The New Statesman Essay - Nationalism? What's that?

John Bull had only a brief life. Wordsworth and Jane Austen didn't know him; Suez killed him off. Ha

Patriotism may not be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but it is probably the last resort of the electorally desperate. If there is one thing about the forthcoming election campaign that can be predicted with any certainty, it is that the Conservative Party will be invoking the spirit, or rather the spectre, of what might be called English nationalism. You can see William Hague's point: his electoral clothes have been stolen so many times that this kind of nakedness has its attractions. Yet the Tories' current absorption in sovereignty, asylum-seekers, immigration and, by implication, wider issues of national identity is odd, as it is based on a series of mental attitudes that, for all practical purposes, have been dead for decades.

Orwell defined nationalism as the habit of identifying oneself with a single national or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Tory notions of nationhood are not quite so absurd as that. In the same way, nobody seriously believes any longer that English military history is an unsurpassed catalogue of triumphs, or that a platoon of Grenadier guardsmen could put to flight the entire Italian army - a belief that my father brought back from the Second World War. But, at the very least, the Tory posturing carries with it an assumption of moral superiority, a kind of inner smugness. Imagine a constant inward vision of an Olympic podium on which, as a series of national banners is hoisted slowly up a line of flag-poles, the Union Jack can be seen slowly forging ahead - that, presumably, is the way in which the English nationalist envisages his position in the scheme of things.

Nationalism, it should immediately be pointed out, is not the same as patriotism: the former rests on a series of fixed principles and attitudes, while the latter recognises that the national temperament changes over time. Neither is it necessarily connected to a particular nation. Communism, after all, is or was a form of nationalism, and so was the crusading, Bolshevik-defying "political" Catholicism of the interwar years. An English nationalist of the kind who voted for Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party in 1997 and now sits on the extreme wing of the Tory party, gnashing his teeth at the very mention of Kenneth Clarke, will probably not hold the same views as someone who describes himself as "British". This tenacity is all the more remarkable in that English nationalism, though it involves the invocation of practically eternal verities (Albion, sceptr'd isles and so forth), is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, something that was brought into being in the early part of the 19th century, flourished for the next 120 years, and is now to all intents and purposes extinct.

This is not to deny the existence of national sentiment; but that is not quite the same thing as nationalist sentiment. English nationalism of the kind that regards the average Italian as a moral degenerate and the average Frenchman as a dissipated hairdresser is largely a Victorian creation. One of the most curious things about the French wars fought in the early part of the 19th century was how little any belligerent nationalist ideas penetrated the prevailing literary and intellectual consciousness. Here we were, campaigning across Europe against our age-old enemy, expecting a French invasion almost daily, with children quaking in their beds at the thought of "Boney" lurking a few miles across the Channel, and yet much of the literature of the time - from Wordsworth's poems to Jane Austen's novels - gives no hint that we were even at war. The records of scientific and literary corresponding societies suggest that - intellectually, at any rate - Anglo-French relations proceeded on a more or less even keel. Waterloo might have been a year or so away, but M. Jambon of the Institut de Paris was still sure of a respectful hearing for details of his interesting little invention.

This is not to say that rabid anti-French feeling wasn't a factor in English national life at this time - after all, it is very difficult to fight a war unless one actively dislikes the people one is fighting against. To turn the clock forward 30 years, however, is to inhabit a completely different mental atmosphere. This was the great age of John Bull and the diehard Tory "ultras"; a time, moreover, when debates about national identity were bound up with economic protectionism; a time, too, when political upset - in the shape of revolutionary stirrings - was thought to have its origins on the Continent. The great Chartist rallies of April 1848 supply a neat little parable for the development of nationalist sentiment. Twenty or thirty thousand Chartists turned up on Kennington Common, instead of the half a million predicted by the organisers. At a further rally in Trafalgar Square, a French agitator, frustrated by the crowd's apparent reluctance to storm Buckingham Palace, denounced them as "English cowards". Enraged by this insult, a butcher's boy tore off his coat, administered a public thrashing and was then borne away, shoulder-high, to the strains of "God Save the Queen".

The ominous thing about this brand of early Victorian nationalism was its habit of motivating the kind of person who, in a later age, would have been immune to it - that is, middle-class liberals who had travelled abroad and admired Continental literature and manners. Thackeray lived for several years in Paris as a young man (in his letters, he referred to the city as "home"), maintained cordial friendships with individual Frenchmen - his Paris Sketch Book is dedicated to his tailor, M. Aretz - and at the same time was capable of writing a passage such as:

"I say to you that you are better than a Frenchman. I would lay even money that you who are reading this are more than five feet seven in height and weigh eleven stone; while a Frenchman is five feet four and does not weigh nine. The Frenchman has after his soup a dish of vegetables, while you have one of meat. You are a different and superior animal - a French beating animal (the history of hundreds of years has shown you to be so) . . . "

It is worth pointing out - an irony of which Thackeray would have been perfectly conscious - that this comes from Memorials of Gourmandising, which is, among other things, a paean to French cooking. But double standards where "foreigners" were concerned were a signature mark of the early Victorians - praising French pictures and French books, while deprecating French morals and French pretensions; living in Paris for 20 years, but naming their dogs "Waterloo" (as did Thackeray's stepfather) so they could annoy passers-by when calling for them in the street.

