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To understand UKIP, Britain's establishment must identify its own nationalism

The Britain establishment won't be able to confront the likes of UKIP until it recognises its own nationalism.

Pete Ramand and James Foley
5 June 2014

Jordon Kalilich/Wikimedia

In the past eighteen months Britain has lost its AAA credit rating, retreated from an American attack on Syria, and elected a clutch of extremists to represent its cause in Europe.  In addition, Scotland’s forthcoming referendum on independence threatens the very underpinnings of Westminster sovereignty. In many respects, "modern" Britain more closely resembles the crumbling ancien regime described in the work of Tom Nairn than it does the responsible pivot between Europe and the US, as Tony Blair intended.

Britain's problems are partly economic. The dominance of the City led us into an abnormally deep recession and austerity has made things measurably worse. But there's a psychological element to the crisis, too. The public's sense of Britain's power and overseas influence has weakened. Westminster lacks democratic legitimacy. Mainstream commentators are struggling to explain what’s happening. 

One reason for this is that the UK political class remains completely oblivious to its own nationalism. On the one hand, Labour, Liberal Democrat and even Tory politicians routinely deride nationalism in its Scottish context. On the other, they boast about Britain's geo-political "reach", the size of its defence budget and the "superiority" of its political institutions. 

Granted, at the Liberal Democrat's spring conference Vince Cable attacked British nationalism as a "threat" to investment.  But he was talking about Euroscepticism  - and subsequently accused Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage of sharing the same “politics of separatism and division”.

Yet, by any reasonable definition, Britain’s mainstream parties are "nationalist".  They appeal to the solidarities of blood and history, offer-up officially sanctioned enemies of the state and  insist ordinary people sacrifice themselves for some ill-defined "national good". 

A few years ago, during his short premiership, Gordon Brown said Britain should be "proud" of its colonial history. Then he said British jobs should be reserved for British workers.  Last year, Ed Miliband reassured the Labour Party conference that “We’re Britain, and we’re better than this!”.  Tony Blair's rhetoric has been even more wildly exceptionalist: “Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations. That should not be a destiny that is part of our history.  It should be part of our future.” 

Westminster politicians and pundits defend themselves in a couple of ways. They insist nationalism refers to the narrow desire to break political bonds and create new borders.  But this definition creates its own problems, since the term is largely used as a value judgement, and a negative one at that.  The pejorative sense of nationalism, for progressives, attaches to the rogue activities of strong, established states. The nationalism that creates new states, from decolonisation to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was, in the 20th century, usually a more benevolent force than big state power. 

They also insist that Tony Blair, David Cameron, and their like are "patriots" not "nationalists".  In Orwell’s famous account, a patriot merely loves a land and its people, whereas a nationalist aims to grab power for the national unit at the expense of individuals.  But Westminster’s activities have far more in common with the latter than the former.  

So why is the British political mainstream so averse to the nationalist label?  Firstly, it's still suffering from an imperial hangover. To declare Britain "a nation" is to admit that it is no greater than the minnows of Europ - the Latvias, the Polands, and the Norways.  Thus, paradoxically, steroid-enhancedBritish chauvinism somehow takes us beyond mere "nationalism". 

But also, as Tom Nairn once said, you can never be internationalist enough for a true British nationalist.  If we equate globalism with subordination to America, then, yes, Westminster is a haven of internationalism (albeit of the cruise missile variety).  But is there anything morally praiseworthy in uncritical Atlanticism? 

By acknowledging British nationalism in its left-wing and right-wing forms, we will be in a far better position to confront the likes of UKIP.  Farage did not emerge from a clear red, white, and blue sky.  He’s a product of mainstream trends in Westminster politics, a peculiar outcome of a longstanding crisis of British identity politics.  Conventional politics in the UK is gone. But perhaps, by facing up to our collective history, we can make the best of the crisis that has replaced it.

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