England football supporters cannot help feeling patriotic. Many millions of us will cheer our team on tonight in its game against Uruguay.

British politicians shrink from sounding patriotic. They have forgotten how to express love of country, so turn to blander, less emotional subjects, and hope no one will notice.

But millions of people have noticed, and Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have set about harvesting their votes. When patriots are silent, nationalists prosper.

Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, insists it must learn once more to speak the language of patriotism:

“The rediscovery of patriotism is indeed crucial for the revival of Toryism which Disraeli defined as ‘love of country and an instinct for power’. There has been far too much talk about the eternal economic verities so successfully put into practice by Mrs Thatcher. There are no permanent economic features of Toryism. Everyone has forgotten that  Mrs T who worshipped Churchill with an adulation acquired in war-time Oxford was inspired by deep, simple patriotic faith. She was no intellectual harvester of great ideas. All her early speeches are about the glories of the British Empire and the wickedness of socialism/communism. One of Mrs T’s greatest tragedies is that she did not understand that the language of patriotism, if it is to be successfully employed by Tories, needs to bring a sense of fulfilment and purpose to Ulster and Scotland as well as to England and Wales. In her time the historic bonds between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists were broken, and the Party ceased to articulate the separate sense of Scottish nationhood which had made it the majority party north of the border. Today’s Tories have absolutely no recollection of how they once captured the authentic tones of the varying forms of patriotism in our country. If they had not forgotten so much history, the Union would today be rock-firm and UKIP nowhere. Immigrants would within a generation have come to express love for their new country if it had retained a proper understanding of the sources of its own patriotism.”

The debate about Britishness which has recently broken out is a belated attempt by the mainstream parties to fill the vacuum created by their neglect of patriotism. But it has been conducted as if an appeal to the head, conducted in the name of liberal principles, might be adequate.

As any footballer supporter can tell you, an appeal to the intellect is not sufficient. The heart must be engaged. We are talking here about love of country. Loyalty springs from deep affection: George Orwell defines patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people”. He suggests that nationalism, on the other hand, “is inseparable from the desire for power”.

The most patriotic country I have visited is the United States of America. This continent of immigrants is bound together by a common patriotism. The national flag is everywhere to be seen. Before every political rally, the national anthem is sung.

The other day, I chanced on a recording of a concert given by Vladimir Horovitz at the White House: he too plays The Star-Spangled Banner before proceeding to classical composers.

Americans venerate their history with a passion seldom found among the British. They have a constitution in which the ideals of their founding fathers remain present to them. Like the first American patriots, they are prepared to die in defence of freedom. Jefferson’s remark, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”, describes an attitude which endures. Washington may again and again betray the country, but the American people are still in love with America.

Such depth of feeling strikes many members of the British ruling class as a bit suspect. Patriotism was all very well in 1940, and for a long time after the Second World War, a politician would be accorded respect for having had “a good war”. Geoffrey Wheatcroft provides, in The Strange Death of Tory England, a lucid account of how unmilitary our ruling class was in the 19th century, and how this changed in the 20th:

“No prime minister from 1830 to 1940, between Wellington and Churchill, had ever worn uniform in the armed forces. By contrast, all four prime ministers between 1940 and 1963 had served in the Great War, and had held high political office in the world war of 1939-45. There were subsequently two prime ministers who had served in that war, Heath and Callaghan.”

This was a period when so many people had served in the armed forces that for most of the time, there was no need to be explicit about one’s patriotism. It was just there, in the things which everyone had in some way gone through. A shire Tory in her eighties said:

“All my generation are much more patriotic because we grew up as children in the war and we did feel very, very strongly that we were English, we were British, and we knew how many young men had been killed. That’s really why I mind so much about the armed forces.”

She recalled that in the 1950s, people still stood at the end of every cinema performance when the national anthem was played. But the period when such rituals were pervasive and natural is now quite clearly over. Our screens are no longer crowded with war films, and most children know next to nothing about the second world war. The D-Day commemorations which have just been held are the last at which considerable numbers of veterans will be present.

I was born in 1958, and as I grew up, would hear quite often the assertion by people in public life that some aspect or other of Britain was “the envy of the world”. This claim became less and less plausible: one suspected that whatever was being discussed might well be better done, or made, in Japan or Germany or America or France than in Britain. The 1970s were a period when the expression of patriotic pride became increasingly difficult.

