Opinion: Do you love this country?

One question asked by the Home Affairs Select Committee to Alan Rusbridger over the Snowden leaks should be of great concern to us all. During the often heated exchanges, Keith Vaz asked:

Do you love this country?

If we were told that in, for example, Russia, a committee of MPs were grilling a newspaper editor over his patriotic credentials, we would rightly condemn it as a worrying level of state pressure on the press. Just what were Vaz’s intentions behind that question? Would it have been held against Rusbridger if he had said ‘no’? We can only speculate. But, whether or not those intentions were entirely innocent, the fact that Vaz felt the need to ask is disturbing, particularly given the recent furore over the Daily Mail’s article on ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’. Ralph Miliband was pilloried by the Mail, primarily for criticising the elitism of Britain’s institutions. This hatchet job was an example of gutter journalism at its worst, but the free press argument stands up. Regardless of how tasteless and morally absent the article may have been, their right to print these opinions remains intact.

It is an altogether different story when similar musings are made by MPs.

It may seem hyperbolic to invoke McCarthyism, but Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt against communists in the USA often centred on patriotism, in light of the notion that communism contradicted so-called American values. These values were essentially those defined by the state. Today, you would find few in either Britain or the USA who would be prepared to justify fully the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee; the idea that one should be persecuted for their opinions is one that sits very uneasily with the vast majority.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the question posed by Vaz comes anywhere near the level of interrogation and harassment perpetrated by the HUAC. However, we must ask: by whose criteria would Vaz like to define a love for one’s country? Given that Rusbridger, although taken aback by the question, replied that he does indeed love Britain, we may never know what the repercussions would have been had he not done so. The follow up question to this was:

‘So the reason why you’ve done this has not been to damage the country?’

The implication here is surely that, were it to be deemed that Rusbridger does not ‘love this country’, we could infer from this that he is determined to damage it. Should those who live in a country that they don’t claim to be in love with be treated with this level of suspicion? If so, it is a dangerous road that we are on.

The NSA leaks are not evidence that Alan Rusbridger (and indeed, Edward Snowden) do not love their respective countries. But even if it were, an absence of love for one’s country should not be something that leads to criticism. Particularly from those in positions of power.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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32 Comments

  • Richard Dean 6th Dec '13 - 1:02pm

    It was an odd question, yes, shocking even, and MacCarthy is the correct reference alright, but Vaz’s role is theatre as well as enquiry, and it can be better to bring these prejudices out into the open in order to deal with them. The followup question may have been idiotic, but people do think that.

    Rushbridger’s faltering answer gave an even odder impression – as if he had never previously thought about his actions in that way. Not impressive at all.

    Of course “country” is a rather complicated concept, it does not necessarily mean the same as what the hidden spies and surveyors think it means. Clarifying the role of intelligence services and oversight is certainly a patriotic thing to do. But doing it recklessly is not.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 6th Dec '13 - 1:55pm

    You keep referring to “Britain” yet I cannot find this place on a map. Are you by any chance meaning the island of Great Britain, which is a part of the United Kingdom but not the whole of it.

  • I think you’ve missed a subtle point in the whole exchange is a xenophobic undertone.

    Prior to asking this question, Mr Vaz started to elaborate on his ethnic origins. He was explaining that he wasn’t born here. A quick check (and perhaps he was briefed on this beforehand) confirmed that neither was Mr Rusbridger. I think this was also alluded to in Mr Vaz’s question which he said was of a “personal nature”. I think the corrected transcript will reveal this.

    I think it was that prelude which clearly threw the witness as he probably had to be quick to see the elephant trap. I noted he never answered the question “do you love?”, he said “the staff of the Guardian do”. i would really worry if this line of questioning was thrown at every single person of non-British origins who upsets the Establishment.

  • It is interesting to see the “rehabilitation” of Keith Vaz from the cloud he was very definitely under 5 or more years ago, when at one stage it looked as if he would have felt under pressure to stand down at Westminster. I was surprised when he was made a Committee Chair, I have to say. Given that background I am very surprised he is arrogant enough to even think of asking such questions! Having said that, it should be noted “upfront” that Vaz was comparing both himself and Alan Rusbridger, as people “born abroad”, when looking at “patriotic credentials”.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 6th Dec '13 - 2:41pm

    These select Committees are becoming more and more like Courts of Star Chamber. They should all be abolished. If anyone is suspected of doing something wrong they should answer for it in a properly constituted court of law in which they will have the advantage and protection of due process.

  • It is very good that you have raised this point. The questions raised by Vaz show that he simply has not got it. “It” being the fact that it is in this country’s interest that there is a public debate about the vast trawling of communications data which is going on by the NSA and GCHQ. Even Chris Huhne, a member of the security committee of the cabinet for two years, wasn’t aware this was going on. At the end of the day, such questioning as that by Vaz is part of free speech. Rusbridger gave a very good account for himself and his paper.

  • Kevin Maher 6th Dec '13 - 5:09pm

    I think that my answer to this question would be that yes I love my country, but I also love many aspects of and regions in other countries that I have visited.

  • Paul Walter, I agree that Rusbridger gave a good account of himself. There certainly was a degree of surprise in his answer, but unlike Richard Dean, I’m not so sure that it was because he’d never thought of it in that way. More that he wasn’t expecting that particular line of questioning from the Home Affairs Select Committee.

  • Peter Hayes 6th Dec '13 - 7:41pm

    I am not even certain what defines MY country. I was brought up in Merseyside and now, because of work, live in the Cotswolds the people are so different they could be in different countries. Unfortunately the selfish, consumerism society has now spread out from the SE but that is a country I have very little love for.

  • I love my country’s literature well enough to know that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Dec '13 - 8:40pm

    The Guardian regularly damages national security, but de facto censoring it would be even worse. I’m unsure what I think about the Snowden leaks, but in general no one should be above the law, including journalists and politicians.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Dec '13 - 8:51pm

    This recent article of theirs was truly disgusting and made them look like the recruitment wing of the Taliban:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/04/britain-up-to-neck-in-us-dirty-wars-on-terror?

    Censorship is not the answer, but it is safe to say I am not a fan.

  • Paul Walter. On the contrary in your partisan rush to accuse Keith Vaz of having not got it, it is in fact you that have not got it. If you or the originator of this post had bothered to read the full exchange you would have seen Vaz being supportive of Rusbridger as in:

    Committee chair, Keith Vaz: Some of the criticisms against you and the Guardian have been very, very personal. You and I were both born outside this country, but I love this country. Do you love this country?

    Alan Rusbridger: We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things.

    Vaz: So the reason why you’ve done this has not been to damage the country, it is to help the country understand what is going on as far as surveillance is concerned?

    Rusbridger: I think there are countries, and they’re not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things, and where the security services do tell editors what to write, and where politicians do censor newspapers. That’s not the country that we live in, in Britain, that’s not the country that America is and it’s one of the things I love about this country – is that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think and we have some privacy, and those are the concerns which need to be balanced against national security, which no one is underestimating, and I can speak for the entire Guardian staff who live in this country that they want to be secure too.

    Vaz: Thank you so much, that’s very clear.

  • Martin Lowe 6th Dec '13 - 9:36pm

    The reductio ad absurdum is that if you want this country to be better, it must therefore mean that you don’t love this country – because if you did, then why would you want to change it?

  • The war on terror is disgusting.
    A free press is vital as are leaks of embarrassing information. Without them, politicians and others will feel free to continue to lie about things only supported by crazy ideology.

    Parker will be unable to justify his claim of damage to National Security but per the Peter Principle, I doubt there will be any action taken against him. I just wish the Lib Dems could wake up and realise that our security is not aided by having such as Parker in place.

  • Richard Dean 6th Dec '13 - 9:41pm

    A war on terror is necessary, in some form or another. I doubt if Rushbridger or his reporters would disagree. I doubt that any political party would get much support if it said otherwise.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Dec '13 - 10:25pm

    I’m changing my unsure approach to the Ed Snowden leaks to being against them. Official state secrets should not be leaked by vigilante individuals or a vigilante press. If state secrets are to be revealed then it should be by the democratically elected government.

  • Mick Taylor 6th Dec '13 - 10:48pm

    Eddie Salmon

    I read the article you referred to on terror. If it’s even remotely true we should be ashamed. Assassination and killing the imagined bad guys is wholly unacceptable, whether it was in Northern Ireland in the 70s or Afghanistan and Pakistan now.

    We claim to believe in the rule of law. I sincerely hope that Mr Milne’s report is exaggerated, but I fear it’s not. If the UK government is complicit in these activities, then we are recruiting for terrorism by our own actions. The Guardian – not a newspaper I read anymore due to it’s wholly unbalanced position on the coalition – is merely reporting it.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Dec '13 - 11:28pm

    Mick, I don’t doubt that the article raises some interesting questions, but it was completely one sided about our presence in the middle east and Africa and that is a national security threat.

    I am not asking for censorship of opinion pieces, I am just openly criticising. However, the the Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley) leaks are different because they are against the law.

    We are dealing with violent anti-democratic and anti secular extremists and sometimes I wish the left would give us more credit.

  • MPs dont write most of the questions. They pick them. In this case Id hazard a guess Vaz picked a question from another viewpoint for more complex reasons than this piece alludes to.

  • Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
    The idea that a government will release material which damages its popularity is one from fantasy. You might as well ask the banks to regulate themselves. This is precisely why we have a free press.
    Either an idea can be supported by evidence or it cannot. The left does not have to give credit to anyone. Why should it depart from the evidence?

