By Pablo de Orellana & Maryyum Mehmood:
To say ‘our country’ constitutes a claim as to whom the country belongs, and just as explicitly, to whom it does not. Nationalism is a big and old idea, a political concept that links rights to membership of a particular community. Within that community, however defined, nationalism emphasizes a duty to solidarity, fellowship and common cause around the collective of the nation.
The problem is that nationalism works equally, or even more emphatically, to draw the lines distinguishing who belongs to this collective and who does not. This division is inevitable and essential to the functioning of nationalist ideology, for to belong is to have access to rights, and to a share of the community’s hard-earned rewards: why should we pay for the healthcare, benefits, or any goods that are not destined for our community?
The ideology of nationalism: Self and Other
This love of one’s own community can take a banal form. It does not have to be virulent, racist or violent; nevertheless, it always demands separation. This is, on one level, subconscious: to love one’s community, to wish for its continued prosperity – commonly referred to as ‘patriotism’ – does not necessarily constitute sinister ideology.
The problem is that it inevitably poses a radical binary: two choices that are not compatible and may not coexist, an existential choice, as Nigel Farage is fond of pointing out. Our favourite extremist makes this clear when he says that the only question he would accept in a ballot for a referendum on EU membership would be ”Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?’’
That being said, patriotism in and of itself does not entail a definition of who is excluded from membership of the Leviathan. Demarcating these boundaries is one of the essential discursive functions of nationalism.
The use of nationalist rhetoric is neither new nor uncommon. Figures as diametrically opposed as Mustafa Kemal, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Oswald Mosley, Mohandas Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Marine Le Pen, to name but a few, all held nationalism as a key big idea, their rallying call, despite their otherwise distinct political projects. We emphasise distinct because these figures differed in everything except for the unifying claim to link the rights of those that belong to a nation with a particular political movement motivated by attaining these rights.
That is the core of nationalism: these rights, for these very people: its nationals, those belonging to our country. This is a powerful and universally applicable idea; a dragon of populism many have ridden and many more think they can ride, perhaps even tame.
Riding the dragon of British nationalism
In the British context we have witnessed over the last decade the rise of populist appeals to voters: politicians attempting to ride the nationalist dragon for electoral advantage. They are all implicated. Most political parties are attempting to draw on concerns about immigration or, more broadly, the dangers posed by foreigners, foreigness, to this country. On the one hand, these clumsy attempts include the explicit drawing of a division between those that belong and those that do not. On the other hand each of these attempts entails a definition of the rights accorded (or that should be accorded) exclusively to those that belong.
UKIP is the spectacular and colourful newcomer to the British political scene. It is more akin to the resurrection of the cantankerous alcoholic uncle that no one invites to weddings. Much like its discursive predecessor, Oswald Mosley, Farage’s party explicitly links rights to birth. To be born British affords specific rights that in UKIP’s vision must therefore be withdrawn from all others. The right to live on this island, right to access healthcare, right to welfare benefits, right to vote, and even the right to receive treatment for HIV/AIDS are all determined by birth. Even Farage’s own wife may not be saved from the curse of her foreign birth.
We expect UKIP to link British birth, the British genus, to exclusive rights. But shamefully, mainstream parties are just as culpable – perhaps even more culpable – for the promotion of this vision. As part of their eighteen-year quest to reconquer and now keep the throne from Labour, the Conservative party has made clear efforts to address nationalism and the populist vote it commands, to the point of alienating some of its major figures, such as former Cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi.
Their attempt to ride the dragon of nationalism has had a perverse effect. Pablo de Orellana predicted in 2011 that Sarkozy’s attempt to absorb Front National’s anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric would only serve to legitimise Le Pen’s party. So it came to pass, and so too has it come to pass for David Cameron. The virulence of Conservative anti-immigration measures and rhetoric has only aided UKIP. The Conservatives have facilitated the increasing acceptability of nationalism, and its implicit and explicit differentiation between the rights of those that belong and the rights, or lack thereof, of those that escape the increasingly narrow definition of ‘British’.
One of these forms of exclusion is Islamophobia, which, in Lady Warsi’s words, has ‘passed the dinner-table test’ in the duration of this last parliament. Unlike UKIP, Tories can claim they have put their rhetoric into practice. While they have not managed to limit entry to Britain to their ‘tens of thousands’ target, they have managed to establish tighter legislation with regards to visas for foreign spouses and other family abroad and, of course, Theresa May’s infamous vans warning illegal immigrants to leave.
May is the Conservative anti-immigration hero: she has been ever ready to bring in the most draconian anti-immigrant discourse to the debate, giving Farage a run for his money. Most of the measures she’s introduced, including deferral of access to social and health security and the hunt for extremists (even in universities), are articulated around the assumption that immigrants are somehow cheating or betraying Britain.
