Might I take you back to at the meeting of the Literary Club on the evening of Friday, April 7, 1775, which we know from Boswell’s Life of Johnson took place in a tavern amongst “numerous company”? Other than Dr. Samuel Johnson, the other people we know to have been present were Johnson’s friends Bennet Langton and the aristocrat Topham Beauclerk, as well as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edward Gibbon. After discussing Addison’s supposed lack of grasp of Italian, the non-appearances of wolves in the poems of Ossian, the differences between the Irish and Erse languages, and the effect of singing the ballad of “Lilliburlero” on the Glorious Revolution, the conversation got around to the subject of Patriotism. In one of his most famous remarks, Johnson “suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone,” the statement: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Now, all conservatives know well the following sentence, written by Boswell in the Life, though it is never quoted in the books of quotations, or by the Left which sees patriotism as the mere handmaiden to her bastard sisters nationalism, hyper-nationalism, and Fascism. What Boswell wrote of Johnson’s remark was: “But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.” As the conversation continued, Boswell said “that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels.” This is no more than stating the obvious truth that although dogs have four legs, not every four-legged animal is a dog, so Boswell was asked—though not by Johnson—to name an exception, and Boswell named “an eminent person,” whom John Wilson Croker assumes was Edmund Burke, because Boswell often ascribed the adjective “eminent” to Burke, “whom we all greatly admired.”

Boswell’s comment on Johnson’s statement makes it clear, I believe, that the latter’s general statement—which has done so much damage over the past two and a half centuries, especially coming from such a profound Tory—was in fact rooted in the specific, in particular his dislike of Lord North’s ministry which lasted for twelve years from 1770 until 1782. “Sir,” Johnson said of the person we can safely assume to have been Burke, who sat for Bristol as a Rockinghamite Whig, “I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest. Were he to accept a place from this ministry, he would lose that character of firmness which he has. . . . This ministry is neither stable, not grateful to their friends, as Sir Robert Walpole was.”

Elsewhere in the six volumes of annotations to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited by Hill and Powell in the 1930s, it seems clear that Johnson was referring not to patriotism in general, but to the false use of the term “patriotism” as employed by the faction led by John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute. That politician’s program seems solely to have concentrated on trying to win office, and it seems to be of Bute that Johnson was employing the term scoundrel. So one of the phrases that we all know of Johnson’s, which has been used to hang around the neck of anyone advocating a genuine love of country ever since, might have merely been a specific denunciation of a particular set of unscrupulous politicians, rather than the blanket condemnation of patriotism per se.

I should now like to jump forward two centuries from Johnson’s dangerously all-embracing aphorism, from the London tavern of 1775 to a meeting of the Oakeshott Society in Dr. John Casey’s set of rooms in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in the Michaelmas term of my first year as an undergraduate, 1982. Noting that the new generation of Tory undergraduates were pro-American Thatcherites, as opposed to anti-American followers of Enoch Powell, John Casey asked us: Would we spy for the CIA if a Marxist-Leninist government of the U.K. left NATO and joined the Warsaw Pact? He asked the question only three years after Tony Benn had held senior Cabinet rank, and whilst the Trade Union movement was partly infiltrated by the Communist Party, so it was not so outlandish an idea as perhaps it sounds today.

To those of us who tried to argue that spying for the CIA did not constitute treachery against the United Kingdom, John was scathing, shooting down our arguments one by one on constitutional, ethical, moral, legal, and every other ground barring the political.

With the related issues of national identity, patriotism, and allegiance reappearing strongly since 9/11, I think it worthwhile to try to answer John Casey’s conundrum a quarter of a century later, and, I hope, with more success than when I was a callow undergraduate. As a reactionary whose favorite hymn is the one the Church of England has tried to ban on grounds of hyper-nationalism, namely Sir Cecil Spring-Rice’s sublime I Vow to Thee My Country, I was naturally disgusted when, during the opening of the London Olympics in August 2012, the Lancashire-born pop-singer Morrissey compared the national mood to that of Nazi Germany and asked if the country “has ever been quite so foul with patriotism?” (If he felt that way about the Olympics—with its opening ceremony presenting Britain’s greatest achievement as having been the National Health Service—God knows how he had kept his sanity during the Diamond Jubilee.)

Yet that reference to Nazi Germany might be used as a springboard to ask a few more questions along the same lines as John Casey’s in 1982. Should we consider the Stauffenberg plotters to be traitors when they attempted to assassinate their legally constituted head of state on July 20, 1944, the man President Hindenburg had chosen to be Chancellor of Germany under the German constitution as it stood in January 1933, and to whom they had all taken a personal oath of allegiance in 1934? In the same conflict, was Charles de Gaulle a traitor when he left France in June 1940 to take up arms against the legally constituted Vichy Government of France, as established by a vote of 569 to 80 with 10 abstentions in the National Assembly? Were the 7/7 plotters, who killed fifty-two innocent people on London’s public transport system in 2005, also traitors, as well as murderers? How do we morally differentiate between Bashar al-Assad using violence to crush a rebellion of his own people today, using every power available to him, and Abraham Lincoln doing precisely the same thing between 1861 and 1865? Are the Free Syrian Army, and were the Confederates, traitors as well as rebels?

With Lincoln, we can argue that the president was duly elected by democratic constitutional means, a distinction that Assad clearly doesn’t enjoy. Yet in a country that has never had much democracy, indeed in a region where, besides Israel and Turkey (and now, thanks to President George W. Bush, Iraq and Afghanistan), genuinely representative institutions are otherwise unknown, can we really just write off every non-democratic regime in the world as illegitimate and thus not worthy of its citizens’ allegiance? If there is no historical tradition of holding meaningful elections in a country, or if, as in Saudi Arabia, those elections don’t enfranchise 50 percent of the population, are we really saying that its leaders automatically and necessarily lack all legitimacy and thus the right to expect patriotic allegiance?

In his maiden speech in February 1901, as the Boer War was entering its most vicious phase, Winston Churchill ignored the ancient convention of avoiding contentious subjects and said, “If I were a Boer, I hope I should be fighting in the field.” The Irish Nationalists cheered and Joseph Chamberlain commented, “That’s the way to throw away seats,” but it showed that he appreciated that enemies can be patriotic too. If I were an Iranian, I would one day want my country to possess the nuclear bomb, though obviously not now while it’s ruled by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who constantly threaten to use it.

Being conflicted about one’s identity, where one’s patriotism ultimately lies, is as old as the nation state itself. Even worse has been the suspicion that others might be conflicted, when in fact they weren’t. It was a source of discrimination against and persecution of English Roman Catholics from the Reformation to the mid-nineteenth century and of Jews in many lands throughout history, who were assumed to owe other allegiances, rather as the Sudeten Germans genuinely did at the time of the Munich crisis. We must, therefore, as a matter of simple decency as well as out of considerations of national security, get this right.

For national identity, patriotism, allegiance, and the nation state are intimately bound up with each other, and what it means to be a good person, especially in a time of massive demographic flux. It will be interesting to see the psychological reaction of white English-speaking Americans when, around the year 2050, America becomes mostly Spanish-speaking. Will Los Estados Unidos have the same levels and rights of allegiance, naturally carried over from those who had hitherto pledged allegiance to the same territory, albeit in a different tongue?

Britain has nothing like the American Pledge of Allegiance, and all attempts to introduce one are subjected to scoffing ridicule. Patriotism is supposed, somehow, to be imbibed with our mother’s milk, even in a country that it taking on many of the melting pot aspects of the U.S. and has effectively stopped teaching the kind of history lessons needed to inculcate it. (Though I’ve high hopes that Michael Gove’s educational reforms in England and Wales might reintroduce some aspects of narrative history, and we can escape the present situation in which 23 percent of British teenagers think that Winston Churchill was a fictional character and that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby were real people.)

