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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?


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You are most welcome here and thank you for the comment. Might I respectfully suggest that it would be useful to read a post before (as I hope you will again and often) you comment? Your points were refuted there before you even made them, so your comment rather tends to portray you (I hope, unfairly) as an example of the problem under discussion.


He doesn't have **any** pro-devolution friends, neighbours or colleagues, actually. He tells me he can't find anyone who admits to voting for it. He has ticked off quite a few neighbours by telling them they have no right to whinge about devolution when they couldn't be bothered to turn out to vote against it - thus allowing a minority to impose major constitutional change. What upsets him is the new tone of Welsh politics and the ever-present implication that somehow only nationalists/devolutionists are "properly" Welsh. I can sense something of that attitude in your comments, actually. If you know people so petty-minded as to shun their friends and neighbours for their views, I pity you.


"It seems that Welsh and Scottish nationalism is largely an expression of feelings about England."

Which is a classic example of Anglocentric thinking. It's just as stupid as saying, "It seems that British nationalism is largely an expression of feelings about France."

I believe in an independent Scotland because I'm proud to be a Scot, not because of any dislike of England.

Many unionists in England have trouble understanding that the Scottish sense of identity is not simply a dark mirror of Englishness where England is a central inverted component of that identity.


I’m curious about your father. Is he being shunned by friends, family, neighbours or colleagues for his anti-devolution views? What devolved policies does he particularly object to? It sounds a bit like sour grapes to me.


I live in Moscow, but I visit the UK a lot. I stand by Billy Connolly's assessment of the situation, as do other friends in Scotland.


"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."

What, apparent even in Moscow? Have you anything to back that statement up other than the vague assertion that your Welsh father, an opponent of devolution, feels 'unwelcome' in Wales?


For me nationalism is about nation not ethnicity; it is civic and territorial. Ethnic identity helped produce national identity, and so ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism are linked, but that is not to say the two are the same.

As an English nationalist I want self-determination for the people of England: English liberty and English sovereignty. It may be that we then choose union with Wales and Scotland, and them with us, in which case we will be a union of nations - a federation or confederation. Or we may choose 'independence' in so far as it exists.

It is the principle of national self-determination that defines nationalism.

Patriotism is different. Patriotism is loyalty and allegiance, or love. Patriotism is an emotional response (usually to the nation or the "fatherland", but it could be to the state or the crown). Nationalism is belief in the concept of "the nation". To be a nationalist does not imply any particular political point of view other than a belief in the nation as a fundamental organising principle in politics.

Gordon Brown tells you that he is a unionist. He is. But he is more than that, he is a unionist AND a British nationalist - Britain is his fundamental building block and he strives for British unity, Britishness informs everything he does.

I am a unionist and an English nationalist, I want English unity and English sovereignty, and then, if it is convenient, political union. The difference then, between me and Brown, is a matter of where sovereignty should lie and with whom. This difference might be explained by a difference in patriotic identification, but I don't think it's as simple as that because there's nothing stopping Gordon Brown from being patriotically Scottish and patriotically British, and nothing stopping me from being patriotically English and patriotically British. The political and territotial reality of government does not dictate the emotional response, but in order for good government is is usually better for government to reflect the emotional response (as it now does for Scotland and Wales but not England).

Samuel Johnson also said:

“Political institutions are formed upon the consideration of what will most frequently tend to the good of the whole, although now and then exceptions may occur. Thus it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused. And then, Sir, there is this consideration, that if the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system.”

In other words he was a nationalist. And although his “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” quote is commonly understood to be an attack on patriotism; it's not, it’s an observation on scoundrels and the emotions that they will manipulate in order to achieve their ends.

Kevyn Bodman

Other than at international rugby matches,and only rugby because I don't care about football, I don't attach much importance to being Welsh.I particularly enjoy seeing Wales beat England, of course. But I like them to beat Ireland too because the first International I ever went to was Wales v Ireland at the old Arms Park, when David Watkins and Mike Gibson were playing.
But that's only sport, and it used to be both intense and good-natured.
Have you heard the booing from the Welsh crowd lately? It didn't happen nearly so much in the years I used to go to matches.
There seems to be an aggression in the air now.

I am saddened by this.We're all mongrels, not pedigrees.There's been a huge amount of movement in and out of Wales over the centuries.

What does industrial South Wales have in common with the rural areas? Not that much, in my opinion.So to what extent does Wales have an important unity?
In answer to a question 'Where do you come from?' I always say South Wales. So do most of my friends from there. From North Wales people often also mention the geographical part too.West Wales, maybe not so much, but it's not unheard of.

I was in the Labour Party in the 1970s, the years of debate about devolution.
I was opposed to devolution for 2 main reasons:

it created a division between parts of the UK that I don't like

it created another layer of government, and I had started to understand by then that governments largely exist to interfere in people's lives.

Some 'comrades' I met, (yes, I sincerely used to regard them as comrades ) had ambitions to be elected to the Cardiff assembly.Some of these had, I suspect, thought they wouldn't be successful in finding a Westminster constituency and Cardiff was a fall-back position.
Then, if they got elected,as well enjoying the achievement of their personal ambition, they were going to DO things.
I'd rather governments did nothing.
The Welsh Assembly hasn't been a complete disaster, and Cardiff is a terrific city now.
But the unnecessary and unhelpful division between Wales and England still persists.
And there is no cure, now. We're stuffed, I fear.

john cramer

What is missing is that you haven't had a decent war. when the landing barges start building up over the water and the bombers appear overhead - you all will become rather patriotic.
Afganistan doesn't really count. No nearby broken buildings.


Nice post, with an apposite title

I live in Scotland and I don't want independence here - would like collaboration.

In a way it's also personal problem, in that my other half is a Nationalist, my parents, grandparents, brothers too and to top it off my uncle stood as an SNP candidate - all in all pretty much a nationalist family, and tonnes of pressure, but I just don't get it...

The more that I hear the arguments for independence the more I see through them; I fear division and further sub-division can never be progress, it's just a grand version of gang membership...

Have a good New Year Tom, may it bring you peace, wealth and health...

Clara x


I can identify with that post, and I think "The Dark Side" is a good title.

I'm an Irishman living in Scotland.

When I was a boy, I was enthusiastic about things Irish and Scottish, and would always support Ireland or Scotland when they played England at whatever sport. But even though I had no claim to be English at all, I would still support England against 'the outside world'.

Then came the troubles in Ireland, and I saw hatred for the English. In the 1980s I moved to Scotland, and have seen an anti-Englishness even among decent, enlightened, liberally minded people. I have seen the dark side, and I don't like it.

One result is that since devolution, I have started describing myself as British a lot more than I used to.

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