The Italians are often thought of as being unpatriotic, and one can see why. They relentlessly denigrate their national institutions, abuse their politicians, and compare their democratic arrangements most unfavourably with those of the ‘more mature’ north European countries. You might conclude, therefore, that most Italians ‘hate’ Italy. But, of course, you would be wrong, just as the Daily Mail was wrong when it decided on the basis of Ralph Miliband’s political opinions that he ‘hated Britain’.
The Mail’s justification for its now notorious headline (‘The Man Who Hated Britain’) was that Miliband Senior ‘had nothing but hatred for the values, traditions and institutions — including our great schools, the Church, the Army and even the Sunday papers — that made Britain the safe and free nation in which he and his family flourished’. Well, I can think of lots of people, born and brought up in Britain, and with no leanings towards Marxism, who feel some aversion to each of these institutions, especially — and quite reasonably — to the Sunday newspapers; but none of them would be suspected of hating Britain. Why should even a belief in Marxism and a desire for socialist revolution be equated with loathing of a country? It is perfectly possible that the advocates of revolution sincerely believe that it will bring only benefits to the country they love.
To revert to Italy, its politics are such a mess and its institutions so defective that it would be very odd for any Italian to be proud of them. But there is so much else for Italians to be proud of. There is their art, their architecture, their music, and their way of life, which they generally hold to be superior to those of any other nation. And there is also their food. Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cookery writer who died last week at the age of 89, believed passionately in the superiority of traditional Italian cooking, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and a subtle combination of flavours, over showy French dishes drowned in sauce. Her aim, she wrote, was to produce dishes that nourished and pleased, not to ‘dazzle guests with my originality or creativity’. Food, too, is a focus for Italian patriotism.
In Britain, however, our national identity has for so long been so tied up with our system of government and status as a world power that there seems to be no escape from it, at least not for the Daily Mail. In fact, there are as many different reasons for loving a country as there are for hating it. Nick Clegg had a point when he said, with reference to the Daily Mail’s attack on Miliband, that the newspaper ‘just seems to be overflowing with bile about modern Britain. They don’t like working mothers, they don’t like the BBC, they don’t like members of the royal family, they don’t like teachers, they don’t like the English football team. The list goes on. So talk about kettles and pots.’ I don’t like traffic jams, road rage, wind farms, lager louts and the revolting pub food in Northamptonshire. But that doesn’t mean that I hate Britain.
I don’t accuse the Mail of hating Britain either, but nobody has the same likes and dislikes about it. Writing in the Times this week, David Aaronovitch said that his father, brought up in poverty in the Jewish East End of London, had been a communist for most of his adult life, but that he had still ‘loved an idea of Britain’. He had read Dickens and Shakespeare and had learnt a version of British history that ‘went in a line from outlaws in the woods, through the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, and up to the General Strike’. He hated the British ruling class, but ‘he adored Scotland and Wales far more than most English people do and so was far more pro-British than many of them’.
I felt that Ed Miliband, in his reply in the Mail to its attack on his father, had played the paper’s game too much by relying on his wartime service in the Royal Navy and his gratitude to Britain for giving him refuge from the Nazis as evidence of his love for this country. He did not indicate what he actually liked about Britain after it became his home. What was it about life here that appealed to him? Even his friend and fellow Marxist immigrant Eric Hobsbawm, whom the Mail condemned even more harshly than Miliband as a Britain-hater, waxed lyrical in his memoirs about his rented cottage in Wales and about Britain’s ‘astonishingly lovely and varied landscape’.