The invention of the nation state is closely related to the development of democracy. Photo: PA

Don't sneer at patrotism—Brexit is rooted in the ground beneath our feet

Despite the international scaremongering campaign around Brexit, loyalty to where we're born is what creates the space for democracy
September 11, 2017

Whatever criticisms might be made of Theresa May, she clearly has an eye for a good turn of phrase and has already provided several entries into the dictionary of political quotation. One drew particular attention: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” For these words she was met with a hailstorm of criticism.

But she is right. Citizenship is a legal relationship consisting of rights and duties between the individual and a particular state. Diogenes, two and half thousand years ago, styled himself “Citizen of the World,” but the phrase makes sense only as a metaphor, emphasising our common humanity and feelings for our fellow human beings.

The PM’s remark struck a chord. Self-styled “citizens of the world” irritate, because the claim conveys an aura of superiority: “my cosmopolitanism is superior to your parochialism.” There is often an implication of xenophobia. Many intellectuals sneer at patriotism, and—sensing the word has a warm feeling to it—they substitute the more inflammatory “nationalism.” But patriotism, or loving one’s country, does not mean dislike of other countries. Loving the place where one was born—be it a village, city or country—is natural. If one substituted “society” for “country,” liberals would not criticise. But the idea of country is tangible, and invokes an instinctive sense of loyalty and obligation.

Oddly, in the eyes of pro-Europeans some nationalisms are less dangerous than others. Scottish nationalism is attacked as impractical, but until recently seldom on xenophobic grounds. This may have been because separatist movements in Europe are seen by the European Union as weakening the legitimacy of European nations. It is part of the European credo that not only is the Westphalian nation state a dangerous relic of a barbarous past but that it is incapable of solving global problems. Instead of co-ordination by governments, we must have “global governance” which takes power from national governments and gives it to bureaucracies, courts and transnational bodies responsible only to themselves. As a result, voters feel decision makers are no longer accountable.

The view that the nation state is out of date is largely confined to Europe. One never hears the claim from citizens of the United States, China or Russia. These are, admittedly, large countries. But one never hears south-east Asian or South American leaders arguing for the abandonment of national identity. In the Middle East, the problem is not that the nation state has been too strong, but that it never took root at all. Patriotism and nationalism are tainted in European minds because of past associations with fascism. Britain is fortunate in that its recent history is different, and while the country suffered in two world wars, we have not suffered the trauma of invasion in a thousand years.

Roger Scruton points out that “those who believe that the division of Europe into nations has been the primary cause of European wars should remember the devastating wars of religion that national loyalties finally brought to an end.” He further points out Nazism would not have been defeated without the national loyalty of the British people determined to defend their homeland.

One recognises why some European countries want to fuse their identity into a larger whole. But it is an open question whether an artificial construct like the EU can inspire the same loyalty as an individual country. There may be a European identity, but it is extremely shallow. Despite all the attempts to strengthen that identity, the EU remains unloved. As George Will has noticed “the EU has a flag no one salutes, an anthem no one sings, a president no one can name, and a parliament… no one wants to have power.” Will is mistaken on one point: the EU has three presidents no one can name.

Václav Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia, once predicted that nation states would become “administrative units.” Such a vision fits with Jean-Claude Juncker’s idea of a borderless Europe. But countries are more than administrative units, for which no one has any personal feeling. Nation states are no longer based on ethnicity, there are many multi-national states. Nor are they based solely on institutions, important as they are, but also on values, customs and a shared view of the past. Human customs are shaped by the ground below our feet. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote: “A Herefordshire apple is itself, and so is a Burgundy vine. We write our lines out of our bones and out of the soil our forefathers cultivated.”

The essential point about the nation state is that its invention has been closely related to the development of democracy. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. With its common bonds, it creates a sense of civil loyalty, internal cohesion and the space for democracy—because the common identity is more important than what temporarily divides at an election. To weaken the nation state is to weaken democracy. It is extremely difficult to operate democracy at a different level, as Juncker’s description of the European Parliament as “useless” illustrates.

The pull of the nation state is powerful, even if it has been weakened by globalised consumerism and technology. It has more life left in it than officials in Brussels recognise, and may well outlive the EU. The nation state is why many people in the UK voted for Brexit, despite the international scaremongering campaign on the other side. It is also why the British people will hold their nerve and see Brexit through to completion.