Journalist and author Ifan Morgan Jones wrote this piece for his blog, and was widely shared on social media. In it he argues that everyone’s a ‘nationalist’, and that the term can be construed as positive or negative, depending on your viewpoint.
I’m writing this post because ‘nationalist’ or ‘nat’ has become a stock insult with which to discredit an opponent when discussing the governance of the UK.
The accuser will usually contrast this ‘nationalism’ with his or her own ‘internationalism’ or even ‘patriotism’.
(This is a favourite tactic of Labour supporters when attacking the SNP or Plaid Cymru).
So let’s get this straight, as I plan on directing you to this post whenever this issue comes up in future: Yes, nationalism can be a bad thing, in the wrong hands. In the same way as say, the internet can be a bad thing, or glue. But neither are, in and of themselves, bad things.
Let’s imagine a country that is a fascist totalitarian dictatorship. A region within this blighted country decides they’ve had enough and declare an independent, democratic republic.
I don’t think anyone would argue that nationalism is a bad thing, in that case.
Let’s imagine that this democratic republic already exists, and that the totalitarian dictatorship is next door.
In that case, the breaking down of borders isn’t a particularly good idea.
Internationalists claim that the fewer borders the better! That’s great. But in practice everyone thinks that there need to be borders at some point.
For instance, you can be a European nationalist, but I’ve yet to see anyone claim that, say, Russia should be thrown into the mix, or that extending the EU past Turkey and into Iraq would be a good idea.
But even if someone did believe that, they would still be a nationalist.
If you have an opinion on the geography/institutions/culture of your nation, you are a nationalist.
So everyone is a nationalist.
If you prefer the status quo of a United Kingdom to one where Scotland is an independent country, then you are still a nationalist.
If you prefer that English rather than, say, Portuguese, continues to be the language of the state, you are a nationalist.
If you believe the UK is better run by Westminster than the French Assembly, you are a nationalist.
Supporting the status quo of things as they are in Britain today makes you a British nationalist.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with being a British nationalist, apart from the stigma associated with the word ‘nationalist’. It’s just a different point of view.
Most people recognise this and will often fall back on the old chestnut, ‘patriotism’.
Patriotism is just a nicer sounding version of nationalism, just like Public Relations sounds nicer than Propaganda.
It is often used by those who support the status quo in order to suggest that loyalty to the established order – ‘queen and country’ or ‘American values’ etc – is a good thing.
In many ways this can be just as harmful as misguided successional nationalism, because it encourages people to oppose change no matter what.
This false dichotomy between nationalism and patriotism means that – for instance – Donald Trump can be branded a ‘nationalist’ (a bad thing) while Hillary Clinton stands in front of several American flags while her supporters chant ‘USA! USA!’.
(I would like to note that I much prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, I’m just pointing out the irony here.)
It means that Labour can attack the SNP’s nationalism while their leader stands in front of a massive British flag at his party conference.
An inability to accept that there was such a thing as British nationalism meant that the media struggled for the words to describe what exactly was going on in the Brexit campaign.
Better to call a spade a spade.
While Plaid Cymru and the SNP are often called ‘nationalist’ parties, this only serves to distinguish them from the ‘normal’ British nationalism of the other parties. If the other parties seem less obsessed with national identity, it’s because they’re conserving the national identity of the country as it rather than attempting to change it.
If someone steps out of line, such as Corbyn refusing to meet the Queen or sing the national anthem, they’re pilloried.
So please, feel free to disagree with the person you’re arguing with on Twitter or Facebook about what form of government would best serve [insert country or region here].
But don’t use ‘nationalist’ as a trump card. Otherwise we may just have to retire that word and befuddle you by calling ourselves patriots, and then the English language would be one word poorer.
(This post was first published on Ifan Morgan Jones’ blog)