“When Britain was Great”: The Danger of Nostalgia and Nationalism

One of the many problems facing the United Kingdom today is the fact that there exists a significant proportion of the public who are nostalgic for an era that never really existed. Their line of thinking goes something like this: in the good old days, Britain was a global power. Britannia ruled the waves, we were the workshop of the world. In the good old days, you could say what you liked: none of this political correctness rubbish. In the good old days, there was no multiculturalism, just one, singular, British culture. This line of thinking is not just incorrect, but its prominence in the thinking of the electorate and even the establishment makes it extremely dangerous. And it is making its presence strongly felt in politics.

What is Nationalism?

There is nothing inevitable about nationalism because there is nothing inevitable about nations. To be sure, cultures have always existed, but nations have not. The political makeup of Europe has historically been that of principalities. A woman living in Sussex in, say, 1190, would owe no degree of loyalty to someone from Northumbria merely on the basis that they were both ‘English’. Her first point of reference would be her local community. Next, she would identify with her local lord; an earl or a duke to whom she had a feudal oath. The closest she would come to ‘patriotism’ as we understand it today would be her loyalty to King Richard the Lionheart- who, despite being a symbol of Englishness today, didn’t speak English and only spent a few months of his life in England. The emergence of the nation state, far from being a natural occurrence, was in fact a reaction to the industrial revolution, when for the first time in history there was mass migration from the countryside to the cities, forcing huge numbers of workers from divergent backgrounds and cultures to coexist alongside one another. For the sake of social order, these workers needed to be united. And what better way than to unite them than to conjure up the idea of the greater nation, with common values, a shared purpose, a shared identity? The nineteenth century thus saw the rise of nationalism in Europe.

Two Nations

In his 1845 novel Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli spoke of England as ‘two nations’, divided between the poor and the rich. The England of 2017 is also ‘two nations’: divided between the young and the old. Here are the results of a YouGov survey of different age groups who voted in the 2017 General Election:

yougov age 201
Source: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/how-britain-voted-2017-general-election/

As you can see, age has replaced class as the strongest indicator of voting intention. In the age of universal suffrage and ever-increasing life expectancy, the old are, for perhaps the first time in history, able to impose in earnest their view of the world on the young. This is a real problem, because as much as the elder generation claim to be acting out of superior wisdom to the young, the statistics say otherwise: the young are on balance far more educated (in terms of qualifications, at least), open to new ideas and at the prime age for cognitive ability. I think Damon Albarn has put it best in his analysis of the classic Conservative middle England voter: “(they) want to go back. They don’t want to go forward… we need politics that moves, politicians that look forward and (are) not nostalgic… we need to go forward and to keep our minds open (1)”.

There is indeed, and perhaps understandably, a generational gap between those who look forward and those who look back. The elder voter is, by and large, less comfortable with multiculturalism, feminism and homosexuality. They are perhaps more wedded to the idea of Britain as a nation state (hence their hostility towards international institutions like the European Union) and, having grown up in the shadow of the Second World War, have a rose tainted perspective on Britain’s history and are therefore more likely to see someone like Winston Churchill as a hero rather than someone who was responsible for the death by starvation of millions of Indians (2). To be sure, I’m not for a moment suggesting that every pensioner is a racist, homophobic misogynist who would rather Britain had a nuclear arsenal than universal healthcare for all citizens. But the influence of nostalgia is certainly prevalent among the attitudes of the elder voter. This influence- especially in the wake of the Brexit vote (which was undeniably a victory for the old over the young)- needs to be challenged vigorously, or we risk entering a period of unstoppable decline.

Enemies of the People

This nostalgia has in turn fuelled a poisonous form of English nationalism that has polluted our political discourse. This was displayed most disgracefully in November of last year, when Theresa May’s efforts to trigger Article 50 (which begins the Brexit process) without parliament’s consent were blocked by the judges of the Supreme Court, who held that she could not invoke Royal Prerogative powers to bypass MPs. Take a look at the Daily Mail’s reaction to the court ruling:

daily mail

That the Daily Mail, with its history of supporting Hitler and strong tradition of promoting racism and fascism (3), should be publishing headlines like this is perhaps unsurprising. But more worrying was the Telegraph’s rather similar reaction to the ruling:

telegraph

Unlike the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph has a reputation as a serious paper. It is deeply disturbing that it too should engage in attacks upon the independent judiciary. It is ironic that current champions of ‘patriotism’ have been so quick to disregard something that our ancestors were truly patriotic about: the independent and apolitical judiciary, a pillar of our civilisation.

‘Helpful’ patriotism

And if you think MPs are immune from the toxic influence of nationalism on our political discourse, think again. Take a look at the recent interview of the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, on BBC Newsnight:

Andrea Leadsom, in a somewhat unhinged manner, attempted to shut down debate around one of the greatest points of contention of our time by suggesting that the interviewer was unpatriotic. This rightfully caused outrage, and we must, as a society, continue to condemn attacks on freedom of speech like this. After all, how can we criticise countries like Russia or Turkey for their authoritarianism when our own Cabinet members are behaving this way? Make no mistake: there is a clear link between attacks by the right on freedom of speech and the press by Trump and his supporters in the United States and this sort of behaviour by ministers here in the United Kingdom.

