Back in July I wrote an article on Brexit and Nationalism. Three months on and the situation in the UK has worsened. Theresa May and her government are dragging the country down a dangerous path of nationalism and xenophobia unlike anything seen in the UK for generations. If the Conservative Party conference was anything to go by then the UK’s future under the new Tory government is one of increasing racism, xenophobia and divisiveness at home and political and economic isolation abroad. ‘Hard Brexit’ could not only destroy our economy but also our soul. Certainly the Tories are only giving more fuel to the shocking rise in hate crimes across the UK since June which has seen at least two deaths (a Polish man in Essex and an unborn baby) and countless other attacks on foreign born nationals, ethnic minorities and, it was revealed recently, on LGBT people with a record 147% increase in hate crimes against LGBT persons since June.
Nationalism is a varied ideology, put simply it is the belief that a person’s nation or national identity is the primary basis for their political loyalty and activity, it is the first building block upon which all politics and all states must be built. It comes in many flavours: the more democratically minded civic nationalists like the SNP or Plaid Cymru see the nation as a central but voluntary association based around democracy or the ‘general will’ of the people. Thus for the civic nationalist, the nation is a very loosely defined and fluid concept based on popular participation, for the civic nationalist you are British because you vote in elections. Up a step on the scale and you get cultural and territorial nationalists who still allow people to choose or adopt their nation but have requirements of residency or common culture or language that must be met. Finally you have the more dangerous ethnic or ethno-nationalism which defines the nation by a common ethnic ancestry or race. In this view only white people born in Britain with countless generations from Britain can possibly be British.
Since all of these forms of nationalism put the nation first above other cleavages like religion, political ideology and class, they are all potentially dangerous in an international and globalized world. Civic nationalism is largely a state-building exercise, important when a country is very young or exists without sovereignty (like Scotland or Wales) but soon becoming less relevant once a nation is fully established. Yes, I could be considered British because I vote in elections and participate in British political discourse but it doesn’t mean anything to me, it does not define me, I accept others may feel differently however.
Cultural or territorial nationalism is more offensive as it restricts freedom of choice or freedom of identity. Because I live in the UK I am compelled by territorial or cultural nationalists to identify as British and must adopt ‘British values’ whatever they are. It is this form of nationalism that you will hear the Tories sprout upon. It is a dangerous line as I will discuss because it is not a very big step to go from cultural nationalism to its uglier twin ethnic nationalism. This is because ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are poorly defined terms at best and how they differ from ‘culture’ is equally a grey area. There is little difference between rejecting someone as Non-British because they speak Hindi and have Indian culture and doing so because they are dark skinned.
In what was perhaps one of the most brazenly nationalist speeches by any major British politician in modern times, Theresa May launched a scathing attack on those of us who identify as ‘citizens of the world’, calling us “citizens of nowhere”, and effectively demanded we all sign up as loyal patriots to the British nation. This kind of thinking, of one nation first, is precisely what I warned about in my previous article and is what brought us the horrors of the two world wars. That May would advocate it flies in the face of 50 years of globalization but also suggests the new Tory government is attempting to wind back the clock to a Pre-Globalized age, one where nations and flags were more important than people or Humanity as a whole. It is an attitude that went out of fashion in the 1940s and should stay there. Given this 1940s attitude, it is perhaps not so surprising that LBC radio host James O’Brien would liken Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s idea of forcing companies to publically catalogue foreign employees to something out of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. Whilst Rudd was forced to U-turn on this idea a few days later, perhaps she isn’t the only one in the Tory party who is taking their ideas from a darker age.
It seems that no Tory minister is free of this xenophobic tide. Even the beleaguered Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt got onto the bandwagon with his incredulous stated goal of eliminating the NHS’s dependence on foreign doctors and nurses by encouraging more British born doctors and nurses. Such a goal is absurd, especially for a Health Secretary who, through his clash with junior doctors, could potentially force thousands of doctors to leave the NHS and go abroad. Even worse due to the colossal underfunding and undermining of the NHS by the present government 85% of trusts are finding filling posts difficult already, never mind having to pander to Tory xenophobia. This in spite of course of the Brexit campaign making a point of saying that they’d be able to spend more money on the NHS if we voted to leave. A promise confirmed false by the Prime Minister a few days ago as she denied there would be any more money for the NHS.
