Brexit and a Tale of ​Two Liberalisms Part 1

On the 14th September, 2016, the left-wing magazine the ‘New Statesman’ ran an article entitled ‘Can Britain’s vanquished liberals ever recover?’, which claimed that Liberalism’s apparent victory during the Blair years was a “false dawn”, and that Liberals had been “cast to the margins” by the populist uprising embodied in the Brexit vote. This has become one of the most popular refrains when trying to understand that vote: that Liberalism as a political idea has been rejected by a population tired of internationalism, tired of what they deem to be unlimited immigration, and tired of a relatively free market approach to the economy. Leave campaigners consistently used this idea to their advantage, railing against a so-called ‘Liberal elite’, an ‘establishment’ that benefited from EU membership while the majority of people were left to deal with the negative consequences.

This seems intuitive to a great many people; after all, were not contemporary Liberals such as Tim Farron among the biggest cheerleaders for the EU? The Liberal Democrat conference made a great deal out of their opposition to the Brexit vote, with their pledge to ignore the referendum result becoming a big feature of their party platform. However, if we go beneath the surface of Liberal thought we find a web of hugely conflicting and contradictory ideas with regards to Nationalism, many of which have grown and evolved over the course of the last two centuries. Indeed, while it may seem strange at first glance, I would argue that many of the ideas put forward by the Leave campaign were actually Liberal in their basis, and would have been very familiar to Liberal Nationalists of the 19th and early 20th century.

The tale of liberalism over the course of the 20th century involves to a large extent the movement of liberal thought from a support of nationalism to a support of internationalism, and I would suggest that this rejection of ‘liberal-nationalism’ by liberals themselves paved the way for their own arguments to be used against them, not just in the Brexit campaign but in the groundswell of nationalist feeling currently breaking out across the western world. This liberal-nationalism manifests itself as a form of civic nationalism, a nationalism focused on support for and appreciation of national ideals and institutions such as British democracy and the rule of law. This is a form of nationalism is compatible with values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights. What is more, it is open to all people living within a particular country rather than being a privilege of those born there, and one which sees democratic nation states as the best method thus discovered of ordering human societies. I believe this form of nationalism to be the best rejoinder to those intent on stoking xenophobia and racism by giving everybody within a country a set of common ideals and principles that can be related to, and its abandonment by modern liberalism has left it ill-equipped to deal with a resurgent, divisive, nationalism that is often led by those with far more unsavoury agendas than the liberal nationalists of old. I would argue that in order to deal with this crisis, liberals must rediscover their support for their own liberal-nationalism, and in doing so provide an attractive alternative to the xenophobic, sectarian and fear-stoking nationalism being peddled by those on the far right.

In order for liberals to retake nationalism as an idea, they must first understand where it came from and why it was so important to early Liberal thought. Most scholars argue that nationalism as a political force began with the 19th century Italian reformer, Giuseppe Mazzini, whose ‘Young Italy’ movement argued for national self-governance in the face of rule from out of touch, dictatorial empires. This idea developed into a form of nationalism named ‘Liberal Nationalism’, so-called because its ideas and justifications are drawn from the ideas of classical liberal theorists such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill.

The most basic idea of Liberal Nationalism is that of national self-rule, which is founded in the Liberal respect for individual rights. Liberals in general argue that individuals have the right to choose how to live, free from unnecessary interference by outside powers. Liberal nationalists expand on this idea, arguing that since individuals have the right to live how they choose, they also have a right to self-determination and therefore to choose their own governments free from interference from outside sources. Thus, many liberal nationalists saw empires, such as the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire or the colonial British Empire, as wrong, and argued that each nationality within them should be able to choose their own form of governance. The Nation-State is seen by such Liberals as the most effective blueprint for cultural groups to set up their own functioning societies. Mill himself argued that “the boundaries of government should coincide in the main, with those of nationality”.

This is important because during the 19th and early 20th century, much opposition to nationalism came from socialism (rather than liberalism) – with the International Working Men’s Association (described by Friedrich Engels as ‘the first international movement of the working class’) taking as its slogan, ‘working men of all countries, unite!’ Socialists saw, and many indeed still see, nationalism as a pernicious force, a way for the ruling class to keep down the proletariat by turning them against their fellow workers in different countries. Less strident versions of these ideas can be heard from many left leaning Liberals today, who argue that too much focus on national borders and culture poisons groups of people against each other. It is this strand of Internationalist Socialist thought that was taken on by Liberalism in the latter half of the 20th century, and it is here where the modern Liberal issues with Nationalism start to emerge.

Liberalism began to cool on the idea of Nationalism after the First World War, when the effects of competition between nation-states had ended in ‘the war to end all wars’. The Second World War only seemed to confirm the worst fears of many post-war Liberals about the dangerous effects of Nationalism, and so international bodies such as the United Nations and European Union were set up in an effort to prevent such conflict ever taking place again. Drawing upon the Socialist rejection of Nationalism, Internationalist Liberals of this kind argue that national states left to their own devices will enter an international ‘state of nature’, where the strongest states will oppress the weaker ones and cruelty will flourish.

It should be noted that, unlike Socialist Internationalists, who argue for an organic process of class-consciousness raising and working class revolt, liberal-internationalists argue for international bodies and institutions that will uphold ideals of fairness and human rights, and prevent governments from abusing their citizens. Clearly this move towards Internationalism challenges the liberal nationalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which supported the idea of the Nation-State, and was arguably one of the major splits between the Classical (19th century) and Modern (Post ’45) ideals of Liberalism.

From this brief history one can see that liberal ideas originally chimed with national self governance, and that Liberals as a political group have moved away from the style of nationalism they supported. That I see this as a mistake, as I have already mentioned, as it has paved the way for Brexit and has arguably been kernel in the shifting political structures that has shored up to the kind of nationalism being peddled by those on the far right. However, I have yet to describe how this form of Nationalism has been co-opted by the Leave campaign, or why the British people would be receptive to it as an idea. These issues are important enough that they will require further discussion, since the wide -ranging implications of the Brexit vote makes an in-depth analysis of the issues raised by it essential to any attempt to cure the tensions created by it.

This article is the first part of a series of articles detailing the author’s defence of Nationalist thought from a Liberal perspective, and his proposal that a resurgent form of Liberal Nationalism be used to combat the ethnic and cultural conflicts that resulted in the Brexit vote. The next article will focus on how the author believes the Leave campaign co-opted the ideas of Liberal Nationalists, and how this shows the receptiveness of the public towards the ideas of Liberal Nationalism.

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