It is interesting to note that in recent times, people on the right have seen themselves as victims of ‘political correctness’ (which is nothing more than being polite- politeness being a supposedly ‘British value’), that their freedom of speech has been limited by an authoritarian left determined to enforce their way of thinking of others. They have been appalled by the prospect of not offending ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals, and yet they seemingly have no problem shutting down legitimate political debate around the future of the British constitution, our laws, our conduct and foreign policy, because it doesn’t conform to their narrow, frankly ridiculous view of patriotism.

The good old days or a false history?

Nostalgia and nationalism have bequeathed us an incorrect perspective on our own recent history, which renders us less ready to deal with our collective future. I once saw Nigel Farage speak and take questions from the audience. Somebody asked him what his Foreign Policy goals would be if we left the European Union (this was in 2013). He responded that we should focus more on strengthening ties with the Commonwealth. Surely enough, UKIP’s 2017 manfiesto reads that:

“Indeed, Brexit means we can help re-invigorate the Commonwealth, with trade agreements and increased engagement to give these friendly countries parity of esteem in our foreign relations policy” (4)

Leaving aside for a moment its patronising tone, this commitment is staggeringly foolish. Only a truly deluded individual would think that the Commonwealth countries feel they owe Britain some kind of special connection; for no matter how you spin it, our ‘shared history’ with the Commonwealth is one of exploitation on our part and suffering on theirs. The idea that, for instance, India, which is one of the fastest growing economies on earth, would prioritise a trade deal with the declining British economy over, say, the European Union, because they feel they owe us some sort of loyalty for having been subjugated and exploited by us for centuries is a pipe dream. Farage’s proposed foreign policy is frighteningly deluded and it betrays a poor grasp of history and geopolitics. Our prosperity will suffer if we cling on to nostalgia in this way.

We’ve already seen a victory for nostalgic politics in the Brexit vote. Nobody believes the European Union to be perfect. But before Brexit, Britain not only enjoyed highly preferential treatment within the biggest trading bloc in the world, but we were a leading voice (when we wanted to use that voice) and power within the Union, acting as a counterbalance to Germany. Having lost our empire, Britain found itself in perhaps the best geopolitical position it could hope for: friendship with the United States and partnership with Europe.

Unfortunately, (for anyone who will live to deal with the consequences of Brexit) nationalism and nostalgia triumphed in June 2016. We ditched European cooperation in favour of what I imagine to be romantic notions of ‘splendid isolation’. One can only hope that Farage and his colleagues have read their history and that they would therefore know that when Prime Minister Lord Salisbury spoke of Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ in the 1890s he was in fact using the term in an ironic sense to mock those who believed Britain could isolate herself from Europe in favour of the Commonwealth (or empire, at the time).

But nationalists are seldom swayed by logic or facts. When President Obama commented in 2016 that a post-Brexit Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’ for negotiating trade deals (5) he was not making some sort of jibe at us but merely stating the obvious. Nostalgic, nationalistic politicians like Gove and Farage were outraged at Obama’s remarks, but this betrays their hypocrisy. The kind of cut-throat competitive attitudes that the right espouse and encourage in our economy and society must logically also apply to Britain in relation to the global community. And as a declining economy with a frankly poor outlook due to chronic underinvestment and huge inequality, the idea that Britain would be at the front of the queue for trade deals is, once again, a pipe dream, no matter how much Gove nauseously pleads Trump for it (6).

It is important that we should recognise that the so called ‘good old days’, when Britain was ‘great’, was a period of unimaginable hardship and misery for the majority of people. Even for the wealthier classes in society, life was shorter and more sombre back in the ‘good old days’. Need we seek inspiration from the past? We are driven by nationalism to be the ‘best’ country in the world. But how do we measure this? What is the value of Trident or our new aircraft carrier ships when we refuse to properly fund our NHS and schools, when the poor are being pushed out of our capital cities due to an unfair housing market, and so many people are forced to use food banks? Across the North Sea, Denmark is outperforming us in terms of healthcare, education, social cohesion and productivity. The Danes crave not nuclear weapons or a ‘place in the world’. They are a beacon of human progress, with a thriving cultural industry and socialist values. Those, to my mind, are the true reasons to be proud of one’s country, so perhaps we can look across the North Sea for inspiration rather than our own melancholic past in deciding our collective future. We should look forward, not back. We should embrace a role as good, peaceful internationalists. We should embrace new ideas, not pull back the drawbridge and retreat from our neighbours. Let’s build new hospitals, not new nuclear weapons, and educate people to a high standard. Nationalism and nostalgia are dangerous. We must ditch them lest our society grind to a painful halt.

 

References:

  1. http://www.nme.com/news/music/watch-damon-albarn-talk-brexit-election-2066899
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/soutikbiswas/2010/10/how_churchill_starved_india.html
  3. http://www.britishpapers.co.uk/midmarket/daily-mail/
  4. http://www.ukip.org/manifesto2017 , p. 42
  5. https://www.ft.com/content/63d42778-7273-11e6-bf48-b372cdb1043a?mhq5j=e2
  6. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-interview-michael-gove-sunday-times-post-brexit-us-trade-deal-question-uk-front-of-a7528976.html

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