Jeremy Corbyn and eighteenth-century patriotism

This morning most of us can barely move for newspaper headlines slamming Jeremy Corbyn for staying silent during the national anthemn at the Battle of Britain memorial service yesterday. Of course it makes sense that Corbyn, a non-religious republican, might not want to sing something which goes completely against his convictions. Besides, if he had sung along he’d simply be called a hypocrite, a la privy council seat earlier this week.


Reactions to Corbyn were mixed, ranging from thoughtful musings on his pacifism and republicanism to “they should take him out and shoot him” (thank you once again, Daily Mail). Most, however, called his patriotism into question. How can he love our country if he refuses to sing our national anthem and support our queen? “Such behaviour,” the Express wrote, “cannot be tolerated by any honourable Briton”.

Perhaps we should take a little look at the history of British patriotism. What exactly did the term denote in former times?

The funny thing is that a lot of people in the eighteenth century would not see anti-royalist feelings as inconsistent with patriotism; indeed, quite the reverse. Historically patriotism did not mean adoration of the monarchy, the government, or even the British nation as a concept. To be a patriot was to support the people, and in particular those who had little or no power themselves. In the words of the historian John Dinwiddy,

“Eighteenth-century Patriotism implied in a more general way devotion to the welfare of the nation as a whole, the people at large, as distinct from devotion to the interests of the ruling few. It also involved a preoccupation with the dangers of corruption and arbitrary power”.(1)

Understandably, this would very often clash with the will of the monarch. William Pitt the Elder was known as ‘the Great Commoner’ and ‘the Patriot Minister’ because of his opposition to the policies of George II and the Prime Minister Robert Walpole. When Pitt accepted a title for his wife and a £3,000 annuity from George III to resign from government, most of the public were outraged. The patriot minister had abandoned the cause of the people, and the Great Commoner had become the Earl of Chatham.(2)

“His cherished title thus he gave, and of the Patriot made a Slave” – satire on Pitt (1766), © The Trustees of the British Museum

John Wilkes was yet another eighteenth-century patriot enemy of the monarch.Wilkes opposed the heavier involvement of George III in government, and despised the King’s tutor-turned-Prime Minister Lord Bute. It was precisely Wilkes’ fervent opposition to the monarch and the government which made Wilkes such a patriot in the eyes of the people:

“John Wilkes was hailed as ‘the Father of his Country; the English David; the Beloved Patriot; the Martyr of Liberty’ for championing individual Britons’ political and legal rights against the encroachments of the state”. (3)

As the editor for the radical newspaper The North Briton, Wilkes was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for seditious libel after his paper attacked the King’s speech opening parliament in 1763. Wilkes effectively accused the King of corruption, lamenting that the crown had ‘sunk even to prostitution’.

But Wilkes was hailed by the common people as a patriot, standing against corruption and arbitrary power even whilst outrageously insulting the monarch. A print from 1771 shows him receiving petitions of support in the Tower of London (even though he wasn’t in the tower at this particular point).

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The lines of verse beneath the print display the contemporary definition of patriotism:

“Thus Ancient Britons, gen’rous, bold & free,
Untaught at Court to bend the supple Knee,
Corruption’s Shrine with honest Pride disdain
And only bow to Freedom’s Patriot Train.”

Eighteenth-century British patriots did not sycophantically kow tow to a monarch; they would support the constitutional monarchy, but oppose attempts to enforce royal prerogative. Above all else, patriotism as an ideal supported the people.

When the American Revolutionaries styled themselves ‘The Patriots’ in the 1770s, there is no doubt that they were referring to this form of patriotism. They did not mean patriotism in the modern, nationalist sense, but instead the patriotism of British citizens seeking to assert their rights and liberties against arbitrary power.(4)

Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism, it seems, fits much more comfortably into the historical definition of the word. Even his opponents would agree that Corbyn has struck a chord with a large section of society who oppose austerity. His supporters view him as a political leader who is championing their cause against the systematic extension of poverty through cuts, low wages and rising house prices. In this sense then he is a patriot in the historical sense of the term, a politician on the side of the ordinary, downtrodden people.  Today, however, we have a much greater tendency to wrap our ideas of patriotism inside symbols and figureheads, and overlook the fact that the nation is the people.


  1. John Dinwiddy, ‘England’, in Otto Dann and John Dinwiddy (eds.),
    Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution, (London, 1988), p.55
  2. Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics and English Society 1695-1855, (London, 2000), p.148
  3. Linda Colley, ‘Radical patriotism in eighteenth century England’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.) Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity, volume 1: History and Politics, (London, 1989), p.170. Of course, this does lead to interesting questions about state power and patriotism. It should be remembered, however, that the majority of people in the eighteenth century were disenfranchised, and therefore the state did not embody the democratic power of the people.
  4. Jack P. Greene, ‘Identity and Independence’ in Jack P. Greene & J. R. Pole (eds), A Companion to the American Revolution, (Oxford, 2000), pp.230-234

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