Ruth: Nationalism should not be confused with patriotism

15 May 2017

Below is the text of a speech to be delivered by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson to the Orwell Foundation in London:

“Ladies and gentlemen,

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to give this lecture this evening.

Honoured personally but particularly so because the very invitation is sign of how the world has changed, I believe for the better.

Apart from being the great novelist we know, George Orwell was a guardian of language and democracy. A foreteller of future perils. A man of the left.

He was also an old Etonian and I have had a few run-ins with them over the years.

Yet, I stand here as a Conservative to give this lecture in his honour.

The first Conservative politician to be asked to do so.

Such a thing is evolution and testimony to his enduring legacy.

I do not kid myself that he would approve.

Saying – as he did – that politicians employ language that “make murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Goodness knows what he’d make of the current election campaign.


But I want to step back from the general election, if only for an hour, and attempt to discuss one element of that legacy.

And as a subject matter, I’ve chosen what we might now call the politics of identity; or the question of nationalism and patriotism.

It was Orwell who wrote that the two should not be confused.

I would like to use this speech to examine the differences between the two – and how we need to combat the narrow nationalism of our times and find a more pluralist patriotic way forward.

And I’d like to talk about own experience as a politician in Scotland –

– as someone who, for more than five years, has been contesting a constitutional battle where identity politics has become the staples of our debate.


So – to begin with – if we are going to discuss this evening the difference between patriotism and nationalism, then I think we should begin with defining exactly what we mean.

What, first, of patriotism.

For Orwell, patriotism was devotion to a particular place “which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”

For me, patriotism is the acceptance that one might just as easily have come from Brazil as Britain…

But which, at the same time, recognises that – since we are here, in Britain, and since we all happened to be born on this particular set of rocky islands on the north-west corner of Europe – let us celebrate it and feel pride in that fact. Let’s cheer Mo Farrah to victory. But let’s make sure we stick around to watch Usain Bolt break another record, too.
As Orwell suggests, patriotism is worn lightly. It doesn’t impose itself. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

It is to want the UK to succeed in Eurovision. But to shrug when Bulgaria gives us nul point.

Patriotism celebrates plurality.

There’s nothing in my love of dogs that makes me want to rise up against people who prefer cats.

There’s nothing in the joy of being a liberated gay woman in 21st century Britain that makes me oppose heterosexual men. As long as they take the bins out….

To be patriotically British does not mean that we must oppose others.

Indeed, patriotism celebrates difference and messiness. We can be proudly Scottish, Welsh, Bajan or Pakistani, at the same time as enjoying our Britishness.

Patriotism does not force us to rank these identities in order, as if one or other has a higher claim.

I’m proud to be Scottish and British. I’m proud to be Scottish and British and to have campaigned to for the UK to remain within the EU. I’m proud to be Scottish and British and female and gay and Christian and Conservative and a Fifer and fond of chips, a fan of Hamilton the musical and to prefer dogs to cats  … and so on.

Patriotism simply says: Here’s great. Come on in, the water’s lovely.

Patriotism is, in this respect, a positive thing; a thing that can be shared and joined, that does not set barriers, but celebrates our place in the world.

If that is patriotism, how should we define nationalism?

Words are powerful beasts, and this one — nationalism — appears, at first glance, to be a near synonym for patriotism.

Indeed, for many, the two are completely interchangeable.

For Orwell, however, they were very different.

Orwell was writing about nationalism in 1945, at a time when the impact of aggressive nationalism was of a different order to anything we may face today.

And his definition of nationalism was not solely referring to nationhood or attachment to a government

– rather nationalism was, in his view, the process of sinking of one’s individuality into a bigger unit: be that a country, or a political ideology or a religion.

He defined it as the assertion that this unit should be promoted above all else as inherently virtuous  – and that that which was not this unit was without such virtue.

“By nationalism,” he wrote, “I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

He continued: nationalism is “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

Orwell is describing nationalism as a form of what today we would call Identity Politics, of which he is clearly not a fan.

It is a state of mind which, by definition, cannot tolerate plurality.