This defiantly nationalist tone was reinforced by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon who announced that the Tory government would be setting up 150 Army Cadet units at state schools across the country in hopes of instilling ‘British values’ and presumably loyalty to the nation above other cleavages so as to counter ‘extremism’. This might not sound so bad considering the threat of Islamic extremism however bear in mind that targeting the youth of the nation with a paramilitary organization to encourage loyalty to that nation quite frankly sounds like something from the fascist handbook. Do we really want to become like the USA with our children saluting the flag and making the pledge of allegiance every morning? Furthermore we must ask ourselves if teaching children to be obedient disciplined soldiers who don’t question authority makes them less susceptible to extreme ideas. Surely a more effective plan would be to teach them to analyse ideas critically so they can refute the flawed claims of extremists. Perhaps not if your real intention is to breed a generation that will obey whatever those in power tell them.
Manipulating the education system for ideological ends has long been a tool of political elites. Divisiveness does seem to be the rule of the day for the present Tory government.
If they aren’t encouraging us to turn on the foreign menace within and pledge allegiance to the nation, then they are looking to divide us up by our socio-economic status. I speak of course of the planned policy, also announced at the conference, of returning us to the dark age of the grammar schools, a leap into the past of some 50 years that totally ignores all developments in education since the late 1960s. The grammar school system never really worked, it promoted those lucky few who managed to pass the 11 plus but left the vast majority relegated to second class status, potentially for the rest of their lives, all thanks to a test taken at age 11 that claimed to be able to predict a child’s future academic achievement. For those who experienced this elitism first hand many would never really wash away the stain, at least in their own minds, of being second rate.
This, quintessentially Victorian, institution is being resurrected perhaps as part of a larger attempt to turn back the clock to the good old days when Britain ruled the world, another common nationalist tendency: to glorify the past as a mythic golden age. Though grammar schools are not directly nationalist in nature they are divisive and will serve to further divide our society up and make it easier for the elite to rule. Having divided us into ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ they next seek to divide us into rich and poor. Grammar schools always favoured the wealthier classes thanks to their experiencing fewer social problems and having more time and resources to devote to passing the exam and it will be no different this time.
Overall the May government has distinguished itself from that of Cameron by its brazen lurch towards the right wing, the ‘nasty party’ is very much back from the dead. This is perhaps possible because of what Guardian journalist Owen Jones described as the mood of the Conservative Party conference, one of “cockiness, arrogance, triumphalism”. They perhaps don’t feel the need to hide what they are anymore because of the state of the opposition to them; they don’t feel the need to worry about winning elections so long as Labour is in the state of disarray it has been in for the past three months.
At a time when the country desperately needed a united opposition to the government, at a time when the Conservative Party was at the most vulnerable it had been in 6 years of government, the Labour Party was too busy tearing itself apart over minor ideological issues and petty power games to do anything. Now you can blame either Jeremy Corbyn or the Blairite MPs within his party for this catastrophic mini-civil war, personally I blame the Blairites, but ultimately it doesn’t matter who was responsible. What matters is that it has destroyed the party’s credibility with voters and it is up to Jeremy Corbyn to pick up the pieces and try and undo the damage. I don’t believe that Corbyn is incapable of doing this nor do I believe he cannot win an election, so far he’s won at least one more election that Theresa May, that of his own party’s leadership. However he must have a united Labour Party behind him and must take all left wing support he can in opposing the Tories even if it means alliances and agreements with other parties on the left like the Greens or the Liberal Democrats.
If the history of the 20th century has taught us anything it is that evil flourishes where there is no united opposition to it. In early 1930s Germany, the Nazis never got much more than a third of the vote yet they managed to take over government thanks to the disunity of the left wing opposition to them. At the moment the Conservatives and other right wing politicians are running amok, free to regress the country back into the 1950s and they will only be stopped by a united opposition to them. How else can a Tory councillor feel free to call for all Remain supporters to be charged with treason? Granted he was suspended for this but it is disturbing he felt confident enough to do it. The Tories want to divide and conquer and we must not help them do it.
I do not believe Theresa May is a nationalist dictator in the making. The Tories have never been radical enough to produce true fascism. However, what concerns me most is that they are pursuing policies that are creating a society where such ideologies flourish and become mainstream. Brexit already emboldened racists and fascists to feel vindicated in their hatred of minorities, Theresa May is only fuelling this fire. My greatest fear is not that Theresa May is a dictator but that she is mindlessly moving to open the door for one.
Michael is an aspiring writer and blogger based in Leeds UK. He writes on history, politics, religion, science and other topics