Nationalism: A Naïve Foreigner’s Perspective

Last Thursday I had a conversation with a friend that left me feeling distressed. With it being the queen’s birthday, my friend had cheerfully informed me (the naive foreigner) that this was only one of them. She has her official birthday in June. This is an odd state of affairs, but it was not the cause of my distress, at least not directly.

The wilful and immediate collapse of that famed English rationality which occurs whenever the monarchy is mentioned has been a major source of bewilderment since I moved here two years ago. The same people who would rail passionately about Cameron’s taxes or his questionable relationship with pork, are reduced to bumbling sentimental morons at the sight of baby George or the idea of a little old lady turning 90. No, the cause of my distress was not the confusing nature of the queen’s birthdays; it was the realisation that even if it is not quite well, nationalism is certainly alive in England.

The continued existence of the British royal family has always confused me. Prevailing opinion in England and indeed the entire western world is and for has been for some time now that human beings are born freely and equally. As such, democracy and meritocracy have become cornerstones of western society. Along with America, Britain has championed these principles time and time again in the fights against fascism, Stalinism and now jihadism. Yet still the monarchy – the very antithesis of these principles – remains and is adored for it.

Of course, there have been attempts made to rationalise the royals’ presence in 21st century England. Committed monarchists cite the political instability that has historically ensued following the removal of a monarchy, the centrality of Britain’s royal heritage to the tourism trade and the ambassadorial role of the royals internationally as reasons to retain this medieval institution. I have a hard time taking these arguments seriously.

“There is only one plausible explanation for the overwhelming popularity of the British monarchy: they are the last respectable vestige of nationalism”

To me, it seems obvious that transitioning from a hereditary head of state to an elected one would not cause the same turmoil as revolutions in France or Russia, which involved the total upheaval and reestablishment of entire political systems. Nor do I believe that tourists would lose interest in Buckingham Palace if no royals were actually in residence there. An annual celebration of Britain transitioning to true and full democracy (à la Bastille Day) could stimulate as much economic activity as a royal wedding that only happens once every thirty years.

I certainly do not believe, having spent my teenage years in a former colony of Britain’s, that the royal family’s ambassadorial duties could not be carried out more effectively by officials that are not doomed rightly or wrongly to be forever associated with the crimes of imperialism. There is only one plausible explanation for the overwhelming popularity of the British monarchy: they are the last respectable vestige of nationalism.

George Orwell differentiated between nationalism and patriotism, defining the former as “power hunger tempered by self-deception”. It is the blind commitment to an obviously irrational idea of the superiority of one country. The appeal for nationalism, however distasteful, is at least understandable. It offers the servile, lowly cave-man within us, the chance to belong to something greater than ourselves, something to alleviate us of the burden of individuality. The problem with nationalism is that it requires something of us in return: the suspension of our rational capacities, which history teaches us is a very dangerous thing.

“It is the same deception that today swells the ranks of IS and threatens to deliver Donald Trump to the White House”

This blind devotion to king and country is the same force that compelled the British, to name but a few, to imprison the Boers in concentration camps, to create artificial famine in India, Bengal and Ireland and to send millions of their own young men to be fight in the trenches, 700,000 of whom never came back. It is the same deception that today swells the ranks of IS and threatens to deliver Donald Trump to the White House.

Of course, that is not to say that the British public should not be patriotic. Britain has more to be proud of than perhaps any other country in the world. Be proud of Shakespeare and Milton, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Harry Kane and Delle Alli! Be proud of the NHS; be proud of the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism! Patriotism, unlike nationalism, is conditional and can therefore be a tool for progressive change in society. The Republic of Ireland, for instance, became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote last year, a source of immense pride to me as a patriotic Irish citizen.

If you can really be similarly proud of the fact that in 2016 the descendants of William the Conqueror and the heads of the Church of England have the power to dissolve a government and must approve new laws on your behalf, then good luck to you. I hope that I am not alone in thinking that while baby George is undeniably cute, neither his cuteness nor his last name should afford him any such powers.

Niall O’Sullivan

 Image: Leonard Bentley via Flickr

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4 Comments on this post.
  • Jeremy
    29 April 2016 at 22:49
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    George Orwell did also make the point that the monarchy, as a vessel for nationalism, is useful – the argument goes that it’s preferable for nationalist sentiment, which exists everywhere, to be bound up in a virtually powerless institution rather than with the politicians who call the shots. Hence the UK’s general disdain for politicians in general. And a reason why British democracy has never been seriously threatened by homegrown totalitarian/fascist/authoritarian movements.
    This aspect of the monarchy might be a bit outdated (I lean a little towards republican side of the debate), especially with the Royal family becoming something of a media circus, but its enough to make me think twice about scrapping an institution that may have contributed towards keeping things relatively civil and stable for so long.

  • Will
    30 April 2016 at 11:17
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    Your understanding of the Monarchy is simplistic. Their role can be defined by the phrase “technically X, but practically Y”. Technically, laws need to be signed off by the Monarch. Practically, if one didn’t, the law would be passed anyway. The UK is not on the verge of being taken over by one family who wield all executive accountability. The Royals have no REAL power. They are the bauble atop the Christmas tree of state. The tree would survive without it (and may be viewed by some as an unnecessary expense), however it looks nice and it just wouldn’t be the same without it. I also challenge you to sketch out what actual freedoms the British people would receive if we switched to a republic. Certainly none that would make a difference to us day to day or improve our quality of life.