It is a state of mind where one ideology, one myth, must take precedence over all else and which demands people support one camp or another.

– and if you’re unwilling to make that decision, nationalists will be perfectly happy to make it for you.

Indeed, such a dividing-up of the populace — treating them like insects to be speared onto a display board — takes the force of a moral imperative.

Orwell again:

“As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance.”

In short, if patriotism is a celebration of accidental geography – of the randomness of life;

…nationalism is the assertion that your place, your view, your belief demands pre-eminence above all else.

They are, I’d suggest, not so much synonyms as near polar opposites.


Now – I want to say something now which I suspect will get me into trouble, especially this close to an election.

It is this: unfortunately when it comes to nationalism, Orwell has us all skewered, me included.

Because very few of us, particularly those of us involved in politics, can really say we do not exhibit to some degree an element of these characteristics ourselves.

Politicians – by our very nature – divide into camps.

Our camp, we declare, is where all wisdom, morality, energy and decency resides.

We assert that nothing but perfidy lies in the other.

This is the nature of party politics – particularly three weeks out from an election.

So – hands up. George, you got me.

But it’s not just politicians, Orwell has us all bang to rights.

We are, all of us, a tribal species.

In our effort to make sense of the world, it is simply easier to draw the boundaries of our own identities with our rejection of the “other”.

And a further uncomfortable truth that Orwell hit upon seventy years ago is that, for some of us, that nationalist instinct is stronger than for others.

To be specific, I speak of we Scots.

Which MP said in his speech to Parliament: “Every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist”.

Not Alex Salmond, But John Buchan. Author of the Thirty-Nine Steps and a Unionist Party MP for the combined Scottish Universities.

He went on to add ““If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable … Scotsmen should support it.”   Thus showing that even in the early days, Unionists could be devolutionists too…

So, if that’s what the Unionists thinks….then you get the idea.

In short, nationalism runs deep in Scotland – particularly when, as is often the case, your football or rugby team is once again getting hammered.

Indeed, on such occasions, I am sorry to have to report that even the most passionate pro-Union Scot may have questioned the fortune and parentage of large swathes of the English population.

In short, nationalism is a part of the Scottish psyche – and it would only be hypocritical to deny it.


But the challenge laid by Orwell is how we react.

Do we submit before this nationalist instinct and the  Either / Or dichotomy which it demands of us?

Or do we follow the path of patriotism – where our love of what is ours does not rely upon the ‘othering’ of what is not.

Like all great writers, the questions posed by Orwell are timeless.

And it seems to me that far from fading over time; this one demands our direct attention now.

Whether it is due to the perceived failure of globalisation, or simply the aftershocks of the financial crash, we all know that the nationalist impulse has strengthened once again in recent years.

In America, in Britain, in France and all across Europe – we see it.

That in order to rise again, others must be put down.

That we cannot build a home – unless there is a wall around it too.
Nationalist arguments, dressed up in patriotic garb, but the same old snake oil all the same.

Intentionally blurring the line between the country and the party.

Being the vessel by which the nation is made whole.

Whether it’s Trump’s crie de coer to “Make America Great Again”

Le Pen’s appropriation “in the name of the people,” or the Austrian Freedom Party’s “For Austria with heart and soul”

Each chose a presidential campaign slogan setting themselves up as the saviour of the nation, the people, the culture the land.

Those not of the tribe became – not serious people with differing ideas and policy platforms by which the country could advance – but were portrayed as opponents of progress, threats to nation or betrayers of people.

The arguments and were not fully examined and tested – the message carriers were simply othered. Easier to undermine than to engage.

But what of nationalism on these shores?

Now – the people at the Orwell Foundation here have made it clear that they booked me before Theresa May called a snap election and they do not want a party political broadcast from me this evening.

I will do my best.

But in discussing this rise of political nationalism, I do want to talk a little about the situation I know best – which is the position we face in Scotland with regard to this issue.

Because this question of identity and nationalism is one that now dominates our public discourse, and has done, not just for my time in politics, but actually for pretty much my entire adult life.