Conservative rhetoric highlights that the core of the debate is access to resources. UKIP and the Tories tell us that public resources are in danger from abuse by foreigners. Labour’s embrace of nationalism has focused, until recently, on the danger posed by immigrants to a limited labour market. In 2010 Gordon Brown declared ‘British jobs for British people’.
In the current campaign Labour appears conflicted over the issue of immigration. On the one hand they promise quantitative control on immigration. On the other, they advance the more nuanced argument that immigrants’ absorption of low-pay jobs is related to their willingness to be underpaid by unscrupulous employers, and that the answer is to enforce the minimum wage. Furthermore, Labour wants to be viewed as making efforts to tackle xenophobia: promising minority community leaders a sort of new charter of rights that set tougher penalties on Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Homophobia. Yet the mixed nature of their message inevitably invites suspicion among the electorate.
The Nation’s right to common resources
Cash for the UK: that is the only real benefit of immigration, according to Labour, UKIP and the Tories. Immigration must justify itself by bringing in cash, by not making any claims to the common resources of the nation. The unspoken part of this argument, the scariest part, is that the ‘dinner table test’ has indeed been passed: immigrants are less human, less deserving, less imbued with social, human and economic rights than those blessed with British papers or, if extremists are to be heeded, with indigenous heritage.
This is why immigrants can be detained indefinitely in detention centres; this is why they can be underpaid; this is why they are less deserving than us when it comes to healthcare, benefits and just about anything else. Their lives too seem to be worth less: an immigrant can be hurt, punished, or even killed in Calais, in Dover or in a SERCO immigration centre. They are less deserving, we are constantly being told, and they are to blame for their own misfortunes.
The Liberal Democrats are not without blame either. During the 2010 election their position on immigration was the most enlightened. Immigrants were to be considered as a beneficial good, to be regionally allocated by a fairer immigration system. To immigrants themselves, we should remember, they promised regularisation of those who had illegally entered the country and had resided for a certain amount of time as productive members of society.
Tragically, none of these ideas survived beyond the election campaign. It remains the case that, despite Nick Clegg’s wholesome rhetoric against Farage and the Conservatives during the current campaign, the Lib Dems clearly had other priorities while in government.
It would be farcical to exclude the SNP from criticism in this whole affair. For all the furore unleashed by its charismatic leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and its ruthless ongoing plagiarism of Labour’s traditional working class hero rhetoric, the basis of its discourse is to secure those lovely left-wing social rights for Scots. Once again we have claims about rights and an identity’s access to those rights.
They are by no means radical, and in the SNP’s world one can become Scottish: it is not a question of ethnicity, heritage or cultural origin, as demonstrated by the raging popularity of their Scottish Government Minister and minority poster-boy, Humza Yousaf. However, the key to SNP politics remains the claim of more social justice and equality for the Scots because they are Scots, rather than because all on this island could do with more social justice and equality.
Retrieving nationalism, past and present
It is difficult to recognise ourselves in the horror of WWII ideologies, when nationalism had taken over most of Europe and drove us all to perdition and bloodshed. The extremisms of that time appear too excessive for useful comparison. Black-shirt fascism is so old, dated and dirty that even the Daily Mail no longer supports it.
However, some key features of that past nationalism are here, clearly visible today. Firstly, we have the resurgence of a right to be racist or xenophobic, in evidence in Farage’s attacks on the excesses of political correctness, Cameron and May’s sudden amour of heeding the immigration concerns of their voters, and Labour’s endless and unconstructive hesitation to challenge their right-wing opponents on the pitch of immigration.
Secondly, past nationalism rears its ugly head in the definition of rights in exclusive association to belonging to a national identity, the above-discussed link of rights to birthright. This, sadly, needs no comment. All parties – except the Greens – are working on the assumption that immigrants should have fewer rights.
Thirdly, we have seen the narrowing definition of British, Britishness and British values. Ten years ago the BNP was ridiculed for speaking of ‘native Britons’ and an ‘indigenous [white] population’. In the current discourse, this has become commonplace and acceptable: incoming immigrants will by law have less rights, regardless of who wins the upcoming election. Both Conservatives and Labour have put in place plans to limit their access to healthcare, welfare and a raft of other social measures – for a period at least, until they have proven their usefulness to the Great British Economy, the new idol of this green and pleasant land, to which some, not others, have a birthright.
Concerns about the limitations of the economy and anxiety about the fiscal health of the country have only served to maximise the separation of those that have a birthright to access that wealth from those that do not. As welfare cuts started to bite from 2010 and access became more restricted, immigrants increasingly came to be blamed for the limitations of the welfare and health systems in Farage’s rhetoric. To a smaller but politically much more respectable and influential extent, Labour and the Conservatives did the same. They only affirmed that Farage was correct. The tightness of the election race means that no party will challenge the entirety of this xenophobic discourse, often only gently qualifying it, and in the process attempting to get one over UKIP.
