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Is Nationalism Dangerous?

On Wednesday, Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham vowed to “fight nationalism”, describing the ideology as a “dead-end towards separation and conflict”, and mentioning UKIP as an example of its supposed rise. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that line of argument. The day after the 2015 General Election, Paddy Ashdown described UKIP’s nationalism as “dangerous”, and Gordon Brown made similar remarks when questioned about UKIP’s potential role in the Scottish referendum ‘No’ campaign. But what does it really mean to describe UKIP as ‘nationalist’? And why do some believe that such nationalism might be dangerous?

Wikipedia defines nationalism, with typical vagueness, as “a shared group feeling in the significance of a geographical and sometimes demographic region seeking independence for its culture and/or ethnicity that holds that group together”. Wikipedia thus implies that nationalism is a visceral rather than intellectual doctrine. Merriam-Webster is a little clearer, but still imprecise; it defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests”. So again, no reference to any real ideological principles is made.

The problem with these attempts to define ‘nationalism’ is that the word does not refer to any single ideology, but rather to a collection of different, totally incompatible belief systems whose only similarity is their focus on the concept of a ‘nation’. Trying to pass judgment on nationalism as a whole is like trying to pass judgment on ‘liberalism’, an ideology whose adherents supposedly range from John Locke to John Rawls to John Kerry. A meaningful distinction can be made however between the ‘ethnic’ and ‘civil’ strands of nationalism.

Ethnic nationalism is basically racism. I know I’m glossing a tad here; perhaps I should apologise to any ethnic nationalists who hold a more nuanced view, but it is difficult to interpret the ideology in a non-racist way. Ethnic nationalists see a nation as a group united by shared ancestry, or by “the law of blood” as they call it. An ethnic nationalist might believe, for example, that what makes a person British is the supposed purity of their descent from the Anglo-Saxons (which in practice usually means “being white”). The BNP, who until a few years ago prohibited non-white membership, are ethnic nationalists.

Civic nationalism on the other hand sees a nation as a group of people united by their choice (the notion of choice is key here) to live in a society, and to share the same broad cultural values. Civic nationalism is explicitly opposed to any form of racism or xenophobia. Under the civic nationalist interpretation, a British person is anyone who chooses to live in Britain and to abide by fundamental British values, regardless of their ancestral or geographical origins. UKIP has long self-identified as civic nationalist, and I imagine the majority of Britons would do the same if they sat down and thought about it.

Can a case be made that either of these strands is dangerous? For the ethnic strand, I definitely think so, although it depends how the ideology is used. A persecuted ethnic group for example might adopt ethnic nationalism as a way to fight against their subjugation under another ethnic group. Kurdish nationalism is an instance of this. Provided the Kurds take a non-aggressive attitude towards friendly groups, their desire for an ethnic homeland is not especially problematic. Kurdish nationalism is certainly a world away from the desire of the Nazis to take over Western Europe, unite the ‘Aryans’ (whoever they are), whilst exterminating various other groups for no reason other than baseless paranoia.

Is civic nationalism dangerous? I think it depends on the particular values it upholds. UKIP’s civic nationalism appeals to traditional British values: democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of contract, freedom of religion, private property—the values that have made Britain one of the freest countries in the world for the last thousand years. Politically, UKIP opposes this civic nationalism to the illiberal technocracy of the European Union, the morally relativist multiculturalism of the modern Left, and the medieval savagery of radical Islamists. Far from dangerous, the remnants of this nationalism are the last thing preventing the UK from becoming a mere region of a United States of Europe. Perhaps however, that’s exactly what Mr Burnham wants.

Internationalists dream of a world without nationalities, a world where the nation state has become either irrelevant or ceased to exist. How they’re going to achieve such a world without riding roughshod over parliamentary democracy remains to be seen (or perhaps not). Either way, given that we do still live in a Europe of nation state democracies, it might, just perhaps, be a good idea to have some kind of ideology that binds the people of each nation state together and prevents civil society from collapsing into strife.

When people call nationalism dangerous, the response should be: “dangerous to what?” UKIP’s nationalism is certainly not dangerous to British democracy. If it’s dangerous to EU federalism, then I’d say that’s hardly a count against it either.

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9 Comments on Is Nationalism Dangerous?

