Like many Brits, I have something of a bi-polar relationship with national pride.
Unlike the US, where people descend into tears at the mere sniff of the stars and stripes, or Italy, where they created a pizza – the Margherita – in honour of the red, white and green of their national flag, in Britain, being proud of your country is at best slightly distasteful, at worst a sign of yobbishness.
To many people in the UK, the Union Jack is associated more with the racism of the BNP or the violence of skinheads than a sense of pride in our shared values. Although many of the tabloids survive on a culture of patriotism when it comes to football or the army, any more general sense of national pride is the subject of derision.
Gordon Brown’s proposals for a British day to increase our sense of civic pride last year were greeted with derision by the press. Possibly because most of the suggested activities involved drinking and sitting on your arse watching morris dancers on TV.
It has long been remarked that Britain’s multiculturalism, one of its finest attributes and itself a legacy of our colonial history, has actually diminished most people’s sense of patriotism. How can you feel a sense of allegiance to a culture as varied as the continents of the earth?
Any pride in our history is forever stained by the knowledge of the atrocities that have been committed in our name. From the the apartheid of South Africa to the continuing violence in Iraq, there are few that would openly admit to believing that Britain’s interventionist stance in world politics is compatible with today’s world stage.
So I was somewhat dismayed to hear, in the pages of the Daily Mail no less, that my old college’s ball theme this year is “Empire”. While I don’t agree with the constant jibes that are aimed at Cambridge in the press, this almost seemed calculated to reinforce the stereotype of a university filled by upper-class, spoilt idiots.
The tag line: “Travel with us to the Indian Raj, an emerging Australia and the West Indies. We invite you to experience the Pax Britannica and party like it’s 1899” – the year the Boer war started during which the British first invented concentration camps – defies comparison.
No one who has ever been to Cambridge could argue that it is multicultural. I remember being told the saddening statistic while there that there are more people with the surname White in the university than there are black people.
But a theme that celebrates some of the most shameful episodes in British history? That offers food and drink from “all over the colonies of the British isles”?
If that’s what the ball-goers really wanted they should have saved their £136 and just gone for a curry down Mill Road.