Britain needs patriotism more than ever, writes Emma Barnett – after spending a week singing the US national anthem, flag-waving and wearing white gloves to tea with the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“These are for you,” she said in a thick Texan drawl, handing me a pair of white gloves adorned with one pearl button. I was to wear them in order to be “received” at the Texas Tea by the female president.
No, this wasn’t a parallel universe in which Hillary Clinton had become leader of the free world. I was at the 125th “continental congress” of the Daughters of the American Revolution where I was about to be received by its President General.
The DAR, as these 180,000 women are known, is a female-only lineage society which was set up over a century ago to preserve the memory of their ancestors who fought in the American War of Independence. To join, you must be able to prove direct descent from a patriot. It’s no mean feat; I watched women scouring record books in the DAR’s impressive genealogy library frantically searching for more patriots to add to their family tree (well you do receive a DAR gold brooch for each one).
Every year, nearly 4,000 women descend upon the DAR’s colonnaded headquarters, a stone’s throw from the White House, in their finery. If they’ve managed to scale the organisation’s sweet but highly bureaucratic hierarchy, they’ll be wearing blue and white sashes. I’d flown out to learn more about this intriguing organisation for a BBC Radio 4 documentary.
Come evening, the women aged between 18-39, known as “pages”, don white wedding-style dresses and long gloves to carry American flags onto the stage where they join their elder “sisters”. The national anthem is sung and the American pledge proudly proclaimed by thousands of women with fisted arms across their chests; a huge American flag drops down from the ceiling to a soundtrack of whoops. It’s exactly the kind of behaviour that normally brings us Brits out in hives.
They’re the WI on steroids – with less jam, more diamonds and a focus on patriotism, the armed forces, community volunteering, and preservation of the past through education, ceremonies and monuments, and fundraising.
But it is not without its detractors due to some racist incidents in its past – most notably when Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in protest after the DAR stopped black opera singer Marion Anderson from performing in 1939. Such horrifying and deeply regrettable moments live long in the collective memory – but there is now a smattering of black members.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but their open patriotism is admirable and something we British lack. Still recovering from the National Socialism of World War Two, we feel panicky about anything approximating a mass rally with flags, with people pledging allegiance. But at a time when some people in the UK feel more allegiance with a cult in the Middle East than with their own country, we have never needed patriotism more.
But we also need someone other than David Cameron to articulate it. He is preparing a speech to expand on his idea that state multiculturalism has failed. But it will fall on deaf ears, just as his attempt in Munich did four years ago.
Unlike the Americans, we Britons don’t respect the office of the Prime Minister and pledge allegiance regardless of who holds it. The only person we feel like that about, myself included, is the Queen – who is prevented from making any such pronouncements.
So we lack a respectable mouthpiece to articulate this modern day vision of what it means to British. And yet we require this bigger sense of ourselves to feel bound as one. The way we treat our military is a case in point. On the flight home I was sitting with some of our injured armed forces.
These British veterans, some missing limbs, had been competing in America’s Warrior Games. When the pilot announced their presence, it was the American passengers who led the very un-British applause. These veterans told me how touched they were by the stream of Americans who came up to them throughout their trip simply to say: “Thank you for your service.”
George Orwell wrote of the Left: ‘’England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’’
However, this peculiar self-loathing has spread across the political spectrum. It’s high-time for the UK to own its identity with pride. We don’t need to do it in white gloves while saluting the flag, but do it all the same we must.
Client: The Telegraph