The two most important words in politics are: who decides? Today throughout the West the central issue is whether government is based on the consent of the governed or whether previously democratic peoples will be ruled against their consent by supranational institutions and global forces beyond their control.

The Brexit referendum was a defining moment in early 21st century global politics. Through Brexit, the British people re-affirmed the greatest political right of all, the right of a free people to rule themselves. Western conservatives should not hesitate to celebrate the reassertion of democratic self-government – that is, democratic sovereignty – in the United Kingdom. 

Without patriotism no consensual regime will survive.

Today, the democratic nation-state is the primary institution that ensures the existence of a just political system in which the rulers are responsible to, and chosen by, the ruled. As Michael Gove put it succinctly during the Brexit debate: “the laws we must obey… should be decided by the people we choose and who we can throw out.” Instead, European Union membership means that British laws “are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out”.

Supporters of the supranational authority of the European Union argue the system remains consensual because power has been delegated by democratic nation-state officials to the EU’s supranational institutions. Significantly, however, both the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and the American statesman Alexander Hamilton specifically repudiated this type of delegation of authority that transfers sovereignty or self-government from one political entity to different political entity. Locke writes in his famous Second Treatise that if the “legislative” (parliament) delivers “the people into the subjection of a foreign power” it “change[s] the legislative.” Locke states that the concept of a “free and independent society, to be governed by its own laws: this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another”. 

Echoing Locke, Alexander Hamilton declared that sovereign legislative decision-making cannot be delegated away under the American Constitution. Hamilton wrote that: “a delegated authority cannot alter the constituting act… An agent cannot model his own commission. A treaty, for example, cannot transfer the legislative power to the executive.”  

If the democratic nation-state is the primary institution of a free society, its sovereignty and liberty cannot be taken for granted but is sustained only by the patriotism of its citizens. As political thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu, Madison, Burke, and Tocqueville have reminded us, without patriotism no consensual regime will survive.    

Conservative voters and conservative politicians are naturally drawn to patriotism, to national traditions, national identity, and the patrimony of one’s own nation. But what should be the conservative approach to nationalism? Let us examine the different types of nationalism. 

There is aggressive nationalism, often exhibited by authoritarian states, that is belligerent towards foreigners and in some cases seeks military conquests. But we already have more precise words to deal with this negative behaviour: jingoism for the glorification of war and military conquest, and chauvinism for contempt for other nations. Thus the use of the term “nationalist” is gratuitous in cases where jingoist or chauvinist are more accurate.  

On the other hand, self-governing free societies cannot exist without patriotism, which is synonymous with democratic nationalism. There can be no democracy without the nation-state and no nation (and no conservative politics, for that matter) will survive without nationalist sentiments. As the National Review editor, Rich Lowry, put it: “Nationalist sentiments are natural and can’t be beaten out of people if you try. It would be a strange… conservatism that lacked any foundation in them.” Lowry and his colleague Ramesh Ponnuru called on fellow conservatives to embrace an “enlightened nationalism.” 

The Israeli politician Natan Sharansky argued that “nationalism has been a powerful weapon in defending the free world against aggression”. During the Second World War, democratic nationalism, as articulated by Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle was a main inspiration for resistance to the Nazi German empire (which in Hitler’s view was more Aryan racialist and imperialist than a regime primarily focused on German nationalism and German national interest). 

After World War II the conservative renaissance in the West under Reagan, Thatcher, de Gaulle, and Begin was imbued with the spirit of democratic nationalism, in opposition to a social democratic-style Western Left that was becoming increasingly transnationalist. As democratic nationalists (and conservatives) both de Gaulle and Thatcher (despite their economic and foreign policy differences) favoured a Europe of sovereign nation-states rather than the supranational entity that the EU has become. 

During the 1980s in the United States two leading thinkers of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, unhesitatingly described President Reagan as a nationalist.  Podhoretz defined patriotism as a “love of” one’s country and nationalism as “pride in” one’s country, and noted that Reagan promoted both. But whatever the different definitions, the connection between conservatives and patriotism and nationalism is fundamental and cannot be denied. As the Israeli philosopher, Yoram Hazony, observed: “Conservatives have been nationalists since the days Disraeli wrote novels.” 

Conservatives have been nationalists since the days Disraeli wrote novels.

There are some who argue that conservatives should adopt a “patriotism good, nationalism bad” stance. But this manner of thinking makes too many concessions to anti-national identity forces and, thus, often leads to a watered-down form of “patriotism” that is hesitant vigorously to defend one’s culture, heritage, history, and national traditions, without which a free democratic society will not survive.  

Conservatives, whether Anglosphere free marketeers, Gaullist continentalists, or some fusionist combination, such as Likud in Israel or the centre-Right coalition in Denmark, should stand firm. We should proudly say: yes, we are for patriotism, democratic nationalism, and the sovereign right of a free people to rule themselves. And this includes the right of societal reproduction – that is, the right of a free people to perpetuate their own cultures, institutions, and ways of life through an immigration and assimilation policy that that is based on the principle of government by the consent of the governed.