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GRAHAM WILLIAMSON WRITES INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS & COMMON DUTIES: – NATIONALISM vs. LIBERALISM?

At the core of Liberal (1) values the protection of individual rights are paramount.

A ‘Classical Liberal’ therefore seeks to support the rights of individuals within, and sometimes even against, the State. He believes that individual liberty and the right to organise for social change through the free will of individual citizens, is essential for progress. The State on the other hand is most usually viewed as seeking to impose duties in its favour upon individual citizens, thus minimising change in favour of stability.

A liberal, outside the organs of the state apparatus, will therefore seek to maximise individual rights as a goal in itself and be, as such, in competition with the State’s perceived goals. The balance of the rights and duties of individuals within a nation (in practice the State) is in perpetual flux as the two sides jockey for influence.

A ‘Traditional Nationalist’ will on the other hand willingly accept the surrender of some (a fascist perhaps most) individual rights in the interests of the nation, usually the state, for the ‘common good’. In periods of tension, such as war, civil strife or the threat of ‘terror’ the sacrifice of citizen’s rights in the interests of all, in order to deal with the immediate perceived ‘common’ threat, often becomes pre-dominant.

The impact on the balance of rights and duties is today of particular pertinence as we live through the age of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. In order to increase the security of its citizen’s Western Governments, including those that might call themselves ‘liberal’ in the loose sense of the word, have already begun to erode individual rights of association and privacy. Ironically the increasing diminution of these rights is creating an over regulated, controlled society quite alien to a Classical Liberal (and a National Liberal).

When the personal security of a nation’s individuals is seen as paramount, individual’s exercising their right to ‘pull in a different direction’ to the orthodoxy are viewed as a luxury at best or as ‘potential fifth-columnists’ at worst. For liberals however this curtailment of individual rights disrupts the natural process of political change and renewal and the ‘Authoritarian impulse’ is hard (for the state apparatus) to shed even after the perceived ‘threat to the nation’ has passed.

If we view then the classical/traditional versions of Liberalism and Nationalism as in direct conflict over rights and duties, is it possible for these opposing views to be reconciled?

INDIVIDUALS DO NOT EXIST IN ISOLATION

Liberalism does not see individuals as acting in isolation, for people interact. In modern society it is almost impossible to be independent of others; work and services make this unfeasible. Individuals therefore have to interact with others and in doing so often follow the moral codes and cultural mores of their immediate ‘locality’, neighbourhood, community and nation. Even if an individual rejects the State in which they live, it can usually only be in principle rather than practice.

We are therefore rooted as individuals within our culture and the type of society it has developed and created over the centuries. Indeed the sacrifice individuals make through taxation or service is only acceptable because they see themselves as part of a greater whole and perceive fellow citizens as partners in a shared way of life. This organisation of Civil Society is also necessary to prevent the ‘strong’ individual from abusing the ‘weak’.

A National Liberal recognises therefore that any viable nation-state requires social cohesion and identification with common cultural norms.

A MEANINGFUL NATION-STATE

Whilst pursued more often through the endeavours of the State, Nationalism actually stems from a love of (own) kind and the desire for self-determination. This includes the right to organise as a (national) group and as free individuals (2).

For a nation, as apart from a state, to be meaningful it must be a reflection of the values of its constituent parts i.e. its members, its individual citizens. A meaningful nation state therefore can only exist when its members can as individuals organise for social and political change (individual rights) through democratic means (3).

A National Liberal also recognises that there is a common culture within any nation and that this culture evolves from the choices and behaviour of its citizens and must be reflected in the outlook of the state. In the United Kingdom this culture is liberal in character and therefore the states values should likewise be liberal.

Individual rights, such as the right to organise for political or social ends, are essential elements to any meaningful nation-state and in turn such a state is required to ensure the order and cohesion necessary to regulate the social interactions between individuals.

AGAINST TOTALITARIANISM

National Liberalism represents the philosophy underpinning the idea of the liberal nation-state. National Liberals are those who seek to find and maintain the necessary yet difficult balance between the contradictions that emerge between individual rights and communal duties. Failure to achieve this balance condemns societies to the abuses of omnipotent individuals or an omnipotent state or a State in which those with less power are exploited.

(1) ‘Classical Liberalism’ in its original form should not be confused with support for free-market economics or the more popular use of the term which might be titled ‘liberal affection’, which is often seen as opposing patriotic endeavour and cultural sentiment.
(2) When the state becomes a self-fulfilling entity seeking to perpetuate its own interests (usually of a political elite) rather than that of the citizen, we are observing Statism not Nationalism.
(3) We should also distinguish between a selfish traditional nationalist who pursues the nation’s interests without regard to the interests of others and the liberal nationalist who pursues their interests on the same terms as others i.e. ‘what is right for me is right for you’

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