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Dec '13 - 8:29am

    Voter, I am disappointed to hear such cynicism. There is a debate to be had about whistle-blowing, but we must stay away from extremes and one of those extremes is that the press should have a free for all on state secrets.

    I know I haven’t dealt with the “do you love your country” aspect of the article, because I felt it tied into a more serious debate about national security, state secrets and irresponsible journalism.

    David, thanks for the article, I’ll try harder to stay on topic in future.

  • Paul in Twickenham 7th Dec '13 - 8:39am

    “Are you now or have you ever been a journalist for The Guardian?”

  • There’s a bit more to patriotism or ‘loving one’s country’ than waving a flag or being rude about foreigners. Sometimes it’s recognising the shortcomings of your country and being prepared to do something about it.

  • Simon Banks 7th Dec '13 - 7:18pm

    Interesting. I think both Richard Dean and sfk have good points. I really don’t know how I would reply, and I’m 100% British in origins (OK, almost certainly a bit of invading Dane, but that’s a long time ago) and 75% English. I imagine Vaz meant Britain rather than England.

    I admire some things about this country and find others intensely frustrating. Because I find the negatives intensely frustrating rather than mildly frustrating, one might argue that I do love this country – except that I find some things American intensely irritating and I don’t love the USA. So maybe your feelings, quite naturally, are stronger about the countries whose features have a big impact on you.

    I perceive myself part of a British identity, except the borderline with Irish is fuzzy for me and as someone part Welsh and not at all Scottish I identify with some parts of Britishness more than others. To identify with something is not to love it or even to approve of it.

    Do I care about this country? Yes, but I also care about foreign countries I’ve had close and extended experience of (Kenya, Finland, Ireland) more than the average. Would I support my country if I thought it was wrong? No, no, no, though I recognise in a democratic country there’s a contract involved, just as there is with union membership: take the benefits of belonging, take part in the decision-making and accept the democratic decision as valid even if you continue to argue against it.

    sfk’s point about this particular exchange is really important. Where people’s Britishness might be questioned, there can all to easily be a competition to be more British than thou and condemn those with reservations.

  • I like Simon Bank’s answer to the question because it explains the impossibility of giving a binary answer if you are at all reflective. One other aspect is the way that events can affect the answer: I felt ashamed to be British during the Falklands War, and again during the fuel price protests because it seemed to me that the vast majority of my fellow citizens had become irrational. If a referendum decides against continuing membership of the EU I will feel the same way, and were I young would probably leave the country. But those are personal opinions, and I would not wish to label those who feel differently as being unpatriotic (I hate that word!)

  • I am unpatriotic and proud of it. My pride is not for the country, but for the individuals who come together and make our community.

  • tonyhill 7th Dec ’13 – 8:35pm
    I felt ashamed to be British during the Falklands War
    …unpatriotic (I hate that word!)

    Thank goodness for Tony Hill – he says what I think and does it with one tenth of the number of words that I would stumble through.

  • Eddie – no worries for ‘going off topic’ as put it – all seemed relevant to me in a direct or indirect way. I disagree with you heartily, however. Openness is important in a democracy – of course there is a limit to what can be revealed to the general public but I don’t believe the NSA leaks crossed that line. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying the Guardian only released 2% of the information they were given (as much as I might sound like a Guardian journalist right now, I promise you I am not!)

    The Seamus Milne article seemed utterly reasonable to me – for every drone that the USA sends into Pakistan, more extremists are created. This in no way justifies the actions of the Taliban, but these drones are killing civilians too, and Milne is quite right to bring this horrific practice to light.

    Interesting to see everyone’s definitions of patriotism – I sympathise a lot with the responses of Robert and Liberal Al. Borders are artificial human creations, and it is on the face of it would be utterly illogical for me to declare a love for England/the UK because an accident of circumstance occurred and resulted in me being born here. However, I still scream at the top of my voice whenever the England football team win; wallow in despair when the cricket team loses (and vice versa of course) and can sit for hours listening to English folk music.

    I like Billy Bragg’s description of patriotism – that he loves England as he does his son. He is aware that he’s not perfect, chastises him for his failings and does his utmost to make sure he achieves his full potential. He knows that, no matter what, he will always love him because of (and despite of) anything and everything he does. I have a suspicion that Billy put it far more eloquently than that, but I forget the exact quote.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Dec '13 - 6:17pm

    David, I am glad you agree that there is a limit to what should be revealed to the public and you seemed to have taken the time to see whether they had in fact crossed this difficult line. I just get worried about knee-jerk “hero” proclamations, even if I am inclined to kneejerk condemn.

    There is another point as well: how can a political activist or party be trusted with state secrets if they are to easily applaud secret leakage without taking responsibility or seriously considering the consequences? I think this puts into perspective the seriousness of state secrets.

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