For years nationalism has been synonymous with the far right. But Will Hazell believes a firmer sense of Britishness could help make us a more tolerant society.
If asked to consider the word “nationalism”, most people would probably conjure up images of fascism and hatred. Human history is rich with obvious indicators of nationalism’s tendency to promote disunity and violence. But is this what nationalism is about?
We cannot claim that a modern globalised world has made nationalism irrelevant – an odd thing given that the English are some of the most rootless people on the planet. Unless you spend your time supping ale at folk festivals, it is unlikely that our ancestral songs and stories have a place in your life. Other than wry mentions of tea and queuing, it’s arguable that our national sentiment lacks a healthy output.
This confusion means that nationalism often appears in its most ugly form – and misplaced pride can just as easily ally itself to crude chauvinism. This is more than just unpleasant, it causes the vast majority of the population to oppose any sentiment vaguely nationalistic. What we need is a cultural progression that allows England (and Britain) to participate in a multicultural world, while still retaining a strong sense of self.
For this to happen, patriotism has to be torn away from its link with reactionary conservatism. For too long national pride has been the dominion of the right, characterised by flag waving and dreary militarism. In his 1940 essay ‘My Country Right or Left’ George Orwell wrote: “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.”
A modern example of this is the current Scottish National Party – a good natured, self-confident nationalism that sits happily alongside centre-left politics. England doesn’t have an equivalent political force because there isn’t an obvious influence to resist: the SNP can position itself as a Scottish entity separate from Westminster, while English nationalism itself has no obvious place to push. Consequently, some choose to aggressively fight Islam, others the European Union, but neither two possess the ability to truly hold sway over England’s cultural trajectory. The real threat to our cultural make up is that of our closest ally – the United States of America.
The idea of going without the vast quantity of culture imported across the Atlantic is absurd. However, we do require a stronger sense that these are cultural influences from a country with a different history and outlook. There is no need for shallow anti-Americanism, instead a wider acknowledgement of British identity separate from the United States.
A week ago, I asked people around Portland Building if they recognised the names of various historical figures, half British and half American. Abraham Lincoln was recognised by every participant and Franklin D. Roosevelt by 90%. In comparison, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was noted by 30% and Clement Atlee by only 15%. This isn’t an issue that requires protests in the street, but it goes some way to demonstrating just how large America’s shadow is.
If nationalism can be reclaimed from the reactionary quotient of society and a firmer sense of British identity constructed, then the gains could be substantial. At present, society is defined by division: the gap between the poor and the super-rich is increasing, the south dominates the north, black people are 28% more likely to be stopped by police than other races. This level of social fragmentation is at the heart of many of the problems we face today, a fact made worse by the absence of an apparent solution.
We are constantly being told that Britain is becoming a more hostile and unpleasant place. Dealing with Britain’s problems is no easy task, but the goodwill evident at points throughout this year could potentially enable us to move beyond ideological confrontation to a cultural landscape capable of dealing with the modern world. Over seventy years ago George Orwell wrote that we “cannot see the world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it.” He lived in a different world, but his words still ring true today.