Brexit and a Tale of ​Two Liberalisms (Part 2)

This Is part two of a three-part series exploring the ideas of Liberal Nationalism in the context of the Brexit debate, and how and why the author sees Liberal nationalism as the best solution to the rise of Far-right nationalism and populism. In this part the author argues that Liberal Nationalism was invoked by the Leave campaign in their successful attempt to get Britain out of the EU, and attempts to show that because of this an attempt by Liberals to re-take Nationalism as an idea could be successful.

​I mentioned at the beginning of the first article in this series how I believe that the leave campaign used many of the ideas of Liberal Nationalism to push their agenda, to force Britain to leave the UK; now that I have discussed what Liberal Nationalism is, the time has come to explain why I think this is the case. The Leave campaign made a great deal out of the idea of British sovereignty being stolen by the EU, with the idea being that Britain was being prevented from exercising its freedom by an unelected and unrepresentative bureaucracy in Brussels. Whether true or not, this idea is straight out of Mazzini’s playbook, a railing against a corrupt, uncaring elite that doesn’t know what is good for the little people who are just trying to live their lives in peace. Now, obviously the idea that the political elite of a country is corrupt or incompetent is not specific to Liberal Nationalism or even Liberalism, but when used in the context of breaking away from a larger supra-national organisation, one can see the influence of the anti-imperial Liberal Nationalists coming to the fore. That this approach was highly effective goes to show the positive attitude among the public to Liberally Nationalistic ideas, and gives hope to those wishing to see Liberalism remain an important aspect of British political life.

This issue of sovereignty was a very important one to the British public, possibly even more so than is generally accepted. Immigration is generally seen as the biggest and most important factor behind the public’s decision to vote to leave the EU, however, the evidence suggests that this may not be the case. Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 12,369 people on why they voted Remain or Leave in the referendum threw up some interesting insights, namely that 49% of Leave voters said their main reason for voting out was the idea that ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’, and 13% named worries “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead.” Both these reasons, making up 62% of the total, are steeped in the Liberal Nationalism of Mazzini and Mill, with its rejection of overweening foreign powers and desire for self-determination. In comparison with this, only 33% of Leavers voted because of a belief that Brexit “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders,” suggesting that while immigration was certainly an important issue for people, it was hardly the be all and end all reason that it is sometimes portrayed as.

While I do have some doubts about his poll, and I would be interested to know how these results split across the UK as a whole, this data cannot be dismissed out of hand. This is especially true when it is considered that the poll interviewed overall over 12,000 people. That Immigration, while obviously an important motivator for many people, is not the main reason for the Brexit vote would suggest that a lot of the current analysis surrounding the Brexit vote is wrong; by looking at the economic and social conditions that lead people to vote to leave, instead of focusing on the role of ideas and political beliefs, commentators risk misdiagnosing the reasons for the vote and allowing their own biases to corrupt their solutions.

While there are clear divides between leavers and remainers on economic, age and social attitude lines, the results of this survey suggest that those who voted to leave mainly do so for reasons that were not necessarily opposed by the majority of remainers. I, for one, certainly had worriers about the possible future removal of responsibility for issues such as defence and immigration from national governments, as I saw it leading to a power drain to Brussels and the steady erosion of national politics. Conversations I’ve had with friends and family suggested to me that I am not the only remainer who was worried about such an eventuality either. If we accept that people voted leave because they felt (however right or wrong) that Britain was being crushed by an overweening European proto-state, then the obvious way to appeal to these people in a post-Brexit world would be to resurrect a liberal, progressive style of Nationalism. A Nationalism which protects people’s national identity and sense of self-belief, while also allowing for openness and tolerance to be shown to those of different cultures and nationalities.

Now, despite all that I have said up until this point, there is still the very thorny issue of immigration to consider. While It was apparently not the biggest reason for people voting leave, when immigration makes up 33% of the motivation for something as big as Brexit, it cannot be ignored. There is a clear desire within the British public to restrict the numbers of immigrants coming into the country, something that harks back much further than the Brexit vote. A study in 2015 found that 77% of people in Britain wanted immigration reduced either by a little or a lot, suggesting overwhelming discontent with the amount of immigration entering the country at the time. It is a sad but true fact that hate crime levels have exploded after the Brexit result, signifying that, to some people, at least, the referendum was a chance to vent their anti-immigrant hatred.

it is, however, interesting to note that this issue with immigration seems to be limited to large scale immigration, and is not, in the main, an issue with immigrants per say. An ICM poll after the referendum found that 84% of the British public support allowing EU migrants who currently live in Britain to stay as they are, with 77% of Leave and 78% of UKIP voters also agreeing that EU migrants who are currently in the country should be allowed to stay. This overwhelming acceptance of EU migrants who already live here suggests that the issue of immigration is not one of rejecting immigrants as individuals, rather it is a reaction to quantity of immigration into Britain, which many perceive as creating a cultural and economic strain on the UK. This is an important distinction to make as if the opposition to immigration was fuelled mainly be anti-immigrant sentiment then any open and tolerant ideal of Nationalism would struggle to gain a foothold amongst minds closed by hatred and bigotry. However, if this desire to reduce immigration comes from a more practical position, then it may well be possible to reduce immigration while at the same time keep Britain as a tolerant, open, society. Hard maybe, but by no means impossible.

I will also mention in passing a point that I will make more fully in the next article, that the Liberal multiculturalism inherent in Liberal Nationalism is a good fit for alleviating some of the cultural clashes between native British people and immigrants. Liberal multiculturalism allows citizens of a country to celebrate differing cultural backgrounds, while also providing a basic set of liberal principles (freedom of speech, tolerance etc.) that all must follow. Unfortunately, some ethnic groups within Britain have retreated into closed off communities, and shut out most contact with their native British neighbours, causing anger, resentment and misunderstanding on both sides. A strong sense of Liberal Nationalism would allow immigrants to celebrate their own culture, while also feeling part of a greater national identity, helping break down cultural barriers between immigrants and native British people.

The evidence I have gathered suggests that rather than being a toxic howl of anti-immigrant hatred, Brexit was in fact the work of people who felt their right to national self-determination was being encroached on by an overweening, expansionist EU. If this is indeed the case then a re-connection with the ideals of Liberal Nationalism would allow progressives to relate to the concerns of these people regarding national identity and belonging, while also protecting the cherished liberal values of freedom, equality, and tolerance that we hold so dear. If, as Liberals, we are not willing to take a second look at Nationalism, then we leave the field open to the far-right to spread their poisonous hatred and bigotry.

In the final article in this series, the author will focus on what makes Liberal Nationalism a good fit for 21st century Britain, and how it can be used to counter the rise of the both the native born far-right, and imported religious extremism.

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