Patriotism versus Nationalism: A Pointless Debate?


According to some, the long-running rhetorical battle between nationalism and patriotism has been decided: patriotism has won. Macron’s presidential victory over Le Pen, if you believe various pre-emptive European commentators, has struck a fatal blow against calls of nationalism in Europe. After the first round of the French Presidential Election, the centre-left hopeful Macron mocked his far-right rival Le Pen, and her appeal to nationalists, insisting he only wanted the support of fellow patriots.[1] This week, Ruth Davidson, in her speech at the Orwell Foundation, repeated the distinction made between nationalism and patriotism by Orwell, concluding that nationalism “cannot tolerate plurality” and nor can it “make the trains run on time”.[2]

But how can we demarcate the various political camps associated with the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’? More importantly, how useful is the debate between nationalism and patriotism? I argue the distinction between nationalism and patriotism is overly simplified and the debate surrounding these labels misses the point. Given the increasingly dominant role these concepts are playing in political rhetoric and the probable confusion they cause in popular discourse, answering these questions is of immediate political expediency. Only by overcoming the simplified labels of nationalism and patriotism, unpacking the various attitudes and policies that underpin and result from these beliefs, will an open discussion around policies in the national interest be had, and the racist and xenophobic positions of the BNP or the EDL be rejected.

The distinction between nationalism and patriotism was made most famously in Orwell’s 1945 essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’. Here Orwell warns of the dangers of nationalism, defined by him as an ideological position that assumes the superiority of one nation over another, as opposed to the potential benefits of patriotism that can be utilised to protect a nation’s culture and provide national unity. According to Orwell, while patriotism is a defensive set of beliefs, nationalism is inherently aggressive leading to national purges and international conflict. As evidenced by Davidson’s speech, Orwell’s distinction, which was made against the backdrop of war, remains prominent – with patriotism perceived as a fairly harmless set of beliefs concerning national sports teams, street parties celebrating the Queen’s birthday and Armed Forces Day parades, and nationalism as synonymous with racism, xenophobia and far-right ideologies.

The problem with this dichotomy is that both sets of beliefs can be perceived positively or negatively – rightly so, as both sets of beliefs can have positive and negative policy consequences and derive from positive and negative attitudes. In this way labelling a position as patriotic versus nationalistic as a heuristic shortcut to define progressive versus backwards or, more basically, good versus bad, masks the complexities of both positions. On the one hand, public services are provided by civic nationalism whereas patriotism fuels the hooliganism of football supporters abroad. On the other, there is the thinly veiled racism of nationalist parties compared with joyous patriotic street parties.

Moreover, misplaced patriotic pride can act as a barrier to progressive schemes, whereas acknowledging the role of the nation state and its obligation to its citizens is perhaps better placed to fulfil the demands of progressive voters. The nation state and a corresponding sense of belonging facilitates a greater level of redistribution and more comprehensive public provisions in health, social care, transport and housing. Britain’s negotiations in forthcoming Brexit talks with the European Union can be seen as the purest expression of nationalism: maximising the position of one nation against others. Few in Britain would argue that this approach to the negotiations is wrong, whether they voted for Remain or Leave.

Ultimately the simplified debate of patriotism versus nationalism – as espoused by Davidson and Macron in quite different political circumstances – is not beneficial for democracy or effective policy. The branding of individuals who support nationalistic positions as backwards or racist and listening exclusively to the demands of patriots undermines democracy. It also misunderstands the fluidity between the two sets of beliefs.

[1]“Je souhaite, dans 15 jours, devenir le président de tout le peuple de France, le président des patriotes face à la menace des nationalistes.”