Determining Britishness: birth, culture, heritage
The current countdown to the election underpins a shift towards an increasingly narrow definition of what it means to be British. The effect of this race to the bottom is that, slowly, extremist nationalists in UKIP and some Conservatives are attempting to saddle and ride the unleashed dragon of that big idea all the way to Westminster. The definition of British might gradually (but not inexorably, we would like to highlight) be approaching an ethnic dividing line.
We are currently looking at dominant and widespread definitions of nation governed by birthright. But as Lady Warsi and many other British-born descendants of immigrants are making clear, even though they feel British, they are slowly and unwittingly being pushed further out of the pale of the definition. In this way we are seeing an added dimension of claims in the demarcation between those that belong and those that do not. This is clearly birth plus the “correct” (the implication is, certainly, indigenous) heritage – cultural and, increasingly, ethnic.
Recently, people like us, people not born British, but long-established and naturalised British, are coming to be called ‘Plastic Brits’. The emphasis is clearly on the falsity of our flesh.
Through its history, from the romantic historicism of Richard Wagner and the fire of Germany’s first Bismarkian national ideology through to those destroying Ukraine today, nationalism in its various iterations and reinventions has been just as dangerous as it has been useful, a powerful big idea to rally mass support. We might well recognise the good intentions of liberation nationalist ideologies in the aspirations of Sun-Yat-Sen, Nehru and Ghandi. However, it is also crucial to note that, perhaps because they too drew on divisions of who was and who was not, their ideas have been led astray, the divisions of belonging turned into violent exclusion. Chiang Kai-shek and Narendra Modi are extremists who we are confident their predecessors would have loathed.
This is not the first time that nationalism has stridently emerged in the throes of poverty and destitution after an economic crisis. Its power in such circumstances is to link the right of all members of a nation to a limited pot of resources and goods to the exclusion of others. Its most violent manoeuvre is the delimitation of who the excluded Other is, a delimitation that can change and evolve over time on a scale from ‘people on this island’ to ‘indigenous population of this island’. The last time nationalism offered solutions to an economic crisis, things did not go well. We are still European enough to remember that much.
Perhaps we easily forget how difficult it is to walk back from such extremisms. Francisco Franco, a scion of the Fascist nationalist dictatorial tradition of the 1930s, ruled Spain until 1975. That is very recent. These ideas are powerful, they rally potentially endless support, but they are also difficult to dissolve or moderate. Franco’s party, the equivalent of the Italian Fascist Party, the Falange Española, still exists and is still legal. Nationalism, we urge, should be fought and avoided by everyone at all the little political instances of our lives.
Our analysis has focused on the core conditions that allow nationalism to emerge. First, the rise of structural social grievances: from poverty or constrained labour markets in the UK, to the increased commodification of public goods such as land or water around the world, and the resulting stress on the most vulnerable. Second, the act of drawing the line between those that belong and those that do not. Third, the consequent linking of the definition of that national identity to an exclusive set of rights or claims, which only feels like patriotism, love and solidarity to those that belong.
The results are twofold but related: on the one hand, the violence that emerges when we follow an idea that systematically despoils some individuals of their social, economic and even human rights. On the other hand, the ideological effort that obscures this violence, that makes it acceptable at the dinner table. Ask yourself, why can an immigrant be treated differently?
We are all implicated in doing and undoing nationalism. Every one of those moments when we have the choice to demarcate those that belong from those that do not belong. Every time that we allow this to happen, every instance of immigrant-bashing, these are the myriad little acts of demarcation that are at the populist basis of nationalism. At that point, when economic exasperation needs a victim to blame, all the nationalist has to do is draw the line: they are not from here, they are not deserving.
So the likes of Farage distinguish the outsider, whose ultimate definition can be crafted, caricatured and stigmatised to suit a political agenda. We here lay blame squarely at the door of the three main parties who have found it electorally expedient to acquiesce and even participate in the race to expel the immigrant.
But this line-drawing may not stop; it will continue as long as there are grievances like poverty, which need an explanation and for which politicians must offer up solutions. The dragon of nationalism can be ridden, but it cannot be tamed. It will only ever truly submit to those that claim it in its most extreme form, which necessitates extreme demarcation of Self and Other, where the Other has less rights, becomes less human; where the Other can be humiliated, abused, stigmatised, ostracised, deported, enslaved, and, on the saddest of nationalist days, killed.
Pablo de Orellana is a Teaching Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His research focuses on diplomatic communication and identity. He writes on a range of research subjects in academic publications as well as in Strife and other online outlets. Research interests include diplomacy, political identity, nationalism, extremist ideology, philosophy, art history, art theory and curating. 2015-16 he will be teaching a course on nationalism at the College.
Maryyum Mehmood is a PhD researcher and a Teaching Assistant at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on responses to religious and racial stigmatisation and prejudice in contemporary Britain and Weimar Germany. Her other research interests include identity politics, sectarian violence and South Asian security trends. She regularly contributes to Strife and a number of other publications. She tweets @marymood.
All photos are copyrighted and published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes.