Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Toothache in the rain

The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella: Brexit and the Crisis of Nationalism - Fintan O'Toole from TASC on Vimeo.

This is good. It's fifty-two minutes long, but worth your time. It's a perceptive critique of Brexit from Fintan O'Toole.

His theme is the rise of English nationalism and he talks about about its purpose, consequences, and dangers, dangers about which English nationalists seem oblivious. Brexit is the consequence rather than the cause. Ironically, its language and politics is alien to English political traditions - 'the will of the people,' opposition as betrayal, plebiscitary politics, the sacred moment of the referendum - all are closer to continental revolutionary practice than British representative democracy. Nationalism is not necessarily related to real, lived experience. It is irrational and impervious to argument. And, ultimately, it can never deliver the utopia it promises.

O'Toole points to two types of nationalism, one that is positive about the nation and what it can contribute, and the antagonistic version that defines the nation against others. English nationalism is the latter. Again there are two variations of antagonistic nationalism, the imperialist one, where a nation asserts itself over others on a world stage, and an anti-imperialist one, where a nation resists imperial domination. Brexiters make a claim to both. They are utterly contradictory.

One the one hand we have the notion of a liberated Britain once more ruling the waves - "Empire 2.0." As if that wasn't enough, we have an anti-imperialist version too. The problem with that is that in the absence of an imperial aggressor, we have to invent one. And so the EU, a body that we joined voluntarily as an act of idealism as well as self-interest (and, yes, positive nationalism), a body in which we were one of the most powerful decision makers, an organisation that gave real economic benefits and protected citizens' rights, is now called 'rule by Brussels' and we have become 'a vassal state.' It's completely mad.

There are things O'Toole missed. Wales is the obvious one, equally as committed to Brexit. And the other is that there is a left nationalism as well. Yet that too is unimaginative and nostalgic. It clings to Bennite recitations of past struggles - the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, etc. Each are as historically important as they are distinct. But they do not constitute a coherent tradition of national independence formed through working class struggle. And those 'Lexiters' also embrace the madness. For them, the EU is an alien imposition deliberately created to crush any hint of democratic socialism and impose a neoliberal order on subject states. They say this at the same time as the right argue that the EU is a socialist regulatory nightmare, strangling business and economic liberty. This astonishing incoherence has seen Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey rebel against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn to vote with the Tories. Work that one out.

O'Toole reckons that there is little we can do about nationalism other than see it out. As its discontents are irrational, appeasing its demands will do nothing. Instead he argues, rightly in my view, that our focus should be on a social Europe "animated by an urgent imperative of social justice and equality." The European Union is an ally, despite the regressive economic orthodoxy of the handling of the Euro crisis, but the prime responsibility lies with the individual nation to build welfare states and abandon counter-productive austerity policies. To which I would add the importance of strong labour unions. This ties in with another aspect of English nationalism, its link to economic deprivation.

If there is one phrase I would love to remove from modern political discourse, it's "the white working class." It needs to be replaced by another one - "the working class." The qualification "white" is redolent of antagonistic nationalism. The belief that the white working class has been forgotten and disadvantaged, while the non-white working class has been privileged at their expense, is implicit in the term. It's the politics of resentment. Not only is the narrative an example of how scapegoating foreigners works, it is also untrue. All research shows that black and ethnic minority groups do worse than white ones. But once again, perception trumps reality. I have even seen a comment on Twitter from a leftist talking about how an indigenous working class has been exploited by a "cosmopolitan elite." This should send a shiver running through anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with fascism and anti-Semitism.

The other phrase that is often used, "the left behind," is much more useful. It describes deprivation as a function of geography rather than ethnicity. It is also true. It always has been. It was as true in the 1930s as it is today. The "left behind" is an apt description of areas in transition. When a place loses a staple industry, communities collapse. New replacements may spring up, but rarely in the same location. This is where investment, regional policies, social intervention, local government, and strong welfare states play a crucial role. They can manage transition and help areas resurrect themselves. EU regional aid was a huge benefit, but they took the blame for the UK government's inaction and neglect. Instead of support and investment, we see universal credit, cuts to services, exploitative casual employment, low wages, and of austerity for the poor alone. The anti-EU vote in these areas was a cry of desperation rather than of nationalism.

O'Toole speculates about why we never saw English nationalism coming. But if we didn't spot its rise, he hasn't seen its fall. It's declining. Antagonistic nationalism is weak amongst the young - in all classes and all areas. They see Europe as a source of opportunity and a guarantee of rights, not as an alien oppressor. I don't think that they yearn for imperial glory - not even at football. (We've all written that off and now the international break is mainly seen as an irritating interruption to what really matters, club football with its cosmopolitan profusion of international stars.) Only the most fervent believers cling to the expensive quack remedies sold to them by charlatans once they realise that they are killing rather than curing them. The majority for Brexit was small, weak, and ill informed. The political response has been inept and craven. Support couldn't last. This week, there was a pretty dramatic opinion poll. It may be an outlier or the product of sampling error, though all the polls have slowly slipping in that direction. Remain has a ten point lead over Leave.

I have always said that we are a nicer country than many give us credit for. People like Blue Labour may believe that we have to throw illiberal red meat at the workers, but I think they are patronising ordinary people, pandering to the worst to no effect. Brexit isn't inevitable. The fantasies of a deranged political class do not have to be implemented. But what is absolutely imperative is that we see our enemy as poverty, deprivation, and hunger - yes hunger, in Britain - and we bring determination to defeat that enemy into all our dealings with our European partners. Now that's a nationalism that would make me proud to be English once again.

1 comment:

Simon Pottinger said...

Great summary - thanks