On 15 May Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson delivered this year’s Orwell Prize Shortlist Lecture, co-hosted by the Constitution Unit. In the lecture Davidson set out a distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’, arguing that although many political movements try to ensure that they get confused the two are profoundly different from one another. Thomas Romano reports.
The Orwell Prize is Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing, awarded every year since 1994 in three categories: one for the best political book, the others for journalism and for ‘Exposing Britain’s Social Evils’. The Prize is awarded to the authors who come closest to Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’. On 15 May the shortlists for the 2017 Prize were announced, the last step before the proclamation of the winners on June 15. The event for the shortlist announcement was co-hosted by the Constitution Unit and the Orwell Foundation with the annual Shortlist Lecture given by Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson.
The choice of Davidson was in some ways surprising. As she herself noted in her speech, Orwell was ‘a man of the left’. As a matter of fact, Davidson was the first Conservative politician to give the shortlist lecture. Joking, she said that she did not expect him to agree on the choice.
In her speech, however, Davidson chose to draw inspiration from one of Orwell’s works that she could relate to. She drew inspiration from an essay written by Orwell in May 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, called Notes on Nationalism. Here, Orwell speculates on some of the driving forces behind the nationalisms, and describes some features of what Davidson named the ‘politics of identity’. As leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Davidson campaigned for Scotland to stay in the UK in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and her party has more generally been a historic supporter of the Unionist case in Scotland. This has placed her in sharp contrast with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party.
Davidson started her speech by making a distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. Recalling Orwell’s view, she described patriotism as inclusive and plural. Patriotism, therefore, would mean that celebrating and being proud of one’s identity does not imply putting up barriers. On the contrary, patriotism celebrates differences, be they in national identity, in religion or in political views. She also noted that patriotism ‘does not take itself too seriously’, jokingly making a reference to the UK’s performance in the Eurovision song contest, just two days before.
She described nationalism as something quite different. Even if for many these terms are interchangeable, nationalism is for her quite the opposite from patriotism. Orwell, in fact, described nationalism as a habit of labelling people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, according to their national identity. Moreover, nationalism restrains a person’s individuality by classifying it into a bigger unit, be it national, religious or simply ideological. Davidson then said that what Orwell was describing could today be called be called ‘identity politics’. As she described it, identity politics is a state of mind that cannot tolerate plurality, and which restricts the political discourse to a simple dichotomy for or against a single, central ideological belief.
Davidson went on to acknowledge that politics, ‘by its very nature’, often reduces itself to dividing into camps and to drawing boundaries. Tribalism, which is part of human nature, shows itself clearly in politics, and especially, as Davidson said, ‘during election campaigns’. Further, Davidson stated that this ‘nationalist instinct’ is particularly strong among Scottish people, including Unionists, and is an inherent part of the ‘Scottish psyche’.
Davidson then said that the challenge posed by Orwell is what the reaction to nationalism should be. This was topical at the time of his essay, but remains so today. More specifically, she claimed that there should be a choice on whether to submit to the nationalist discourse or, alternatively, to ‘follow the path of patriotism’. While the former implies classifying ideologies and beliefs in a rigid dichotomy, in the latter case being proud on one’s beliefs does not exclude open-mindedness and acceptance of diversity. In concluding, Davidson stressed that the difference between nationalism and patriotism runs deeper than a simple question of degree. Rather, the two are profoundly different, but many political movements, in history as well as in present times, try to ensure that the two get confused.
After the speech, the floor was opened to questions from the public. Many asked Davidson about her view on the rise of nationalist politics in the UK and overseas. Moreover, some general questions about the state of British politics were posed, especially in reference to last year’s EU referendum (in which Davidson played a prominent part, campaigning for the Remain side). There was also space for some criticism, but Davidson proved to be very effective both as an interviewee and as a debater. At the close of the event the chair, former Labour MP and UCL Professor Tony Wright, remarked on this by stating that, having heard Davidson’s speech, he better understood the rise of the Conservative Party in Scotland under her leadership.
About the speaker
Ruth Davidson is the Conservative MSP for Edinburgh Central and has been the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party since 2011.
About the author
Thomas Romano is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.