Now, as I’ve already said, nationalism and identity politics have always been a strong current running through Scottish politics, and did not start with the current SNP.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was Scottish Labour which carried the flag. Another Scot invited to give the Orwell Lecture – Robin Cook – (and no independence supporter he) – declared that under Conservative party government “to all intents and purposes Scotland is an occupied country.”

That sentiment helped lead to the birth of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

And then the election of the Scottish National Party to government in 2007 brought the question of full independence front and centre.

In 2014, we held a referendum on Scottish independence – in which 55% of the population decided to remain within the United Kingdom.

Rather than seeing the matter settled, we see the issue pushed back to the fore – with the SNP now calling for a second independence referendum as early as next year, before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

If you have not heard much from Scotland these last few years apart from the question of the constitution, that’s because little else has had a hearing.

Because these questions remain dominant.

When I see colleagues and commentators here wrestle with Brexit questions of how post-referenda politics challenges the traditional party structure and dominates voting intentions, I do think that we in Scotland got there a wee bit before you.

So how do we apply Orwell’s lessons about nationalism and patriotism to us in Scotland?

Now – as someone who has been closely engaged in one side of this constitutional battle these last few years – I am aware of the need to tread carefully here.

The easy thing would be to suggest that Scotland is divided between nationalists on the one hand, and patriots on the other.

To say that, on the one hand, there were 1.6 million nationalists in 2014 who demanded we reject all else for their own ideology.

And on the other, there were in 2 million patriots who, in voting No to independence, chose the ‘right’ way.

But I fear that would be to fall into exactly the Nationalist trap that Orwell warned about seventy years ago – where we falsely separate people like insects into worthy and unworthy camps, where the virtue depends on where oneself resides.

The truth is far more complex.

As I’ve already set out, the nationalist instinct described by Orwell can be applied to all sides of the political divide in Scotland – including my own.

What’s more, I also believe that most people in Scotland, on both sides of the constitutional divide in Scotland were motivated in 2014 not by nationalism but by the patriotic impulse I’ve described above.

I did not agree with supporters of independence in 2014, and I still don’t now.

But I believe that the vast majority who supported independence did so because they believed it was the best thing for Scotland.

I will never condemn them for doing so – and I will stand up to any member of my political party who does so.

However, all those caveats aside, the truth is that the nationalist politics identified by Orwell – the attempt to classify and label human beings into groups marked “good” and “bad” – has become a key part of our political practice in Scotland.

And it has to be said that this has been pursued quite deliberately.

…so that many people who do not subscribe to the loudly advanced, so-called “good” side of the argument feel voiceless and helpless.

Once again, Orwell was there first.

Examining the nationalist mindset in 1945, Orwell hit upon three common trends.

Firstly, obsession. No Nationalist, wrote Orwell, “ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit”.

He will, Orwell added, “show great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags, relative size of headlines and the order in which different countries are named”.

Secondly, instability. The Nationalist’s fervour remains constant, Orwell wrote – but the object of his or her obsession may change.

And thirdly, indifference to reality. The Nationalist won’t just defend negative matters affecting his own side, wrote Orwell, “he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them” in the first place.

I have to say, for many of us in Scotland, it all sounds remarkably familiar.

Obsession – tick. We have not heard an awful lot else from the SNP in these last ten years apart from their quest for independence.

Sensitivity about the size of headlines – tick.

I think no further than the SNP MP who claimed national injury and loudly condemned UK bias as it related to the size of Scotland on the BBC weather map.

Indifference to reality – please, don’t get me started.

Instability – fervour remaining constant, while the object changes.

When Nicola Sturgeon joined the SNP in 1986, she was attracted to a party whose policy was to withdraw from the European Community.  She now claims leaving the EU is the reason Scotland needs to revisit independence. But as we heard on Marr yesterday, she will not promise to take an independent Scotland straight back in.

And then there’s that point about “superiority”. It all rings very true.

Because, in Scotland, political nationalism has introduced the idea that only one side of the constitutional divide can be the authentic voice of “the people of Scotland”.

That only it has the right to be heard.

That other voices are, by their nature, illegitimate and phoney.

