symbols and what they signify’. The man sitting opposite me at the table, and to whom I had only just been introduced, went pale. ‘The flag is the emblem of the motherland’, he said almost shaking. ‘I thought that the author of Landscape with Figures would be a better patriot than his frivolous observation betrays him to be. As the poet sang: “Glory to thee, flag of Castile,/Brushstroke of blood and sun;/He who bows not the knee before thee/Deserves not the name of a Spaniard.”’ To draw the sting from the comment I suggested that the bit about the knee might have been only empty words. If only I had not: the man stood up, cleared his throat, and opened the floodgates of his speech.
‘You are probably one of those who think that Europe is the sum of everything good with nothing bad mixed in. I, on the other hand, was brought up in the way of those who gave their lives with the Flanders regiments or on the never-ending plains of newly-discovered America, with a cross or a sword in their hands, in the days when the sun never set on the domains of the motherland. I am one of those who will fight for their country right or wrong, the heirs of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the War of Independence [from France, the Peninsular War] and of those who spilt the blood from their veins in the Last Crusade [the Spanish Civil War].
‘I was brought up – and I know that this does not happen now, as if eternal truth could be in or out of fashion – to hate the French (who will always be the Frogs as far as I am concerned) and to be wary about Europe, which has only ever infected us with destructive and materialistic ideas. If we still had the Pragmatic Sanction of Aranjuez of 1559, by which Philip II isolated us from it so that we would not be contaminated, Spain would never have ceased to be the unsleeping lion which spread its paw on land and sea. Our kings were Catholic because they were ecumenical; no other nation had the God-given honour of discovering the New World and circumnavigating the globe. Discovery, I said; not a meeting of cultures or of peoples. Ours was the people chosen to erect the cross above the idols and to teach the Indians the most beautiful of all languages. For that reason the flag is something concerning which I will not admit opinions; I could kill anyone who insulted it. It represents the motherland and the Courts of Cadiz [writing the 1812 Constitution] laid down in their Article VI that “love of his motherland is one of the principal obligations of all Spaniards.” Yes; the others were to be just and charitable.’ The patriot regarded me with hatred and went on, ‘Every Spaniard has three mothers: first, his bodily mother; second, the Virgin, who is our mother in the spiritual sense; and finally, his motherland which is a mother in the one sense as much as in the other.’
El País, 10th May 1992