Sunday, 16 January 2011

Why I'm not a nationalist.

I've never had a very comfortable relationship with nationalism. When it comes to international sporting events I take a 'who cares?' 'I don't know them so they're nothing to do with me' approach, and I don't take a particularly positive view of British soldiers currently fighting in foreign conflicts. And as for the inevitable flag-waving and kitschy nostalgia that will surround the royal wedding...

The main source of my lack of nationalism  is the times when our country is united in collective shame. A recent example of this is in 2007, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. There was talk of the British Government apologising for slavery. This is clearly a ludicrous request as it would be extremely difficult to discern who is a descendent of a slave, and do people descended from both slaves and slave-owners have to apologise to themselves? But crucially, I thought that the current British Government had nothing to apologise for, as they were nothing to do with the slave trade. Apologising would imply they felt some kind of guilt, but how can you feel guilty for something that you haven't done?

This is true at a personal level too. I don't think I should feel guilt for slavery just because I'm British. I also don't think I should feel guilty for the British Empire and Colonialism. I resent when people say 'we enslaved people' or 'we dismantled India's economy'. British people were guilty of these things, but not all British people. I had nothing to do with it. More recently, the war in Iraq. I was personally not at all guilty of that catastrophe. I protested against it. This is not to take anything away from what happened. Most of Imperial Britain, including the slave trade, is a regrettable blot on our nation's past, as is the War in Iraq.

I don't believe all the citizens of a nation should be guilty of their government's actions. And presumably many of the people who feel guilty for things their country has done, and call for an apology for slavery 200 years on, would also agree with this in the case of foreigners. How many of these people, who are so liberal and critical of themselves, would expect modern Germans to apologize for the holocaust? Or expect Iraqis who opposed Saddam Hussein's regime to share in its guilt?

Now, so far this might sound like I'm working towards a nationalist conclusion of taking pride in being British, and not feeling guilty. On the contrary, in the name of consistency, I believe that if I don't want to share in the guilt of my country's actions because it was nothing to do with me, I should also not share in its pride at its achievements. How can I justify feeling pride at a Briton having invented the steam engine, when I don't also feel the guilt of a Briton having invented the concentration camp? How can I feel pride in winning the Ashes or getting 3rd most medals in the Olympics when I don't also feel guilt for the BP oil spill, or the invasion of Afghanistan? If a British swimmer wins a gold medal, they are no more connected to me than the French person who came second or the Russian who came third. In the age of globalisation, tribal differences are irrelevant.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the idea of 'nations'. They have been tried and tested as a system of political organisation. A single global government may be better, with the absence of war, fairer distribution of resources, the diversion of arms spending to better causes and the end of currency speculation. However, this isn't, and probably never will be, a practical possibility. Therefore the world needs to be divided up, and it's clearly better to do this along cultural and historical lines than slicing up the globe, like was done to Africa and the Middle East, which has caused endless conflict. So I support the system of having nations pretty much like we do at the moment (although maybe stronger supranational organisations would be nice). I guess that means that I am a liberal nationalist in the most broad use of the term. I would never condemn the likes of Guiseppe Mazzini or Garibaldi for their desire for a free and independent Italy, for example. But having 'pride' in my nation is something I can't do, without shouldering the enormous guilt that goes with assimilating the nation with my own conscience. Perhaps this would be easier in a country which clearly has had a more positive than negative impact on the world, but I'm not sure that the UK has. I would also endorse some occasional nationalistic energy on strictly Machiavellian grounds, for example the propaganda of the British government in the world wars was crucial in encouraging people to work towards the war effort. But even this well-meaning nationalism can lead to xenophobia and should be used sparingly.

If anyone can think of a way of me being able to appreciate national pride without bearing the massive guilt of Britain's numerous crimes, let me know.

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