We know that the Left—especially in academia—considers patriotism and a sense of national allegiance to be a danger, a crime against the United Nations–run uniglobalism that is their ultimate goal for the planet. As we learn from Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence, an indispensable urtext for modern conservatism, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns that “patriotic pride” is “morally dangerous”; that Amy Gutman of Princeton believes that it is “repugnant” that students be taught that they are, “above all, citizens of the United States” instead of members of what she calls a “democratic humanism”; and worst of all, that Richard Sennett of New York University has denounced “the evil of a shared national identity,” while inevitably George Lipsitz of the University of California states that “In recent years refuge in patriotism has been the first resort of scoundrels of all sorts.” Yet another ignorant misreading of Dr. Johnson’s true meaning, flung against conservatives.

Yet in fact it can be shown—as it eloquently has been by David Pryce-Jones in his book Treason of the Heart—that when lack of patriotism is taken to its logical outcome, namely treachery, it can produce myriad forms of deep psychological disorder, but also that it often stems from personality defects too. From Tom Paine to Kim Philby, Pryce-Jones shows the profound moral and personal flaws in traitor after traitor, proving how they aren’t just nasty pieces of work because they’re traitors, but also that they were traitors because they were nasty pieces of work. Again and again treachery was not just the result of a belief in a higher loyalty than that to the nation state, such as “the rights of Man” in Paine’s case, or Marxism-Leninism in Philby’s, but also of the traitors’ own narcissism, alienation, perversity, viciousness, and inability to feel love—except a love for the act of betrayal itself. Pryce-Jones proves how the overlap between traitors and utter shits is simply too uniform to be coincidental, the shaded area of the Venn diagram between the two is so vast as almost to overwhelm the two subsets. Yet when we look at some of the people willing to betray the Soviet Union in the Cold War—Oleg Gordievsky, for example—we see a man suffused with love of his country, who was moreover personally admirable, and is rightly considered a hero.

So what conservatives need now is an overarching philosophy that explains these dichotomies, widens our understanding of why it is right to feel loyalty and patriotism in the West, but also why those who betrayed the USSR, or attempted to kill Hitler, or who are fighting against Assad today, are not traitors, except perhaps in the very narrowest of legal terms. We need to answer the age-old saw of when a terrorist becomes a freedom-fighter; why are the Minutemen and perhaps even the Stern Gang one thing, while al-Qaeda and the IRA are something quite different? We need, in effect, to answer John Casey’s question of a quarter-century ago, which as you can see has troubled me ever since. Moreover, this theory can’t simply concentrate on democracy, equality, free speech, and human rights, since people like Julian Assange and the so-called whistleblowers such as Clive Ponting will use that argument against us, and we will merely descend to the tedious postmodernist rowing over definitions of liberty.

The opening sentence of the War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle—who was of course under sentence of death for treason for four years in France between 1940 and 1944—seems to me to offer the key for conservatives looking for an all-embracing theory encompassing the concepts of national identity, patriotism, allegiance, and treachery. It explains the reason why Lincoln was not a traitor, but also why Jefferson Davis was not either, why Stauffenberg was not a traitor, but why those Britons who went to fight for the Taliban against the forces of the Crown and wound up in Guantánamo Bay were and are, whereas George Washington, who also fought against the forces of the Crown, was not.

“All my life,” wrote de Gaulle, “I have had a certain idea of France.” This “certain idea” of the soul of his country existed quite separately from its legal entity. It was a concept of Frenchness that couldn’t be defined, or at least not easily, but was nevertheless stronger than the votes of the National Assembly as it voted to dissolve the Third Republic in the auditorium of Vichy’s opera house on July 10, 1940. De Gaulle’s “certain idea” of France was certainly not rooted in concepts of democracy and free speech—though those of course were tangential aspects of it—but rather in the sacred blood, soil, religion, history, people, and essential Frenchness of France, the aspects that no other nation had. French exceptionalism was never better put, and it of course immediately explains why Pétain and Laval were traitors to the true, real France, while de Gaulle was its paladin.

