Nationalism has reinfected the world of late. Not patriotic love of country but nationalism, which looks down on other countries, its adherents deaf to evidence, embracing prejudice, exceptionalism and myths. Myths, of course, are convenient: their ‘truth’ cannot be challenged.
We see traits of this in prime minister Boris Johnson’s pursuit of Brexit. It is a nationalism that rests on nostalgia for an ideal past, but is too often one that is either gone for good or never existed. Adherents dislike ‘non-believers’ and especially foreigners. If, as the narrative goes, our nation is best, then all others are worse.
As a political campaigner one encounters the seeds of nationalism all too readily in our Sussex streets. Ill-found belief in an Anglo-Saxon Britain (or more often England) which stood alone and victorious against Nazism is commonplace and the foundation for exceptionalism.
In reality this country has a population built up from all parts of the world, commerce rooted in slavery and piracy, with military success built on the support of powerful allies.
Yet some self-proclaimed nationalists eschew such exceptionalism and see their quest as for a better nation: such as peoples who have been subject to colonisation.
Less than 100 years ago Irish nationalists wrested control of most of their land back from centuries of English occupation. Do we now see them as ‘nationalists’ or rather as good neighbours? In Spain, still a fledgling democracy, previously repressed peoples with ancient and honourable histories, such as Basques and Catalans, retain their national pride and desire for self-expression. Spain itself wants to develop anew as a nation, whilst within its boundaries are nationalists craving independence for what they regard as theirs.
Should we put the Scottish party which calls itself ‘Nationalist’, in the same category as the Fascists of 1920s Italy or Golden Dawn in Greece? Surely not. This is not a party which denigrates opposition or uses violence to win support. Its purpose is to restore democratic governance of Scotland to Scotland, severing domination by a distant UK government which has little interest in or empathy with Scots. These democratic nationalists represent their nation whereas aggressive nationalists so often betray theirs.
His ‘English’ nation
Back in Whitehall, the patriotism claimed by Johnson is revealing itself as aggressive nationalism. He is essentially an English nationalist with little knowledge of or empathy for the devolved parts of the Union. When he says ‘we’ shall be the greatest in the world, he means England, deploying nationalistic shorthand for superiority over ‘others’.
His centralising governance is increasingly undemocratic whilst ensuring that the apparent majority for independence in Scotland is thwarted. Like his role model Trump in the USA, Johnson belittles rather than debates opposition. He enacts laws, makes appointments and spends billions with scant regard to democratic processes, to strengthen his party rather than benefit the nation.
Two of the allies who together fought fascism in the 1940s are resurrecting the wrong sort of nationalism in countries which championed democracy. Roosevelt and Churchill must be turning in their graves, whilst in his, Sussex’s Tom Paine should be keeping a protective eye on the rights of us all.