Tribes matter, people need to belong – but not just to nations


Nationalism, those of us in the centre ground of politics are told, is a very bad thing: inability to work together across borders, tribalism, “othering” of people from other nations, an inability to see the big picture in an era of global crises.

A wise man said that patriotism can be a force for good, but nationalism is always a negative force.

So here we are in the four-yearly festival of sporting nationalism that is the FIFA World Cup. When tremendously well paid club footballers, who change clubs the way we change outfits, are reduced to tears because they didn’t score a crucial goal for their country. When 30,000 Colombians make a pilgrimage to Kazan in far-flung Tartarstan to support their team (how did they all get there?).

What are we to make of all this? A force for evil? An event to abhor because it promotes “othering”?

In his excellent, sober speech at a Radix event in Brussels earlier this year, Nick Clegg talked about the one thing EU functionaries often fail to grasp: the need to belong. The tribal instinct. Not to some notion of Europeanness, stretching from North Finland to Sicily, from Cork to the Ukrainian border, not to a set of supposedly shared liberal democratic values (tell that to President Orban), but to something more immediate.

It can be a nation, expressed as patriotism. We all have the right to be proud of the country we are from.

But as Benedict Arnold reminded us in his seminal work, nations are “imagined communities” (even if the English nation, recently revived by Brexit, has history more or less within its current borders stretching back 1,200 years).

The nation remains important as a sovereign entity within international relations, as a fundamental “block” within the democratic order, but it is not unique and it is not the only affiliation one can aspire to. Those self same supporters will return from the World Cup and will once again fervently support their city’s club, in opposition to other cities’ teams.

Londoners identify with their liberal, tolerant, global city regardless of their original “nationality”. As a German, I identify happily with my town of birth, my region and its history, at a certain level with the country and ultimately, at a more abstract level perhaps, with the continent. But in a country with intense historic inter-regional rivalry, it comes as no surprise that I am a “Badener” before I am a German.

So let us remember when the populists of Europe and beyond promulgate an aggressive “othering” nationalism, which supposedly defines membership of the nation in some religious or ethnic way, that there are multiple “communities” that co-exist side by side, multiple affiliations that can give us a sense of belonging.

But let us also remember that belonging is crucial. Those who feel that they don’t belong, the “others”, are the most likely to radicalise, to go to the extreme, the greatest opponents of the Radical centre.

The incessant debate about refugee numbers misses the point. One refugee poorly integrated and unassimilated can cause more problems than 100 newcomers integrated and happy in their new society. If the nation is an imagined community, then we must imagine a refugee accepted into that community, productive, creative and positive.

If a man were born in my home town, I would imagine him “one of mine”, regardless of his ethnicity or faith.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Gordon Lishman says

    I accept the thrust of the main argument. Despite that, I do identify with Europe – I am part of a European culture with very strong roots and in other cultures with other roots, I feel more European than narrow British. The challenge in the UK and more widely is “Englishness”,. a peculiar culture which is not nation-state and often relies on an eighteenth-century vision of rural Arcadia and is often defined negatively – not British or UK, not European, etc.

  2. Peter Arnold says

    I’m with Gordon on this one! I’m a very proud Northumbrian first, because that’s the place I’m from, British second, and European after that. But since I’ve discovered that my father may have been an Italian, then I’m adding Tuscan to my racial heritage. The truth is most people are a mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Most of us are true mongrels, and that should give us pause before we start to criticise others for not being like us.

  3. David Porter says

    I moved to Cornwall in 1978 and lived there for 32 years. I was not ‘Cornish’, of course and some who had been born there would occasionally point out that I could never be ‘Cornish’. I would reply (but only to those that had irritated me) that I was not in Cornwall because of a mere accident of birth, but, because I had CHOSEN to live there.

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