    As for imperial hangovers, I grant you the Royals have (to put it mildly) unsavoury connections. Britain has much to apologise for, and I won’t go down the road of “yes but the Empire also did X, Y and Z” because the moral gymnastics of doing so would be mind boggling. But it would be also churlish to say (Empire aside) Britain has done NOTHING good. Perhaps the Royals weren’t responsible for these things themselves but they have been a constant throughout, both good and bad. They are a reminder of what we were, what we are, and given the media nous and “approachability” of the younger Royals, what we will be as well for good or ill. I personally think they are an example of our living history and I believe that is important and desirable.

    tl;dr abolishing the Royals wouldn’t meaningfully improve our democratic life in any way and regarding throwing the Imperial baby out with the bathwater won’t right any wrongs Britain has committed in the past.

  • Will
    30 April 2016 at 11:26
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    Realised I should have written “baby out with the imperial bathwater” and not the other way around. Ooops.

    Also apologise if I came across as patronising by calling your understanding of the Monarchy simplistic. Everyone has a different interpretation of it, the one above is just my own.

  • Niall O’Sullivan
    9 May 2016 at 00:21
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    I agree that a constitutional monarchy is not a terrible form of government. You are certainly correct in saying Orwell (whilst being totally against the principle of a monarchy) recognised that a monarchy can serve as an outlet of nationalistic sentiment. He acknowledged that this was particularly useful in the unstable political climate of the 20th century. There is a downside to this relationship however. Symbolic power is not harmless as those with actual power are not solely responsible for ensuring their own support. Sentiment a monarch is dangerous because the monarch is (obviously less so now) the personification of the country. Therefore there is a stable source of nationalistic sentiment that can be used by politicians to manipulate the populace. In relation to the examples I used in my article, it is unlikely that British soldiers would have could have been compelled to commit the heinous crimes of imperialism because some politician told them to do so. By keeping the monarch around as figurehead they can use the cult of king and country to justify said crimes, which is why the idea of the monarchy is fundamentally intertwined with the idea of the empire. Obviously devotion to a monarchy is not the only way of achieving this abandonment of rationality. Having said that I agree with you that they did at one stage serve a purpose, but I do feel that the monarchy has long since outgrown this purpose.

    With the standard of education in Britain there should be no need to contain nationalism, rather it should be and can be virtually eradicated, this may sound a little idealistic but here me out.
    At the moment the monarchy doesn’t really contain nationalism, they propagate it. Children are born into a society where this obviously undemocratic and wrong (even if it is effectively powerless) institution exists and is raised to believe that it’s normal. Thus from an early age are brought up to not only accept an irrational idea but engage in a delusionary, compulsory devotion to a purely symbolic and inhuman perception of what is just an ordinary family. In modern day Britain it is the staunchest monarchists who are most likely to be sympathetic to extremist politics because their relationship with their country and the way it should be run of their country is one built on emotion rather than reason.
    Would it not be better for a child to born into a society in which what is right in principle is striven for, thus defining their relationship to their country as one that engages proactively with reality, this what I would consider patriotism to be. Rather than limiting the negative effects of human beings intrinsic yearning for national pride as nationalism does it uses this force for good.


    I think you may have missed the point of my argument, my apologies for not making my position clearer? I was not trying to claim that the monarchy does actually have any real power. I was debating whether them continuing as a “bauble” is actually a good idea. For the reasons I have outlined above I do not believe symbolic power to be a good . It looks nice because it is a relic of the past and Britain’s former glory which I don’t think is a good reason for it to continue for the reasons I have outlined above.
    With regard to what the freedoms that would come about directly as a result of the removal of the monarchy I never said there would be. I am concerned with the relationship between the populace and the state. However I do think that an improvement of this relationship would have concrete benefits. For example I think the House of Lords (another undemocratic institution) or at the very least hereditary peerages would cease to exist.

    I’m also not trying to vilify the empire or Britain. Any nationalistic society including my own would have forged an empire if they could; Britain was just extremely effective at it. I don’t bear any ill-will towards Britain or for that matter Elizabeth Windsor and her family as nobody is responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. The only reason I brought up the legacy of the empire in the international community was to demonstrate how ridiculous the idea that the royals serve as effective ambassadors.

  • Howard
    24 May 2016 at 09:04
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    The author’s world view and account of history comes straight out of Hollywood and the BBC and is 100% divorced from reality.
    The Anglo-Americans defeated Fascism ? Really ? Where did you learn that from George Clooney movies ?
    Did Anglo-Americans stand against Franco ? No they supplied his Fascist side with arms, money and oil while enforcing an embargo on the anti-Fascist Republic. ( Texaco, Walt Disney snr and Westminster Bank (Nat West) provided the cash & oil to the Fascist side during the Spanish Civil War). So which Fascism is it you think you are talking about ? The Nazi Regime ?
    The Third Reich was destroyed by the Soviet Red Army and the Soviet peoples. The Red Army did 80% of the all combat fighting against the armies of the Third Reich. The Soviets suffered 80% of the losses and killed 80% of the Germans who died in battle during WWII. 80% of all Soviet males born in the year 1923 were killed in WWII. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in their great struggle and successful defeat of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The English speakers were literally the minor help.
    Then there is post WWII. On every continent the US Empire and its British partner created, installed and relentlessly maintained a global franchise of fascist regimes a policy that continues today. The notion that the British and American ruling class have any issue with fascism is utterly laughable. I find it curious that such a fuss is made of Trump in the UK when British political leaders are the odious in the Western world. The real inspiration coming from the real heart of American democracy and the American people is the Bernie Sanders Political Revolution. Meanwhile the British liberal elite continues to presume as legitimate the war crimes ridden sociopath and leading financial criminal and arms broker Hillary Clinton.

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