I vow to thee my country...with a number of important caveats
What does the row between the Daily Mail and Labour leader Ed Miliband tell us about the love – or hatred – of country? Philip Bowern asks, what do we really think about Britain?
It was the story of the conference season; it overshadowed David Cameron's speech to the Tories and it is set to rumble on for a good while yet.
When the Daily Mail described Ralph Miliband, the late father of Ed, as: "The man who hated Britain", they probably didn't expect as a robust response as came from the Labour leader. But the mixture of barely suppressed anger and genuine hurt with which he hit back at the accusations, won him sympathy and support. It perhaps should have ended there.
But, as is often the way with such rows, it snowballed. By the weekend Ed Miliband had demanded an apology from the Daily Mail and written to Mail owner Lord Rothermere suggesting the whole tenor of his newspapers needed to be reviewed. Meanwhile, on the internet, allegations about anti-Semitism at the Mail began to be made, given the Miliband family's Jewish roots – a claim hotly contested on BBC Radio 4 by Alex Brummer, the paper's City Editor and a leading member of the Jewish community.
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And in a bizarre sideshow, two journalists at the Mail on Sunday found themselves suspended by their newspaper for gate-crashing a memorial service to another member of the Miliband family, Ed's uncle. The MoS editor, Geordie Greig, apologised unreservedly to Mr Miliband for the error of judgment, in stark contrast to Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who insisted, through his staff and the pages of his newspaper, that he had nothing to apologise for. As a political row this could run and run, particularly with the press still deciding how to respond to the recommendations of Lord Leveson and his inquiry into the regulation of the media.
But what of the central claim, made by the Mail in its original article, that Ralph Miliband 'hated' Britain. The evidence came in his support for Marxism and his criticism of the British establishment.
Miliband senior talked in his diaries of his disdain for: "Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the great Clubs, the Times, the Church, the Army, the respectable Sunday papers...the values of the ruling orders, keep the workers in their place, strengthen the House of Lords, maintain social hierarchies, God save the Queen, equality is bunk, democracy is dangerous etc.."
Hitting his stride the academic went on, attacking "...respectability, good taste, don't rock the boat, there will always be an England, foreigners, Jews, natives etc are all right in their place, and their place is outside." The Daily Mail then asked. "Are these are the words of a man who 'loved Britain'?
So how far can the citizen of a nation go in criticising his own country before he can legitimately be accused of hating it? Britons are generally tolerant of their countryman who find national institutions unacceptable. We are a culturally, ethnically and racially diverse nation. Expressions of opposition to the Monarchy, anger at the class system, and outrage at the actions and attitudes of the police and the military are tolerated. Among some groups they are even actively encouraged.
Finding fault with the way the country is run – while continuing to live in it – is, for many people, a part of being British. A glance on any day of the week at the letters pages of the Western Morning News reveal that powerful opinions against everything from the Prime Minister's latest pronouncement to the England football team are considered fair game and can be expressed loud and long.
There is also a certain sort of British traveller who never seems to shut up about how the country they are visiting is so much better than home. In any French restaurant or boulangerie during the holiday season you can find Brits going on about how marvellous France is, praising everything from the food to the weather, the laid-back lifestyle to the attractiveness of the women, while at the same time running down Britain. "You never get this sort of service/bread/weather/etc, etc at home" they purr to one another.
Does any of that equate to "hatred of their own country?" More seriously does a desire to sweep away the Lords, swap our legal system for continental Corpus Juris and see Her Majesty replaced with 'president' George Galloway make one a traitor and a hater? Perhaps.
It has been suggested that to ensure better integration of immigrants into Britain every one should be made to take the so-called 'cricket test' and answer a list of questions designed to show that they understand and, by implication accept, the cultural, sporting and administrative details of the nation they call home. But knowing Britain is not the same as loving Britain. In defending his dead Dad Ed Miliband may have hoped to prompt a debate on the behaviour of the press. But perhaps both he and the Daily Mail have done us all a greater favour by asking us to consider, what do we really think about Britain?