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Nationalism: A Tale of Two Myths

This is the third edition in my series, Polar Opposites, which is looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western democratic world. As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.


I’ve always been proud to be British. Not that I ever consciously decided this. It’s just been that way as long as I can remember. Perhaps I was won over by the many pleasant summer treks through the British countryside as a child. Then again, there’s nothing quite like arriving in some isolated, windswept coastal town to then be welcomed by the homely smell of a Fish & Chip shop with a complementary chorus of raucous seagulls. Additionally, I can’t deny that as a child I enjoyed rubbing in the faces of my American friends that we had a Queen – with all her kindly, regal elegance – and they did not. What’s more, growing up in mainland China where healthcare was rarely cheap, I learned from a young age to be grateful for ‘our’ NHS,[1] undoubtedly the one thing that most British people can agree we should be proud of.[2] Finally, I’ve harboured a strong suspicion for much of my life that there isn’t a flag in the world quite as beautiful and inspiring as a Union Jack. Call me quaint or old-fashioned (and you’d probably be right!), but all these things and more have given me a distinct sense of gratitude, peace and gladness about being British.

Yet, such statements of national enthusiasm these days are often frowned upon, at least in certain circles. In fact, some of you reading this are probably already squirming! Previously, I introduced the political labels ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ as most accurately describing our political divisions today in the West. And I think nationalistic sentiments cause perturbation in some (including myself sometimes!) precisely because such sentiments have 'Closed' associations, leading Open groups to do all the frowning. This association isn’t surprising. Indeed, in the very report where think tank, More in Common, puts forward these new political groupings, it explicitly describes the values of the Closed as ‘nationalistic’. After all, the Closed generally favour maintaining cultural boundaries and so seek to create spaces of belonging with people with a shared heritage (which implies a shared ethnicity, language and worldview). It doesn’t surprise me therefore that innumerable Brits of an Open political persuasion, keen to affirm a variety of people, ideas and cultures, seem to feel awkward if not mildly treasonous expressing any hint of national pride. That the NHS is the one British institution most British people can get behind[3] seems at least to me to be because it appeals equally to both Open and Closed groups because it symbolises so powerfully the two moral foundations they share: Care and Fairness.[4]

However, we are mistaken if we think nationalism only appeals to the Closed. It turns out that in some contexts nationalism appeals more to Open than to Closed groups. And its at least in part due to myths.

The philosopher, John Hick, gives a good definition of ‘myth’ as “a story…that is not literally true but that nevertheless expresses and tends to evoke an appropriate attitude towards the subject of the myth.”[5] The value of a myth then is that it is visualisable and appeals to a person’s imagination, making it much more effective than abstract statements at influencing a person’s ideas and beliefs.[6] For instance, British victories over both the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the German Luftwaffe in 1940 act as important myths for British identity. They both play into the British sense that we are the plucky underdogs able to defy the odds. Of course, rationally-speaking, even if Britain was actually the underdog in both battles, this has no bearing on whether Britain would be successful in any future underdog scenario. But myths don’t work that way. What matters is that winning against the odds and punching above our weight has become wrapped up in what it means to be ‘British’. Myths like this are perhaps why arguments that Britain couldn’t make it on its own without its European partners in a post-Brexit world seemed to add fuel to the fire of Brexiteers. If you associate ‘British-ness’ with optimistic feelings about any situation where Britain must defy expectations, someone telling you Brexit will make things harder will probably not have its intended affect. Myths then play a huge role in predisposing you towards certain subjects, ideas and groups as opposed to others.

Much like the Closed, the Open also have their myths rooted in history. And there is perhaps no historical myth more morally significant than that of WWII and the Nazis. For what clearer example is there of Evil? As Prof. Alec Ryrie observes, “the most potent moral figure in western culture is Adolf Hitler. It is as monstrous to praise him as it would once have been to disparage Jesus.”[7] The Mastermind behind the Jewish ‘Final Solution’ and Exterminator of countless other non-Aryans laid a moral line for the Open so clear in the sand that’s they feel its reverberation with a fiery passion to this day: Evil begins with the exclusion, delegitimization and persecution by a majority of any racial, ethnic or sexual minority. When Pat Buchanan gave his infamous 1992 ‘Culture Wars’ speech slamming such things as ‘radical feminism’ and ‘homosexual rights’, it wasn’t a coincidence that journalist, Molly Ivins, quipped “It probably sounded better in the original German.” [8] The subconscious power of this myth means any hint of Naziism, such as asserting the importance of ‘British’ values, immediately produces a strong moral reaction amongst the Open. Similarly, the Open find it hard to affirm anything virtuous which they think the Nazis would agree with. The traditional family, military heroism, patriotism, a strong leader, group conformity – all these things are tainted with moral suspicion.

Now, I think it is fair to point out that the Closed (in the UK at least) as much as the Open mythologise WWII and would share an abhorrence for Naziism. Yet, I do not think it is done in the same way. While WWII provides for the Closed another example of the ‘plucky’ Brit and defeating the Nazis provides a reason for pride in British identity, WWII for the Open instead provides a warning for what could happen if we let ideas of nationhood, racial pride and cultural superiority go to far. The Closed celebrate WWII for representing the best in British spirit and values; the Open turn WWII into a morality lesson and fear the Nazis return. Influenced as they are by this myth, the Open are nearly always emotionally predisposed to diversity, multi-national cooperation, and minorities – whatever the Nazis were against – in a way that the Closed are not. Take immigration. For the Open, immigration highlights our willingness to embrace a variety of people and cultures under a multi-cultural, very un-Nazi-like umbrella. Yet, for the Closed, immigration undermines the British values we fought Two World Wars to defend. It is this difference in mythical lenses which greatly influence perceptions of nationalism in both Open and Closed groups.

Let’s start with England. Nationalism in England is associated with Closed groups in large part because it is about asserting the majority ‘English’ identity over England as a whole. "Why else did we fight off the Catholic Spanish and the Nazi Germans if not to keep this island English?" As such, English nationalism tends to be anti-immigration and emphasise the threat of perceived cultural outsiders who basically always constitute a minority. For instance, fear of Islam is particularly prominent in this group. This is not only due to the perceived threat of Islamic extremism, but also because of the cultural threat seen to be posed by the little understood but greatly feared Sharia Law in areas with large Muslim populations.[9] Bradford, a city with a large Pakistani Muslim population, jokingly gets called ‘Bradistan’,[10] but behind the joke English nationalism feeds of the worry that if we don’t keep our guard, the rest of the country will become like this. Meanwhile, Euroscepticism is also common amongst English nationalists, not only because the EU enables large-scale immigration, but also because it gives control of England’s destiny to foreign, non-English forces in Brussels.

Nationalism in England thus doesn’t appeal particularly to Open groups, particularly the most Open Progressive Activists. While 64% of all English people feel pride in their national identity, only 21% of English Progressive Activists feel proud of being English. Similarly, on the question of ‘British’ identity, just 5% of Progressive Activists are ‘very proud’ to be British compared to 23% of all Britons. Meanwhile, a whopping 59% of Progressive Activists are actively ‘not proud’ of being British compared to an average of 23% of all Britons.[11] Although not as strongly as Progressive Activists, the other Open groups of Civic Pragmatists and Disengaged Battlers also fall below the national average on such as questions as how good do you feel when you see a Union Jack or how proud are you of your English or British identity?[12] It is clear then that nationalism doesn’t vibe well with Open groups in England.

Yet, in Scotland, nationalism has a much more ‘Open’ moral force. This is primarily because nationalism in Scotland isn’t about asserting a majority identity, but rather about freeing the Scottish minority from its larger and more powerful English neighbour. Replace England with 'Nazi Germany' and Scotland with 'oppressed minority', and you instantly see that old WWII myth playing out. That its larger English neighbour is also more conservative and Closed adds further fuel to the fire of Scottish Open nationalism. For instance, despite its (albeit relatively close) defeat in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Scottish nationalism seems to have experienced a resurgence since the 2016 EU referendum. The EU embodies Open values because it affirms unity in diversity, aids multi-national cooperation, and facilitates the easy movement of people. Tellingly then, not a single Scottish constituency voted in favour of Brexit (which was most popular amongst Closed groups), and yet (to phrase it poetically) because the Scottish nation is subject to the imperial, oppressive yoke of English rule, the Scottish people have against their will been forced to leave the EU they never voted to Leave.

