The nation's trust
Octavia Hill was a patriot. Not — it has to be said — an enthusiastic flag waver but a different, more holistic kind of nationalist. ‘Patriotism’, she observed to her friend Mary Harris, in 1858, ‘is much misunderstood nowadays; it is thought to mean love of one’s country, and so it does, but it does not mean disliking other countries.’
She believed in community, in mutual responsibilities and bonds, in the national family — and her anti-statist, anti- dependency approach to issues as varied as social housing and poverty both fed her patriotism and were symptoms of it. Octavia Hill believed that family was a starting point for a wider and deeper love of our neighbours, our communities and eventually our country. She saw patriotism as a journey — one that’s product, if properly fulfilled, was both a fuller and more altruistic life:
'I believe that one must always work from the known and strong up to the unknown and weak. We must seize as most precious the vague memories of loved ones, the feelings that have bound us in families, and strive to strengthen them, and then work upwards.'
And she was right in her hunch about patriotism. Or, at least, she was articulating then what British people feel now — ahead of her time on the crucial question of national sentiment every bit as much as she was on welfare.
Our work on patriotism at Demos — published in a recent report, A Place for Pride — highlights too the role that Octavia Hill’s passions still have in firing a very British love of country. Not only does patriotic feeling make people more responsive, more engaged and more altruistic but it is these very facets of British society — our charity, our volunteerism and our generosity — that inspire pride among British people.
A majority of British people believe that greater pride in your country leads to more positive behaviours, reflecting accurately the evidence that they do. What is more, British people argue articulately — when asked to explain their pride in Britain — that it is our volunteerism and our diverse, effective charitable sector that are what make this country special. We have one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world and it is this capacity to give of ourselves that most stirs British nationalism.
The sense that our culture of mutual responsibility and generosity makes Britain great and is the source of our patriotism was borne out in our polling and amplifies the deep and profound resonance that Octavia Hill’s beliefs about nation and patriotism have in the present, and the similarities between her beliefs and our modern national character.
We polled over 2,000 representative British people to find out what institutions and symbols make them proud — beating the Queen, the pound, the Union Jack, the NHS and the BBC was the National Trust. Here we see modern British patriotism in its truest form — British people holding up an institution built on volunteerism and charity, our common history being kept alive by communities as one of the most popular and most strongly felt sources of our pride in our country. And, of course, this is Octavia Hill’s legacy writ large — not simply in the theoretical sphere of her philosophy but in the practice of her inheritance.
In 1885 it was Octavia Hill, along with her friends Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley, who founded the National Trust. Their founding motto ‘for ever, for everyone’ goes to the heart of what patriotic feeling can be at its best — a sense of responsibility and love beyond family, neighbour or class; a need to act on behalf of others; a universalism born from the particularity of nation.
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill the patriot', the eighth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.