Flawed UK and US patriotism behind ‘nation first’ politics


During my posting as ambassador in London, I regularly attended the main party conferences. Debates in the main conference hall tended to be fairly downbeat and sometimes sparsely attended. However, at the Conservative conference, two things were guaranteed to rouse delegates from any slumbers. Calls to preserve the United Kingdom and references to Boris Johnson.

The Tory conference which opened in Birmingham on Sunday is set to react to the same stimuli. Theresa May has let it be known that the unity of the UK will be a key theme. “Brexit good’” and “Corbyn bad” slogans will also get the juices flowing. The emphasis on preserving the UK will not, of course, be affected by the fact that the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland were not consulted before the decision to call the Brexit referendum, regarded as important during the campaign or worthy of having their views being taken into account in interpreting the outcome.

US president Donald Trump: said ‘the UN has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement’ but has ‘tremendous potential’. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump’s use this week of the UN General Assembly, the home of multilateralism, to reiterate his “America first” message, is something darker. File photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Claiming to put one’s country first is now all the rage. From the US to Hungary, from Turkey to Italy. The main thing such mere assertions of patriotism have in common is that they are not in any meaningful sense patriotic. It is perhaps to be expected at a party conference. President Donald Trump’s use this week of the UN General Assembly, the home of multilateralism, to reiterate his “America first” message is something darker.

People everywhere rightly seek to advance their country’s interests and to put their country first. It’s what political leaders of every persuasion try to do. It is what diplomats do. It is what citizens do in various ways. The fundamental issue we all face is not whether to put our country first but rather how to do so. It is a complex question the subtleties of which are well beyond the musical range of a dog whistle.

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Dangerous lie

In general, those who sloganise about putting their “country first” propose a very simple and narrow view of national interest. They propagate the dangerous lie that there are simple answers to difficult questions. In reality, the political recipe recommended by such self-proclaimed patriots has less to do with the real interests of their own people than with dismissing the interests of other peoples. Compromise for them is always a dirty word.

They are comfortable undermining the international organisations, agreements, rules, relationships and principles which offer the best hope for prosperity and peace, including for their own people. A spicy ingredient in their dangerous recipe tends to be a rejection of diversity at home and a hostility to newcomers.

The political recipe recommended by self-proclaimed patriots has less to do with the real interests of their own people than with dismissing the interests of others

People who take a different approach disagree, sometimes fundamentally, about how exactly national interests should be pursued. However, they recognise that to advance one’s country’s interests one must first understand and respect the interests of others. They may differ on priorities but they understand the importance of maintaining the international structures which, with all their imperfections, provide the necessary context for agreement and friendship.

In any family, which family member could be said truly to put their own interest first? The one who insists that they alone will decide for everyone all the food choices, conversation topics and TV programmes? Or the one who takes reasonable account of the interests of others?

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Rampant populism

The UK referendum decision was a textbook example of the narrow definition of national interest. It is becoming obvious that those who proclaimed that their aim was to put Britain first are ending up with something resembling the opposite. I believe that Theresa May understands better than many in her party that national interests require arming oneself with arguments rather than wrapping oneself in flags. Her domestic difficulties stem largely from a belated but brave attempt to bridge the yawning gap between Britain’s real interests and the rampant populism inspired by a “UK first” philosophy.

Theresa May understands better than many in her party that national interests require arming oneself with arguments rather than wrapping oneself in flags

In the context of Brexit, Ireland and our other EU partners should continue the complex task of advancing our interests as effectively as possible. That means taking appropriate account of Britain’s interests even as Britain itself is struggling, intellectually and politically, to identify what its interests are. However, as we define and pursue our approach, a priority for each of the 27 must be to recognise that our fundamental national interest involves taking account of each other’s concerns and of ensuring the continued success of our shared enterprise. The remarkable solidarity that our partners are demonstrating in relation to Northern Ireland is a striking reminder that interests don’t need to be defined narrowly or selfishly.

Both sides in the Brexit negotiations should be guided by the principle, on which the EU itself is founded, that putting one’s country first requires not the trumpeting of narrow national interest but rather a generosity of spirit towards the interests of others. That will be easier once the Tory Party conference is out of the way.

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Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the UK, Italy and the EU



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