The Ugly Side Of Nationalism

Why do Scottish issues seem to bring out forward-looking and confident thoughts, and British ones bring out constant, terrible cynicism? Mea culpa. It has nothing to do with pride or belonging: some of us don’t live in Scotland, are concerned with wider governance issues, and are pretty resistant to myths of a naturally socialist or anti-racist people, which come commentators still feel the need to keep debunking. Some of us don’t like nationalism at all, which is one of the main reasons we support the Yes campaign for self-determination.

There is something exhausting about swimming through the UK press to reach fellow-travellers who recognise the seriousness of the challenge to the British establishment.Elsewhere I’ve argued that no amount of reform can repair the relation of government to people in the United Kingdom, and that to a large extent reform even makes it worse. The British mission from the end of the seventeenth century to the start of the twenty-first has made its constitution infinitely flexible, and so infinitely able to mediate opposition while shielding its own authority. At base Britain is a patriotic principle of avoidance, its mission to keep government away from the people. It demands a faith in a universal authority able to extend its power across the world. It has created one of the most powerful nationalisms the world has ever seen.

It’s hard not to think that some of the Labour-oriented No campaigners who talk about nationalism would benefit from stepping back and looking at what Britain does to the universal public services for which they claim to be arguing. The 1940s vision is beguiling, and utterly compromised. We think we can get to open services that we create together, and our efforts are turned around by the constitution. But is British sovereignty so addictive that people are willing to pin everything to something looking much like the opposite of the welfare settlement they seem to want?

The 1940s renegotiation which created today’s most modern and most resilient version of British parliamentary sovereignty also created the form of  the public which has been criticised ever since, but which remains highly resilient. One of the payoffs for this version of the public, which is at base a modification of eternal British rule, has been that anything outside of British universalism must then be seen as nationalist. Campaigners for self determination then become ‘nationalists’ even when they are working against the nationalism of an overwhelmingly strong state, and when they are arguing for the kinds of commonly accessible services that British nationalism has made impossible.

The ‘nationalist’ line is the most standard brush off of campaigners for self-determination – especially, though not exclusively, from the British parliamentary left.Recently we’ve seen the ‘nationalist’ stuff reach absurd levels. We’ve had Ian Smart’s recent head stagger showing how British assumptions of ‘race’ attach themselves on to anything outside. We’ve had much of the reporting describing the Edinburgh incident concerning the ultra-nationalist Nigel Farage described as involving a group which were nationalist, even SNP – when there is no evidence for either of these assertions. And we’ve had comedy Stalinist George Galloway following a line that goes self-determination – nationalist – racist – thuggery. It’s funny to an extent, but the convention it rides on is casually accepted. Many will be persuaded into the upside-down worldview in which Smart, Farage, and Galloway seem to be arguing against nationalism.

We know about the core historical British mission of keeping out of the hands of the people, its commitments to inequality, surveillance, and its privatised public which are all features of British government. But the unionist argument even takes on most of the signs of nationalism. Better Together describe themselves as patriotic, just as Farage hoped in his trip north to appeal to ‘patriotic Scots’. Their supporters make frequent appeals to ethnicity, as in the peculiar points about being of a ‘mixed’ background, or having family in the south. It seems impossible to maintain that the campaigners for self-determination are the nationalists in this debate. And yet this assumption often passes without comment.

But given Yes campaigners’ desire to wrest control of shared services from of the seemingly unreachable hands of the establishment, a question for fellow travellers south of the border would be, can we have some more enthusiasm for the kind of sovereignty challenge which comes around only every few decades at most? Can we stop describing this as nationalism? When we find a campaign articulating the desire for nuclear disarmament, open-access education and healthcare, resistance to immigration myths, a space to stand up to a partisan parliament line, wide agreement on the damage of neoliberalism, a wide desire for equality, and the opening of sovereignty, can the UK press really go on convincing its readers that this is a local, nationalist concern?

In fact this confluence of collective desires indeed represents a generational push that might be likened to the push of the middle of the last century – the very moment of enfranchisement to which Labour people are still drawn. One difference from the 1940s might be that 2014 will show more of a resistance to the imperial sovereignty-traps which pulls shared services back into the realm of the establishment. We know that the promise of universal welfare will keep pressing a description of campaigners against the eternal British settlement as ‘nationalists’. We also know that self-determination campaigners should keep resisting it. There is a much bigger, more powerful, nationalism at work here, and our shared goal is to reject it.

Michael Gardiner
Author and Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies


About Michael Gardiner

Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, including short-story collective Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).