The Prospect editorial—Put out more flags

The power of nationalism is rivalled only by its danger
June 10, 2021

We learned this spring that a version of British Rail is coming back, but this time rebranded Great British Railways. This might sound like it signals a national nervous breakdown, but it has rarely been wise to bet against self-aggrandising patriotism. Time and again, history has shown that the nation trumps everything. Faith, social solidarity and revolutionary principles struggle to compete with the rallying power of the flag. Under assault from Nazi Germany, even Stalin felt obliged to tone down the Bolshevik rhetoric and turn up the talk of a Great Patriotic War. We might wonder at why the imagined communities of nations exert such a grip, but it’s pointless to deny that they do.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that flag-mania is back. As Chris Mullin explains, it is being enthusiastically led by a government in a newly nationalist mould—one that is proving unusually popular. I don’t know about you, but in my neck of the woods I’m now spotting a few more flagpoles popping up in gardens. But if history teaches us about the power of the flag, it also teaches the dangers. Once affection for your country hardens into nationalism, it is a short slide into chauvinism, intolerance and conflict. A defensive fixation on protecting “the nation” in the abstract can go hand-in-hand with an authoritarian attitude towards individual citizens. Hence Mullin fears we could be on a path towards a fresh referendum on withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights; and then, potentially, a second on restoring the death penalty.

That’s a few steps into the realm of speculation, but the dynamics of populist nationalism are hard to contain—even when, as Christian Davies explains in the context of Poland, its consequences become self-defeating. The dominant Law and Justice Party presents itself as the proud saviour of Poles against western decadence; and yet in undermining western institutions like the EU, it unwittingly sets Poland up to fall back into the grip of authoritarian Russia, which historically has hardly been its friend.

To see the specific dangers closer to home, we need to be precise about what nation we are talking about. For while English ministers demand that hospitals and town halls fly the Union flag, the dominant force in Scottish politics is a separatist civic nationalism. Even Wales, administratively integrated into England since the Tudors, is dancing to its own drum—decisively sticking with Labour in May’s elections, while the Conservatives cleaned up in most of England. As for Northern Ireland, Brexit has thrown open the question of its constitutional status: the new trade border in the Irish Sea has already led to grandstanding and tension between London, Dublin and Brussels, and Loyalist fury is bubbling over onto the streets.

Helen Thompson brings a distinct and challenging perspective to all of this. Looking back at the Brexit saga, she chides the liberal left for failing to grasp a fundamental requirement for popular consent in our constitutional settlement—she argues a referendum on Europe was bound to come in the end. Looking ahead, though, she thinks that English flag-wavers risk missing something similarly fundamental: namely, that it is now firmly established—if it were ever in doubt—that this right to constitutional consent applies separately to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people. Nationalists in England can dominate Westminster and win the legal authority to do what they like, but ultimately it’s only political legitimacy, which they sorely lack in the other nations, that can keep the UK together.

All of which suggests it is going to take some seriously deft politics to defy the nationalists, including by working across old party lines and especially with the withered ranks of Conservative anti-nationalists. Expulsions and Boris Johnson’s success in mopping up the Brexit Party vote have left liberal Tories cowed, but they haven’t entirely gone away. In the first days of June, their parliamentary stand on the most internationalist of issues—foreign aid—was shaping up to be their first test of strength against Johnson since he won his majority. Regardless of where that tussle ends, it is a reminder that not even the flag can forever smother other ideas.

PS. After five wonderful years running Prospect, I’ll be moving on from the editor’s chair later this year. I’ll become a fellow at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but will also remain closely involved with the magazine as a contributing editor. In the meantime, I’m working with our publisher as he picks a new editor from a stellar field. We’ll keep you, our readers, posted about Prospect’s exciting next chapter.