The patriot of Downing Street -- and others

To judge from the prime minister, the spirit of today's Britain was by no means foreshadowed by the wit of Alexander Pope two centuries before. ''A patriot,'' wrote Pope in his Epilogue to the Satires, ''is a fool in ev'ry age.''

Not so, retorts non-poet Margaret Thatch-er. Her feelings in this post-Falklands, economically depressed period are far more accurately caught by the 19th century's Edward Everett in his Mount Vernon Papers:

''In hard, doubtful, unprosperous, and dangerous times, the disinterested and patriotic find their way, . . . joyfully welcomed, to the control of affairs.''

For Mrs. Thatcher's supporters, this is a time to stand up and be unabashedly patriotic. They cheered the recent victory parade through the City of London and waved Union Jacks.

On the waterfront in Brighton, massed ranks of Tory conference delegates applauded vigorously when Foreign Secretary Francis Pym earnestly assured them that British troops had struck a powerful blow for democracy, human rights, and international order.

To the Tory rank and file, Mrs. Thatcher has acquired genuine star quality because of the Falklands. Five thousand rose as one to applaud, even to cheer, for six minutes and five seconds after she had finished invoking Britain's new patriotic pride and resolution. Heroic exploits have been recounted in citations accompanying 835 medals and other Falklands honors, about one in 33 of the 28, 000 or so who took part.

Indeed, an American might ask, and so what? Patriotism washes over every country. People love where they live. They like national anthems, flags, and brass bands. Alexander Pope, many would say, was simply wrong and Edward Everett was right.

Yet there are many people in this ancient, well-mannered, stable yet troubled country who do not wholly agree. For them, old-fashioned jingoistic patriotism is out of tune with the era of nuclear weapons and moral questioning. Some see patriotism as a historic source of unreasoning emotion that leads to war. Others disagreed with the Falklands operation itself, and regard Mrs. Thatcher's constant references to it as an effort to make political capital out of the flag.

Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the most celebrated turners to Christianity in recent times, brought dispproving letters while on a BBC Radio panel the other day. The Falk-lands, he said, had been one of the most ridiculous episodes in British history. It had made no real difference to the world situation.

While a number of listeners agreed, one said he had just been to Guyana which had heaved sighs of relief that strong British action had made it safer from powerful neighbors.

Yet disquiet runs deep in other Christian centers as well.

For instance, in the deanery of St. Paul's cathedral, tucked away in a sonnet square of green grass and trees in the shadow of the great Wren dome at the top of Ludgate Hill:

A tall, greying, wiry man whose face appeared on world television screens when he opened the wedding service of Prince Charles and Lady Diana last summer, Alan Brunskill Webster is in the British establishment (Oxford, former dean of Norwich Cathedral) but differs from it on ''the Falklands factor.''

When BBC interviewer Sir Robin Day asked bluntly why the hymn ''Onward Christian Soldiers'' was not sung at a post-Falklands service in St. Paul's, Webster replied that ''we were fighting other Christian soldiers'' - Argentine troops. They had felt patriotic as well.

Old-fashioned patriotism had seemed appropriate, Day said, on the bridge of a World War II warship. Yes, Webster replied, but he hoped that people were growing out of such things.

The dean is concerned with issues more important to him. His views are shared by others at the top of the Church of England.

''To many people,'' he said in a conversation the other day, ''the war was in a way irrelevant. They are more concerned with the real problems of the country: a sense of national unity whch needs to be found . . . the fact that 3 million people have no work- . . . finding new forms of industry . . . .

''People are looking for a new attitude towards life. They want a more internationally oriented country, one with a gentler, less competitive, more spiritual lifestyle. . . .''

Robert Runcie, the intellectual Archbishop of Canterbury, offended some by using the post-Falklands service at the end of July to attack the international arms trade, to condemn war itself (while recognizing the need for it in some cases), and to refuse to ''wheel up God to endorse some particular policy or attitude rather than another.''

Alexander Pope - or Edward Everett? Both? Or neither? Pope appeals to many who are young, and Everett to their elders.

Can individuals honor bravery on both sides while praying for no more war? Can - and should - individuals find a higher loyalty than attachment to a territorial unit on Earth?

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.