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13 October 2020

From the NS archive: Why I’m no longer a nationalist

16 August 1999: For the best and brightest, Britain is too small a stage on which to waste their talent. This is why we will become pro-Europeans.

By Peregrine Worsthorne

“How then, do you measure nationality?” asked Peregrine Worsthorne, the British journalist and former Sunday Telegraph editor, who died this month at the age of 96. In this 1999 article, Worsthorne, who was conservative leaning, explores the future of the British national identity, long after the fall of the Empire and with a new century approaching, and argues that scepticism about nationalism dominates the minds of contemporary intellectuals. However, it is a topic not easily defined. In answer to his own question, he wrote: “You can’t. It is essentially a state of consciousness, which can be observed only in the individual mind, not in the soil or blood or even on the tongue.”


A man in his seventies hesitates to buy an expensive bespoke Savile Row suit for fear of not being around long enough to justify the troublesome fittings and vast expense. For rather the same kind of reasons the British people should have reservations about studying all the new books and reports about modernising the British constitution. Why waste their time when it seems so obvious that Britain’s days as an independent nation state are now numbered more in decades than in centuries?

Sadly, however, this is not obvious to everybody. But then the obvious very seldom is. For example, in the 1930s, when long shadows were already visibly falling on the British Empire, the Raj commissioned Lutyens and Baker to erect a vice-regal palace in Delhi, on a scale of magnificence that could only possibly be justified by the assumption that the sun was going to shine on the Empire for ever and ever. Eventually, I am convinced, today’s efforts to modernise Britain will seem a comparable case of building castles in the air.

Don’t let the current popular antagonism to the euro mislead you into taking British nationalism seriously. If the euro starts doing well, as it almost certainly will, that populist antagonism will swiftly change to populist support. In resting their nationalistic pitch so much on the continuing unpopularity of the euro, the Conservative right is relying most imprudently on very shifting sands, rather as it did in the 1930s by relying overmuch on the perpetual popularity of the Empire. Grassroots opinion is never a sure guide. To get a true intimation of things to come, it is necessary to have an ear to the ground that can pick up the stirrings and rumblings that come from a much deeper level.

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In any case, to any ear accustomed to the authentic voices of British nationalism, the ones to be heard today, even at the grassroots – if a football field is any guide – sound unmistakably ersatz and off-key, scarcely more convincing than the chords of the national anthem played by Oasis.

[see also from the NS archive: The battle for the mythical middle]

How, then, do you measure nationality? You can’t. It is essentially a state of consciousness, which can be observed only in the individual mind, not in the soil or blood or even on the tongue. Norman Davies, in his Europe: a History, quotes the Dutch historian G J Renier as saying: “Outside men’s minds there can be no nationality, because nationality is a way of looking at oneself, not an entity an sich. Common sense is able to detect it, and the only discipline that can describe and analyse it is psychological.” Acting on that advice and using common sense, let me report that what I find in my own head is a state of national consciousness quite different from what it used to be.

It used to burn brightly; now there is only a flicker. I care about my family, my friends, my village, my dogs – even my class – but about Great Britain itself very little, except for old times’ sake. My past debt is enormous. I have enjoyed an unbroken life of freedom – a rare privilege in the 20th century – by virtue of being British. But while that sense of gratitude to the nation state for 75 years of invaluable protection grows weaker year by year, a sense of grievance, which never existed before, has begun to take its place. For an acute sense of nationhood was acquired at the high price of a stinted curiosity and a starved understanding of the rest of the world – insularity bred contempt – which has impoverished my life at every important level: linguistic, historical, cultural, culinary and even religious.

Britain was best. It was an exclusive love. The British Empire seemed a world sufficient unto itself. This didn’t happen by accident. The education between the wars was almost bound to produce this result, not on everyone, of course, but on many. Because of my Belgian origins its effect on me – to want to become more British than the British – may have been greater than on most. For example, I never bothered to master a foreign language or literature; had no interest in geography or travel. In 1940 such an acute sense of national consciousness served the country well. Without that narrowing of British horizons, that closing of the British mind, that proud and defiant insularity, the British might well not have been so eager to stand alone.

One has only to recall that acute state of national consciousness of 75 years ago, however, to realise how much the mindset that produced it has altered. What was normal then is inconceivable now. Indeed it is hardly an exaggeration to say that there has been a loss of faith in the nation state in the last half of the 20th century comparable to the loss of faith in God in the last half of the 19th. Just as doubts about religion dominated the thinking of the educated then, so does scepticism about nationalism dominate the thinking of the educated now.

That is why, in the present climate crowds, going mad for the national side in competitive sports, Promenaders singing “Rule Britannia” and waving the Union flag at the closing concert or even Sun editorials seem nothing but harmless anachronisms (unlike fox-hunting) more to be smiled at than banned. So much is anti-nationalism the reigning new orthodoxy, that it can afford to be tolerant. Popular nationalism just about exists, making itself felt from the bottom upwards. But state nationalism initiated at the top by a governing elite concerned to spread its values downwards – which has been the dominant form of nationalism in this country ever since the Act of Union – is marginal now.

[see also from the NS archive: Europe’s white laager]

The state system of education does its best to stamp out populist nationalism quite as much as it once tried to foster it. Having created a multicultural society, our present governing class is determined to create multicultural citizens to inhabit it, rather as Mazzini, having created Italy, then set out to create Italians. Our new ruling class is also determined to downgrade all the old rituals and ceremonies originally designed to build up British nationalism: the monarchy, the national anthem, the Union flag and standard English. Hence, too, devolution and the drift into a European federation. Just as at the beginning of the 18th century it was elites who created the United Kingdom, so, at the end of the 20th, it is their successors who are breaking it up.

Why are they doing this? Because it is in their interest to do, just as it was in their predecessors’ to create the United Kingdom in the first place, not just for commercial and financial reasons but for cultural and social advantages, too. For the best and the brightest, the pace-setters and role models, Britain is now too small a provincial stage on which to waste their talents. The international magnet is irresistible. They want the world as their oyster.

No surprise, then, that Tony Blair reserves his best performances for Washington and Brussels rather than for Westminster and Whitehall. The same goes for the high-flying businessmen who gravitate towards the multinationals; the high-flying soldiers who know that promotion is more likely under a UN blue beret than under a British regimental helmet; the high-flying academics who find more prestigious opportunities at Harvard and Yale than at Oxford and Cambridge; and the top gossip columnists who find covering the exotic international jet set far more rewarding than celebrating domestic flora and fauna. Even foreign policy is now determined more by a concern for human rights than for British interests.

National consciousness is still a factor. But whereas it used to fill the mind, leaving little room for international consciousness, now international consciousness fills the mind, leaving little room for national consciousness. This is increasingly true for those groups whose enthusiastic support a nation state needs to prosper. What has happened is little short of a revolution. Nationalism in Britain, which used to be seen by the state as a precious buttress – one that it had itself constructed – is now seen as a dangerous stick of subversive dynamite which must, as far as possible, be damped down or defused.

[see also from the NS archive: The end of the Second World War was also a beginning]

In short, the British movers and shakers look to internationalism to put history back into all their lives. Maybe that was how the Empire began – as an outlet for the energies and aspirations of the risk-taking few. Certainly, to begin with, it was no more popular with the masses than is the European Union today. Nor did the Empire ever make a great deal of economic sense, except for the corrupt nabobs who, like the European commissioners, made a fortune. But for those with vision and daring it made sense psychologically – it expanded horizons, set the pulse racing and gave intelligent men something new to think and talk about.

When nowadays it comes to national “news”, with the latest on what the “nanny state” is up to (Viagra on the NHS and suchlike), are not their spirits bound to sink? A grown-up dimension is missing. In the Camelot era the answer might have been to urge a merger with the US – a fate that, after Bill Clinton, most of us would struggle to preserve our grandchildren from. But to bequeath them the right once again to boast Civis Europeanus sum, as did Erasmus and Thomas More – surely no legacy could be richer than that.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)