Thursday 23 June 2016

The Patriot Game; nationalism versus humanity, by Leslie Wilson

German revolutionaries (Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalism in its modern form was born in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, and it was a very different animal from what it was to become. It was about liberalism, not economic liberalism, but liberty, equality, and fraternity. The setting-up of nation states was seen as an alternative to the old, feudal states; they were to be just, have democratic constitutions, and royal and aristocratic dominance would be abolished.

German nationalism was born at a time when young, idealistic people were mobilised to fight against Napoleon, with the promise of a constitutional state. This last was important, because Napoleon, though a warmongering imperialist, did introduce constitutions and rights in the German states that he conquered, and these were attractive to intelligent, reform-hungry bourgeois people. In 1848, the revolutionaries were angry because the reforms had not been implemented by the victors of Waterloo. Metternich, Castlereagh, Wellington, were pretty ruthless reactionaries and they clamped down on the middle and lower classes. The same ideas spread to Slav peoples who felt their own languages and cultures were being suppressed by Russian and Austrian overlords.

But there's a serious problem with nationalism; first that it tags itself all too easily to ethnicity, or what is perceived as being the 'natural' ethnic population of any given place. You don't see neighbours any longer, just 'that German' or 'that Fleming' or 'that Serb', 'that Croat', who lives down your street and who, you can too easily end up thinking, should be packed off to a 'home' they've never lived in, because they don't belong in your newly-formed nation. Secondly, it too easily morphs into a belief that your nation is not only superior to other nations, and has more rights, but also that it must not be questioned, for fear of being unpatriotic.

When my grandfather was arraigned by the Nazis in 1933, he was accused of 'lack of national feeling,' and when that happened to him and countless others, the metamorphosis from liberal, democratic nationalism to something hideous and criminal was complete. My grandfather did love his country; loved it enough to want justice and a decent standard of living for its workers (he was a Social Democrat), but he didn't trust the Nazis to deliver that. They didn't, of course. Twelve years of Nazi rule left Germany in a far worse state than it was in after the Wall Street crash, when Hitler's popularity began to rise.
photo: Imperial War Museum

Fast-forward to the present, especially the past few weeks, when 'I want my country back' has become the cry of people who've been taught, by a press propaganda campaign that Hitler might envy, that incomers and refugees are the root of all their problems. I'm not saying that the problems aren't real (though I'd find other people responsible for housing shortages, health service queues, and low wages), nor am I without sympathy for anyone who finds their neighbourhood has changed completely with the arrival of people they can't chat to. In some cases, however, UKIP is really strong in areas where the immigrant population consists of the local Chinese takeaway proprietors. Nigel Farage's poster, depicting a queue of refugees (who were not coming to Britain, incidentally); untrue stories, lapped up, about of millions of Turks heading here; people convinced that the proportion of migrants in their town is 80% when it is actually 10% or less; all these are manifestations of a nationalism which too easily fastens on foreigners and different races for someone to fear and blame.

Nationalism peddles the idea of a homogeneous, ethnically white Britain where everyone speaks the same language. Leaving aside the fact that I find some regional accents difficult to understand, and that there are actual language differences in different parts of the country: (going for a dander, dog-daisies, bargeing a bucketful, anyone know what these things are?), Britain (even England with the cross of the Syrian St George on its flag) has never been homogeneous. Brythons, Celts, Saxons (who confusingly came from Denmark along with the Angles and the Jutes), Normans (also of Viking origin), are our mixed ancestry, along with Africans from Elizabethan times onwards,Jews, Huguenots, Chinese, Indians, because we went and took over their country, are all a part of the mix, along with smaller inputs derived from intermarriage (like me). I don't claim this as a comprehensive list.

Nationalism ignores this reality. Nationalism demands that we put our own country first, in defiance of humanity and international cooperation; that we refrain from facing unpleasant facts about our country's abusive and exploitative actions and glorify them instead, so we can be 'proud of our heritage.'
Do these really trump everything?

But if your loved child committed a murder, or a rape, is it right to glorify those crimes because you love them and want to be proud of them? Is it right to feel you must even encourage them to commit crimes, because otherwise you'd be disloyal? My generation in Germany, post-war, decided that the best way of loving their country was to face up to the horrors of the past, and try to make sure it never happened again. It caused intergenerational conflict; the older generation felt personally attacked and condemned (my mother did when I tried to understand what had happened), but it had to be done, and Germany nowadays attracts respect for that openness.

Actually, the world has been interconnected for thousands of years. Mediterranean peoples sailed to Britain to get tin to make bronze. The west has been trading with China, along the silk road, since Roman times or earlier. International cooperation has been far more important than wars. Even the Norse settlers were far more likely to be traders who came peaceably than Viking raiders who massacred the locals. But then, war makes a better drama than peace, and so it's easy to downplay the fact that the benefits of cooperation will keep the peace for years and years, pushing the idea that peace is only obtained at gunpoint.

Today is a day that will, as Marie-Louise Jensen pointed out last week, make history, and what history it makes is yet to be seen. But if we listen to the siren call of nationalism and believe that we can cut ourselves off from the opportunities the European Union offers, and become 'Great Britain' again, I fear we are fooling ourselves. If leaving the EU leads to economic decline, then the forces of right-wing nationalism are likely to exploit the anger of the poor and mushroom up, as they did in Germany in the early 30s. That led to the complete inversion of all the values I personally treasure; humanity, compassion, openness. Last Thursday, a young woman who had lived her life in the service of those values was murdered by a man who shouted 'Britain first!' and referred to her as a traitor. The BNP are the only party who are contesting her seat: they are determined to profit by the murder. Putin, Le Pen, and other reactionaries are desperate for Brexit; it's just what they want.

I believe that extreme nationalism, with its filthy twin, murderous racism, are like opportunistic viruses, lurking within the body politic. Economic weakness, like bodily weakness, give them the chance to proliferate and thrive, taking over healthy cells.

I love my country; it's my home, though I am not a nationalist. Without glossing over its faults, or the limitations of its democratic system, I value it hugely and want it to remain a mainly decent place to live. I want to see it participating within the EU to tackle the enormous challenges that face us in the twenty-first century, seeking, as Jo Cox did, to spread humanity and justice among the peoples of the earth.


Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you, Leslie, for this impassioned post. I pray, too, that today Britain remains with us in Europe.

Susan Price said...

Leslie, I agree with everything you say about the dangers of Nationalism, but I am going to vote Leave.
Not without a lot of thought and research and not entirely happily. Nor am I voting Leave because I hate other nationalities or think myself superior or want anyone 'sent home.' I am not particuarly 'proud to be British.' It's just something I got stuck with at birth.
I'm voting Leave because of what I've discovered, or been reminded of, about the EU. It's completely undemocratic, unrepresentative and not really capable of reform. (It certainly hasn't demonstrated any inclination to be.)
The EU has a neo-liberal, globalising agenda, which is great for Big Business and the rich; not at all good for the rest of us. It moves cheap labour around for the benefit of the wealthy. It hands billions of pounds to the rich who can afford to buy up 'farm land' which they then do nothing with except collect our cash - at the same time it makes it hard for small farmers to make a living. It has trashed our fishing industry. (Although the Tories also have to take a lot of blame for destroying our skills and industry.)
We elect Euro MPs but they have little or no power to represent us. This is why I think we should leave. Not because of racism or nationalism, but because the EU is not good for us.
It's my personal opinion that any idea of the EU keeping peace in Europe is long-gone. Sadly, the next war is already fermenting, thanks to the economic crash.
As I said, I'm not completely happy about voting Leave, but I can't bring myself to vote for Remain. If we leave, we will be putting ourselves under the control of the Bullingdon Club, at least in the short term and that doesn't make me happy. There is also danger from the even further Right.
But I feel there is a deep tradition of left-wingery in Britain, and it's dealt with fascists and Tories before. Maybe it can again. Or maybe it won't and I'm going to be very very sorry I voted Leave. But I think the same can be said of a vote for Remain as the EU continues its work.
I think the best account of the situation I've read came from Martin Lewis, the 'Money Expert.' He says, with complete honesty, that anyone, on either side, who tells you how this will work out in the future is a liar. There are too many uncertainties and variants. He is voting Remain, he says, simply because he is 'risk-averse' but he wouldn't presume to try and tell anyone else how to vote.
I agree with him, and I shall never have any disagreement with anyone over how they vote in this referendum. None of us know anything. We're all taking a leap in the dark and hoping for the best. But I thought I'd give the view of someone who's leaping in the opposite direction. We are not all racists and nationalists.

Leslie Wilson said...

Can I just answer your point about representation in the EU? Any Eu policies have to be decided on by member states, and then by the EU parliament. Our British representatives would be more representative if more people turned out for the Euro elections. Our own democracy is frankly far from perfect, an unelected Upper House, and a first past the post system that can easily be gerrymandered. I personally have only once in my life cast a vote that had any effect.
Sue, I respect your views, and I quite agree with you about turbo-capitalism, though I suspect if we withdraw small farmers will have a rougher deal. I don't agree with Monbiot on this - and whenever he talks about anything I know about, I've found him to be factually incorrect. However, as you say, leaving will do very little for Socialism in this country, and I fear that it will strengthen the extreme right wing. For years, people have said to me of Nazism; It could never happen here. I've always hoped they were right, but what I've seen in the past weeks has made me wonder. Economic crashes, centre parties who identify more with the bosses than with the workers (as Blair's Labour government did), rightwing parties pandering to the extremes in the hope of retaining votes, and thus only strengthening them by legitimising them - it's all happening. That's the abyss I truly hope we can pull back from. There are far too many people on zero-hours contracts, but in most European countries these contracts are not allowed. I see even neo-liberal Europe as far less extreme than this government or the last, and a potential civilising influence.

Susan Price said...

And I agree with all you say. I am honestly not happy about voting either way. Maybe I should just not vote.
Sadly, I agree with you, I DO think Nazism could happen here and agree with all you say about the present state of politics in this country - which is a sad one.
But I don't share your optimism about the EU, and I don't base this solely on Monbiot. The EU may not allow zero-hours contracts 'in most countries' [as yet] but it was trying to complete the TTIP deal, which would end with us being governed by the likes of tobacco and fast-food companies, behind closed doors.
I don't think there is much to choose between the wealthy of this country, represented by the Tories and the wealthy of the whole of Europe, represented by the EU. But I flipped a coin.

Leslie Wilson said...

This is a general point, Sue: not just to do with your vote. I think we'll have to fight the TTIP or something like it, in or out of the EU, and there has been a lot of Europe-wide work done already. If we vote Leave today, then we may end up losing our ability to combat it. I do think the kind of government we're likely to get will be keen to have it, just as they were keen to give away our steel industry, though other European countries have protected theirs, just as our railways have been handed over. I like to see Deutsche Bahn carriages in Germany, but it doesn't amuse me to see other nationalised railways owning our own rail companies.
But on the wider issue of nationalism, there are some very ugly things burgeoning all over Europe, and whatever is the outcome of today's referendum, I think that is something we shall have to deal with. If we leave the EU, I shall just see what I can do anyway. The whole thing makes me very sad.

Miranda Miller said...

What an interesting exchange, and how admirably polite you both kept it! I must admit that, many times since Friday, I've fallen into the trap ( a trap door in my own personality) of rubbishing those who voted to leave. The public campaign was so dishonest, irrational and simplistic, on both sides. Somehow, in private, we need to move on from grief to an understanding of Britain's rightful place in the world. This national identity crisis has been festering for as long as I can remember. Perhaps the popularity of books about Victorian, imperial England and the world wars is even a part of it?

Clare Mulley said...

Such a great post Leslie, and post-post exchange. Makes me so sad to read it now, as race hatred and violence does indeed seem to be on the rise in Brexit Britain. I was searching for your more recent post but each one you write is good, thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

I'm honoured, Clare! The one about 'How much did they know?' is coming up on the 23rd, already scheduled..As you say, things have only got worse since the referendum, as I feared they would. What bothers me is, that though we are constantly told that people had many reasons for voting Leave, it is supposed that immigration was the chief one. Also, one hears journalists and others saying that the majority voted Leave, which is not in fact the case..

Leslie Wilson said...

The majority of the population, I mean. It was of course only the majority of those who turned out to vote.