The Student on Nationalism: a changing and contested idea

Nationalism. A word that means a lot of different things to different people. For some, nationalism is the inspirational promise of liberation from an occupying, tyrannical force. For others, nationalism is seen as the most egregious political philosophy of them all, chiefly responsible for the two most devastating wars in human history. Whatever your view of nationalism, however, what is undeniable is that it is as an ideology that has become immeasurably more popular in recent years. 

The most egregious act of nationalism over the last week, and the event which sparked this editorial, came from the most unlikely of sources: the European Union. The bloc threatened to stop the flow of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine from Europe to Britain, attempted to divert supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine away from Britain and were tempted to invoke article 16 of the Brexit agreement to, in effect, create a hard border on the island of Ireland — something which only months ago had been an EU red line in Brexit negotiations. Emmanuel Macron then claimed, without evidence, that the UK developed AstraZeneca vaccine was “almost ineffective” on over-65s. 

Key EU figures – chiefly Macron and Ursula von der Leyen – undoubtedly were indulging in an ugly ‘vaccine nationalism’, something the WHO has said is one of the biggest issues confronting a successful global immunisation against Covid-19. It was such a surprise to see the body, which was set up to de-escalate tensions between European countries and had done so so successfully in the post-war period, was in this instance the source of the inflammation and tension. Having been embarrassed by the way the UK government has acted over the course of the Brexit negotiations, the EU this week showed that Boris Johnson’s administration does not have a monopoly on stupidity. 

What is somewhat surprising, however, is how far this conflictual form of nationalism is from the hopes of the modern founders of nationalism. As the brilliant recent BBC programme hosted by Simon Schama, The Romantics and Us, will inform you, nationalism has its origins as a progressive, liberal movement that was forcefully opposed by Europe’s ruling classes in the early 19th century. It was only as that century progressed, and when the ruling classes saw the potential power in these ideas, that nationalism was hijacked and contorted so that a sense of national superiority could be used to justify imperial domination and expansion. 

Of course nationalism is not a solely European phenomenon. It is on the rise it seems in almost every corner of the globe. The nationalism seen in India and China, though, is of particular concern due to the two powers likely playing a leading role in the story of the 21st century. In India, the ruling Bharatia Janata Party employs a Hindu nationalism which questions the citizenship and the extent to which the country’s near 200 million Muslims really belong. In China, things are even worse with the Uighurs of Xianjing being subjected to “patriotic re-education” — a phrase so comically Orwellian one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

In light of this troublesome history, then, should we really be nationalists? I think it is a question and an ideology that elicits a very different response depending where one is from, especially in the UK. If you’re from England you’re likely to associate nationalism with Tommy Robinson, Brexit and Rule Britannia; however, if you’re from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on the other hand, nationalism likely means something very different, something far more progressive. 

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be part of something bigger than oneself — a key theme of nationalism. Indeed, the need to feel unity with others is the most human of desires. However, as I have outlined, that noble wish to identify with others of the same country has often been hijacked into hatred of those outside one’s borders and minorities within those borders.

If romantic nationalist ideals once again descend into jingoism then the world will become a much more unstable and dangerous place to live. Love of one’s country does not have to mean hatred of outsiders, and ensuring that this is the ideal that prevails will be key to humanity not repeating the horrors of the past. 

Illustration: Hannah Robinson