David Conway: Nationalism and Liberalism: Friends or Foes?


With these preliminaries in place, we may now consider the degree of compatibility between nationalism and liberalism. I intend to answer this question by way of advancing and defending the following three theses.

The first thesis is that, historically speaking, far from being inherently antagonistic to or subversive of classical-liberal ideals and values, nationalism was a sine qua non of the initial emergence and realisation of liberal values and ideals.

Second, the same varieties of nationalism that were historically instrumental in bringing about the birth and partial realisation of classical- liberal ideals and values remain a sine qua non of their continued and future espousal and realisation.

Third, at present, the greatest threat facing classical-liberal ideals and values is not a hostile foreign power threatening those nation states in which these ideals first emerged and in which, to date, they have been most fully realised institutionally. Rather, it comes from within these states, where it assumes the form of powerful political coalitions determined to undermine and ultimately destroy the citizens’ sense of common nationality by replacing it with a heightened sense of their particularity and diversity vis-a-vis each other and which, unless checked, will lead to the disintegration of these nations into a mass of contending minorities.

I shall now attempt to argue briefly for each thesis before concluding by considering and replying to objections I anticipate that classical liberals and libertarians will raise against them.


Thesis 1: Far from being inherently antagonistic to or subversive of classical-liberal ideals and values, nationalism was, historically, a sine qua non of their initial formulation and partial realisation.


In her monumental study tracing the development of national selfconsciousness and nationalist sentiment in the five leading nations of the world, Liah Greenfeld has shown in great detail and with enormous perspicacity how classical-liberal ideals first emerged parallel to and inextricably interwoven with national self-consciousness and nationalist aspiration in sixteenth-century England, achieving partial realisation there in the following century. Liberal ideals and national awareness emerged in tandem in the wake of political and religious reforms carried out by Henry VIE as a result of his break from Rome.

According to Greenfeld:

In the sixteenth century, England underwent a profound social transformation…. [F]irst,… [came] the extinction

of the old nobility . . . complete[d] by 1540 Simultaneously with the destruction of the old nobility, a stratum

destined to replace it appeared. The new—Henrician—aristocracy … was predominantly an official elite…. The majority . . . were people of modest birth . . . recruited from the minor gentry or even humbler strata. The aristocracy… became open to talent….

A fundamental transformation of this kind . . . required a rationalisation and justification….It is at this juncture … that nationalism was bom. The idea of the nation—of the people as an elite—appealed to the new aristocracy…. In a way, nationality made every Englishman a nobleman….By the 1530s . . . entering the discourse . . . [was the] concept of England as a separate entity and as a polity which was not simply a royal patrimony but a commonwealth

[A]lso under Henry . . . another factor appeared, the implications of which for both the development and the

nature of English nationalism were enormous…. Henry’s break from Rome .. . opened the doors to Protestantism,

perhaps the most significant among the factors that furthered the development of . . . English national consciousness.

. . . The Protestant insistence on the priesthood of all believers reinforced the rationalist individualism in which the idea of the nation in England was grounded…. The reading of the Bible planted and nurtured among the common people in England a novel sense of human— individual—dignity, which was instantly to become one of their dearest possessions….For the newly acquired sense of dignity made masses of Englishmen a part of that small circle of new aristocrats and clergymen . . . who were already enchanted by the idea of the people as an elite, and of themselves as members of such a people.15

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