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Nationalism or patriotism? To start a debate about our future, let’s move on from the words of the past

25 Feb 2021 10 minute read
Wales from space. Picture by NASA

Richard Tunnicliffe

A few weeks ago Ifan Morgan Jones wrote an interesting article for this site arguing that Patriotism and Nationalism are the same thing and that we were all nationalists.

I felt I had to respond to it because it was one of those rare articles where I found I could agree with almost everything he said, yet vehemently disagree with the conclusions.

His contention was the nationalism and patriotism are at heart the same thing – in other words they are both nationalism but they are different kinds or nationalism. I am going to make a similar point is that I agree that nationalism and patriotism – and numerous other things – all come from the same source and are, at heart, the same feeling. Where I differ is allowing nationalism to claim to be the origin of all the others.

I personally took an interest in this idea after the Brexit referendum. I was repeatedly told we have decided and so that there should be no further argument. Our future is set and nobody should tell us otherwise.

A similar idea was at work in the referendum itself. Nobody should force us to do things that we don’t agree with. We must decide. OK. So why did Scotland, Northern Ireland, Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and London all have to leave the EU? They didn’t want to go. Ah, I was told, obviously it’s us as is a country, as a nation. We decided.

There’s quite an arrogant dismissal of the nationhood of Scotland and Wales in that statement; but in its arrogance, it does raise a very important question. Who is the “we” that people are talking about when they say we shouldn’t be told what to do or that we should decide. This expression of us against some other them was at the heart of Dr Jones’ argument and I think he is bang on there.


Every individual’s identity is many layered. Our position in our family, our education, our work, where we live – all of them define us. Which of those should be the basis of political organisation? Throughout history, virtually all have been tried. In the modern world with geographically distinct states, only those that can cover a particular area have lasted; but the other identities still exist.

But even being limited to geography, our identity, is many layered and political authority can be expressed at any one of those layers. No single identity can claim all authority – though that’s what nationalists do. They arrogantly claim that the level that they believe in is the only level that is valid. They claim that every other level is somehow wrong; but give no explanation or justification to that because they cannot. It’s an emotion – a passionate grasping at what is familiar just because it has been familiar to them. But it is not unique. The nation is not special. It is one of many identities.

That’s what nationalism does. It forces one layer of government and identity and says “this is it. Nothing else matters.” This is why nationalists struggle with the EU. Loyalty to a single identity is fundamental to them and so people who can expression affection and even loyalty to two identities are clearly traitors to the only one that they themselves hold dear.

I think this is born out of the conflict that drives nationalism. It is always struggling against those who seek to “subvert” it from below and they constantly worry that someone from above will do to them what they have done to other identities in their “nation”. This is why the Brexit nationalists were so scared of a potential European identity wiping out Britain. That unfounded fear was an admission of what they themselves have done.


Recognising that your community has its own history, culture and language isn’t nationalist. It’s recognising that there is a feeling of a community of people, a demos, exists and has a value to you and others.

Politics doesn’t automatically follow though. Wales has preserved a sense of a national demos despite being politically absorbed into England for over four centuries. Likewise, the political structure of England as a kingdom came from conquest in the 10th century and existed before there was any sense of an English demos.

Fundamentally, though, I think Dr Jones is right to make the point that every single time we talk about an Us and a Them – and we do it all the time – it’s an expression of a deep-rooted feeling we all have. It’s hardwired into how we see and relate to the world about us. But that is not nationalism, it is demosism – the feeling of belonging to a community.


I think this idea, that we all experience, is best explained by an example. A long time ago, I used to play rugby for my school. I wasn’t bad and so I was selected to go to the county trials with another player from my school. I didn’t get anywhere; but that wasn’t the experience that stuck with me from that day.

We all arrived at the changing rooms from many different schools – some arch rivals – and we changed in our little groups. It was silent, everyone watching the others a little suspiciously. Not the best atmosphere; but perhaps understandable. And then we went out on the pitch.

Now, we were put into teams and we played for a couple of hours. Teams were swapped and changed around with players being tried in different positions – all under the watchful eyes of the selectors. And then we went back to the changing rooms (decisions came over the following few days – though not to me). But the atmosphere afterwards was totally different.

It was raucous, friendly, friendlier, in fact. There was a camaraderie. Regardless of what happened, we’d all got through it, we’d all had a laugh (we liked the game or we wouldn’t have been there) and we felt like we were a team. We relived incidents we had played in, joked with people we barely knew before – and the defensive school groups of before largely forgotten.

We were now part of the county. Just as proud of our schools as we had been before; but we saw we could also be part of something else. We had a shared interest, shared skills and frankly spotty teenagers are pretty much the same the world over. We could see that and we lived it.

This was demosism. A sense of identity forged from where we came from and what we had experienced together; but functioning on many different levels. My identity was my school, my town, my county. If I had been good enough and gone on, my identity would have been a professional rugby team – arch rivals to others and yet whose players can all come together to play for their country.

This would be impossible if our identity wasn’t a complex many layered thing. Those layers and complexity is something we should rejoice in, cherish and resist all attempts by others to say you must belong to one group above all others, with us or against us, my country right or wrong.


Nationalism, however, has come to mean the narrow selfish expression of demosism at a national level, encapsulated so recently in the USA by the simple expression of ‘America First’. It is selfish, excluding, and ultimately harmful to that nation. It has also virtually nothing in common with the inclusive, tolerant, internationalist movements that now dominate in Scotland and are growing in Wales. They are a much different form of demosism, a community expression of diversity and cooperation rather than one of conflict and uniformity.

Patriotism is different and closer to that feeling – but perhaps that is not the ideal either. What these movements now represent is a modern inclusive ideal that didn’t – couldn’t – have existed before the current age. So the time might be right for a new word to describe a new movement.

I understand it’s tempting to try and reclaim a word, rebranding it for the modern age; but that is not going to change over two centuries of history. Rightly or wrongly, nationalism already has a definition derived from all that has been done in its name. Adding a word before it is not going to wipe that slate clean. More importantly, it is not going to stop your opponents using all that bad history as a stick to beat you with.

It’s like saying that you are a market socialist. You may well be someone who has a core of socialist values and yet also values the structure and benefits of a market economy. Nothing wrong with that; but when you try and make your case your opponents will just showcase the many failings of socialism and you won’t be heard by those key waverers you need to convince. By trying to co-opt an established expression, you just won’t get to make your case.

I don’t believe any attempt to use civic nationalism is just bad public relations and marketing (though anyone who wants to win a political debate has to be fully aware of the power and impact of both of those!), but I truly believe there is a real fundamental difference.

It’s time to move on

Nationalism is to pick one expression of demosism and exclude – even actively exterminate – all others. This was very much the story of the 19th century with the extinguishing of regional (though some would call them their own nations) expressions across the “nation” states of Europe. Deciding on one level and then insisting all other expressions must be subsumed to that, often painfully, that is nationalism.

To be proud of a community that you are a part of and to want to defend its identity is a natural feeling that we all have. That’s what President Biden does when he stands up in front of the American flag and says he is a patriot and is proud of his country; but is he nationalist?

No. Because the word has a specific meaning. Trump was. Biden is not. His identity comes from his state, from this religion, from his home town, from his country and even from him being a human being and recognising that others feel and suffer the same way around the world.

All of those feelings are expressions of demosism. Only one of them is expressed at a national level and even then it is not nationalism because he acknowledges and respects all the others. It is a key difference.

I think only by recognising the harm and pain that nationalism has done can we start to detach it from the natural demosist feeling we can all have about our own nations. And we can only start to debate the future if we move on from the words – and the destructive ideas they represented – of the past.

So for Wales to embrace its future, nationalism needs to die.

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