  1. Perhaps we can find our way through the smoke and mirrors created by those using the language of the Socialist International.
    When Andy Burnham ‘vows to fight nationalism’ describing it as a ‘dead-end towards separation and conflict’ we should ask what he means by ‘nationalism’ rather than asking what nationalism means.
    Socialists don’t like the word patriotism because criticising someone for being patriotic opens them up for a counter-criticism that might include the word ‘traitor’. In its place they use ‘nationalism’.
    Just think how we would react to ‘vows to fight patriotism’!
    And yet the meaning of words nationalism and patriotism are similar, close enough for him to get away with saying something outrageous without sounding outrageous. Instead we are left feeling somehow offended but not knowing exactly why.
    It also sets us up for the next bit.
    If we are under attack and forced to defend ourselves or our country, then of course it may involve conflict. But his weasel words turn this around leaving the impression that standing up for what’s right will be the cause of the conflict and if it does it will all be our fault. In this warped view the attacker is blameless.
    And separation? From the EU? I’m all for it!
    Readers of this might also be interested in “Why are Socialists different to everyone else?”
    Vote Leave
    Let’s put the Great back into Britain.

    • Absolutely right, Michael. It is typical of a Socialist such as Burnham to make sweeping statements and demonise a word (in this case, ‘nationalism’) to create a simplistic and simple-minded equation:
      nationalism = bad; internationalism = good

      What he’s really attacking is patriotism or love of one’s country and people, a feeling that very few, if any, Socialists experience or understand. It didn’t figure on their Sociology course at uni, whereas an uncritical admiration of Marx & Engels did. I know of what I speak, having been taught at university by self-avowed Marxists who saw everything through the spectrum of that 19th century gentleman’s writings.

  2. This is a brave attempt to get to grips with the complex issue of ‘nationalism’, but the separation of ‘ethnic nationalism’ and ‘civic nationalism’ is too neat, too cut and dried. Why would anyone in Britain define themselves by descent from Anglo-Saxons? Not even the BNP did that: they specified Britain as belonging to the four nations: English, Welsh, Scots and Irish. That means inclusion of people of Celtic, Roman, Norman, and Scandinavian origin as well as Anglo-Saxon. The Welsh might even prefer to see themselves as Ancient Britons. Over centuries, these peoples have inter-bred to the extent that it would take a massive DNA research programme to retrace their origins and the evidence of intermingling. I have known English, Welsh and Irish ancestry; my younger son has Scottish too.
    All of these nations have one thing in common: unsurprisingly, being inhabitants of northwest Europe, they are white-skinned. The majority, if not all, of this white-skinned population is inter-related; therefore, they are a family. If I choose to put my concern for my ethnic family’s survival and well being above consideration for any other ethnic group, that does not make me a ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense in which this word is invariably used.
    Is the wish of the Kurds, the Hungarians, the Pathans of India or any other ethnic group, to see the survival of their race ‘racist’? No, it is pure human nature and does not carry with it any wish to harm others or take over other people’s living space. Rather, it stems from a determination to prevent other groups, especially those whose culture is incompatible with ours, to usurp the country that is our birthright and heritage. The Native Americans realised too late that the incomers did not wish to share their land, but to steal it.

    • Following on from my comment above, I wish to add that there is much to be said for supporting ‘civic nationalism’. If people come here willing to integrate, obey our laws and respect the fact that native Britons have made this country what it is through centuries of suffering, struggle, trial and error and blood-y sacrifice, then fine. They had better love this country more than I do, though, and never complain or demand that things should be changed to suit them. They have another home to go to if they don’t like it here, but I have none.

  3. The fact that Burnham, Ashdown and Brown have spoken out against UKIP should be taken as a compliment and an indication that UKIP is doing the right things.

  4. Good thoughts, but I don’t think the distinction between your two nationalisms is quite as clear cut as you suggest. You emphasise that civic nationalism is based on choice. I’m not sure I would describe myself as a nationalist at all, but my strong personal identification with my country is not something I’ve chosen. It just happened, because I grew up in Britain and from the earliest age was surrounded by things British. It’s not something inherited by blood, it’s a cultural inheritance. I think many if not most UKIP members would say the same. What about you?

  5. The nation that is Great Britain provides a target for millions of migrants…Why ? Because it is a stable society that has developed to the point where most third world people see it as some kind of Shangri La…I am proud of my nation and have no problem with others coming to share in that wonderful achievement…I do not accept the Muslim practice of isolationism from our culture while reaping the rewards it provides..They are not welcome under any circumstances.

  6. Very good points. Our nationhood is what binds us, or the peoples of any other nation, together. These nations have evolved over centuries for good reason, and our bien pensant leaders are simply sneering at something they don’t understand. Nationality has been a huge force for good in human history, promoting shared experience, common goals and driving competition to the benefit of us all. Where nationalism has a bad name, particularly in the 20th century, there’s usually some other corrosive political ideology at work.

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