Captain Tom: hero of the pandemic. Credit: PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images

February 4, 2021   6 mins

Huge numbers of people stood outside their homes last night, clapping in tribute to a man who came to symbolise the country during its worst ordeal since the war he fought in. Captain Tom Moore lived for a century and in a nation transformed beyond recognition. When he was born, the BBC did not even exist. He left the world, amid a national outpouring of grief, with tributes from the Prime Minister, Queen and White House, with almost 400,000 Twitter followers.

I suppose what some people mourn is the passing of time and the disappearance of a generation, but Capt Moore was also able — unusually — to cross over two different types of British patriotism, symbolised on one hand by the Spitfire and on the other by the NHS rainbow, and in doing so acquired a sort of symbolic status.

These two types of patriotism, like so much of the British psyche, date to the Second World War, and are the sort of yin and yang of collective identity — warfare against a common enemy, and welfare for the weakest. The Tories feel more comfortable with the former, Labour with the latter, and I wonder if the Capt Tom effect will come to be seen as the holy grail of politics from now on. 

Patriotism is something that Labour has particularly struggled with in recent years. The latest thinking is that the party must make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”, which makes many MPs and activists uncomfortable or angry.

From a strategic viewpoint the leadership is right, since the number of people who don’t feel at all patriotic is pretty small, and concentrated in safe seats where the party can afford to leak a few votes to the Greens or some crankish minor party.

And yet even the most inoffensive and saccharine appeals to patriotism by Labour politicians attract criticism from a section who view all patriotism and nationalism as essentially as morally suspect, and anti-Left-wing.

Jeremy Corbyn personified this worldview, a man for whom patriotism was not just repulsive but almost inexplicable. The Corbyns of this world cannot understand why a person would prize their own country, and its citizens, over another. There’s nothing immoral about it — it’s just that most people don’t feel the same way, and successful politicians can’t really get away with publicly admitting to deeply unpopular opinions.

Labour moderates argue that by not embracing patriotism they risk ceding it to the Right (and extreme Right) — just as once happened to the Union Jack. By this reckoning patriotism is a social good, as opposed to nationalism, its darker cousin; indeed patriotism might almost act as a vaccine against nationalism, inoculating us against its dark magic.

This argument was most strongly articulated by Orwell, who famously distinguished between the two in his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, in words which are often treated like gospel. Patriotism, he wrote, was “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Orwell was writing during the dying days of the Second World War, and someone’s views on nationalism in war is probably going to be as jaded as someone’s view of love in the middle of a painful divorce. And the distinctions between the two, of good patriotism and bad nationalism, seem pretty arbitrary. Patriotism has such positive connotations that when Clive Lewis condemned flag-waving he said “it’s not patriotism; it’s Fatherland-ism”, even though that is literally what patriotism means.

Patriotism is a bit of an Alice in Wonderland word that can mean whatever someone wants it to mean, often in a very solipsistic way. What some people say makes them feel “patriotic” about their country are really feelings about a political system or ideology. For certain types of liberals, it was the 2012 Olympic Games and its opening ceremony, representing globalism, liberalism and multiculturalism. For some socialists it is the various radical political movements that flourished from the Civil War to the 19th century, such as the Diggers and Chartists. (Then, I suppose, if your vision of patriotism is filled with kings and castles, you are also buying into a certain ideological idea of England, too.)

Nationalism, in contrast, is largely viewed as a mindless, Right-wing hostility to all things foreign. Yet this certainly hasn’t always been the case – indeed the opposite was once true.

Modern nationalism begins with the French revolution, with the “patriots” who wished to overthrow the old monarchial and clerical order. Nationalism and liberalism went hand and hand, and although it seems counter-intuitive now, Adam Ryan wrote in On Politics that in central Europe “liberal nationalism was not merely common but during the nineteenth century [was] the most prominent, if not the most passionate, form of nationalism”.

Liberalism and nationalism were condemned together by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, seen as twin evils of the modern world that threatened the reactionary establishment.

The link between liberalism and nationalism began to dissolve partly because the Right were able to offer a more satisfying version of nationalism — satisfying until your leg is blown off in a trench, that is — while in contrast liberalism became more and more internationalist.

The parting of ways began to show 150 years ago when Germany was united in Versailles. As Katya Hoyer writes in her recently published history of the Second Reich, Blood and Iron: the brutal militarism of the ceremony, with the Kaiser leading his princes in military uniform, “was a far cry from the democratic unification of which the liberals had dreamed. At Versailles, there were no reminders of 1848 — no tricolour, no ‘Deutschlandlied’. Just marching bands and formalities in the heart of a humiliated enemy.”

While liberals increasingly began to see the ugly side of nationalism, the Right became aware of how much they could use it, and present their opponents as unpatriotic. In 19thGermany, socialists were called vaterlandslose Gesellen (fellows without fatherland); in our time Norman Tebbit called the BBC the “Stateless Person’s Broadcasting Corporation”, while Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech upset lots of people who were collectively choking on their [insert vaguely foreign foodstuff].

Socialism, unlike liberalism, is internationalist by definition, so the criticism is often valid, yet the nation-state is the best mechanism for carrying out social democrat policies, especially the welfare state, which in Britain was mostly created during a period of intense patriotism after 1945. It’s also the best environment for liberalism, which thrives where competing identities play a minimal role in politics; there is a reason that liberalism first flourished in Amsterdam and London, not in multicultural Constantinople or Beirut.

And so progressive politics and nationalism are mostly certainly compatible, as long as the latter is micro-dosed. It is often lamented that Scottish nationalists get a pass that other nationalists — especially English ones — don’t, but Scottish nationalism is arguably a more authentic, liberal form of nationalism than most. There is nothing contradictory with liberal-minded people supporting a nationalist movement.

And nationalism has real, practical benefits, the vaccination programme being a very obvious example. Nation-states have clearly proved to be the most effective at enabling the mass production and distribution of vaccines; the supra-national EU in contrast has turned out to be hopelessly incompetent and, when that has proved evident, has behaved in a bullying manner reminiscent of past empires. The most successful vaccinating country of all, Israel, is the one western state that, for tragic historic reasons, takes nationalism very seriously. This sort of vaccine nationalism has been effected — without contradiction — through international cooperation and the work of scientists from dozens of nations working together, with government support. Liberal nationalism at work.

There are no limits to the number of vaccine shots that can be produced, just as there aren’t huge limits to how wealthy a country can become (up to a certain point, of course). One nation-state’s success is not usually another’s loss, yet it is still a competition in which we wish to outdo our rivals.

Few people wouldn’t prioritise their own country’s vaccine roll-out because most of us are neither pathologically internationalist, as much as the WHO would like us to be, nor are they xenophobic. Of their neighbours most people take the view of Sir Bronn of the Blackwater: they like them, they just like themselves more.

Nationalism is the understanding that political systems are best shared among a group with enough of a commonality that good government can flourish; most importantly of all, that loser’s consent exists. You might argue that patriotism is the active ingredient required, or that patriotism is whatever you are prepared to die for, but it is hardly a separate, distant idea.

Most people, Labour and Conservative, have contrasting ideas of what they like and dislike about their country, but most understand that there is still something worth preserving and celebrating. And I suppose, for many people, Captain Tom Moore personified that.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable