Patriotism and nationalism


For the last few weeks, patriotism has been on show. During Wimbledon we had an unusually good performance by the Brits. Although we lost Andy Murray early on due to his metal hips, Dan Evans, a player from Solihull, did very well in the opening rounds. And then there was 18 year old Emma Raducanu, born in Toronto of a Chinese mother and a Romanian father, but living here since 2004.  Granted her success in getting through to the fourth round as a wild card entry, although previously unknown, she was instantly adopted by almost all the country as a true Brit. Of course when she had to withdraw in the next round, Piers Morgan, that bastion of Britishness, said that she should “man up!” It’s nice to have such a well thought-out suggestion from an expert in the field.

And then there was the football. There have been so many flags on display and so much excitement, but also dread at the thought of losing, particularly to Germany by way of penalties: the curse of the penalty shoot-out. And of course all was well, with England actually beating Germany without the need for a penalties. Cue great celebrations and talk of Gareth Southgate becoming Sir Gareth if they won the final against Italy.

But, of course, they didn’t. Which means that football is not “coming home” any time soon (whatever that means), and that Gareth will remain Gareth.
Before the match the Italian ambassador had already said that perhaps football, being his country’s national sport, had already moved house!

But it’s all a bit of a shame, because here we encounter the unforgiving nature of many sports, and particularly football. You have to win. From a field of 24 teams, even getting what would be the silver medal, if we were talking about the Olympics, is just not enough. Of course, the Scots were delighted at the defeat and, if I am typical of the Welsh, then we simply don’t care. But England went into deep mourning.

Although the St George’s flag has been billowing during the football, it is difficult to know what it has been saying. Its message will no doubt have varied from person to person. Many waving their flags will say that they were just being patriotic. Others will say of those doing the waving that they were engaging in nationalism, because the English flag was always associated with the hard right.

Patriotism and nationalism tend to be easily confused and treated as one. But fortunately we have George Orwell in his essay Notes on Nationalism to explain the difference to us. He makes it clear that nationalism has nothing to do with nationhood. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Although they tend to be used interchangeably, one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved.

Orwell said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean 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. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” It’s a clear and simple distinction. Patriotism is primarily a feeling, Orwell implies, hence its nature as a simple urge to defend, to preserve what we have. Nationalism seeks something more. It is desirous of power and prestige.

He noted that Germany and Japan were the most obvious examples of nationalism in World War II. However, in the essay he complains that the word 'nationalism' fails to fully capture the meaning of the attitude he is trying to describe. It is a mental habit which is now so widespread and which 'influences our thinking on almost every subject, but which has not yet been given a name'.

Orwell uses the word 'nationalism' 'only for want of a better one'. What he means is that a nationalist is one who thinks exclusively, or primarily, in terms of competitive prestige. He can be a positive or negative nationalist - that is, he can use his mental energy either in promoting or denigrating. But the important thing is that his thoughts always focus on victories and defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and fall of the great powers, and every event that happens is a demonstration that his side is on the rise and some hated rival is on the decline.

Nationalism, Orwell makes clear, has nothing to do with nation-states. At its heart, in his view, is political fanaticism, a deep tribalism. The nationalist does not simply align himself with the stronger side. On the contrary, having chosen his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his conviction even when the facts are largely against him. Nationalism is hunger for power, tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but is also unshakably certain of being right - because he is aware that he is serving something greater than himself. He states that his definition of nationalism includes 'movements and tendencies such as communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and pacifism'. There is little doubt that Orwell, were he alive today, would add Transgenderism and Trumpism to this list.

Orwell however is not the only writer to come to grips with patriotism and nationalism. Boswell’s diary 7 April 1775, recording the wisdom and works of Samuel Johnson, tells us:
‘Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apothegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he 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.’ 
We’ve seen this attempt at self-interest even more over the period since Brexit came to the fore. There has been an attempt to justify Brexit by saying how much better Britain will be in acting on its own, rather than as part of the EU. But this is not patriotism; it is outright nationalism as defined by Orwell. Or as I would prefer to characterise it, outright lying.

Here though I have to confess that I do not generally feel particularly patriotic. Yes, I feel relatively at ease in the United Kingdom, but I cannot say that I find it easy to feel a great love for my country. I feel relatively at ease here, because I understand how to act as someone who is British. I do not feel the same degree of ease when I am in France, because I do not have that intimate knowledge of what is expected by society, but I feel more at ease in France than in America.

We are not though, on the whole, a particularly patriotic country. Displaying patriotic fervour, other than at football matches, is not something which comes naturally to us as a nation, which is perhaps why I feel relatively comfortable here. Indeed, that other occasion for patriotism, the Last night of the Proms, when I take part and we sing all the usual jingoistic songs, does not normally lead to riots or demonstrations in the streets. It’s all a bit of fun, a time when we mouth these strange songs
but without taking much notice of what we’re singing. Perhaps this is as well really, bearing in mind the militaristic nature of our national anthem and the colonialist nature of that other favourite ‘Jerusalem’.  And of course we're delighted to see a wide variety of flags from so many other countries being waved by members of the audience who've come from far away in order to enjoy what is a world famous evening.

Perhaps then we just have to hope that very divisive Brexit motivated nationalism will gradually die down and be replaced instead by our normal British form of patriotism - a bit lukewarm: rather like our tea.

Paul Buckingham

12 July 2021

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