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Patriotism and National Identity by Sebastian Morello

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Issue 18, Winter 2020/2021

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Patriotism and National Identity

An 1857 engraving of Quercus hindsii (Oak tree) with person lying at its base.

Photo: Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Ethnic identity and national identity are two principles that have always sat uncomfortably together in my life. I was born and raised in England, and yet my surname has a suspiciously Mediterranean ring to it. If Morello is English, it is English like Rossetti or Disraeli, not like Browning or Thatcher. My great-grandfather, Juan-Battista Morello was a Gibraltarian merchant of Italian, probably Sicilian, ancestry. He came to England at the end of the 19th century and married a woman of Welsh heritage named Mary Davies. Their son, my grandfather, whose name was Carlo Arturo—though he would only be known as Charles Arthur—married a woman the ancestry of whom is unknown, for she refused to speak of her family, childhood or upbringing.

Their son—my father—married Yvette Mazierski, the daughter of an English woman and a World War II refugee from Poland. Their son married a Romanian immigrant. I live in Bedfordshire with my wife and half-Romanian children, permanently perplexed for I understand only half of everything said in my home. I love my family, but if we were dogs we couldn’t be shown at Crufts. This is my ethnic identity. And yet, were you to ask me of my national identity, I would tell you that I am English, and not only English, but intensely English. I love this land, its people, its countryside, its customs and traditions, its pubs with their refreshingly tepid beer, its ancient institutions and tacitly settled way of life—all that we used to call a constitution before the 18th century ruined the word. The personal tension I have felt between national and ethnic identity is, I believe, based on a mistake.

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) in a portrait by Benoît-Hermogaste Molin (1810-1894).

It is undeniable that the political right has at times exhibited the tendency to root arguments in the principle of ethnicity. This was always deeply flawed and ill-fated. Interestingly, this tendency cannot be found among the early conservatives who so fiercely reacted against the tsunami of revolution in the 18th century. Read Burke, Maistre, Chateaubriand, Bonald, or the later Cortés, and you will find a great deal about nations and constitutions, but little or nothing about race and ethnicity. I suspect that race-centred themes in right-wing politics arose from a transposition of the Left’s obsession with abstract categories—to which the concept of race lends itself—and the conception of nationhood framed as ethnic purity by the so-called ‘Enlightened Despots.’ If I am correct about the origins of such currents, then we can be sure that these have no home with or in conservatism.

Race-based arguments in defence of national identity have a certain arbitrariness to them. Afterall, why skin-colour and not something else? Furthermore, such arguments do not lead to any conclusive answers about the role of the nation and the duties of its members. There is also a pragmatic point: arguments rooted in ethnic or racial identity, when posited by conservatives in defence of the nation, simply alienate conservatism from mainstream political discourse, rendering the movement sterile. Conservatives, over time, have wholly moved away from the topic of ethnicity in seeking to defend such principles as nationhood, civil duties, the integrity of the family, the social role of religion, and so forth. Fascinatingly, with this ideological territory unoccupied, the Left have moved in, increasingly rooting their political, social, and cultural positions in matters of identity, including ethnicity and racial history. It may be plausibly claimed that this development in the Left has only brought forth bad fruit.

Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald (1754-1840), in a portrait from the 1906 book, Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature by George Brandes (London: William Heinemann).

The ‘right-winger’ who maintains that race is important to account for his political or social views does so only to possess something symbolic of his feeling. After all, it would be surprising if he who says that Britain is only for ‘white people,’ for example, when asked to specify his affection for his country, responded that it really is the pasty complexion of its members that he alone cares about. His fixation on pale skin marks an attempt to maintain something symbolic of what he deems under threat. The question, then, is what is it exactly that is symbolised in his mind by pale skin? His divisive opinions on race are surely indefensible, but what they represent may be defensible. Perhaps, indeed, such a defence of the underlying principle is the only way to vanquish its unsavoury expression.

Obsessing about race indicates exactly the kind of materialism of which conservatives historically have been suspicious. For this reason, I consider one of Sir Roger Scruton’s achievements to have been the re-rooting of patriotic feeling and national identity in a principled moral disposition. This emerges early in his career. In his 1980 book, The Meaning of Conservatism, he wrote the following:

Every society contains the seeds of a constitution, in the form of custom, tradition, precedent and law. But it may have to fight to preserve these, and from every successful fight a degree of “nationhood” emerges. For most of us the state means, not just government, but also territory, language, administration, established institutions, all growing from the interaction of unconscious custom and reflective choice. The nation state is the state at the extreme of self-consciousness. It has its territory, its people, its language, sometimes even its church.