As de Gaulle went on to explain in his War Memoirs, his “certain idea” of France

is inspired by sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me tends to imagine France . . . as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has created her either for complete success or for exemplary misfortunes. . . . In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without greatness.

Now, if we extend de Gaulle’s concept to other countries in the world, conservatives will find that it works for us too. I could perfectly well spy for the CIA in a Communist Britain in the 1980s, because there is a “certain idea” of Britain rooted in her blood, soil, history, people, and essential Britishness that would have been effaced had she fallen to an anti-monarchist, atheistic, totalitarian creed like Marxism-Leninism. Claus von Stauffenberg was legally guilty as charged, but not guilty of betraying a “certain idea” of Germany, that of Beethoven and Schiller, which, as we’ve seen since 1945, is the true Germany. The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Constitution, and Federalist Papers are likewise the eloquent expressions of a “certain idea” of the nascent United States that absolves the American-born Founding Fathers from the charge of treachery.

Of course any “certain idea” has to be deeply rooted in knowledge of a country and its past, otherwise it is likely to become impossibly subjective and ultimately meaningless. The 7/7 bombers could argue, in our postmodernist, multicultural world, that their “certain idea” of Britain had nothing to do with Queen and Country, and everything to do with Islam and their interpretation of the Koran, and thus according to their “certain idea” their actions were not treacherous. That is again why history teaching in schools needs to be central to the curriculum—since only in that way can we refute such arguments—and we must support Michael Gove’s efforts to return it to its rightful place in it.

Oleg Gordievsky was being true to the “certain idea” of the true Russia—the great soul of Mother Russia who was waiting to shrug off the Communist mantle after three-quarters of a century. Any brave souls who are today betraying the People’s Republic of China are undoubtedly acting in accordance with the certainty that there is something far more ancient and noble in their “certain idea” of China than is represented by a Chinese Communist Party that attempted to root out Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution.

Once one appreciates that a “certain idea” of a country, an uplifting one representing its underlying true nature, is the concept to which its inhabitants also owe their allegiance over and above its present-day legal entity, then the rebels against Assad are not traitors, while Major Nidal Hasan, who carried out the Fort Hood shooting, most certainly is. No certain idea of American history, purpose, or experience can make his killing of American soldiers anything but an act of treachery to the United States.

That is also why, although it is possible to feel allegiance towards a United States of America if one is American, it is impossible for anyone to feel genuine loyalty or allegiance for a United States of Europe, or United Nations, or indeed any multi-national body. Allegiance must be rooted in the nation state, which since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia has been the basic building block governing advanced societies’ makeup. One could feel allegiance for the Emperor Franz Josef’s multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course, but not for a soulless multinational entity like the European Union, and still less for an amorphous mass such as “The Planet” or “Mankind.” One can have a “certain idea” for France or Britain or Spain or America, or even a new country like Syria or Jordan, but not for a group of countries. No one will be willing to fight and die for the European Union, and even those blue berets who fight and die for the United Nations do so with their own countries’ flags on their shoulders. Part of the “certain idea” that one has for one’s country is that it is indivisible. As George Canning put it at the time of the collapse of the Holy Alliance: “Things are back to a healthy state again; every nation for itself and God for us all!”

Charles de Gaulle was a clearly impossible human being; he was also a genius of sorts: To adopt Churchill’s reference in his maiden speech, if I were a Frenchman I hope I would be a Gaullist. In his explanation for his treacherous actions in 1940, I see a way for conservatives to look at the seemingly complex issues of national identity, patriotism, and allegiance, and appreciate that, with common sense and a profound reverence for the past, especially for a country’s soul, customs, and traditions, we can feel a “certain idea” of a country to which its citizens must remain true, quite apart from what the law might say. So, thirty years after he posed his question I can finally answer Dr. Casey by saying that I would have spied for the CIA against a Communist government of Britain, because any such entity would have already betrayed my “certain idea” of my country.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 5, on page 33
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