Earlier this month Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, the British newspaper which has been publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations of state spying revelations by the NSA and GCHQ, was quizzed by the Home Affairs select committee. At one point its chair, Keith Vaz, asked Rusbridger: “Do you love this country?” Immediately I heard this question, I was reminded of the reaction to The Sex Pistols’ release of God Save The Queen in the run up to the monarch’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The band’s singer, Johnny Rotten, had received a barrage of criticism from everyone from the tabloid press, the Christian right and conservative record company executives, which resulted in violent attacks on Rotten himself in London. He said that his composition had been wildly misinterpreted and misunderstood and he had written it not because he despised Britain or its people but quite the opposite, it was written because he loved them and was ‘fed up with them being mistreated’.
Vaz’s question, in the context of publishing a series of articles critical of state behaviour, raises some serious questions about patriotism and democracy, and what it means to love one’s country. Rusbridger admitted his surprise at such a question, and answered adeptly: “Yes, we are patriots and one of 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.” Rumours swirled around Westminster that Vaz’s fellow Labour committee member, David Winnick, was upset at his line of questioning, whilst Tories Michael Ellis and Mark Reckless (born to be a Tory with a surname like that!) regarded the patriotism question as a potential ‘knockout blow’. Hugh Muir correctly reported in the Guardian on 13 December that the view held by Rusbridger and his newspaper of what constitutes patriotism and the national interest clearly differs from the view taken by their critics.
David Cameron appears content to allow the police investigation into whether the Guardian broke section 58A of the Terrorism Act to run its course, and seems to think this will provide an answer to the question of whether Rusbridger loves his country. But as Peter Preston claimed in the Observer on 8 December: “Loving your country means knowing its history too.”
Britain has a long history of individuals and groups who sought to uphold democracy and the national interest in the face of establishment accusations of treachery and disloyalty. In 1381 the Reverend John Ball defended the landless peasants in their struggle to resist the punitive landowners’ poll tax during the Peasants’ Revolt. So controversial was Ball that he became known as the ‘hedgerow priest’ as no bishop would allocate him a parish, so he roamed the countryside and gave sermons defending the poor and proclaiming that God created all humans equal. Predictably his ideas were branded as seditious and he was shunned by the establishment as a trouble-maker until finally he was hung, drawn and quartered.
From Tom Paine’s Rights of Man to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ struggle in 1833 for trade union recognition and beyond, groups and individuals who questioned the actions of the establishment have repeatedly been slurred as perpetuating unpatriotic and dangerous ideas. More recently, when Clive Ponting leaked information about the sinking of the General Belgrano by the British fleet during the 1982 Falklands War, the then government clamoured for ‘justice’, citing a breach of the Official Secrets Act, and the right-wing media painted Ponting as a traitor. However, he was acquitted in 1985 by a jury who saw his actions as being in the national interest. This is exactly how Rusbridger views the actions of Edward Snowden.
In 2005 Tony Benn presented an episode of Big Ideas That Changed the World focusing on democracy, in which he stated that it was the duty of all citizens to “keep up the pressure for democratic control or you lose it. It is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. There is no final victory for democracy, it is always a struggle, time and time again you have to fight for it. And you have to fight for these rights collectively”.
True love of country is not mere flag-waving, mere blind support of whatever that country does; it is a belief in the best of what that country could and should be. The national interest isn’t the same thing as the self-interest of the establishment which runs the state, and so real patriotism sometimes involves standing up for things such as democracy, freedom of expression and the rights of weaker individuals against attempts by the current regime and state apparatus to pervert them. This is what Snowden and Rusbridger have done. Especially in the light of the recent award by former US security officers to Edward Snowden of the Sam Adams Award for integrity in intelligence and of the reviews of cyber-surveillance practice being carried out in the US in the light of his revelations, we can view Snowden’s actions in blowing the whistle on these practices of the NSA and GCHQ, and Rusbridger’s actions in publishing these revelations, as being those of true progressive patriots.