The nation, then, is not something made by the State, or magicked up by a document or a committee, but a moral unit that unfolds out of history, of which the State is the eventual political formation. Certain themes come to the foreground in this work, which were developed throughout Scruton’s life. For him, patriotism comprises prejudicial feeling and affections. The patriot desires to settle in this territory established and ruled by law, and do so by making a little part of this territory his own, whence comes the importance of property.

What flows from this is the theme of being someone of somewhere, rather than anywhere or nowhere, a theme upon which Scruton bestowed the name of homecoming. Furthermore, patriotism is displayed in respect for the longstanding institutions of the nation, including the political process, the courts, the royal family, and so forth. Most importantly, patriotism is seen in the pursuit to understand, and lay claim to, the cultural inheritance of the nation. The true patriot, for Scruton, is he who has discovered the nation as a treasury from which to make life rich, bequeathed to the living by the dead, one day to be given to those yet to be born.

These themes, however, do little more than specify the phenomena. It is not enough to know what patriotism comprises; we must know what accounts for patriotism, its underlying principle. It is in seeking to answer this question that Scruton developed the idea in his 2014 book, How to be a Conservative, of the ‘first-person plural of settlement.’ This is the ‘We’ of the nation. Patriotic expression is accounted for by the human capacity to lose one’s individuality in relation to the nation: to see oneself as part of a ‘We,’ a people with whom one belongs, and without whom one is lost.

The first-person plural of nationhood is certainly essential in the Scrutonian schema. However, as Raymond Tallis queried at a recent colloquium on the thought of Scruton, what is it exactly that distinguishes the conservative’s ‘We’ from the revolutionary’s ‘the people’? Tallis noted that persecuted dissenters in the USSR were, when liberated, often overjoyed to discover their respective individuality, no longer to be only politically identified with the ‘We’ of the people.

There are of course certain important differences between the ‘We’ of the communist or the revolutionary, and the ‘We’ of the conservative, which present themselves immediately. When Scruton speaks of ‘We,’ he speaks of one’s immersion in the moral unit of the nation, that pre-political entity identified with civil society, and not directly with the State. The State, from the revolutionary viewpoint, is the author of society, not its mere political expression. The communist sees exactly the same world as the conservative but, unfortunately, he is standing on his head. Nonetheless, Tallis raises a point which requires a deeper response, one we find in a later development of Scruton’s thought.

Image of Sir Roger Scruton courtesy of the Scruton family and Horsell’s Farm Enterprises.

A new theme emerges in the later writings of Scruton, namely the notion of second-person perspective. It is embryonically present in The Uses of Pessimism (2010), again in Green Philosophy (2012), and finally developed extensively throughout The Soul of the World (2014). The nation is a moral unit, it is a ‘We,’ and yet that ‘We’ is composed of ‘I’s. For there to be a ‘We,’ I must see you not as an object but as another subject with whom I am in a certain union—with whom I can share a vision.

My fellow countryman must be understood as a subject who is engaged in the same project, who is trying to understand my perspective and trying to have his perspective understood by me. In this way, there is a ‘We’ only because there is a You—that is, another I who is to be afforded the respect due to a reasonable person with serious concerns worthy of proper consideration.

Second-person perspective, as the proper disposition of the nation’s members in relation to one another, is essential for any kind of democratic participation. I can only accept the winning of an election by a political party I deem contemptible because I operate on the assumption that those who voted with the majority have the same desire as I do, namely our flourishing as a people. For this reason, I make a cup of tea and accept the outcome of the election, opting to wait it out until the next one rather than smash up a police car and spray-paint an expression of my discontent on the town memorial. One of the chilling characteristics of the Leftist is his inability to see his political and cultural opponent as another subject. Rather, the conservative is seen by him as a malign object which must be eradicated, not reasoned with.

