The significance, or otherwise, of national identity

Although my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old, we returned to Germany in 1968. By the time I returned to Ireland I was 20 years old, and came with the experience of progressive political debate in Germany. I was therefore taken aback to discover that, in Ireland, the term ‘nationalist’ was often used in a positive sense, in particular when referring to the anti-unionist community in Northern Ireland. At the time the idea that nationalism could be anything other than totally reprehensible was inconceivable to me; it had, after all, been at the heart of the movement that caused the horrors of the Second World War.

Of course I came to understand what had made nationalism (however understood precisely) attractive to people in Ireland, but I have never lost the gut feeling that an major focus on national identity can be very dangerous, with a trajectory (at least if not properly managed) to xenophobia and racism. However, some have argued that nationalism may have value in a different context, as a protector of citizens’ rights in the face of large global corporations wielding excessive power, or of supra-national political associations that may threaten to overwhelm traditional cultures and customs. In this sense, some of those who have opposed the development of the European Union have sometimes argued that a properly understood nationalism can provide a counter-balance. For example the late British Labour politician, Peter Shore, suggested in a pamphlet in the 1980s that nationalism could and should be seen as a progressive, potentially leftwing force protecting the rights of people in individual countries within Europe.

This kind of argument has had a renewed outing over recent years as the debate in Europe has intensified about how far the EU should go and what political roles it should assume. And yesterday in the Irish Times Michael Casey, a former board member of the IMF, suggested that it might not be long before national identity would disappear completely in a globalised world.

All of this is a very interesting, but also very tricky, issue. On the one side there is the understandable and quite justifiable desire to ensure that the sources of real decision-making that affect our lives, in politics and economics, are not moved to such a high level that ordinary citizens can never hope to influence these decisions. If all law-making, for example, were to move to Brussels, then it would be carried out by a parliament that we never get to elect in any real sense; candidates in EU elections don’t stand on an EU-wide platform, so we never get to assess a proposed legislative programme. But on the other side there is the continuing and serious risk that using nationalism as the basis for such a critique also opens the way to racism and an unwillingness to experience, understand and tolerate other cultures.

In truth we have not really developed a mature understanding of how globalisation can be harnessed but also kept in check, and what philosophical or ideological perspectives can be used in this debate, without the risk of creating a fractured society along the way. I don’t believe that globalisation – whether as a political, economic, cultural or demographic phenomenon – could or should be reversed, but I do believe that we need to ensure that it does not mean the disenfranchisement of citizens. There is still a lot to be done before we have cracked this problem.

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3 Comments on “The significance, or otherwise, of national identity”

  1. Vincent Says:

    A few years ago the politicos had this phrase ‘in the National interest’, very worrying on so many levels.
    But on examination it was shown as an attempt at a three card trick.
    Around 1880, National might have had some resonance, as in the Irish Party at Westminster. But if it had any meaning wide after 1900 we would still be sending MP’s, for in reality it became shorthand for large farmers higher professions and priests.
    While the disenfranchisement of citizens seems a bad thing, but how enfranchised were we anyway. At least now 180,000 people on unemployment together with their families 4/500,000 in total may not be defined with general acceptance as being surplus to requirements.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    Part of the problem of course is that the word ‘nationalism’ is too broad to serve as an adequate representation of the many movements, ideas and policies that are encompassed by it. From the horrors of the far right across to the left. The differences are in how ‘national’ is defined and the conception of nationality. It is indeed possible to have a progressive, left approach, for example, which is based on the principle of subsidiarity and increased power at local and regional levels. Much of the pressure for a Scottish parliament was based on the idea of the ‘democratic deficit’ that exists in the Westminster system. The concept of citizenship in those contexts is one which is based on residence and not on inheritance, language or cultural identity. Rather, cultural diversity is celebrated as being part of the very argument for increased democratic participation rather than the alienation and disaffection that results from a distant, unresponsive and largely monocultural government. The danger perhaps is that in larger nations, nationalism will more likely manifest as reactionary (against incomers) and right-wing whereas in smaller, subsumed regions it can often be associated more with ideas of liberation, democracy and left-leaning (in theory at any rate).

  3. Simon Pollock Says:

    This is the bind that the Irish establishment finds itself in now, they need to construct a new concept of Irishness that isn’t based on parentage/race. Considering that the entire “new Irish” meme has died a death, the failure to promote language, and the near impossibility of identifying unique values which can be called “Irish”. It seems to me that supplanting parentage/race will not happen anytime soon, so lots of fun ahead for those arguing the case for a ‘progressive’ immigration policy.


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