The vote for Brexit has regrettably unleashed some pretty unsavoury nationalist sentiments and downright racist incidents. And raw nationalism can be a very divisive and destructive force that can appeal to our baser natures. All countries are susceptible to it and such hateful nationalism needs to be robustly repudiated. Yet I feel that if we Brits can come to a more healthy sense of self acceptance as a nation, then we will be able to cope in a more humane and reasonable way with the very real issues of immigration in Britain that many Brexiteers are concerned about. Can we have a healthy national pride or patriotism rather than a toxic or fear based nationalism? Those of us on the Left especially need to grapple with this issue.
Listen to George
Patriotism and nationalism are not necessarily the same thing at all. Listen to what George has to say – and I mean Orwell not Osborne!
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. 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.”
Of course I must, as a caveat, note that the term ‘nationalism’ can and is used in different ways, and there are many nationalists who are not seeking power at the expense of other groups nor have any xenophobic attitude, in the way that Orwell suggested.
I feel that we actually need to rehabilitate patriotism, so that we can again allow ourselves to feel a certain pride in our country: that inclusive and multicultural Britain – that country which so many have struggled for so long to incrementally create its important values, laws and culture. Billy Bragg calls it progressive patriotism and he is a rare voice on the Left advocating it, since any kind of patriotism is anathema to the Left for obvious postcolonial reasons. Sensitive liberal Britons find it hard to come to any kind of acceptance and integration of British Empire history.
There’s of course more to the picture in regards to our current British national psyche. Long forged qualities such as fair play, human decency, tolerance and acceptance, have quietly informed the British over generations. Britain has a praiseworthy history of toleration and respect for human rights. Yet our recently increasing feeling of disconnection from any national historical narrative, along with increasing erosion of faith in government and civil institutions, is undermining this very positive legacy of ours. And what a nation forgets, it loses.
I’m OK, You’re OK
I’m not talking of that backward looking sense of identity and patriotism which abhors change and is fixated on keeping everything as it was (or was imagined to be) in the past. A positive sense of our own national identity can give sensitive Britons the confidence to not react out of post colonial guilt towards the subject of immigration, feeling that we have no moral right to restrict the influx of immigrants into Britain. We clearly can’t have uncontrolled immigration in a small crowded country, yet we can be confident enough in our identity to recognise the great invigoration and economic and cultural benefit continuously brought in by new immigrants. Also we can have the self confidence to assert the positive reasons for why we want and need some degree of integration of new immigrants. Knowing being British is not about race or blood but is elective and about hard won shared values gives us positive reason to want and expect a degree of integration without being at all racist. Social cohesion is a precious commodity which we need to safeguard and nurture, as it’s fragile and once lost, hard to regain. If we as British don’t respect ourselves and our nation, then we can’t expect new immigrants to respect us either. Lack of self respect in our British national psyche is much more likely to lead to unhealthy degrees of self chosen segregation in new immigrants.
A Healthier National Psyche
In one way, it is very simple. All I am really talking about is a healthy national sense of self acceptance; just like as an individual you would ideally want to be able to accept yourself fully, without hating or feeling embarrassed or guilty or avoiding whole chunks of yourself. Well, the same goes for a healthy national self sense; we need to accept and integrate our national history with all its dark shadows and great achievements, and move on.
Let me finish with another quote from Orwell to ponder upon:
“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.”