Thus, when you look at Scotland, the picture changes enormously on questions of nationalism, particularly again amongst the most Open Progressive Activists. Rather than showing significantly lower levels of national pride like they do in England, Progressive Activists suddenly show above average pride in their national identity (81% vs. 79% of all Scots)! At the same time, pride in their British identity drops even lower from 24% amongst English Progressive Activists to just 12% amongst Scottish ones.[13] This isn’t isolated to just Scotland alone either. For exactly the same reasons, nationalism in Wales also resonates with the progressive values and psychology of Progressive Activists and other Open groups in a way it just doesn’t in England.[14] However, Scottish nationalism is much more potent than Welsh nationalism, primarily because Wales simply has fewer Open people than Scotland. 45% of Scots fall into the three most Open segments compared to 37% of English and 39% of Welsh. Moreover, 17% of Scots are Progressive Activists compared to just 13% of English and 14% of Welsh.[15] Ironically, this means that Scots support a referendum on Welsh independence more than the Welsh themselves (33% of Scots vs. 28% of Welsh)! [16] It is clear then that nationalism’s appeal to different groups greatly depends on the context, particularly whether it is seen as a majority-affirming or minority-empowering philosophy.

Moreover, the collapse of political support for the Labour Party in its traditional left-wing heartlands in England and Scotland provides a prefect case study for these two nationalisms. Although in both England and Scotland, the Labour Party is seen as ‘left-wing’, in England it is seen as Open, while in Scotland it is seen as Closed. This is because in England, Labour was against Brexit, is generally pro-immigration, champions perceived minority marginalised groups like refugees and LGBTQ+ individuals, and usually (though not always) defends Muslims groups against criticism often coming from English nationalists. In Scotland though, the Labour Party’s support of the Union has severely damaged its Open credentials amongst left-wing voters there. Even if it isn’t Closed itself in a number of its policies, its support for the Union maintains Scotland’s subservience and ‘oppression’ by England. While Labour’s support in England then comes primarily from the three most open groups, in Scotland these groups now support the left-wing but Open Scottish Nationalist Party for the most part.[17] This switch in support is partly why the 2015 UK election after the 2014 independence referendum saw the Labour Party in Scotland lose 40 of its 41 seats!

Meanwhile, in England, a number of traditionally left-wing voters in the Midlands and the North are Closed rather than Open. For instance, Loyal Nationals identify more than any other segment as being ‘working class’ (65%) and are also above average in believing the system is rigged to serve the rich an influential (76% agree vs. 67% UK average). Yet, they are the least likely to think that immigration has had a positive impact on the UK (19% vs 43% UK average), they overwhelmingly think that society cares more about immigrants’ rights than those of British citizens (79% vs. 43% UK average), and they are the most likely to think Islamic terrorism is a serious problem (95% vs. 83% UK average). It was this segment that came out strongest in support of Brexit (69% voted Leave), and it is apparent this segment is increasingly disillusioned with the Open Labour Party. Between the 2017 and 2019 UK elections, this left-wing sympathetic group’s vote for the Conservative Party went up from 46% to 56%. Considering just over 1 in 6 UK people belong to this group, this 10-percentage point increase represents a significant swing that does much to explain the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ heartlands in England since the Brexit vote.[18]

It is clear then that the myths we hold – whether we realise we hold them or not – can radically alter our perception of political ideas, including nationalism. Nationalism might be a dirty word for many Open individuals in England, but in Scotland and Wales it is embraced with open arms. A slogan like ‘Stronger Together’ might bear one type of emotional pull when the issue is the EU, but quite another when the issue is the United Kingdom. Realising the nuances in our political myths helps us understand why a Progressive Activist or Closed Brexiteer might be a raging nationalist in one country but an ardent Unionist (European or British) in another. There are deeper forces at work in us than just abstract reasoning. So next time you think to describe the Closed as ‘nationalistic’, perhaps think twice before you do.

[1] For non-British readers, the 'NHS' stands for the UK's National Health Service. [2] Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Kimaram, A., Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain, 2020, More in Common, pg. 19 [3] Britain’s Choice, pg. 19 [4] Open groups like Closed groups have a high regard for the moral foundations of Care and Fairness, but, unlike the Closed, they don’t hold the three other moral foundations of Purity, Loyalty and Authority nearly as highly. Other national symbols like the monarchy, countryside, cultural heritage and the armed forces do not necessarily vibe so well or so exclusively with Care and Fairness, making them less appealing to Open groups. [5] Hick, John, The Fifth Dimension, 1999, Oneworld Publications, London, pg. 235 [6] Ibid, pg. 236 [7] Ryrie, Alec, Lecture 6: Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God, ‘The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018. URL: [8]

[9] [10] [11] Britain’s choice, pg. 158 [12] Britain’s choice, pg. 158-160 [13] Britain’s choice, pg. 158 [14] Britain’s Choice, pg. 159 [15] Britain’s Choice, pg. 279 [16] Britain’s Choice, pg. 148 [17] Britain’s Choice, pg. 279 [18] Britain’s Choice, pg. 55


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