The power cuts which occurred when Edward Heath took on the National Union of Mineworkers were, for a boy, enormously enjoyable, and sowed in me in a lifelong preference for candles over electric light. But one could not deny that all these strikes also seemed rather damaging. The Germans had Mercedes: we had British Leyland. To dwell on how well we had done in the war had the unhappy effect of reminding one that we had not done quite so well as our defeated enemies since that time, and had become a less powerful country. If patriotism relied too heavily on memories of the war, it started to seem rather old-fashioned.

Patriotism was still present in the British people: the Falklands War showed that. And Thatcher’s personal patriotism was unquestionable: she went about her reforms because she wanted us to become once more a great and vigorous nation. But our political class became far less adept at expressing a patriotism that included everyone. Thatcherite reforms required the destruction of obstructive trade unions and fuddy-duddy managements.

No politician quite managed to develop a new language of patriotism, which would express the love of country still felt by most people. Many people found it easier to hate Thatcher than to think how to express the things that still united us. Intellectuals tended to see in patriotism a dowdy, out-of-date and deplorably unintellectual emotion, which could all too easily prepare the way for warmongering (discredited by Wilfred Owen et al), xenophobia, racism and the worst kinds of nationalism.

As it happens, I entirely agree that patriotism can in the hands of the unscrupulous take very bad forms. Boswell was shocked when Johnson, aged 66, suddenly declared on Friday 7 April 1775: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  According to Boswell, the great man “did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest”.

Johnson had himself declared, in The Patriot, an essay “addressed to the electors of Great Britain” at the general election of 1774, that “no man can deserve a seat in Parliament who is not a Patriot”. He went on:

“A Patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in Parliament, has for himself neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.”

Johnson observed that “a man may have the external appearance of a Patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.” He warned of pretended Patriots who “hope to force their way to riches by virulence and invective”, and by “propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights and encroaching usurpation”. For in Johnson’s view,

“To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation is to suspend public happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.”

What, one wonders, would Johnson make of UKIP. Patriotic emotions can certainly be manipulated for low ends. Ken Minogue says of nationalism (in his book, Nationalism) that this entails “involvement in a fantasy, and those involved in a fantasy are liable to violent and unpredictable rage if the world fails to fit their dreams”. Those most susceptible to such nationalistic fantasies are “the outsiders, the alienated, the excluded”.

Ed Miliband has attempted, by speaking of One Nation, to suggest that he is a patriot. But he has conveyed no sense of why one might be happy to belong to this nation. David Cameron has recognised the need for a healthy patriotism. In his speech at Munich on multiculturalism he said that “instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone”. He added that “we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism”.

‘Muscular” is the Prime Minister’s adjective of choice when he wishes to convey a sense of moral purpose without specifying a morality. But patriotism is not a morality. It is a sense of pride in, love of and attachment to a locality: Orwell’s “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world”.

Oddly enough, the British politician who has been most successful at expressing this emotion is the Mayor of London. Boris Johnson, who today celebrates his 50th birthday, has reduced his message about London to the simple assertion that it is the greatest city in the world. Here is a sentiment to warm the cockles of every local patriot’s heart. It contains enough truth to be believable, avoids anything in the way of ideology and is marvellously inclusive: the indigenous Cockney and the immigrant who arrived last week from the other side of the world can find it equally uplifting.

If Boris did not himself give every sign of believing this, he would stand convicted of making an empty claim of the kind any politician might find convenient. But during the London Olympics, it became clear to a global audience that he really did believe these were the greatest games in the greatest city in the world. His local patriotism was one of the things that made him such an excellent host. He delighted in showing his city to visitors.

No national politician has managed in modern times to convey a British patriotism expansive enough to include both immigrants and the indigenous. It is a difficult thing, which relies as much upon instinct as on intellect. Managerial language about the global race does not meet the need. Nor do platitudes about Britishness. There is a rhetorical vacuum, which is one reason for the “sense of patriotic dispossession” which I found among UKIP voters. They feel they have lost their country, and they want someone who will give it back to them. The rest of us need someone who can give it back, without shutting out everyone else.