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Study notes

Conservative Nationalism

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Conservative nationalism exists to forge a sense of cohesion and unity within society.

Conservative nationalism is based upon three principles. Firstly, the expression of nationalist feeling must be consistent with the fundamental conservative objective of social harmony. For conservative nationalists such as Margaret Thatcher, there are eminently practical reasons for the expression of nationalist themes. National mythology and national symbols are interwoven into the very fabric of society and such sentiment has forged a sense of extended kinship that is often at its most resilient during times of crisis.

Secondly, the German theorist Johann Herder claims that nations are in possession of a national spirit (or Volksgeist) which reflects continuity with the past. This gives conservative nationalism its distinctly nostalgic and anti-modernist character. In the UK, appeals to the Dunkirk spirit are a salient illustration of this point. Whereas liberal nationalism argues that we should embrace diversity because we all benefit from exposure to different ways of life, conservative nationalism adopts a more defensive mindset concerned only with the maintenance of social stability and a homogenous national identity.

The third and final element of conservative nationalism derives from an organic view of society. Nations emerge from a primordial need to bond with those whom we share common characteristics. The formation of a nation is a bottom-up process rather than imposed from above on some abstract and untested notion. This view partly accounts for conservative opposition towards the process of European integration. The Vote Leave campaign expressed the fundamentally conservative desire to restore national sovereignty and make our own way in the world.

The mindset of conservative nationalism is perhaps best expressed by the French theorist Joseph de Maistre. Along with Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre was a key figure in the counter-enlightenment movement that sought to defend hierarchical societies during the French Revolution. For de Maistre, the monarchical state was the only truly stable form of governance available. He also reasoned that the reign of terror was the inevitable consequence of Enlightenment thought and its rationalist-based rejection of Christianity. Furthermore, any attempt to justify government upon rational thought would lead to an unresolvable debate concerning the legitimacy and expediency of any existing government. In contrast, governments centred upon divine justification avoided the potential for violence and disorder. As befits a conservative theorist, his argument in favour of the ancien regime is grounded within pragmatism. Ultimately, it is in our own interests to have a government whose authority is unquestioned.

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