Saturday, 26 April 2014

The description British nationalist is either trivial, offensive or false

I'm not blogging much at the moment as I have other work and writing commitments, but I keep coming across Scottish nationalists describing me as a British nationalist or a Britnat or some such. I've tried to explain on a number of occasions why this is either trivial, offensive or false, but it's rather hard to get the point across in 140 characters, so I though it best to write a little something which can be referred to when necessary.

I'm lucky enough to have access to the Oxford English Dictionary online and therefore will use that source. I hope Scottish nationalists do not consider the source biased, because it's from Oxford. I too have a certain prejudice against the Dark blues, but I try my best to overcome it.


A trivial definition of nationalist is someone who supports his nation state. The reason that this is trivial is that it applies equally to a citizen of Finland, New Zealand the USA and so on all around the world. When a word describes everyone it ceases to be descriptive and therefore drops out of common usage. We therefore do not describe Germans who want to maintain the territorial integrity of Germany as nationalists, nor do we so describe the French. This is despite the fact that some German citizens and some French citizens, no doubt, do not support the territorial integrity of their nation state.


Nationalist can mean someone on the far right politically. Thus the BNP are accurately described as British Nationalists as are the Front National in France accurately described as French nationalists. Neither side in the Scottish independence referendum is characterised by extreme right wing ideology and it is therefore offensive to describe either side as nationalists in this sense.


Here the OED definition will prove useful:

"An adherent or advocate of nationalism; an advocate of national independence or self-determination. With capital initial: a member of a particular nationalist political party"

There is nothing disrespectful about describing someone as a nationalist in this sense. It is ordinary usage and accurately describes a political ideology. But it is clearly false to claim that a supporter of the UK follows this ideology. I don't advocate independence, I have it. I've heard some Scottish nationalists object that I too am a nationalist because I clearly want the UK to remain independent and therefore advocate it. But if this sense prevailed, the word "nationalist" would once more become trivial. It would amount to the same meaning as wishing to maintain the territorial integrity of your nation state rather than have it taken over. For the word "nationalist" to have any meaning at all has to be limited to those who seek political independence from the nation state in which they now reside. I do not seek this, for which reason I am not a nationalist. Therefore it is false to describe me as a British nationalist.

I don't particularly care for flag waving and have a degree of sympathy with Samuel Johnson on that front, but when I lived in Denmark and saw little Danish flags flying from every house I would never have dreamed of describing the people flying them as Danish nationalists. I don't care much for patriotism for it always struck me as egoistical and foolish to feel pride in something I couldn't help, i.e. the place where I was born. I am more in favour of abolishing boundaries insofar as that is possible than in erecting new borders. It's for that reason that I'm tending more towards support for the European project, while wishing that it were more democratic. Everyone bases their politics at least in part on their experience. I've spent a lot of time in Russia and saw what happened when a land that had been together more or less since the year 882 fell apart. You don't have to feel any nostalgia for the USSR, I don't because I know people who lived there, to feel the folly and the tragedy of it all. 



  1. stumbled on this after viewing a few to-ings and fro-ings on British nationalism and Scottish nationalism on twitter. I think I get your point now though i.e. that you are saying 'you' are not a British nationalist, rather than that British nationalism doesn't exist.

    I enjoyed reading your points here. I don't know you and have only seen a couple of comments from you on twitter (today) so I don’t know how involved you are with the yes and no movements (for want of a better word). I would like to make a point about your logic in this post, and maybe this reflects my background which is partly connected to linguistics. The point I'd maybe pick up is that your argument seems to rely on the meaning of 'nationalist' (and later 'patriot') and that it is discernible from the Oxford Dictionary (at least that's what I inferred), whereas in linguistics there are numerous theories about how meaning of lexis can or should be discerned. Now to skip over the technical stuff, what we can say is that nationalist and patriot need inference from the reader/listener and that that inference is not necessarily directly related to the Oxford Dictionary. One reason for the existence of resources like the Urban dictionary is to more quickly take account of wider contextual changes than published dictionaries can deal with and take account of usage. Nationalist and Patriot to the entries in urban dictionary have far more similarities than differences. I think you stated you were neither, but to understand why a lot of independence supporters think no voters are nationalists, I would present the following ideas that come out of discussions with those quite happy with breaking up the political state called the UK.
    ‘patriot’ and ‘nationalist’ have no important distinguishing features. Both are vices. Constant use by no supporters of the word ‘foreigner’ in a way that independence supporters inferred was derogatory supported their suspicion that one of the most important bases of no supporter thinking was an attachment to the concept of the UK as a distinct nation or state. Added to this was that many no voters also seemed to be anti EU (again I note you are pro EU so this is not directed at your own position). Now these attitudes needn’t be the majority of no voters, they just need to be the ones that were prominent e.g. themes repeated through the media of newspapers and TV. Then if you tag on the references to 300 years of history, and you start to get the idea of why some yes voters could begin conflating a no vote with ‘British’ nationalism or patriotism.
    I’m no authority on yes voters so take this as just an opinion, but I thought it worth sitting down for 20 minutes typing this out because I feel there are a lot of misunderstanding between both sides. You can see an example in Ukraine (just to choose that one example because you lived in Russia) of where misunderstandings based on notions of patriotism and nationalism can lead if mixed with certain other ingredients.

  2. I follow the logic of your argument, but would like your thoughts on the following. The UK as a nation state was created by the amalgamation of previously independent countries England and Scotland. This is analogous to the creation of Yugoslavia. A new nation state consisting of previously independent countries. Yugoslavia broke up so I guess based on your argument those who supported the retention of Yugoslavia (dominated by Serbia) could not be nationalists, but those who advocated independence for Slovenia, Croatia, etc are nationalists.
    Thus, in the UK case based on your argument those who advocate a return to the pre-1707 status of Scotland as an independent country must be a nationalist but those who support the retention of the amalgamated state cannot be a (British) nationalist?
    Let us now assume that post-1707 Scotland and England had remained separate countries what would you term someone who wanted the countries to merge and create a new state, called Britain (or the UK)? I presume drawing on your logic that these people would be British nationalists and those opposed to the amalgamation would not be nationalists as they are supporting the existing status of each nation state. This is where your logic starts, at least partly, to unravel.
    Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

  3. Most European nation states are made up of formerly independent countries. This is nothing unusual. If we use the word nationalism to describe French people or Italians who wish to keep their nation state intact, the word nationalist will rapidly cease to have any meaning. If everyone is a nationalist no-one is. For this reason I think nationalism only really applies in cases of secession or unification. I explored this in an earlier post:

    In the case of Yugoslavia there were two competing forms of nationalism. Serbian nationalism had for more than 100 years been attempting to gather together the south Slavs, while Croat and other forms of nationalism in this area had been attempting to secede. I think it reasonable to argue that attempting to prevent secession by force is a form of nationalism. But no-one in the UK is attempting to prevent Scotland leaving if that is what the majority want. I would be in favour of independence if Yes had won. I would not wish to hinder it.

    Granted if Scotland and England were independent, then attempting to unite these English speaking countries would be a form of nationalism in the same sense that German unification in the 1860s-1870s was a form of nationalism. But once formerly independent states have become united we do not normally describe the peaceful wish for them to continue to do as nationalism. If we did nearly everyone in every nation state in the world would be a nationalist and that would make the description pointless.