Nationalism and Brexit

15 Jun


This photo is of my late father, Walter Errington. He served throughout WWII, doing his patriotic duty for King and Country. Somehow he managed to avoid most of the glory, but saw a good deal of action. He fought through France and into Belgium where he was billeted on a local family. He found a lifelong friend in the son of the house, who joined the Belgium forces.  There were family visits both ways and I visited and played with his friend’s children.

My father was a working class Tory, but had no time for people who would thump the tub on patriotism and nationalism. I am sure that he would have voted to remain in at the referendum if he had lived.

I grew up after the War, in an age where nationalism was a dirty word. My father’s generation had fought against the National Socialists (Nazis), knew what nationalism led to and passed his attitude on to me.

I had a sleepless night wondering why the Brexit supporters seem to be immune to logic or evidence and was wondering how this could be challenged. I picked up a book by A C Grayling, ‘The Meaning of Things, Applying Philosophy to Life’. I really am that sad. Actually, I saw him speak at the Hay Festival and wanted to know more of his work. There is a mini chapter in the book on Nationalism, and I will include some of it here as it seems relevant to the referendum, and hope that he doesn’t sue me for breach of copyright. He seemed like a nice chap.


Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult.

Eric Fromm

Nationalism is an evil. It causes wars, its roots lie in xenophobia and racism, it is a recent phenomenon – an invention of the last few centuries – which has been of immense service to demagogues and tyrants but to no one else. Disguised as patriotism and love of one’s country, it trades on the unreason of mass psychology to make a variety of horrors seem acceptable,  even honourable. For example: if someone said to you, ‘I am going to send your son to kill the boy next door’ you would protest. But only let him seduce you with ‘Queen and Country!’, ‘The Fatherland!’ ‘My country right or wrong!’ and would find yourself permitting him to send all our sons to kill not just the sons of other people, but other people indiscriminately – which is what bombs and bullets do.

Demagogues know what they are about when they preach nationalism. Hitler said, ‘The effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.’ And he knew whom to appeal to: Goethe had long since remarked that: Nationalistic feelings ‘are at their strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture’.

Nationalists take certain unexceptionable desires and muddle them with unacceptable ones. We individually wish to run our own affairs, that is unexceptionable. Most of us value the culture which shaped our development and gave us our sense of personal and group identity; that too is unexceptionable. But the nationalist persuades us that the existence of other groups and cultures somehow puts these things at risk, and that the only way to protect them is to see ourselves as members of a distinct collective, defined by ethnicity, geography, or sameness of language or religion, and to build a wall around ourselves to keep out foreigners’, It is not enough that the others are other; we have to see them as a threat – at the very least to ‘our way of life’, perhaps to our jobs, even to our daughters.

When Europe’s overseas colonies sought independence, the only rhetoric to hand was that of nationalism. It had well served the unifiers of Italy and Germany in the nineteenth century (which in turn prepared the way for some of their activities in the twentieth century),and we see a number of the ex-colonial nations going the same way today.

The idea of nationalism turns on that of a ‘nation’. The word is meaningless: all ‘nations’ are mongrel, a mixture of so many immigrations and mixings of peoples over time that the idea of ethnicity is largely comical, except in places where the boast has to be either that the community there remained so remote and disengaged, or so conquered, for the greater part of history, that it succeeded in keeping its gene pool/pure’ (a cynic might say ‘inbred”.

Much nonsense is talked about nations as entities: Emerson spoke of the ‘genius’ of a nation as something separate from its numerical citizens; Giraudoux described the ‘spirit of a nation’ as ‘the look in its eyes’, other such meaningless assertions abound. Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.

The blindness of people who fall for nationalistic demagoguery is surprising. Those who oppose closer relations in Europe, or who seek to detach themselves from the larger communities to which they belong  do well to examine the lessons of such tragedies as the Balkans conflicts, or – the same thing writ larger – Europe’s bloody history in the twentieth century.


To me that totally sums up the position of those wishing to leave. They are nationalists of the dog-whistle, demagogue variety. Their position is one one of extreme and unacceptable nationalism. My father, who knew a thing or two about nationalism, would have despised them.


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