One of the forgotten secrets of Britain’s rise to power, says Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times, is that our ancestors banned marriages between cousins. This Christian edict, which by the 11th century had extended to sixth cousins, “forced people to marry across tribal lines”, dissolving sectarian divisions and paving the way for a national identity. It’s that sense of solidarity that makes people willing to “fight and die for a nation”. Look at Afghanistan, where loyalties are to tribes rather than the country as a whole. When the Americans withdrew last year, the national army “melted away within minutes”. It’s the same story in war-torn Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
My father, who hailed from Pakistan via India, had witnessed the dangers of national identity being fractured by sectarian interests – and he felt that to live in the UK, a country which had transcended them, was a “miracle”. I used to think his patriotism was an “eccentricity”, but now I realise he was right. “Britishness is our greatest and most precious asset.” Populists such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban have given nationalism a bad name. But “right-wing populism is not an expression of national identity; it emerges from a crisis in national identity”. A “healthy sense” of national pride holds people together and overcomes tribalism. In the coming decades we’ll face challenges from Russia and China that will probably require us to make big sacrifices. Once again, our greatest strength will be “national solidarity”.