Wrapping yourself in the flag

Phil Parry asks whether nationalism is a good or a bad thing.

Is nationalism good or bad? As the Scottish referendum approaches this seems the right question to ask.

My dad, who fought the Nazis, used to say:  “I cannot understand why nationalism is bad when it is big, but good when it is small”.

This was when Plaid Cymru were resurgent – their representation in Westminster had just soared from one to three MPs, and the hugely successful campaign to get road signs in Welsh as well as English, had started to establish bilingualism as the norm rather than a joke.

It was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to, but I came to the conclusion – a bit like the famous West Lothian question over devolution – the response was in the question. There was a standard reply that you hear all the time now; but if nationalism was a way for a people to express themselves after suppression by a larger group, then it was good. If, on the other hand, nationalism was the badge of that larger group then it was bad. Thus the nationalism of the repugnant British National Party or English Defence League campaigning against immigration was (and is) wrong. But the nationalism of Plaid Cymru, campaigning for a stronger, more confident Wales, was (and is) not?

Yet over the years this question has not gone away and I have wrestled with it constantly. Surely there was a simpler answer than this. I am now starting to wonder whether my dad was right all along. Perhaps ALL nationalism is wrong, whether big or small.

This area is a minefield but I will enter it anyway.

The idea of the nation state with largely fixed borders is a relatively new one. It has long been disputed, and the key question within the debate, has a chicken and egg feel – so it is ‘which came first, the nation or the nation state?’

Some believe the nation state came about as a by-product of advances in 15th century map-making, although most theories say it started life in the 19th century and was made possible by mass literacy as well as (cough) the mass media. A few nation states, notably Germany and Italy, came into existence – at least partly – as a result of political campaigns by nationalists.

The notion of the nation state reached its apotheosis during the 1919 Versailles treaty which marked the end of the first world war. There, the task was led by US President Woodrow Wilson in apportioning land, and offering self-determination according to the arguments put forward by homogenous groups of ‘peoples’. These groups could supposedly be ascertained by discovering peoples with, for most, a common language and a common cultural heritage. A succession of groups presented themselves before the decision-makers to show themselves as homogenous peoples who should be allowed self-determination.

Even then there were problems. What to do about the Kurds for example, of whom we hear so much now? They shared the key characteristics but were, tragically, denied nationhood after they were bullied into submission by the big powers. They have a common language and common cultural heritage, but no real borders. Then there are some Pathans who still believe they live in Pushtanistan, but which is a land that lies half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan.

Now, though, the problems are even greater. Globalisation has created a mishmash of groups everywhere. London is an international city where you will hear languages from all over the world. Cardiff could be heading this way. You only need to stroll through the city centre to hear a huge range of languages, along with English and Welsh. Bessemer Rd car boot sale in Cardiff is a showcase for people from all over the world. How many see themselves as Welsh, I wonder?

Before the golden age of nationalism, governance boiled down to the local community or city. The idea of the city-state was soon born.

A leading Plaid Cymru politician once told me:  “We need to move to a post-nation state Europe.”

Perhaps he is right and it is time to consider trying to do this. Perhaps we should bring back the city-state. Perhaps nationalism is bad when it is big and bad when it is small.

Phil Parry is the Editor of Wales Eye (www.waleseye.com)

17 thoughts on “Wrapping yourself in the flag

  1. City states came into being as the focus for the accumulation of wealth. Multi national companies and trans global “communities” of investors are now effectively their equivalent. Much less tangible but still having very real effect.
    In any case are city-states good at addressing the needs and ambition of the populace that live in the regions beyond the “city walls” on which the city state relies and depends on not only for its success but for it’s wellbeing.

  2. The reference to the Nazis when discussing nationalism is wrong, disingenuous and spiteful, showing a wilful misrepresentation of history.

    The link is usually claimed to be becaise ‘Nationalism’ was in the Party name. It wasn’t. They were ‘National Socialists’. Notice ‘national’ not ‘nationalist’. Notice too ‘socialism’, yet nobody has attampted to tarnish every other so called socialist party with Nazism.

    They were imperialists and supremacists not nationalist.

    Also, the author doesn’t seem to question British nationalism, and people draping themselves in the Union Jack, such as we saw in London 2012, or in mid november every year, or during the proms, or on Gordon Brown’s Military Day or whatever it’s called. NNationalismseems to be ok if it’s British nationalism, but nothing else.

    Smacks of supremacism to me.

  3. Flag waving in matters sport is entirely different to cultural or political nationalism.

    Be different by all means, but don’t expect to receive the benefits that accrue when we all try to rub along by just being the same.

  4. City states and empires predate nations and all three must claim the right to set laws and enforce order.Recently supranational organisations have emerged such as the EU and the UN. They also set laws with so far mixed results.
    If nation states are necessary then so is some degree of nationalism.

  5. So a nationalist imperialist British or European super state is somehow ok but smaller nation states are not? Sounds like a nightmare recipe for totalitarianism to me. Sadly this is exactly what the EU is about – the undemocratic dissolution of nation states – where terms such as Nazism can genuinely start to be considered apt.

    On another note ,maybe the author might want to consider republicanism as well?

  6. It’s interesting – and eyebrow-raising, given that Phil is the author of this piece – that British nationalism is left out of the frame. British nationalism is what unites Oswald Moseley (that particularly promising young Labour Minister), Aneurin Bevan, Wayne David, Ed Milliband, George Thomas, Margaret Thatcher, and Nigel Farage. Even more than Hexagonal French nationalism, it lacks self-awareness, but masquerades under such weaselly expressions as ‘common sense’. As My Lord Kinnock once remarked (before he and Glenys had allowed their CND subscriptions to lapse) ‘Nationalism is as nationalism does’. The mounting campaign of threats and lies against independence for Scotland has assembled the most unsavoury elements imaginable in public life, together with a number of people whom it were a charity to call misinformed.

  7. I was born in southern England, but I now live in Wales and have done so almost all my life.
    Do I get behind the Union flag of the UK, the flag of England or the flag of Wales??
    This depends upon circumstance.
    Wales is where my heart is so although English born, I have become a true national of Wales, so no I do not class my first 4 years of life in England as my nationality
    Whilst abroad on holiday, I disassociate myself totally and utterly from the Union flag and firmly draw the Welsh flag around me, why? because the antic’s of Brit’s abroad have given everyone under the Union flag a bad name. I also draw the Welsh flag around me when the Welsh are involved in sport’s or a sporting event.
    But, yes I become totally 100% nationalist when it come’s to supporting all that is true, good and honest about the UK, I become nationalist when I see lily livered MPs and powerful men riding roughshod over the right’s of us Brit’s and toeing the line because some foreign unelected power say’s we must adhere to their silly rules and reg’s.
    I become deeply angry and a very patriotic nationalist, when I see our law’s broken and allowances made to foreigner’s who live amongst us, who are allowed to create their own law’s and power’s.
    We may be four small separate but bound together countries that are the UK, but the BNP and the EDL serve a purpose of reminding our government and power’s that be that we do count and will be heard, if the need arises.

  8. Nationalism is a term used in such different ways and contexts and has been used to describe such different views and movements, that it is not a useful notion to discuss. Asking is nationalism good is like asking is politics good. Too general a question to be useful and it can only be answered by starting “it all depends…”. Unfortunately the Welsh like this kind of windy talk rather than getting down to brass tacks and asking – for example – what should we do about our failing education system?

  9. Few days ago I was doing a taxi run for my 10 year old daughter and three of her school mates all from a primary school defined as English Medium with significant Welsh. They were discussing their Welsh roots as according to one of their teachers they are all Welsh as they were all born in Wales. One of them said my mum had me in Bangor hospital but I’m not Welsh I speak English and I do not understand Welsh. The other three agreed… Perhaps a moral of this that in Wales we have different take on nationality and roots depending on which of the two languages is used within the family!?

  10. I’m not sure that our education system is still “failing” Ross. I suspect that we will see a turnaround in results within 3 years.

  11. I wish I could share your confidence J. Jones of upturn in Welsh education but from what I see it appears we are facing more of the same – DOWNHILL.

    We may see a turnaround through the ‘in-house’ assessments as direct comparisons with the rest of UK is becoming increasingly difficult to do (Perhaps deliberate ploy by the Education Department) but PISA would be difficult to fudge.

    We should and must maintain parity with England in educational terms for the sake of our children!?

  12. I hate to call anyone’s word in question but sorry, “Me”, I just don’t believe your story. No kid makes Welsh language the criterion of nationality. How many medal-winning athletes in our Commonwealth Games team spoke Welsh? Do the others have to give their medal back? Does Gareth Bale speak Welsh? Do Katherine Jenkins and Duffy sing in Welsh? All the kids recognise these folk as Welsh and identify with their success. Language doesn’t come into it. I suspect you of making up stories to support your own peculiar perspective.

  13. J.Jones, I hope you are right. What good news that would be. I wonder why you think it might be so.

  14. I’ll give you (Me/Ross) a brief rundown of my thinking.
    In the last two years the nature of GCSE Maths exams and GCSE English exams has changed to bring both in line with PISA pattern questions. This has resulted in increased difficulty which has resulted in a year on year fall in the percentage pass at A*-C. Far from being bad news this indicates to me that Wales has joined the real world, they are refusing to move grade boundaries and just demanding that schools step up their efforts.

    The much maligned Banding of secondary schools was, as teaching unions claimed, very imperfect. Nevertheless it did exactly what it was supposed to do; it gave a means for parents to compare the achievements of schools and it stimulated schools to look at themselves and make changes in how they teach and particularly how they “track” the performance of individual pupils.

    Some years ago the government put some £11 million into the “RAISE” initiative to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. The money was wasted because no one monitored how effectively it was spent. The pupil deprivation grant (son of RAISE) is closely monitored and has every chance of making a difference where we desperately need it.

    The literacy and Numeracy framework, where every dimension and subject in school is made to involve maths and SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) is going to have a massive beneficial effect.

    Literacy and Numeracy testing allows parents and schools to monitor “Value added” for each and every child, each and every cohort and every school. It takes us back to where we should have been in 2000 when Key stage testing was abandoned.

    The “Foundation phase” is a work in progress…..I can’t judge whether it is good or bad or neutral. The Welsh Bacc. is changing in acknowledgement of its shortcomings but, when the Russel Group are ignoring it and looking for AAB in certain “facillitating” subjects at “A” level along with 5 A* at GCSE, the Welsh Bacc is a distraction pupils cannot afford. It should be quietly dropped.

    In January Prof Donaldson will report to Huw Lewis. He will recommend a limiting of the curriculum towards “core” subjects and greater freedom to schools to vary subject mix to allow concentration on Maths and English for weaker pupils. This will bring benefits again to deprived pupils.

    ESTYN has brought inspection in-house and the cosy relationship between schools and private inspection businesses has gone. Inspection is no longer so forgiving but suffers a little from a lack of independence from “government”. Even so it is significantly more effective than it was 5 years ago.

    I’m not saying it will all come right overnight but as long as we refuse to bow to the wailing of teaching unions we are on the right track.

  15. Thanks for the update Mr Jones. That is indeed encouraging, though we do have a long way to go. If these changes do spark substantial improvement it should put some arguments to rest and we can move on to the next stage.

  16. Taken from Developing the Curriculum Cymreig

    Through ensuring that the ethos of the school reflects
    a Curriculum Cymreig
    The following checklist might be useful, especially in Englishmedium
    • Is there informal use of Welsh in the school – in conversation,
    during registration, during lessons?
    • Are signs and notices in the school bilingual?
    • Is Welsh used at all in correspondence with parents, to advertise
    school events, etc.?
    • Are telephone calls to the school answered bilingually?
    • Are visitors greeted bilingually?
    • In English-medium schools, do assemblies have a Welsh-language
    input from staff and pupils?
    • Is school stationery bilingual?
    • Does the school make any attempt to provide Welsh language
    tuition for parents who might appreciate learning at the same time
    as their children?
    • Does the school fly the Welsh flag?
    • Are Welsh personalities invited to school to share their experiences?
    • Do displays around the school reflect a Curriculum Cymreig in all
    its aspects – traditional and contemporary, local and national?
    • Would a visitor entering your school know it was a school in Wales?

    Can you imagine the outcry if English schools were urged to fly the flag?

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