One of the problems with words is that they can mean one thing to the person using them, but be interpreted to mean something else by those hearing them. Sometimes, that difference is entirely intentional; it’s a way of twisting what someone has said to mean something that they haven’t said.
The word ‘nationalist’ is a case in point. When I use the word, I mean someone who seeks the same status and rights for his or her own nation as are granted to other nations. In the Welsh context, I’m referring to those of us who believe simply that Wales should take control of its own future by becoming a free and independent state. However, some people use the term to refer to people who have an excessive sense of patriotism and pride in their own nation, whilst yet others use it as a term to refer to those who believe that their nation is somehow better or superior to any other.
One of the problems is that it’s impossible to say that any of those definitions is either right or wrong; dictionaries will quite happily give all three definitions as valid. But that doesn’t mean that anyone falling into one of those categories must automatically fall into the others as well; they’re alternative definitions rather than different aspects of a single definition. That confusion does cause problems, though.
Over the many years that I spent canvassing, I lost count of the number of times someone would say to me on a doorstep something along the lines of “I’ve seen what nationalism does and I want no part of it”. It’s an entirely natural reaction to one of those definitions coupled with a difficulty in understanding that there are alternative definitions. I won’t argue that it hasn’t been difficult dealing with this confusion between different meanings, but for decades I’ve felt that the tide was, slowly, turning; as the worst excesses of one type of nationalism receded into the past, so it was becoming easier to reclaim the term for the meaning which I give it.
Sadly, I feel that things are now moving the other way. We’re seeing a rise in the sort of nationalism which I thought had been confined to history, and it isn’t pleasant to see. ‘America First’ seems to be a catchy slogan whose real meaning is that ‘what we say goes’, and it is tinged with elements of white supremacism and religious discrimination to boot. In several European states, we’re seeing the rise of parties expressing hostility to people who are in any way ‘different’ from the perceived ‘norm’. The US actually wants to build a wall to delimit itself from its neighbour and here in the UK, we now have a government led by people who want to close the borders, and who take pride in the idea that we should ‘punch above our weight’ when it comes to determining the world order.
By and large, British – or, in this context, mostly English – politicians love to say that they are not nationalists. But as R Tudur Jones put it in “The Desire of Nations” in 1974: “An Englishman never calls himself a nationalist. This is one of the characteristics of English Nationalism.” English/British nationalism has always been there on the right of UK politics, in that attitude of superiority which so sets them aside from those mere Europeans and foreigners. But the Labour Party has often been little better. I found the speech by Keir Starmer in the Article 50 debate to be a particularly powerful expression of Labour’s hypocrisy on the question. He said, “We are a fiercely internationalist party. We are a pro-European party. We believe that through our alliances we achieve more together than we do alone. We believe in international co-operation and collaboration. We believe in the international rule of law. These beliefs will never change.”
Having said that, he went on to say that the majority of Labour MPs would be voting against their unchangeable and unshakeable beliefs and for the British exceptionalist and nationalist stance being proposed by the government. And they went on to do precisely that, despite the fact that the majority of people who voted for Labour MPs were opposed to what those MPs were voting for.I am finding it increasingly difficult to justify using the word nationalist to describe my own position when the worst type of nationalism is rearing its ugly head all around us. In Catalunya, there is a potential solution; the word often used there is independentista rather than nacionalista. Independentist doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in English (although annibyniaethwyr has a certain ring in Welsh), but perhaps we could get used to it?