A Ukrainian flag waves in front of smoke rising from a bombed warehouse in the town of Stoyanka, west of Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. Picture Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

A flag worth defending

Ukraine’s brave struggle reminds us of the importance of national patrimony

Artillery Row

In July 2021, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs tweeted the front page of the magazine of the Swedish armed forces.  It was a photograph of Swedish soldiers in combat gear, carrying a flag.  The Minister commented, “A flag worth defending”.  The flag in question was not that of Sweden: it was the rainbow flag.

Less than a year later, Europe is watching as the Ukrainian people bravely demonstrate what it is to have a flag worth defending.  They are fighting, bleeding, and dying in defence not of the rainbow flag, but of the national colours of Ukraine.

They are showing why patriotism matters

To be clear, this is not to demean and certainly not to deny the struggles that our gay and lesbian fellow-citizens have had to undertake to secure equal rights and end discrimination (including serving in the armed forces).  It is, however, to suggest that while a rainbow flag may be a sign of celebration, it cannot hold the same significance as a national flag.  It cannot define a nation, a polity, united by allegiance, laws and liberties (including those of gay and lesbian citizens), and prepared to defend that allegiance, and those laws and liberties.

As Burke put it, our rights and liberties do not come as “abstract principles” but, rather, as a “patrimony derived from [our] forefathers”.  Such inheritance fosters a deep sense that these rights and liberties are ours, that they belong to us.  Burke goes on to say that this “furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement”. Rights and liberties, then, are inherently bound up with national allegiance and a national flag – a flag worth defending.

This is what the Ukrainian people are showing us, recalling Europe to a deeper, more substantial vision than a virtue-signalling tweet about the rainbow flag.  National allegiance, flag, liberty: they are bound together, nurturing strength and courage in their defence.

Ukraine’s identity and understanding of itself also has deep religious roots.  As many commentators have noted, there is an undeniable religious aspect to the current crisis, not the least of which is Moscow’s pronounced hostility to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine moving out of the orbit of the intensely pro-Putin Moscow Patriarchate. This gave expression to Ukraine’s spiritual independence and its rich spiritual heritage.  At the same time, the Ukrainian Catholic Church  with its strongholds in the west of the country, particularly Lviv is a reminder of the religious diversity of Ukraine and the country’s historic relationship with the rest of Europe.

Leaders of both the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Catholic Church have in recent days openly stated that they expect the clergy and faithful of their churches to face persecution in the event of Russian occupation (the clear aim, of course, of Putin’s invasion).  This itself is recognition of the spiritual roots of Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian liberty.  So too was Boris Johnson’s visit to London’s Ukrainian Catholic cathedral. Enemies and allies alike, therefore, know that Ukrainian freedom has flourished in the good soil of the nation’s religious traditions.

It should be a lesson for the secular cultures of Western Europe.  Liberty needs transcendent, spiritual roots to give it depth and meaning.  Pronouns on a Twitter account are not equivalent to this.  While Western institutions dissolve into self-hatred and moral panic at the mere suggestion that they have historic Christian roots, we see on our television screens the proud images of the Kyiv coat of arms Saint Michael the Archangel, wielding his sword against the forces of evil, an icon of the need for liberty to be grounded in the transcendent and the spiritual.

Ukraine’s struggle is to defend and protect its national sovereignty and independence. Putin’s desire is to extinguish Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.  Again this challenges the fashionable embarrassment in the West regarding national identity and allegiance.  As Ukrainians resist, fight, and die in their struggle against the Russian invasion, they are showing why patriotism matters, why the nation-state matters.

To defend Ukraine is to defend Europe

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the nation-state matters because it is a bastion against the ideology of nationalism.  Roger Scruton captured this with his view that “national loyalty involves a love of home and a preparedness to defend it; nationalism is a belligerent ideology, which uses national symbols in order to conscript the people to war … an idolatrous deification of the ‘Nation’”.  And so, according to Scruton, while the ideology of nationalism promotes irredentist expansionism, “national loyalty is the explanation of that more durable, less noticeable and less interesting thing, which is European peace”.

Ukrainian national loyalty and allegiance secured and seeks to secure the territory in which law and liberty can flourish.  Irredentist Russian nationalism seeks to violently overturn this, imposing its will by force, destroying the territorial rule of law embodied in Ukrainian institutions and allegiance.

A flag worth defending; the spiritual roots of a liberal political culture; the significance of national loyalty and the nation-state.  President Zelensky has said that to defend Ukraine is to defend Europe.  He is right in more ways than one.  Ukraine is showing Europe how liberal democracies can be renewed and that such renewal is not by means of the latest item on the progressive agenda, or celebrity embarrassment with national allegiance, or a determination to purge the public square of Christian heritage.

Ukraine is also showing that in a dangerous world, amidst authoritarian ideologies prepared to aggressively pursue their own interests, the liberal democracies are defended not by promoting gender studies courses or tweeting pictures of soldiers carrying a rainbow flag, but through hard-nosed military and economic alliances (and that should mean NATO membership for Ukraine), the moral courage to face down the authoritarians, and when necessary, as now with NLAW anti-tank missiles.

Already, then, we owe an immense debt to Ukraine, a debt that should be immediately repaid in ensuring that it has the military, economic, and political support necessary to hold back Putin’s invasion for the Ukrainian flag is worth defending.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover