Pride comes before a fall – are Scots too proud? Why excessive national pride is bad for everyone.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Whatever the outcome of the vote on Scottish independence, the campaign has been marked by a surge of Scottish pride and nationalism. Both sides of the debate have united over the idea that it’s wonderful to be proud to be Scottish.
If this is the case, and a major academic study suggests this might happen, then paradoxically the Scots could end up being self-destructive, because of a wave of nationalistic pride.
The authors of the study, Pelle Ahlerup and Gustav Hansson, from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, investigated whether excessive nationalism could harm a country.
They note that while promoting nationalism aims to improve cooperation and cohesion amongst citizens, it might have several downsides.
After all, the West is generally nervous of the excessive nationalistic pride of someone like President Putin.
Excessive patriotism could encourage less understanding and reduced acceptance of other cultures. Stronger nationalistic sentiments can be associated with more distaste for imported goods, producing a more protectionist attitude, leading to an insular approach to trade and the putting up of barriers. This in turn reduces competitiveness and longer-term growth, damaging trading and the economy.
Nationalistic sentiments are used by wily politicians as a quick fix for a community’s woes (hence perhaps Putin). But patriotism might not be a true cure for a nation not at ease with itself. Instead, argue Pelle Ahlerup and Gustav Hansson, it could become part of the disease of troubled states.
Their study, entitled ‘Nationalism and government effectiveness’, measured the level of national pride in the population across the globe from the World Values Survey.
This survey has, since 1981, conducted detailed public opinion surveys of beliefs and values for a broad cross section of countries. It includes a specific question asking respondents how proud they are to be of their nationality.
‘Government Effectiveness’ was also assessed in this study, and is a World Bank Governance Indicator combining a large number of different measures, such as how satisﬁed people are with infrastructure and bureaucratic delays.
The findings include that people on average across the planet seem to be more than ‘quite’ proud of their country. The lowest scores for nationalist pride are found in Germany, Taiwan, Japan, The Netherlands, and Russia (hence perhaps Putin’s nationalistic strategy for courting popularity). The highest scores are in Egypt, Venezuela, Morocco, Iran and Puerto Rico.
The US is not far behind the highest scorers on national pride, while the UK is a bit behind the US, yet ahead of France on national pride. France, with its slightly lower levels of nationalism, is closer than the US or the UK to the optimum level of national pride, in terms of positive effect on a country.
Of relevance to the Scottish Referendum, the study found that countries across the globe with less historical experience of an independent and sovereign state apparatus, often indicating younger countries, are more likely to boast prouder populations.
The research, published in the ‘Journal of Comparative Economics’, found that nationalism is a positive force for better Government effectiveness at low levels of nationalism, but it transforms into a malign influence at higher levels of nationalism.
The stronger the pride of being a member of it, the more important the welfare of the nation will be in the eyes of voters, and the more they will accept the authority of the government given that it is seen to rule in the interest of the nation. And the more altruistic citizens will act towards other nationals. But the downside is there will also be a stronger tendency for xenophobia and scepticism toward outside ideas, techniques, and goods believed to violate national traditions.
Economists argue that external openness to trade, ideas and practices, exerts competitive pressure and innovation which leads to adopting sounder policies. Governments can afford to be less efﬁcient if free from foreign pressure, and electorates in more closed countries become less aware of the relative weaknesses of their politicians.
Excessive nationalism may reduce levels of openness, so reducing the disciplining pressure of outside competition.
Nationalism is also associated with a more unquestioning acceptance of the state. Voters with a sentimental attachment to their country tend to uncritically support government policies. They are more likely to reject national criticism, and tend not to take actions associated with better monitoring of ofﬁcials, associated with more efficient state functioning.
The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of nationalistic sentiments on the ability of governments effectively to formulate and implement good policies, for a wide cross-section of countries.
The researchers concluded that there is an inverted ‘U-shaped’ relationship between nationalism and government effectiveness.
In other words, if the Scots are excessively nationalistic, this could be bad for them in the long run.
Of relevance to the Scottish debate, Pelle Ahlerup and Gustav Hansson argue that a strategy designed to create, strengthen, or sustain a sense of national unity must be one of the most dramatic policies conceivable.
It affects how people view themselves.
Having whipped up national fervour in Scotland, it’s possibly a bit hypocritical of politicians to then decry the passion they have provoked, when it threatens to veer out of control.
When asked what are the implications of their research for Scottish independence and the referendum, Pelle Ahlerup and Gustav Hansson declare they would not go so far as to definitively assert that Scotland currently has a damaging level of nationalism. After all, their results also suggest that the level of nationalism in the population is higher than optimal for the economy, in most countries.
But is it particularly too high in Scotland now? That is something they contend cannot deduced from their findings. Rather, an interesting question: Considering excessive nationalism can lead to dismal outcomes, is the level of nationalism in Scotland at such a dangerously high level, or are the Scots in peril of approaching such a risky peak?
Nationalism is not neutral – too little or too much are not good for anyone.
In some ways, by politicians on all sides raising the nationalist temperature, the real danger of this vote is that Scots have already lost from the referendum, whichever way it swings.