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Patriotism and nationalism are the same thing – and yes, we’re all nationalists, including you

03 Feb 2021 7 minute read
Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon speak at press conferences. Which is the odd one out?

Ifan Morgan Jones

Labour’s decision to ’embrace the Union Jack’ in order to attempt to win back post-industrial ‘Red Wall’ seats lost to the Conservative in 2019 has prompted a familiar discussion online about the differences between patriotism and nationalism.

It is commonly held by those who embrace such ‘patriotism’ that it is something different to ‘nationalism’ – it’s being proud of your country, while nationalism is something altogether uglier and driven by hate of others.

In practice, however, patriotism is what people who prefer to use ‘nationalism’ as an insult against political opponents call their own nationalism.

This is a favourite tactic of Labour or Liberal supporters who want to contrast their own ‘natural pride in the UK’ with the ‘separatist’ nationalism of the SNP or Plaid Cymru, or the ‘make X great again’ ethnic nationalism of the Conservatives, Brexit Party or Trump.

This article is an argument that we should concede that in fact, it’s all nationalism – but there are different kinds of nationalism, such as civic and ethnic nationalism.

We should also recognise that nationalism is a constant in a world made up of nation-states, and until someone comes up with a different or better system that we are all, in actual fact, nationalists of one sort or another.


In fact, I’d go further and say the contrast between a healthy ‘patriotism’ on one hand and ‘nationalism’ on the other is itself a form of nationalism.

This is because there are many different kinds of nationalism – civic, ethnic, religious, linguistic – but what they all have in common is that they involve some contrast between an ‘us’ and an ‘other’.

To contrast the healthy patriotism of ‘us’ with the bad nationalism of ‘them’ is, itself, therefore, a kind of nationalism.

Clearly, this nationalism can be a bad thing, in the wrong hands, and frequently is. But nationalism is a tool. Just like a hammer, it’s good if used to build something positive, bad if used to whack someone over the head with.

Nationalism can be a good thing if it’s used to build a better, more equitable nation, bad if it’s used to unfairly exclude or persecute others.

Let me give an example of when nationalism can be a good thing: Imagine a country that is a fascist totalitarian dictatorship. A region within this dictatorship decides they’ve had enough and declare an independent, democratic republic based on civic, inclusive values.

Yes they’re ‘separatists’ but I don’t think anyone could say that in this case nationalism is being used for ill – they’re fighting for their freedom from tyrannical rule.

To give a less extreme example, nationalism can be used to build a better nation-state within one that isn’t working fairly or equitably.

This is what the national movements of Wales and Scotland claim to be doing. You may disagree with them – you may think they’re wrong, either wrong than they are escaping an unfair nation-state or wrong that they can build a better one – but their motivations, at least, aren’t in themselves ‘bad’.


I would also posit that those who claim to be internationalists to draw a distinction between themselves and the nationalists are actually nationalists themselves.

As I said, we live in a world of nation-states and everyone – if they have any political awareness – has an opinion on what the nature of those nation-states should be.

Even if you think the world should be ruled by one socialist government, that’s still an opinion on what kind of nation-state you want to live in.

But in practice, in the world of nation-states that we actually have, everyone thinks that there need to be borders at some point.

For instance, you can be a European nationalist, but I’ve yet to see anyone claim that, say, extending the EU past Russia into China would be a good idea.

But even if someone did believe that, they would still be a nationalist. If you have an opinion on the geography/institutions/culture of your nation, you are a nationalist.

So everyone with a passing interest in these subjects, even if that interest is only ignited when the subject comes up, is a nationalist.

Point of view

So what is generally meant by ‘patriot’ is something closer to ‘someone with no strong feelings about changing his own nation-state,’ which in turns usually means ‘someone quite happy with the status quo’.

If you prefer the status quo of the United Kingdom to one where Scotland is an independent country, then you are still a nationalist.

If you prefer that English rather than, say, Portuguese, continues to be the language of the state, you are a nationalist.

If you believe the UK is better run by Westminster than the French Assembly, you are a nationalist.

Supporting the status quo of things as they are in Britain today makes you a British nationalist. You are simply less agitated about it because the nation-state you have is already the one that you want.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with being a British nationalist, apart from the stigma associated with the word ‘nationalist’. It’s just a different point of view.

That doesn’t mean you’re an ethnic nationalist. You may well be happy to roll out the welcome mat for anyone who wants to move to your country. You just want to keep the UK’s nation’s borders and political institutions as they are.

That would come you a British civic nationalist.


So patriotism is ultimately just a nicer sounding version of nationalism, just like Public Relations sounds nicer than Propaganda.

It is often used by those who support the status quo in order to suggest that loyalty to the established order – ‘queen and country’ or ‘American values’ etc – is a good thing.

But in many ways, the nationalism of the status quo can be just as harmful as misguided secessional nationalism, because it can sustain unfair power structures beyond their sell by date.

This false dichotomy between nationalism and patriotism means that – for instance – Donald Trump can be branded a ‘nationalist’ (a bad thing) while Joe Biden stands in front of several American flags while his supporters chant ‘USA! USA!’.

Now I should point out that Joe Biden’s nationalism is much more inclusive than Trump’s. But it’s still a form of nationalism – just a much more civic rather than racist form. When he speaks of ‘unity’ in the United States, there still needs to be an ‘us’ to unite.

In the same way, we see Conservatives or Labour attack the SNP’s nationalism while the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition stand flanked by massive British flags at press conferences.

But while Plaid Cymru and the SNP are often called ‘nationalist’ parties, this only serves to distinguish them from the ‘normal’ British nationalism of the other parties. If the other parties seem less obsessed with national identity, it’s because they’re conserving the national identity of the country as it rather than attempting to change it.

If someone steps out of line, such as Corbyn refusing to meet the Queen or sing the national anthem, we’re very quickly reminded that there is something amiss about them. They’re not sufficiently ‘patriotic’, i.e. nationalistic.

So while the only thing that every nationalism has in common is an ‘us’ to differentiate from ‘them’, the irony is that what we all have in common is that we’re all ‘us’ somewhere.

For good or ill, and often both, we’re all nationalists.


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