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.