The Case for Liberal Nationalism | Angus Gillan


In 1869 the American social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass delivered the ‘Composite Nation’, a speech in which he advocated for the acceptance of Chinese immigrants. Douglass stated a belief that all people, regardless of background should be able to receive US citizenship, to facilitate national unity amongst various ethnic groups within ‘the nation’. Citizenship would, he theorised, bring all people from different races and religions together before adherence to one set of laws, one language, and one Government.

Fast forward to the modern era and the concept of national identity has atrophied. This occurs at a multitude of levels; even seemingly petty decisions made by individuals can reflect a broader attitude towards the nation by its citizens. For example, in July 2020 BBC columnist Richard Morrison suggested Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory were ‘crudely jingoistic’ and opined both should be cut from the famous BBC Proms. I think most people would struggle to care much about Morrison’s views. However, when we have journalists from the state broadcaster suggesting that patriotic songs should be dropped from a significant cultural event (The Last Night at the Proms sold over 300,00 tickets in 2019 and has seen attendance at this level since 2011), there is clearly a change in attitudes taking place.

If there is any intellectual foundation to Morrison’s beliefs, it is the thought that patriotic songs such as Jerusalem and Rule Britannia are actually nationalistic, in that they place reverence on the idea of the British nation, ergo they are colonial, imperialistic, and all the other descriptors. They must therefore relate to white British history and identity. Such a strain of thought inherently contains with in it the idea that British (or any other form of country-linked identity) is inextricably dependant on race. This conclusion itself means that any form of community centred around the nation must be exclusionary to one group or other. This is not the foundations upon which we build an inclusive and stable community. Fostering of a shared identity with explicit belief in the equality of citizens as part of the British nation, is separate from ethnicity, creed, or language.

I would stress the following is not based on a partisan cause, but rather draws upon academic research into contemporary political ideology and liberal nationalism (also referred to as civic nationalism). This goes far beyond small arguments about songs. What we need to do as a society, if we do not want the current culture wars to escalate and weaken us, is to develop a national identity that is not linked to race. This article is a reflection on ideology and how we each can identify together as citizens of a nation, regardless of immutable characteristics such as creed and colour. 20th Century liberation, French Republicanism, and a host of other ideas are thrown in to make this a review of British liberal/civic-nationalism.


Nationalism is the bad guy, right?

In 21st Century discourse, any notion of ‘nationalism’ is frequently dismissed as immoral or narrow minded. In January 2019, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier labelled nationalism ‘an ideological poison’. When Steinmeier states this, the clear reference is to the xenophobic ethnic nationalism of the 20th Century, developed by Mussolini and furthered by Hitler, adopted by dictators, used to systematically slaughter millions from Europe to Rwanda. However, blanket statements conflating these horrors with broader theories of nationalism are deeply unhelpful; they prevent us from having a rational discussion about how nations can unify, survive, and move forward in a world where national identity based on race is no longer viable and is condemnable.

At its most basic, the first priority of a state is to ensure its continuity and avoid state failure. States fail and collapse when they cannot resolve problems facing the state. Historically, while external problems contribute to state failure, these typically only exacerbate internal problems, usually chronic political divisions that made complex decision making possible. While the Western Roman Empire did eventually fall to the Goths, Vandals, and ‘barbarians’, the ‘barbarians’ could not have seized Rome without centuries of internal political squabbling that divided and weakened the Empire. Therefore, a state that wishes to realise its first priority and avoid state failure must prioritise unity over division. Ethnic nationalism will only create division in multi-ethnic states, while the Western multicultural experiment has not created unity as there is no solid identity for people to coalesce around. Thesis and Antithesis must combine to create Synthesis: a multicultural, multi-ethnic system with a strong unifying national identity built on national values.

The idea of a free nation caring for its inhabitants showcases strains of liberalism within nationalism. Juxtaposing the 20th Century’s ethno-nationalism are the noble self-determination and independence movements of the 19th Century through much of Africa and Asia; these movements saw collections of people in each area as belonging to an identifiable community. By campaigning and in cases fighting for recognition, he number of independent countries has risen from 74 (1946) to 89 (1950) and now stands at 195 independent sovereign states. The very concept that each of these communities should govern themselves in the interest of said communities, rather than be subordinate to a colonial administration, and that there was and is a shared past and future for these people, is a case of nationalism.

The creation of a nation then underpins the continuation of stable communities. As the late Roger Scruton articulated, when people identify together as a nation, the adherence to a nation state elevates the sense of neighbourhood to a wider group beyond our own locality and personal connections, thus fostering reconciliation and loyalty. We pay our taxes, don’t litter, use public services others have paid for, as part of a social contract where we know we are all part of something larger than ourselves; by contributing you help others who will help you in return, despite never meeting.


Constructs of national identity – France – Germany – Britain

In Britain, a marrying of liberalism (noted above) and conservatism is possible in the modern era to create community stability. Philosophically speaking, conservatives venerate institutions and localism and in doing so conservative nationhood provides us with a unique intellectual heritage that bridges two European traditions to create something distinct here in the UK.

Firstly, French Republicanism, promotes tradition. The historic French Nation has conceived of citizens identifying as ‘French’ (be it in the mainland or any of the former-colonial but now integrated polities) through an adherence to institutions. Manifested through church attendance and military service, combined with an education, perhaps at many of the historic institutions, meant people were meant to have unity created between them based on their shared experiences and traditions. The distinction from conservative civic nationalism in Britain is that conservatives, drawing on Burke, view institutions as repositories of wisdom, not rigid structures that must be adhered to in order to be one unified people.

The second tradition is the German völkisch Bewegung, the ‘folk movement’. The völkisch promotes organic natural community through a belief in romanticised folklore. This is partly natural as all concepts of every nation hinge upon mythologised and adapted pasts. In German tradition  this creates the Volksgemeinschaft, the ‘people’s community’ and a sense of unity in the volkiskörper, the ‘national body’. The community and natural body in many ways bears resemblance to Burkean localism and the idea that liberal communities, through various factors, can come together collectively. The main distinction from civic nationalism is that the völkisch has historically placed far greater emphasis on ethnicity and culture, for example promoting one volksgemeinschaft of Germans.

British civic nationalism is and should be, as Michael Portillo advocated, open and allows for assimilation via a veneration of mutual respect.

‘We are for all Britons: black Britons, British Asians, white Britons. Britain is a country of rich diversity. That Britain was on display in Sydney. Athletes of every background united by a pride in Britain, and Britain united by its pride in them. Conservatives don’t look for uniformity, but for the qualities that mark people out as individual and exceptional.

We are for people whatever their sexual orientation. The Conservative Party isn’t merely a party of tolerance: it’s a party willing to accord every one of our citizens respect. Why should people respect us if we withhold respect from them?’

Michael Portillo, Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 2000.

The way of civic-nationalism is therefore quintessentially a product 19th Century nationalism, linking individuals with the collective and drawing upon institutions as repositories of guiding, not dictatorial, wisdom.

A great example of the theory of liberal nationalism in practice is in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s passing of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. A cynical view sees this as brand detoxification. Yet, the promotion of homosexual marriage and passing legislation fundamentally changed the definition of marriage, showing clearly that citizens were afforded equality in the eyes of the law, while retaining the social value of marriage, along with the institutional importance of the keeping the Church in the equation. A parallel can be seen here between Cameron and Douglass. Just as Douglass advocated citizenship for immigrants to facilitate national unity through equality before one set of laws, one language and one government, Cameron placed heterosexual and homosexual couples on equal footing before the law for marriage equality. However, the Act passed against considerable party resistance, needing cross-party support and determination from central Government to ensure the move towards liberal and progressive social policy, away from the New Rights social conservatism. A liberal nationalism founded on equality is something we must be aware of, in order to fight for.


The contemporary setting being?

Through the last two decades, globalisation and international security concerns have created a need to foster affiliation among citizens. Under New Labour, from 1997-2010 there was a rapid increase in the rate of immigration to the UK, with circa four million migrants joining the U.K. population and net annual immigration quadrupling. As I write we are in the stages of a new immigration debate, not only is the Johnson Government changing the immigration system, we also see a continued migration crisis that raises may questions about how policy will respond to Channel crossings. The topic of community identity, cooperation, and integration is therefore historic and contemporary.

The theory therefore stands that anyone, no matter their background, can come to the UK, reside here, take part in the community, adhere to the laws, identify as British and would subsequently be British. The Columbian florist, the Algerian barber, and Croatian vintner on the road on which I live are all as British I am. All of us are as British as Her Majesty, even Aimen Dean, the Saudi-born former al-Qaeda leader turned MI6 operative (and great podcast host), who identifies as British, is equally British.

If we hope to face the public policy challenges of the 21st Century, a good starting place may be a populace with self-belief in their community, forming one open society, who together, as part of a diverse nation, share history, are dedicated to a joint future, and cooperate before one set of laws, language, and government.

Angus Gillan is a political researcher. He holds an MA in Politics and Contemporary History from King’s College London and a BA (Hons) in Ancient History from the University of Birmingham.


Photo Credit.

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1 Response

  1. Тимур says:

    We can see the outlines of this coalition already in the coalition of voters that brought the Democrats their 2018 victories and that is currently backing Joe Biden. In 2018, moderate Democratic candidates who eschewed both democratic socialism and the multicultural Left cleaned up: according to the data analytics firm Catalist, 90 per­cent of the Democrats’ winning margin in 2018 was attributable to voters who switched from backing Trump in 2016 to backing Democrats in 2018. In 2020, Biden’s strong lead over Trump nationally and in key states is attributable to outperforming Clinton not among young and nonwhite voters but instead among white noncollege, suburban white college, and senior voters.

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