As a teenager I was sometimes asked if I saw myself as being of Irish or English nationality. I would reply that I was Anglo-Irish and, if the person I was talking to asked no further questions about my national identity, I would leave it at that.
But if they went on to inquire if that meant that I “was half English and half Irish,” I would politely say that it did not mean anything of the sort.
I would explain that the Anglo-Irish had been the dominant Protestant landowners and professional class during the last three centuries or so of British rule in Ireland. Their descendants, stripped of political and economic power, lived on there after independence. I would then take the questioner, who was by now probably a little aghast at this torrent of information and wishing that they had kept their mouth shut, on a rapid excursion through Irish history starting with the Norman invasion led by Strongbow in 1170.
I understood that the person who asked the question was hearing more about national identity and its complex origins in Ireland and England than they had bargained for. In my early twenties, I mentioned this to a friend who replied that “if you go around the world, saying that you are Anglo-Irish and explaining what that means, people will think that you are an even weirder sort of Englishman than they thought you were in the first place.”
I could see that this was true, but at the same time I was unsympathetic to anybody expecting over-simplistic answers to issues as complex as nationality, nationalism, national identity and national self-determination – questions which are among the main driving forces of modern history. They are so powerful because the nation state remains the primary focus of communal loyalty – something demonstrated decisively by the response worldwide to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of international co-operation when the chips were down has had destructive consequences and this has been the repeated pattern all over the world in the last two years.
The Brexit debate in Britain should have led to a more sophisticated approach to nationality, but discussion about it was scanty and generally shallow. Brexiteers tended to view their demand for self-determination as justified by British exceptionalism. They steered clear of analogies with independence movements in India, Ireland, Vietnam, Algeria, Mozambique – to name but a few (leave aside for a moment the degree to which Britain was really controlled by the EU and accept that many thought that this was so).
On occasion, surprising people would see the parallels between the demand for full control of their future by Ireland and England. Two years before Owen Paterson’s political career was destroyed by allegations of sleaze, he made a speech quoting with approval the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins who defended the peace treaty he had just signed with Britain in 1921. “In my opinion,” Collins told the Irish parliament, “it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.” Patterson argued that the proponents of Brexit were doing much the same thing as Collins in signing an imperfect treaty with the EU.
The comparison drew hoots of derision from commentators on the progressive end of the political spectrum who said that the situations in Ireland a century ago and Britain today were entirely different. Ireland was seeking freedom from imperial rule and Britain had by no means suffered the same degree of foreign repression. But the appeal of nationalist movements the world over has always been much the same. Justified or not, the drive for national self-determination remains one of the most powerful forces on the planet and it is political suicide not to recognise this.
The self-defeating mistake made by those opposed to Brexit – and by the opponents of populist nationalist regimes everywhere – is to treat nationalism as if it is a bad smell, hoping that it will go away if they ignore it for long enough. They allow leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi to pose as embattled patriots.
It is not enough to denounce those beating the nationalist tom-tom for making phoney promises about “Global Britain” and “Make America Great Again.” The priority should be not to deride the patriotic card with the aim of discrediting it, which seldom works, but to take it away from those who exploit it to their own advantage.
I have found it frustrating over the last decade to watch left-wingers and liberals in Britain and America cede defence of the nation to their enemies because they see nationalism as largely a mask for racism and imperialism. It certainly can be a vehicle for both, but they forget that as progressives they used to support national liberation movements in Vietnam and Algeria which were nationalist movements and the faces on the placards they carried during demonstrations were those of patriotic heroes.
The cutting edge of the political assault on Johnson and Trump should be that they are anti-patriots who, for all their bombast, make their countries weaker and not stronger. They betray the past as well as the present. A recent speech at Chatham House exalting Britain’s place in the world by the new foreign secretary Liz Truss is filled with jingoistic drivel that must make the original creators and supporters of the British Empire turn in their graves with embarrassment and contempt.
For good or ill, the basic building blocks of international cooperation are the nation states and the idea of a truly global response to anything has always been wishful thinking. But so too has the fantasy of Britain acting alone, since all the victories that the pseudo-patriots like to laud from the Hundred Years War to the Second World War would not have been won without alliances with other states.
Populist nationalist leaders are by their nature unpatriotic and damage their own countries since they depend on polarising their own societies by inflating threats at home and abroad. This approach remains potent, as is proved by the fact that Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are still political players despite their calamitous inability to cope with the pandemic which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and Brazilians.
Yet it is not enough to expose their incompetence or their inability to fulfil economic promises. Their opponents have been perplexed as to why these failures have not done more damage to demagogues who promised prosperity and have failed to deliver. Those responsible usually escape political punishment for their incapacity by demonising minorities or immigrants or by cooking up cultural wars.
The best and perhaps the only way to checkmate the populist nationalist regimes is not only to denounce them for wrapping themselves in the national flag, but to take it permanently away from them.