Patriotism is Liberal, Johnson's nationalism is not
By Rob Davidson | Thu May 13 2021
Since Brexiters told the country to BeLEAVE in Britain there has been a strong line on a particular type of patriotism in British politics. Boris Johnson has exemplified this as Prime Minister and Labour, in desperation to win back the 'Red Wall' constituencies, has attempted to 'embrace the flag' and to match Johnson's brand of patriotism. Liberals on the other hand are known for internationalism, welcoming migrants and eschewing borders in a bid to find a way to connect and work with our fellow man/woman no matter where they were born. But, does that mean Liberals can't be patriots?
At its heart, patriotism stems from a shared experience, shared values and shared priorities that we naturally develop when we grow up together, work alongside each other and live, love and die together. It's the stuff of trades unions, co-operatives and ... Liberalism.
Liberals are well known for 'localism': saying that power should be devolved to nations within the UK but then also further down to counties, towns, workplaces and ultimately the individual. This Liberal ideology recognises that the shared experiences, values and priorities of people who live, love and work beside each other mean that they are the most suited to decide their own future.
It's also true that we believe in bringing power closer to the people for greater empowerment (of the people) and accountability (of those in power) but the idea that decisions should be made by smaller groupings that share a common identity is the natural extension of our original belief that the best person to decide their own fate is the individual.
The bastardisation of Liberal Patriotism happens when inequality becomes too great. Inequality breaks the idea of a shared experience, shared values and shared priorities: it breaks the bonds that unite us and leaves us with elites demanding borders that have no social meaning beyond power and control.
This is why Liberalism is left wing: our patriotism, localism and individualism believe in growing freedom but it must be shared fairly. Inequality must be kept in check otherwise we break the value in localism and in patriotism because the bonds of shared experience are also broken.
Samuel Johnson (creator of the first dictionary) once said that 'patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel' and his biographer tells us that he meant 'false patriotism'.
False patriotism is peddled by people who accept and even pursue inequality. When they promote patriotism, they use borders that represent their own power, not the local bonds that unite people.
When we build a patriotism out of some lines drawn on a map, rather than the bonds between people, then we are verging into nationalism.
Where 'patriotism' is a term linked to defending a home or even fighting for freedom for oneself and one's fellow 'compatriots,' nationalism is the belief that ones country is de facto better than others, should be considered higher than others and is a kind of excessive, aggressive patriotism. Patriotism is about uniting for a common good, nationalism is about promoting an abstract concept that separates us from others. Patriotism is about bonds, nationalism is about borders.
Patriotism as a form of localism, allows for links between groups where that is beneficial. We might share the closest bonds with our family or neighbours but we also share some experiences, values and priorities with people in the next town, the next county or even the other side of the world. Liberal Patriotism sees the benefit in devolving power to the town council but also pooling power with the European Union or United Nations.
Nationalism on the other hand, obsesses over borders, flags and divisions - the symbols of the ruling class' power, the icons of us vs them.
Scotland is a case in point. The people of Scotland appear on the whole, like many in other regions, to believe that inequality has increased across the UK and that they have lost the shared experience, values and priorities that may have once defined 'Britain.' Boris Johnson has responded to say that he will deny Scotland a vote on independence as he 'defends the Union', but why? Not because he feels like we should reduce inequality, share out power and find our way back to a shared experience that could underpin a true, Liberal British Patriotism but because the larger border of the United Kingdom enhances his standing in the world, his political power, and his personal legacy.
Johnson is promoting an aggressive nationalism. He is promoting the idea that it's not our bonds that are important but our borders and our flags, the symbols of his power. This is the fake patriotism that Samuel Johnson was talking about and Johnson is the scoundrel.
Liberals, as patriots and believers in localism, could take a 3rd road in that example, offering to devolve more powers to Scotland and also diminish Westminster's power (and de facto raising Scotland's relative standing) by devolving Scotland-level powers to English regions. Federalising the UK has been a long-standing Liberal goal and is in keeping with both patriotism and localism. We can increase the freedom of self-determination amongst groups with stronger local bonds and identities while keeping some of the links that allow us to cooperate and coordinate to a common and greater good.
But as ever, our values and ideologies are being damaged because the right-wing are dominating the conversation, framing the debate and defining the terms. Johnson is promoting nationalism and calling it patriotism, Liberals are shunning nationalism and with it, Liberal Patriotism. To the public, Liberals look like anti-patriots and Johnson looks like the only one who understands how the everyday person feels.
Liberals need to stand up for Liberal Patriotism, localism and the bonds that unite us. We might best do that when we call out the self-centred nationalism and divisions that Johnson employs. Patriotism is Liberal, Johnson's nationalism is not.
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