In Defence of Nationalism

30 Jun 2015

 Image: Creative Commons


In response to Calum Henderson:!Let’s-be-free-of-flags-they-only-divide-us/crhk/55893c470cf2ef0f9289b7f5


‘Imagine there’s no countries,

It isn’t hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for,

And no religion too.

Imagine all the people,

Living life in peace.’


John Lennon, Imagine (1971)


It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in April in the quiet, charming Aberdeenshire town of Inverurie in Scotland’s northeast. I’m standing on somebody’s doorstep in a close just off the central square with its tidy war memorial and majestic civic hall. I ring the doorbell, firmly but just once. It’s been a relatively successful day campaigning in the Gordon constituency and it looks like the local SNP candidate, former First Minister Alex Salmond no less, is going to take the seat by storm in May’s UK General Election. Having received much positive feedback on the doorstep, we’re just about done for the day – and I can’t wait to rest my feet, which are beginning to ache from pounding street after street.


The door opens, revealing an old man in shirt and trousers moving slowly and awkwardly, leaning heavily on a thick wooden stick for support. I’m not really the biggest fan of door-to-door canvassing. I know that it’s an indispensible part of any winning electoral strategy in this country, but I always feel a little uncomfortable – and sometimes a little nervous – knocking on strangers’ doors and abruptly asking questions about politics. But I believe in the cause, the candidate and the party, so I swallow my doubts and do my best. I start my friendly, cheerful spiel and try to introduce myself. But the old man I’ve disturbed just stares back, eyes open wide. He cuts me off and charges into an angry rant calling me a ‘fascist’ and a ‘Nazi’. Feeling more than a little uncomfortable, I begin to leave, making sure to thank him for his time and wish him a nice weekend. As I leave, he says, wielding his stick and gesticulating furiously: ‘You’d better – or I’ll kick you down those stairs myself’.


Now, if you’re a party activist of any stripe, aspects of this little anecdote will be quite familiar. All active members of political parties come across some rather strange, angry people who aren’t especially happy to see you – although most people are polite and civil. However, this particular incident did somewhat take me aback. This man, probably old enough to have lived through the Second World War the Nazis caused, was somehow convinced that the SNP and the Nazis, nationalism and Nazism, were one and the same. As the only major UK political party which loudly and unequivocally supports immigration and even calls for more, this is a rather curious allegation – and yet many people still make it. So where does this sort of absurd thinking come from?


Like religion, there is no problem for which nationalism has not been blamed. Pious metropolitan intellectuals – the kind of people who like to call themselves ‘citizen of the world’ and think that the inane, well-intentioned lyrics of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ constitute a serious, revolutionary political manifesto – are especially guilty of this. They think, crudely, that if only there were no countries, that if only nationalism could be consigned to the barbaric medieval abyss from whence it came, war and injustice and division could be vanquished once and for all. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Ooooh, woo-hoooo.


Which brings me to Calum Henderson’s thought-provoking debut article recently published here on Backbench – ‘Let’s be free of flags; they only divide us’. Of course, it was far more sober and cogent an argument than that of the angry old man in Inverurie – and thankfully he spared us any clichéd Hitler references. Nevertheless, Henderson argued, channelling the spirit of Yoko Ono’s other half, that nationalism causes much of the world’s problems and perpetuates false divisions, writing that ‘there is a fine line between patriotism and its ugly sister, nationalism’. For Henderson, nationalism is a danger to be reviled and renounced. Whereas feeling proud of your country is fine, feeling proud enough of it to believe it capable of controlling its own affairs is just too far.


This kind of rhetoric – in which nationalism as an ideology is casually, unthinkingly vilified – is deeply embedded within our political culture. The n-word is used as an insult by the SNP’s most bitter, ill-informed critics to suggest parochialism, chauvinism and racism. So ingrained is this spurious claim, so profoundly misunderstood is the ideology, that even many SNP members and pro-independence Scots go out of their way to dissociate themselves from it, refusing to call themselves nationalists. Last year’s independence debate was littered with Yes voters saying ‘I’m not a nationalist, but...’ The n-word has become something of a taboo, even within proudly pro-independence circles. Absurdly, and somewhat tragically, it has become little more than shorthand for the evils of Nazism.


This is unfortunate, because the real meaning of nationalism is nothing to be ashamed of – and is actually quite simple. Nationalism is a fundamentally progressive, democratic creed. It is the idea that all nations have the right to self-determination; that nations are better governed when they govern themselves. Nationalism, ergo, is the precise opposite of the Nazis’ Darwinian ideology which suggested that larger, militarily strong nations have the right to invade, pillage, colonise and commit genocide against smaller, weaker nations. Nationalism dictates that Poland and Czechoslovakia had the right to exist independently in 1930s Europe; imperialism dictates that Adolf Hitler had every right to coercively absorb them into an expansionary German state. Nationalism demands self-government; imperialism tolerates colonisation. Nationalism implies equality and sovereignty among nations; imperialism creates hierarchy and domination.


If you believe that the UK should be governed by those who live here (wherever they come from) rather than people who live in France or the Federated States of Micronesia, then I’m afraid you’re a (British) nationalist. If you believe that the UK was right to give America, Ghana, India, Egypt, Canada and all the other various nations it colonised their independence, then you’re a nationalist. If you believe that Ukraine has the right to choose to ally itself with the EU, NATO and the West regardless of what Moscow wants, then you’re a nationalist. But don’t worry, you’re in good company – Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Simon Bolivar, Woodrow Wilson and George Washington were all nationalists, because they believed in a world of equal, democratic and independent nation-states as now enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.


Another great nationalist thinker and practitioner of yesteryear was Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the leaders of Europe’s failed 1848 democratic revolutions and Italy’s successful unification movement, the Risorgimento. For Mazzini, nationalism was not merely an end in itself, but a means to secure a democratic republic with universal male and female suffrage. He believed in government of, by and for the people. Democracy, national self-determination and social justice were, for him, inextricably linked. As Professor David Rowley of the University of Wisconsin writes, ‘Mazzini was a nationalist because he was a democrat’. 


The liberal, civic nationalism of the SNP – which proclaims that all nations are capable of self-government and that all people of all ethnicities are welcome in Scotland – echoes Mazzini’s vision of a Europe populated by social democratic nation-states. It is not dangerous or divisive and could not be more unlike the evils of Nazi imperialism. Nationalism, properly understood, underpins the world we live in today and provides the basis for greater democracy and less war.


The SNP wants for Scotland only that which every other self-respecting, self-governing nation on earth from Armenia to America already has. What’s so ugly about that?


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