Out of this grew the unshakeable conviction - which even now is not wholly detached from the English novel - that foreigners are funny. "M. Jacquetanape" (Mr Jackanapes) in Anthony Trollope's The Three Clerks (1858) is a fine early specimen of this type - a lisping, heiress-chasing midget who gets himself a wife through his ability to waltz. There are hundreds more like him in Victorian fiction: bearded Russians (characterised as either harmless lunatics or surly bomb-throwing anarchists), greasy Italians (apart from a brief mid-Victorian flirtation with the risorgimento), pop-eyed Yanks with names such as "Jefferson Brick" (Dickens) or "Senator Gotobed" (Trollope again). There is hardly a nation on the planet that doesn't classify its near-neighbours by means of a wounding comic shorthand, but the English variant is somehow breathtakingly clear-eyed.

To turn to the subterranean literature of the late 19th century - penny dreadfuls, for instance, or boys' school stories - is to become sharply aware of the extent to which these prejudices were codified and given the glaze of moral sanctity. The really shocking thing, perhaps, about an imperialist boys' writer such as G A Henty is how straightforward the moral atmosphere has become. While there is a certain amount of even-handedness in the scene-setting that accompanies a work such as With the Allies to Pekin, his account of the Boxer rising, the message can safely be inferred as: it is the God-given right and duty of clean-cut young Englishmen to march around alien lands handing out socks on the jaw to the frightful foreigner.

Warfare, particularly the devastating land wars of the early and mid-20th century, cemented many of these attitudes. Orwell makes the point (in The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941) that while the Great War exposed millions of working-class Englishmen to "abroad" for the first time, it awoke in them a profound hatred of all Continental nations, with the exception of the Germans, whose courage they admired. Those left behind, on the other hand, detested "Huns" for the havoc wreaked on their family life. My grandmother, one of the most charitable and good-natured women who ever lived, hated Germans to the end of her life. The explanation, predictably enough, lay in a favourite brother who never came back from Flanders. My father, who enlisted in 1940 at the age of 19, could never quite forgive the five years of his young manhood that were taken away by international power politics. There were embarrassing moments with his children's German penfriends, notably the occasion in the late 1970s when a certain Herr Ehlers turned up unexpectedly in Norwich to visit his vacationing daughter. Herr Ehlers thought little of England, and said so. He found it dirty, noisy, inefficient and so on. Dad listened to this in silence. For some reason, the town of Flossenberg entered the conversation. "I've been there," my father volunteered. "Oh yes," inquired Herr Ehlers, caught off guard, "and when would that have been?" "May 1945," my father shot back.

A representative list of English nationalist idees fixes in circulation at the end of the Second World War would probably go something like this:

- England has survived six years of warfare with its prestige undented.

- The Americans, though they helped us win the war, are basically interested in their own political aims. Where were they, for example, when they were really needed, in 1939-41?

- The French are a nation of collaborators, broadly sympathetic to German war aims (specimen argument: "All the French loved Vichy").

- Italians are cowards.

The problem with these ideas was that, even by the end of the war, a reader of the Daily Telegraph would have had trouble in swallowing them. The Marshall plan, Indian independence, Macmillan's "winds of change" speech - all these were nails driven into the coffin of English nationalism, for they involved admitting not only that England had lost the ability to control its own subject nations, but that it was itself a subject nation. At the same time, England was manifestly unable to compete with its old war enemies. As early as 1955, for example, Germany - whose automotive industry had been wiped out in 1945 - had overtaken England as an exporter of motor vehicles. In this atmosphere of fading influence and deference to American foreign policy, Suez was perhaps the last great nationalist escapade, supported by the broad mass of the population, but doomed to failure at the hands of international opinion.

Since that time, English nationalism has not quite perished - it was briefly revived at the time of the Falklands campaign, while the death of Princess Diana produced a kind of bastard nationalism bound up with English roses - but its surviving pockets have taken on increasingly outlandish and non-mainstream forms. Even the "foreigners are funny" line is no longer one that a comedian or a novelist can dish out with any certainty of raising a laugh.

There are, I think, two main reasons for this. The first is that one would have to be extremely stupid not to realise that England, or the wider entity of which England is a part, is a second-rate nation, whether judged in terms of economic power or political influence.

The second is the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of English life. A country whose national soccer coach is a Swede and two of whose leading managers in the Premier League are Frenchmen can't, one feels, be uniformly hostile to "abroad". In much the same way, having scanned my eight-year-old's class list - " . . . Schlee, Tak-Tak, Tan, Taylor F, Taylor J, Von Guionneau . . . " - it is difficult to believe that the playground resounds to the mildly xenophobic banter that characterised my own schooldays. This is not to deny that a proportion of English people are racist, or that the flag of St George has been turned into a hooligan's calling card, merely to say that old-style English nationalism of the "foreigners are funny, preserve our national identity at all costs" kind now looks rather old-fashioned, both to the political establishment and to the wider electorate.

Hague's problem, perhaps - made worse because he knows it is a problem - is that he has been forced to articulate what formerly was only implicit in a great deal of national life. The "my country - right or wrong" line might just have been defensible half a century ago. In the age of the Channel Tunnel and the new Europe, it seems as out of date as the Kitchener recruiting poster or the smiling native on the side of the Camp Coffee jar.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube