The truth in nationalism
Part III of our odyssey through Roger Scruton’s "How to be a Conservative"
I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile. With an English mother and a British passport, I grew up feeling the draw of the motherland. In fact, when I left New Zealand in my 20s to study in England, I expected to be gone for some time. But something surprising happened. I missed the sea. I’ve never been into boating, fishing, or water sports, but somewhere deep in my psyche was an unexpected yearning for the ocean and the beach. That wasn’t the only surprise. Greeted with an English “All right?”, I responded instinctively with a Kiwi “G’day.” I became self-consciously aware of my crisp New Zealand accent, especially as it inevitably elicited the response, “Are you Australian?” The sports sections of the newspapers were filled with soccer (sorry, football) articles that I found completely uninteresting. And on it went. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that time living in England, but it made vivid something I’d never really realised before. New Zealand is my home. This is where I belong.
I recognised this sentiment in Roger Scruton’s How to be a Conservative. As readers may know, I’m proceeding through the book one chapter at a time in an attempt to uncover, and maybe even reclaim, the meaning of conservatism. Scruton’s book does this not just by considering conservatism, but by considering other political philosophies and acknowledging the truth at the heart of each, a generous approach that is attractive and engaging. In his third chapter, “The Truth in Nationalism,” he addresses the role of the nation.
Scruton’s concerned with what makes a political society and the nation, he says, is simply “the first-person plural of settlement.” In other words, it just means a group of people who inhabit the same territory and as a result treat each other as neighbours, sharing a “historical identity and continuing allegiance that unites them in the body politic.” Neighbours have something in common with each other; they’re not like family, but they’re not exactly strangers either. They may have common economic interests, shared concerns about safety and infrastructure, or common heritage. But neighbours may also have little in common, and defining what Scruton calls our “shared identity” in geographic terms may seem like a rather weak way of binding a people together. But, perhaps paradoxically, this weakness turns out to be a strength.
Contrast this weakness with the dark excesses of nationalism, which Scruton deals with briefly but precisely, like a surgeon excising a cancer. He describes the ruin that resulted from the French Revolution and its doctrine that, “The nation is prior to everything. It is the source of everything. Its will is always legal.” He illustrates this, too, by reference to Nazi Germany, and says:
“nationalism, as an ideology, is dangerous in just the way that ideologies are dangerous. It occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the national idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide – the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption and the consolation for all our woes.”
But in the ordinary view of the nation, rather than the excesses of nationalism, he sees a modest yet cohesive set of interpersonal relationships, practical because they are strong enough to bind but not to consume.
Basing a shared political identity on something as modest as mere neighbourliness hardwires a default toleration into the system. Because neighbours are a bit like us, but not totally like us, by definition we will have to share space and come to agreements with people who have different views and values. Contrast this with other ways we could define membership of the body politic, like religion, membership of a family group, or ethnic identity. These criteria all draw much harder lines that divide people much more clearly, and more deeply. There’s typically less willingness to compromise when membership in society is defined by religious belief or by ethnic inheritance, increasing the potential for inter-group conflict, and there’s also less prospect of outsiders becoming members of the group. But when the nation is the basis of political identity, new members can join relatively easily.
Although the social bonds between neighbours are relatively weak, each neighbour’s attachment to the place they inhabit can be deep and enduring. Scruton puts it like this:
“When we ask ourselves the question, to what do we belong, … [we] find the answer in the things we share with our fellow citizens, and in particular those things that serve to sustain the rule of law and the consensual forms of politics. First among these things is territory. … Of almost equal importance are the history and customs through which that territory has been settled. …”
So our attachment to this place is woven out of “rituals and customs … which bind neighbours together in a shared sense of home.” Things like the haka, Anzac Day, a koru, the Southern Cross in the night sky, an instinctive greeting like “g’day” or “kia ora.”
This, I think, leads not just to a sense that we are in this place, but that this place is in us. Five years ago I returned to England for a brief stay in another university town, this time with family in tow. We had a glorious experience, one that will be forever part of our family’s story and formation. And yet I remember, two days after we returned, going for an early morning run in west Auckland where I live. As I ran, I could smell—I even thought I could taste—the aroma of the native bush of the Waitākere Ranges, and I knew I was home. That’s the truth in nationalism, as I see it.