Right Minds – Niamh Uí Bhriain – Progressive Nationalist

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a progressive nationalist:

I’ve spent most of my adult life working to preserve things I consider fundamentally important, such as life, liberty, family and nation. Yet I’ve never really thought of myself as a conservative.

I blame Margaret Thatcher who famously said that there was no such thing as society, just individuals who needed to put themselves first before looking after others.

She epitomised for me, and for many Irish people, what we thought it meant to be a conservative –  an excessive emphasis on the individual; extolling the free market without a meaningful requirement for social contract; and an opposition to change which sometimes seemed more to do with conserving hierarchies than preserving the common good.

I think I realised that this was somewhat of a mischaracterisation, and I certainly didn’t like the lefties any better. Socialism might have been an experiment, but it wasn’t a noble one. It is extraordinary that we still have people, some sitting in Dáil Eíreann, who happily describe themselves as Marxist/Leninists when millions were killed in the Gulags, under Chairman Mao, and in Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.

Marx’s central tenet of permanent revolution faded pretty rapidly when a changing and more egalitarian world gave ordinary people opportunities which seemed preferable to an eternal class struggle – like owning property and businesses and making a decent living. As John Waters observed in his book Give Us Back the Bad Roads this meant that the Left switched to identifying and creating coalitions with societal groups they considered oppressed – therefore pitching themselves as the champions of all the tribes.

This was a smart move because group loyalty and identity is hugely important to people, more important sometimes than conservatives realise.  It’s also one reason why libertarianism isn’t enough as a political philosophy for me, because there seems to me to only be a requirement to avoid harm, without an emphasis on a responsibility to care for others.

I understand that the state has shown itself to be remarkably bad at caring for its citizens, the chaos in the HSE being a case in point, where, despite the fact that employers and employees pay a cost amounting to almost 20% of wages in PRSI, everyone knows that if you are seriously sick you might actually die before you get seen by in the public service. I agree with libertarian Ludwig von Mises when he said that “there is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men.”

But there needs to be a social contract of some sort, and I believe this is best expressed in the organisation of a people in its most obvious and enduring form, the nation.

Pearse believed that “there is really a spiritual tradition which is the soul of Ireland, the thing which makes Ireland a living nation, and that there is such a spiritual tradition corresponding to every true nationality”.  By the soul of the nation he meant the language, the traditions, the entire culture and faith and history, but, also perhaps, the long endurance of a sense of identity, the tug of recognition of being part of an ancient lineage, the pull we feel looking out from Ben Bulben, or listening to a sean nós song. It is the sense that this our own, that we are, as Pearse said: “Not free merely but Gaelic and well, not Gaelic merely but free as well.”

Nationalism should bind us together, not just in pride but in a desire to do better for everyone because a nation will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable. I love, not just my country, but my nation and her people, which makes me firstly a patriot, and that I remain, however foolish or cruel the people may show themselves to be.

I will say, in fairness to Thatcher, she actually included families in her ideal of how a government should organise to benefit individuals, and I understand that many people identify as conservatives because we should rightly be resistant to the sort of change which is actually destroying people’s lives for the sake of social experiment.

But it seems to me that at a time when modern democracies have demolished legal recognition of antecedent and fundamental rights in relation to families and now even the right to life, and are busy crushing freedom of speech and legislating to outlaw common sense, perhaps conservatism is the wrong description of what needs to be married with nationalism to best repair the damage. Too much that should have been conserved has already been destroyed.

I would say a real progressive is not someone who tries to destroy society as an experiment. A real progressive seeks to improve society by reform and repair, and I think we may have taken apart enough of the structures which held society together to say that we need to mend what has been broken. Maybe a progressive nationalism, a real progressive nationalism, is what this country now needs.