Nationalism, Good and Bad

Culture - February 4, 2024

European Diary: Copenhagen, June 2022

When I spent a month doing scholarly research in Copenhagen in 2022, I was in touch with the dynamic Danish free-market think tank CEPOS, Centre for Political Studies. Their head of education, Stefan Kirkegaard Sløk-Madsen, suggested that I should hold a one-day summer school about my recent book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers. On 12 June, a warm, sunny day, fifteen young Danes turned up at the comfortable and spacious CEPOS office in the centre of Copenhagen, conducting a lively discussion about nationalism and liberalism from 10 in the morning to 16 in the afternoon. Each attendee had received a copy of my book.

The Good Nationalism

The reason we focused on this topic was that often nationalism and liberalism are seen as opposites, whereas I argued in my book that these two ideas could be compatible, if properly understood. A distinction could be made, I suggested, between nationalism good and bad. Good nationalism recognises the nation as a ‘daily plebiscite’, in the words of French historian Ernest Renan. In this sense, a nation is a community to which an individual wants to belong, and it rests on the collective will to preserve its values and traditions, such as a common language, a literary heritage and a shared history. The reason the Norwegians separated from Sweden in 1905 was that they were and wanted to remain Norwegians, not Swedes. The reason the Finns separated from Russia in 1917 was that they were and wanted to remain Finns, not Russians. The reason the Icelanders separated from Denmark in 1918 was that they were and wanted to be Icelanders, not Danes. The same could be said about the Baltic nations, the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and many other nations, big and small. This kind of nationalism is first and foremost a reaffirmation of a shared collective identity shaped by history and circumstances and does not entail any rejection of or hostility towards other nations. It presents the nation state as a home, neither a prison nor a fortress.

It was true, I conceded, that many nation states were quite small. But nevertheless they were quite feasible economically. The economic integration in the last few decades had facilitated political disintegration, or the breaking up of large political units into smaller ones. This was because ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’, as Adam Smith observed: by their access to a large global market, small political units could benefit from the international division of labour. Small countries were also often more homogeneous and therefore more cohesive than large countries, the Nordic countries being obvious examples. Their relative success (on most criteria) could be attributed to social cohesion, free trade, and a strong tradition of the rule of law, including respect for private property rights.

The Bad Nationalism

Bad or aggressive nationalism has however caused great harm, I added, not least in the twentieth century. It was a false and pernicious feeling of a group’s superiority and a desire to humiliate, insult, subdue and oppress other groups, and it almost invariably went with a distorted account of the past. It was about conquest, not trade. I suggested that one reason for the relative success of the Nordic countries was paradoxically the defeat of Sweden by Russia in 1721 and the defeat of Denmark by the German Federation in 1864. After these defeats, Sweden and Denmark abandoned futile dreams of military conquests. These two countries moved from the battlefield to the marketplace. Swedish poet Tegnér exclaimed that Sweden should make up for the loss of Finland by harnessing the natural forces within her borders, while Danish poet Holst exhorted his countrymen to gain inside Denmark what had been lost outside, by developing industry and trade.

Border Changes and Accommodation of Minorities

I argued that in Ukraine today the conflict was between good and bad nationalism. The Ukrainians wanted to maintain a sovereign nation state. They were reaffirming their collective identity. Thus, they were non-aggressive nationalists. Putin’s clique in Moscow however had imperialist ambitions and wanted to extend their rule to at least parts of Ukraine through military aggression. The only peaceful resolution of the conflict was to invoke Renan’s concept of the nation as a plebiscite: Those who really wanted to be Russians, should be Russians, and those who wanted to be Ukrainians, should be Ukrainians. There was a workable blueprint for this, the plebiscites in Northern Schleswig in 1920, where one region voted overwhelmingly for belonging to Denmark while another region voted overwhelmingly for belonging to Germany. Accordingly, the borders between the two countries were moved southwards. I pointed out that the problem of minorities might remain after any such plebiscites. There was also a workable Nordic blueprint for this, the way in which Finland had accommodated the Swedish-speaking minority in the Aaland Islands. As Lord Acton remarked, a society should be judged according to how it treated its minorities.

Positive and Negative Populism

Furthermore, I distinguished between positive and negative populism. Every competent politician had to be a populist to some extent, I said, not only presenting arguments, but also playing on emotions and interests, and identifying and serving possible political constituencies, as Ronald Reagan had successfully done in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. This was positive populism, I suggested. Why should the devil have the best tunes? For example, Thatcher gained many votes by selling council houses to their tenants on favourable terms. Negative populism was however when a demagogue sought to rally large parts of a country’s population against some of its other parts, often an unpopular or vulnerable minority. Left-wing populists usually targeted the wealthy, whereas right-wing populists stirred up hostility towards groups portrayed as alien, as the Nazis did towards the Jews (and Gypsies and gays), and some European politicians nowadays against immigrants. I emphasised that I, like other classical liberals, supported free immigration (and emigration for that matter), but that there were three undesirable immigrant groups: criminals; religious zealots who wanted to impose their beliefs (about the inferiority of women, for example) on the rest of society; and loafers who came to the West in search of welfare benefits without any intention of contributing. Most immigrants were however hard-working people in pursuit of a better life, and they should be welcomed. I quoted the holy book: ‘You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The difficult but not impossible task was to design tests for distinguishing between them and the gatecrashers.