Opinion

Patriotism or Nationalism?

Things are usually more complex than they first seem.

“while Churchill was banging on about the danger Hitler represented, there were fascists here in Britain.” Photo from wikimedia commons

My country is being destroyed by dangerous nationalists. And it’s not the only country that is, but I know my history. I know that when once many other countries were falling prey to these dangers, it was my country that managed to hold the line, just barely, but just long enough for many other countries to muster resistance. So I’ll worry about my own country for now.

It seems that we are beset by traitors; it’s nothing new. You must remember that, although Churchill did call out the Nazis for what they were, he became excluded from the frontline of politics. Those are sometimes referred to as his wilderness years, the 1930s, where he was seen as an eccentric, a baleful old doom-merchant.

Remember also that, while Churchill was banging on about the danger Hitler represented, there were fascists here in Britain. There were plenty of upper class types who thought Hitler had the right idea – there was a King who did: our own Queen’s uncle persuaded her to pull a Nazi salute as a child. And there were plenty of yobs who thought that too. Cable Street and Stockton-on-Tees saw pitched battles between Blackshirts and their opponents.

So the fact that today’s danger is home grown, is in our legislature, is on our streets, that it is within the fabric of our society, should surprise none of us.

In the 1930s, the fact that the clear and present threat came from an outside enemy focused the minds of our grandparents, but that’s not the case today.  It turns out that Hitler had his uses: he forced the British to pick sides.

But now we haven’t that external threat. Thus do we suffer from the equivocation of people we know, friends and family. They simply refuse to accept that Nazi salutes at the cenotaph, asylum detention centres like reinvented concentration camps, attacks on the judiciary and a concerted attack on the rule of law are clear signs of our Britishness being usurped.

Yet the forces behind this are only different from the Nazis in terms of degree, not in terms of type. When I was younger, you couldn’t call on the defence that you were only Nazi in a ‘limited and specific way’, you either were or you weren’t. How times have changed!

Today, people are quoting Johnson. No, not *him*, not the buffoon. I mean Dr Samuel Johnson. A particular quote. This one: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. And I see what that Johnson was getting at, but most of the people quoting him do not. As Johnson would have been the first to tell you, language evolves. Meanings become nuanced. Indeed, sometimes a new term, a new word, a new reference is required.

For Dr Johnson, the man who drew up the first English dictionary, the word ‘nationalism’ did not exist. It gained currency about half a century after his death.

Words usually have multiple meanings. These often overlap, so that an intended meaning could potentially be satisfied by two words. Words with similar meanings are classed as synonyms. Take for instance ‘cry’ and ‘weep’. Both may mean lachrymosity, but whilst you might say ‘I heard someone cry my name in the distance’, you would not say ‘I heard someone weep my name in the distance’. Whilst there is a large overlap in their meanings, it is not complete. Each can be interpreted in a way that excludes the other.

This is true of ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. Things are usually more complex than they first seem.


Hence Churchill was no fluffy bunny. I’ve often described his legacy like this: never, in the field of human history, was one reputation so entirely rescued by circumstances. I’m Welsh, so I remember growing up hearing talk of the Tonypandy Riots. But if the other side field Hitler, you don’t field Ghandi. You field Churchill.

And then the British, having fought a war, knew that he wasn’t what they needed in peacetime. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And this was as true for Atlee as it was for Churchill.

Similarly, when Dr Johnson speaks of patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, he’s talking about what we call nationalism, a word that did not exist for him, but a word that would later emerge. Indeed, Johnson did what he could to differentiate, talking of a ‘true’ patriotism. This oft-ponced quote refers to William Pitt, who was using the term ‘patriotism’ for political gain. Johnson is not saying ‘don’t be proud of your country, the way it sustains you, and all that it has achieved’. He’s saying “don’t ponce stuff you had nothing to do with, to gain authority for your sense of entitlement”.

“Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson


So what is my definition of patriotism? I am proud to be British. And that means I’m proud my Irish grandfather chose to join the RAF and contribute to our war effort even though Éamon De Valera, the Irish president, insisted Eire should be neutral – as though being neutral in the face of Nazism was just a lifestyle choice. I’m proud that he and my grandmother later settled in Wales and had a family of Brits, when De Valera would have blacklisted them, as he did many of the Irish who returned from defeating Nazism.

I’m proud that my Welsh grandfather dodged U-boats in the Atlantic during WW2, keeping the UK supplied.

I’m proud that the UK had the very sound sense to kick Churchill out after the war and bring in Atlee, who (a moment of Welsh pride here) got Bevan to establish the NHS.

I’m proud of Shakespeare, an ‘average Joe’ who produced such brilliance that many (absurdly) insist he couldn’t have at all, because he just wasn’t posh enough.

I’m proud of the Beatles who came from nowhere and had an impact internationally.

I’m proud of Queen, a band that united a queer refugee and an astrophysicist with a dentist and an electrical engineer, to create part of the culture that – like it or not – you swim in.

I’m proud that my country could throw up working class types against the establishment, and unite the middle classes with the otherwise excluded, synthesising something identifiably British.

I’m proud of these things. I suppose you’d say that I had nothing to do with bringing these matters about?  You are right. I didn’t.

But they had everything to do with bringing me about: they made me. And my expression of pride is a recognition of my connection with and debt to those people. I have a duty to pass their achievements on. I am implicated in their project, with a duty to sustain it.

My pride is not an entitlement, I don’t feel I’m owed anything – it’s a project for the future, it demands that I knuckle down. It’s me playing my part, just nudging those achievements a little bit further into the future. Because they’re good – they’re magnificent. 

I venture to suggest that, could we have Dr Johnson with us here now, and could he now know the word, he would say that ‘nationalism’ was the last refuge of the scoundrel.

But what about having patriotic pride in that to which all our families contributed? Pride in the fruits of our culture?  Recognition that there is a project here that enhances life, progresses the human story, and defends us from the darkest aspect of the human animal? That patriotism is not the refuge of the scoundrel. That is our job as citizens.

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