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  • Hannah McHugh

VE Day reflections: Patriotism is our defence against nationalism

As we mark the 75th year since the liberation of Europe from the threat of the nationalism of Nazi Germany, we are of course filled with national pride across the European nations for what was achieved in the name of liberty, and preservation of distinct cultural identities.

At what more meaningful and poignant time could this celebration arrive? We are reminded not only of how stoic citizens fought on the front lines for our public freedoms, but also of those who weathered the storms of war from their homes to win us the rich reward of freedom. Today’s patriotic reminder shows us what we can achieve as citizens.

However, what we must not forget, is that this patriotism can, if misinterpreted, become dangerously close to nationalism. Nationalism is the true enemy that we celebrate our liberation from. We must ask then: are we at risk of entrenching ourselves in a view of national pride that excludes our sense of obligation towards other nations? The UK Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer this week attracted criticism for claiming that the Labour Party ought to embrace patriotism. Indeed, a post on this website has warned against the dangers of the left losing its regard for our international obligations. However, patriotism is distinct from nationalism. Criticism of patriotism is misplaced.

Patriotism, properly understood, is in fact our first defence against nationalism. We have good reasons to adopt it in order to properly recognise both our national and international obligations.

Nationalism and patriotism, what’s the difference?

George Orwell, an author we so often turn to for warnings against the potential for state tyranny, is as good a place as any to start when addressing nationalism. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ he defines the concept:

"By 'nationalism' I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled 'good' or 'bad'. But secondly--and this is much more important--I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

There are many reasons why nationalism is attractive, and some facets of the concept may even be valuable. The use of nationalism in the anti-colonial struggle of India indeed united its people and acted as defence against British rule. However, what is specific to the type of unity that nationalism brings, is that it offers a way to be united against others. This was part of the justification of Nazism for its war on minorities and foreign nations. The defeat of this sentiment is to be remembered.

We live in a time of crisis. Nationalism is readily sold to us as the solution to the economic and social disaster which we face now and will ensue in coming months and years. However, we must not forget that an ideology which seeks to isolate nations and assert a cultural dominance is clearly dangerous. It was the very ideology from which we are now celebrating our liberation.

How then, is patriotism different? Can the concept, which is routed to our national identity, rescue this unity without incorporating a disdain for others?

Patriotism, by contrast to nationalism, represents a conception of citizenship that encompasses involvement in political life, political responsibility for the state, and public deliberation as to the nature of the public good. It instils in us a reason to value our national institutions, the machinery of our government, and gives us reason to be an active part of the operation of our nation. That is to say – patriotism gives us reasons to be active in contesting the way we are governed and in holding our state institutions to account. A key example of this in operation relates to minorities. Nationalism cannot accept cultural differences, while patriotism can protect them.

This enduring sense of civic virtue should extol a willingness to contribute to the public good and liberty in a particular state; ours.

Can we be patriotic and give due regard to the international arena?

If, as I have claimed and as we are reminded on VE Day, the risks of favouring a particular national identity are so great, does this mean that patriotism is a threat to internationalism? Does it demand that we give regard only to our own nation, and to the detriment of others? No. It asks that we direct our governments to fulfil their international obligations as well as their national ones.

It may well be true that at the global level, it is not possible to reproduce the practices, institutions and virtues essential to founding and maintaining nation states according to the values we share for good government. We share cultural links and are bound by a common history that cannot be replicated merely through legislative means or treaties between states.

However, exercising patriotism demands that we challenge our national governments. Citizens who embody patriotism are responsive. The idea of the ‘responsive republic’ is one that stresses the immediacy of political responsibility and the importance of providing both institutional processes of public deliberation and formal processes by which citizens can influence public affairs by directing and checking the power of the state.

We therefore have an obligation to resist the homogenising effects that a tyrannous majority could bring about. We must support and contest our national institutions, and at times this must be on the grounds of how these institutions are meeting their international obligations.

Today we are starkly reminded of our shared value of liberty, protection of cultural difference, and of our civil liberties such as freedom of speech. In this difficult period of pandemic, we are also reminded of how we value freedom of movement, our right to healthcare and of our need for a sufficient income. We are confronted by the extent to which our actions are intricately connected to others around the world. Our economies are dependent on the wellbeing of other nations. Our efforts to find a vaccine depend on international cooperation and effort. Realising these freedoms at home depends upon our international relationships and the successful functioning of other nations.

Indeed, these very sentiments arose 75 years ago in the wake of WW2 and led to the creation of the European Union and to the international cooperation that has secured for us much peace and prosperity. Models of cooperation not only invigorate our domestic economies, but also promote rights and provide citizens with new opportunities. The insight of the post-war era was that nations must support the stability of their neighbours, and that more can be achieved in harmony than in conflict. We must have strong relationships with our neighbours, else we will return to the risks of the past.

What does patriotism demand from us?

Patriotism gives us reason to uphold the common good. It demands that we contest our government in the name of what we find to be valuable. We ought to acknowledge our dependence on and obligations to other nations is an inherent part of protecting our own interests. In the aftermath of WW2, it was clear that without the upholding of values across borders, there could be no international stability. Without sharing some common standards, both economic and in terms of rights, we risk instability at home. We live in a global community of values. Our national values include concern for our neighbours.

Of course, this is a time for some welcome nostalgia; wartime songs and respect for our elders who acted so patriotically. It shows what we as citizens can achieve, and in this challenging period it is a necessary and welcome source of national strength and pride. However, we must not forget that nostalgia is a backward-looking notion. Patriotic citizens also look forward and continue to drive our government to represent us and to promote the common good.

Remembering that today is the day of Victory in Europe, we ought not to fall foul of the mistakes of the past and begin favouring the identity of our own nation in a way that damages how we value our neighbours. The risks of this political period are evident, and the lure of nationalism is rife.

Instead, as patriotic citizens, we should constantly challenge our own nation not to become like the nationalistic governments of the past. This is not an opportunity to consider ourselves as superior to our neighbours. It is a time to promote the protection of our national values.

*Photograph by Constance Teehan

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