As Billy Connolly said “I love Scotland. But I hate the way nationalists think they own the place.”

Now, to repeat, I do not suggest that it is only the Scottish Nationalist Party which is guilty of this trend.

All political parties in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK have been at fault over time in claiming to have a monopoly on the national mood – as if there is one political party which can claim to represent the nation.

But I would suggest that the modern SNP has made this technique its own.

Let me just give a few examples from recent weeks.

Back in March, the Prime Minister set out her opposition to a second referendum on independence.

Responding, Alex Salmond declared that “no self-respecting Scot” would accept a “Westminster Prime Minister…undermining Scottish nationhood”.

The implication being that to agree with the Prime Minister on this issue would be to somehow concede you were a lesser type of Scot.

Or take last week. Talking about the local council elections, Nicola Sturgeon said the following:

“Labour let Scotland down by losing so many seats to the Tories”.

In other words, Labour hadn’t just failed to be attractive to the electorate, they had actually shamed the nation by allowing the hated Tories to win seats. Or, indeed, Scottish voters couldn’t vote for one of the main political parties without it being unScottish and someone else’s fault.

Or, in a similar vein, back in March at the SNP conference, Economy Minister Keith Brown summed up a debate on Brexit, with the following comment.

This one is my favourite.

“Conference,” he concluded, “this debate comes down to Scotland versus the Tories and Scotland is going to win.”

A member of Government. Who had just seen over half a million of his fellow countrymen and women vote Conservative at the Scottish election. Is that half million not Scotland too?

I’m Scottish. In fact I’ve never lived or worked outside of the nation of my birth. I cede to no man in backing blue with either oval or round ball.

But apparently, I have to choose between being Scottish or Conservative. Because, according to Mr Brown, I can’t be both.

And for me – so goes it for half a million more.

Again, the implication hangs in the air: those who are not orthodox, or do not follow the right way are foreign, we are alien, we are other.

The media has often assisted the narrative. After the council results, one tabloid declared that “They’re Back” and that the Tories were now preparing to “invade” Scotland once more. Think of that. People putting themselves forward at election to gain the support of their neighbours in a democratic vote, because they want to serve the local communities in which they live. Now being referred to as some sort of invading force.

But this technique has, for a long time, been effective. If people feel bullied and hectored into supporting SNP. I don’t blame them.

And the othering works. When I became leader I said I wanted to change the culture of the party. Too often we started conversations with “I’m sorry, I’m a tory, but…” and I wanted us to change to “I believe in X and if you believe in X then you’re a Tory too.”

Ironically, the same thing is now happening to the Scottish Labour party which now finds itself facing the very same tactics it once deployed against us thirty years ago.

What goes around comes around and all that….

But the question hanging over us at this coming election is whether that is now about to change.

Obviously, I very much hope it will.

After ten years of the SNP Government, there is an undoubted sense that people have rather had enough.

They include parents who have begun to notice that while these constitutional contortions have kept us all hugely occupied, their children’s education has been getting steadily worse and worse.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest rebuke against nationalism. It’s that it DOESN’T actually make the trains run on time. Only good governance will do that.

My hope is that, in Scotland, our decades-long obsession with the constitution may soon be coming to an end – and we can start using the enormous powers of our parliament to improve the actual fabric of our country.

A lesson that I also hope is heeded right across the UK too, as we leave the European Union.

So to conclude.

The difference between nationalism and patriotism isn’t a question of degree — Orwell is completely correct about that.

Nationalism is about power, and its obsessive pursuit, and the dichotomisation of a population into the authentic and the inauthentic.

“Nationalism,” Orwell wrote, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception”.

Amen to that.

Yet, here in the second decade of the 20th century, despite his efforts, nationalism is still confused with patriotism.

That is because, too often, there are political movements that deliberately ensure that is the case.

…showing that we must remain vigilant against nationalisms’ seductive simplicities – and always be ready to embrace the complex, the difficult, the other.

Like Albert Camus, I love my country too much to be a nationalist.

To Orwell, it is Nationalism, not patriotism, that is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

And, like Orwell –  I say we should never confuse the two.