It is easy to believe nationalism is a good thing. No one criticises the existence of the nation-state, or bemoans a national competition. The FIFA World Cup pits nation against nation, vying for footballing supremacy. But once the word is transformed from a concrete noun to an abstract ideology, it takes on a new meaning. Nationalism does not mean the same thing as patriotism. It is not about having pride in your country and celebrating its achievements, but about elevating your country above all others. Nationalists believe in their national (and often ethnic) superiority, and with it, the right to dominate and to rule over others. This distinction seems to have passed by the right-wing polemicist Douglas Murray, judging from his comments to the National Conservatism Conference earlier this week.
Defending the choice of the organisers to brand their ideology as ‘national conservatism’, as well as his embrace of the ideology, Murray claimed that nationalism was misunderstood. People are apparently too quick to leap from discovering someone is a nationalist to assuming they are a Nazi. According to Murray, nationalism is a noble ideology, and should not be reviled simply because of its intractable association with one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world. In short, while all Nazis may have been nationalists, not all nationalists are Nazis.
The problem with Murray’s claim is that once a term has become irredeemably tainted by being soaked with the blood of millions, it does not hold its original meaning. Language is alive. It responds to events, shifting and evolving to reflect its meaning within contemporary society. Even if you accept Murray’s assertion that nationalism was misappropriated by the Nazis, the word has become entwined with Hitler and his fascist values. Trying to reclaim it on the basis that it was used by a society who ‘mucked up’, as Murray chose to describe a government who orchestrated the Holocaust, is moronic.
What is even more moronic is trying to reclaim it, and to assert its moral value and necessity, while speaking alongside people who have espoused policies that could have been lifted from the Third Reich. Among the ‘featured’ speakers were Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, who has scapegoated immigrants and asylum seekers throughout her period in office, Lee Anderson, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, who has denigrated the traveller community, and Michael Anton, the national populist adviser to the Trump White House, who has decried diversity as a weakness and believes that Trump stands for ‘truth, morality, [and] the good…’.
Setting aside the question of whether if it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck, what is more alarming is the fact that this conference has become mainstream. National conservatism is not a pleasant ideology, regardless of its antecedents. It is a hagiographic ideology mired in prejudice and bigotry clothed with the respectable veneer of tradition. Nationalists idealise and venerate the past, having created a halcyonic caricature of what they believe society was like before striving to achieve it. Only three years ago, a Conservative minister had the whip removed for speaking at the conference, which was viewed as something attended by those on the far-right, lunatic fringe of the Conservative Party. Now, one of the holders of the great offices of state speaks at it and it is treated as a pitch for the leadership of the party.
Integral to nationalism is a fear of change of identity – or more accurately, a fear of change from an imagined past national identity . In one of his earlier pieces, Michael Anton wrote about his desire for a ‘conservative bohemia’. For Anton, this would be a place where “people will drink Sam Adams and crusted port while the gentle cadences of Brahms and the ethereal voice of Ella Fitzgerald sooth their savage breasts..” Ignoring the tortuously intellectualised prose, Anton is a man who believes that the ideal western society is the café society of Paris and Vienna, with matching population genetics. This society – whether in lifestyle or population – never existed. Balzac and Zola, the great French novelists, make clear that society has always been nasty, brutish, and short for the majority. There is no lost belle epoque except in the fevered imaginations of the national conservatives.
Conservative policies are supposed to be about preserving the values, norms and traditions of society. Incremental change is the order of the day. The contemporary Conservative Party has dispensed with almost all of this, preferring the Silicon Valley maxim of ‘move fast and break things’. Consequently, it is unsure of itself after over a decade of power. Sunak, a socially conservative technocrat, has no great vision of how to transform Britain, despite being one of the more level-headed advocates of leaving the EU, and the majority of his ministers are adrift, left flailing helplessly in the face of crisis after crisis.
The only part of the government with a clear agenda is the Home Office, with Braverman single-handedly trying to ensure the Conservatives have another term in power through stoking fears of the ‘small boats’ and the immigrants aboard them. This turn to nationalism, and the need to protect Britain’s national identity from erosion, means that Braverman and her contemporaries are fixated on projecting distorted idealised images of the past upon the people. From here, they can rage about how modernity is erasing this ideal, and with it, Britain’s national identity.
Braverman’s greatest problem with the ‘immigrants as a threat to identity’ narrative is that Britain is a mongrel nation. Part of Britain’s national identity is its ability to accommodate multitudes, a melting point that has drawn together people from all parts of the globe and unified them under a single flat. Racism may still haunt society, particularly on an institutional level, but Britain is a remarkably diverse and integrated nation by most national standards. Three of the four great offices of state are held by people from ethnic minorities, even if two of them have drunk the nationalist kool-aid. The nationalism and fear of ‘others’ that the Home Secretary espouses, alongside those at the National Conservatism Conference, is not shared by the British people.
Rather than embrace the fact that Britain is able to contain multitudes while retain its sense of national identity, the right-wing of the Conservative Party has pushed all its chips onto nationalism. Having burnt through all of its other policies, from Brexit, to ‘Unchained Britannia’ to Thatchernomics, its advocates are reduced to claiming that nationalists aren’t bad, they’re just misunderstood. Make nationalism great again? If only it had been in the first place.