Do we need a nicer nationalism?

David Goodhart is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear with his call for 'progressive nationalism' in Britain.

One almost wishes it could be true. Listening to the catty chorus of disapproval that Prospect editor David Goodhart’s call for a progressive nationalism has drawn makes it sound positively attractive. The charge of ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ has always been suspect, since Joseph Stalin first coined it as a coded attack on the remaining Jewish members of the Soviet nomenklatura. But in this case, Goodhart’s critics are precisely rootless cosmopolitans. Unfortunately, Goodhart’s Demos pamphlet calling for said progressive nationalism only expresses the isolation that the cosmopolitans feel from the rest of society, without really explaining how it could be overcome.

No issue expresses the inner confusion of the intelligentsia more clearly than their attitude to nationalism, because the question of nationalism turns on popular identification with the state. As an isolated minority, intellectuals yearn for the big inclusivity of nationalism. But at the same time they dread it – because they dread the rest of society forming up in ranks and squeezing them out of the leadership position they think they deserve.

In the early twentieth century the radical middle classes were both champions and critics of nationalism. It was the middle classes that reclaimed Britain’s pre-Conquest heritage with their pre-Raphaelite images of Merrie England; top-hatted socialist Henry Hyndman re-wrote Marx’s Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production as England for All. Even so, the same middle classes lived in fear of a popular nationalism – so much so that they convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that such a movement was emerging.

When Lord Kitchener relieved the Boers’ Siege of Mafeking (an ancient city in modern-day South Africa) the British press was full of reports of violent ‘Mafficking’ (a word invented to describe riots celebrating the relief of Mafeking). As it happened, the riots were as invented as the word, but liberal intellectuals like Beatrice Webb, John Hobson and Graham Wallas continually fretted that the masses would get carried away with the dangerous genie of nationalism (1).

For the most part, the intellectuals were projecting their own sordid chauvinism on to the working class. Nationalism had precious little appeal to ordinary people until the modern Labour Party succeeded in building a bridge between popular aspirations and the state – and even that was only achieved once working-class organisations like the trade unions and socialist parties had been thoroughly beaten in a cycle of recessions and world wars.

The nationalistic sentiment that was created in the years between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s was not despised by the radical intelligentsia. On the contrary, they were its architects and champions. For the working class it was a trap – loyalty to a state that treated them as workhorses. Trade-union bureaucrats and far-right demagogues would try from time to time to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment, but for the most part working-class people were not that interested. ‘Keep Britain White, that’ll win the election’, Churchill told the Tory Cabinet in 1950; but it was not a popular appeal. Where they did succeed was in persuading the trade unions to moderate their wage demands ‘in the national interest’.

I remember quite distinctly the moment that the radical intelligentsia fell out of love with nationalism. At a meeting of the electoral reform movement Charter 88, I argued that anyone who wanted to democratise the British state should oppose the British presence in Northern Ireland. It was a proposal that would have scandalised any gathering of patriots at any point in the conflict between the IRA and the British Army from the late 1960s through to the 1980s. But in 1992, the radical middle classes were feeling betrayed by Margaret Thatcher’s patriotic mission, and hated the British working classes for failing to vote her out of office. I was cheered to the rafters (rather like Ken Loach at Cannes), and for all the wrong reasons.

Today, says David Goodhart, the Labour Party is torn between its cosmopolitan middle-class supporters and its patriotic working-class ones. He wants to say that the racist impulses of the working-class supporters are not without foundation, and that some people do lose out in unrestrained immigration. There are so many confusions in the argument it is hard to know where to begin.

First, there is no strong racist sentiment at work in the working class. On the contrary, it is the elite that has a problem with people of colour. They are in a complete flap about a problem that they invented. It is not working-class people who write the headlines of the Daily Mail about ‘foreign criminals’, but Seventies Hampstead socialist turned Eighties Thatcherite, Paul Dacre. It is not working-class people who effectively sacked the home secretary Charles Clarke for failing to deport these ‘foreign criminals’, but another public school boy, Tony Blair. It is not working-class people who are denouncing the Home Office as ‘not fit for purpose’, but the ageing Stalinist, now home secretary, John Reid.

The security agenda that Goodhart thinks arises out of Labour’s working-class constituency was in fact drawn up by the Blair team as a blueprint for their third term. It is what they imagine that ordinary people want, but since they have precious little relationship to the mass of British people, how would they know? Of course it is more than likely that people will echo the anti-foreign rants that they are subjected to by the press and government in opinion polls. But that is only because they have accepted the argument that politics is no concern of theirs and is best left to professionals like Tony Blair and Paul Dacre, with advice from David Goodhart.

The fact is that it would be no bad thing if people felt good about their society, and even identified with its achievements. There is no immediate reason why that should mean turning on foreigners. But for that to happen, the society would have to have a more positive projection of its own achievements. Instead, all of those who ought to be giving a lead are preoccupied with scaring people about the imaginary dangers posed by foreign criminals.

Even Goodhart’s critics are dealing in the politics of scaremongering. It is just that they are hiding behind the bogeyman of the white racist working classes instead of the bogeyman of the foreign criminal. Both are products of the fevered imagination of the radical middle classes, who want to belong – just so long as all the rest of us don’t belong, too.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

(1) See Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race, 1996, p 116, and throughout.

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