From the Scrutonian viewpoint, the second-person perspective is the proper disposition of the nation’s individual members; what, though, of the relationship between nations? Had Scruton lived longer, I like to think he would have developed the theme of the capacity of persons to possess second-person perspective, and that he would have developed this in such a way as to encompass corporate persons. Nations, as corporate persons, are distinct moral agents, and as such may be commended or blamed. They are also capable of maintaining their individuality, their distinct cultural and political character, whilst seeing themselves as part of a fraternal project with other nations. This, I should point out, cannot be achieved merely by the assumption of distinct nations into a super-state like the European Union, which in turn seeks to corrupt the national distinctions presupposed by the union in the first instance.

We can try to understand how the second-person perspective functions among nations by having recourse to the analogue of the family. My family is a moral unit—i.e., a corporate person in its own right. The love its members have for the family as a whole does not diminish the affections they have for other families. Our family, as a whole, desires to see the flourishing of other families. Such kinship between my family and other families does not require some contract entitling their members to freely move in and out of our home without any restrictions. Still, we want to be close to other families, we want to collaborate with them, we want to celebrate their special occasions like birthdays and organise fun events together. The suffering of other families is something we wish to prevent, and their flourishing is something we want to secure. It is worth noting that were we (or they) to adopt a child, none of this would be changed, whatever the ethnic background or skin-colour of that child.

If the identity of a nation’s members is to be rooted not in the dead-ended principle of race, but in the moral disposition comprising affection and gratitude toward a particular territory and its people, then this leads to a rather controversial position in the issue of ‘cultural appropriation.’

Cultural appropriation, that great sin of our age, turns out to be the fundamental prerequisite for the cohesion that effects national identity. The topic of cultural appropriation was mentioned by Scruton in 2018 during a conversation with Jordan Peterson at an event hosted by the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism. Scruton observed that his whole life had been based on appropriating the culture of the English aristocracy, into which he had not been born. The willingness of the immigrant to appropriate the culture of the land to which he has come is precisely the disposition required to prevent him from falling into pariahdom. Recall the words of Ruth the Moabitess to her Israelite mother-in-law: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried” (Book of Ruth 1:16). There has never been a more enthusiastic cultural appropriator than Ruth, that holy icon of affection and kindness.

The Young Poacher, by William Hemsley (ca. 1817-1906), 43.5 x 33.5 cm oil on canvas.

The perpetuation of isolated communities throughout England, which have never shaken off that feeling of being strangers in a foreign land, has had terrible effects, not the least of which has been the providing of new recruits to terrorist organisations. Perhaps such undesirable consequences could have been avoided had we treated cultural appropriation as a virtue rather than a vice. It is difficult to imagine a tweed-clad young man, walking a spaniel and whistling the tune of Lincolnshire Poacher, arriving home to enrol in a new caliphate’s militia over an ale and ploughman’s. The act of cultural appropriation is the sign that gratitude and affection is present in the individual, which is precisely what is necessary for his or her participation in the national identity.

So too, we may say that a nation’s appropriation of aspects of another nation’s culture is an indication of national second-person perspective—i.e., one nation’s desire to see things from the viewpoint of another nation, at least in part. It is simply perverse to perceive something offensive in England claiming curry as its national dish, which it does.

What emerges out of this picture of national identity and the moral disposition required for its attainment is something entirely consistent with Scruton’s definition of conservatism. I once asked him to summarise conservatism in a single sentence, to which he responded that he could do that in a single word: love. True conservatism always seeks to unify, affirm, treasure, understand, conserve. It belongs to the impulses of the revolutionary to divide, tear down, protest, reject, repudiate, destroy.

Scruton recognised that ethnicity-based arguments were—to use a metaphor employed by Lord Tennyson—moulded branches that should be lopped away. Establishing anew the cause of nationhood by situating its defence in the moral life of its members was one of Scruton’s achievements. The conservative movement of the future would do well to concentrate on this facet of his philosophy. I shall end with part of the first stanza of Tennyson’s poem, “Hands All Round,” whose words wonderfully summarise the ideas I have sought to convey. (I highly recommend an attentive reading of the full poem.)

FIRST drink a health, this solemn night,
A health to England, every guest:
That man’s the best cosmopolite
Who loves his native country best.
May Freedom’s oak for ever live
With stronger life from day to day:
That man’s the best Conservative
Who lops the moulded branch away.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.

This essay appeared in the Winter 2020/2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 18: 9-12.


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