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Patriotism -vs- Nationalism - Part 3: The Dark Side

John Bull and Boney

Patriotism has been out of fashion in Britain since I was a young man. The British Empire confused matters horribly. To be proud of our nation was somehow thought to approve its role in establishing the biggest empire in history. It became essential for "right-minded" individuals to disassociate themselves from that. As humans will, we overdid it. We lost sight of more important things.

We can quite reasonably take pride in our cultural heritage, our science, our legal system, our contributions to the history of thought and our role in the industrial revolution, for example. We have never needed to justify the British Empire though, in passing, we have rather less cause for shame than our European rivals of the imperial age.

For most of my life, if I heard someone express pride in our country, it was essentially negative. It was not pro-Britain, but anti-somewhere else. In my view that is not patriotism at all. I can happily stand up for my country to a patriotic French friend who mocks it. We will remain friends - cheerfully winding each other up - because each knows there is, in truth, much to respect and admire in the other's country.

Which brings me to my central point. Patriotism, while of course it can be "the last refuge of a scoundrel,"  need not be negative.  Nationalism cannot - in my experience - be anything else. It may not be too great an overstatement to characterise nationalism as a perversion of patriotism. So how can we distinguish between the two?

I mentioned in the first post that "I was also once a patriotic Welshman." In the sense I am trying to explain here, I still am. For reasons to be blogged about another time, I am fairly sure that my family was not only in Wales, but in the same place in Wales, at the time of the Norman Conquest and probably long before. For years, I corrected everyone who called me English. When I lived in Warsaw, I taught numerous Poles the word "Waliczyk" because they had called me an "Anglik." I taught my workmates in Warsaw the Welsh national anthem, and delighted at the surprise of English friends when a Polish colleague sang it in Welsh at a rugby match.

So why, with all this Welsh heritage and erstwhile enthusiam, does the heading of my blog describe me as "an English expatriate in Moscow?" When, as a boy, I wanted Wales to beat England at rugby or football, that was not because I hated England. My affection for Wales was akin to that of a Lancastrian for Lancashire. After all, my mother was English. Both my grandmothers were English. In fact, genealogical research suggested that every woman in my family tree was English. It seems mine was a tribe that raided England for its livestock and its women. Partly due to my ancestors' endeavours, the English and the Welsh (just like the Scots, the Irish and the English) are so commingled that it is ridiculous to distinguish them on ethnic grounds. In her book, "The Matter of Wales", Jan Morris acknowledged as much. She said the only way you can tell if you are Welsh is if you have a sense of "cymreictod" (i.e. "Welshness"). I used to have cymreictod, but nationalism killed it and I have no smidgin of hiraeth for my loss.

The rise of the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland and the cynical harnessing of nationalist feelings by the Labour government, has made anti-English feelings more and more apparent. These feelings have nothing to do with patriotism. It seems that Welsh and Scottish nationalism is largely an expression of feelings about England. Of course, this is not unique. Talk history in a Polish bar and it will not be many wodki before you hear an anti-Russian or anti-German sentiment. But with skill and effort, one can convince a Polish patriot that Russia and Germany have given much of value to the world.

Billy Connolly, who has famously ridiculed "the wee pretendy parliament" at Holyrood expressed my view entirely, when he spoke of the SNP;

"It's entirely their fault, this new racism in Scotland, this anti-Englishness. It was a music hall joke before - you know, like Yorkshire v Lancashire or Glasgow v Edinburgh. But there's a viciousness to it now that I really loathe and it is their fault entirely."

I don't throw the word "racist" around as casually as Connolly. Still, he is right that devolution has stirred hatreds. Enthusiasts like Jan Morris (again) claim

As Wales has found a new measure of political independence, so its sense of self has flourished too. God knows not every Welsh citizen has welcomed devolution, but there is no denying that Welshness has been boosted by the advent of a national assembly. If anything, the new Wales is now more sure of its identity than England over the border, where the feeling of unity seems to be sparked only by wars, football matches or royal occasions.

Yet, to others, post-devolution Wales and Scotland seem less friendly places. My own father can trace his Welsh heritage farther than many a nationalist. Since devolution (which he devoutly opposed) he has commented that for the first time in his life he feels unwelcome in Wales. He has even contemplated moving over the border. It seems ludicrous to me that people with so much in common, so much shared history and culture, should be in such a position.

I love Wales, but I love England, Scotland and Ireland too. The whole British archipelago feels like home to me and people who want to put borders around this or that island or peninsula are not racists, but trivialists. They have as loose a grasp of history as those who, watching the scene in Braveheart where the Bruce confronts Longshanks in a cathedral, fail to understand that - though the actors use modern accents to portray a gallant Scot and a wicked Englishman - both were Norman Lords. They spoke French to each other. They valued their cattle more highly than their armies of natives. Their disputes were not national, but feudal and to interpret them in modern terms is ridiculous.

If a Scot wants to celebrate his literature, his landscape or his whisky, I will drink with him with pleasure. If he wants to toast William Wallace, I will raise a glass to a fine man and a worthy foe in a long-forgotten conflict. As soon as he expresses his hatred of modern sassenachs, however, he can drink on his own. Nor will I drink again (as I am ashamed to admit I did in my youth) to the Welsh toast of "Twll din bob sais." For as long as English patriotism is neither understood nor respected in Scotland and Wales, there can be no real Welsh or Scottish patriotism. If Wales and Scotland have to become truly independent in order to find the self-esteem to be patriots, then I wish them luck. Perhaps, when they have found it, we can rejoin the trend to bring the human race together, rather than obsess about imaginary differences?

Patriotism and nationalism are as close on the emotional spectrum as love and hate. The difference between them is just as important and (though hard to define) just as obvious when it is encountered in real life. I know which I prefer, in both cases.

The previous posts in this short series can be found here:

Part 1: A complicated subject

Part 2: Virtue or vice?