February 24, 2008
A few weeks ago, Georges and I were discussing Margaret Thatcher’s often-taken-out-of-context “society” quote and the idea of the nation state as a marker of solidarity. Georges was struck by,
How much people seem to need larger forms of affiliation than self and family and immediate social circle.
To which I replied,
Well, indeed, and some more than others. But I don’t see why that should necessarily conflict with Thatcher’s statement, or with her broader outlook, or with a Conservative outlook generally. And the people who most vehemently disdain national identity and national pride - those “larger forms of affiliation” - tend to be on the left of the political spectrum. Which strikes me as counter-productive.
In today’s Observer, David Goodhart elaborates on a similar theme and offers reasons why such disdain is counter-productive.
Most of today’s cabinet were students in the 1970s and 1980s. If their student union had been debating the motion “The nation-state is a bloodstained anachronism”, most of them would probably have voted for it. And why not? I was there too and we were growing up in the shadow of nationalism’s 20th-century horrors… People on the left… were pro-mass immigration - among other things it added colour to the staid stoicism of Anglo-Saxon life. Meanwhile, a broader political world view emerged - there was no common culture in Britain, but, rather, a multicultural ethnic rainbow…
The fact is that the liberal baby-boomers were too insouciant about the nation-state and feelings of mutual obligation and belonging. Events, and voters’ responses to them, forced them to adjust. In Britain, those events included the asylum crisis in the late 1990s, the unprecedented increase in legal immigration, the unexpected East European surge after May 2004, the 7 July London attacks and, most important, the hostility of public opinion to mass immigration amid anxieties about public services and rapidly changing communities.
This does not mean that the average British citizen has become more prejudiced, though the far right gets more votes than ever. The principle of anti-discrimination is now more widely practised than ever… and the average Briton is more comfortable with difference - consider the rise of interracial marriage. But the liberal baby-boomers have come to grasp that a belief in universal moral equality does not mean that we have the same obligations to all humans - we do not consider our families to be on a different moral plane, yet would not hesitate to put their interests first. Until a few decades ago, the basis of national ‘specialness’ would have been ethnicity - shared ancestry, history, sacrifice. In multi-ethnic and multiracial societies, the basis of specialness is citizenship itself.
The justification for giving priority to the interests of fellow citizens boils down to a pragmatic claim about the value of the nation-state. Without fellow-citizen favouritism, the nation-state ceases to have much meaning. And most of the things that liberals desire - democracy, redistribution, welfare states, human rights - only work when one can assume the shared norms and solidarities of national communities.
Given the above, one might wonder how it is much of the left came to embrace dogmatic self-loathing and a pretentious disdain of territory. As when Joseph Harker, the Guardian’s deputy comment editor, repeatedly claimed “all white people are racist,” before identifying any fluttering of national identity as suspicious and, almost by default, a sign of xenophobia. When such views appear in the mainstream organ of the British left, voiced by a member of its own editorial staff, this isn’t exactly a cause for optimism. Nor is it encouraging to discover that even the most positive expressions of shared national identity can meet with official censure and threats of punishment. As, for instance, when Pendle council reprimanded Matthew Carter, a black dustman born in Barbados, for wearing a St George’s Cross bandana to keep his dreadlocks out of the way:
Ian McInery, the operational services manager for Pendle council, defended the decision to discipline Mr Carter. He said: “We have made it clear to staff that they are not allowed to put stickers or flags on bin wagons or wear clothing which shows support for a particular team, group or country… It’s just a common-sense approach that we are sticking to.”
One also has to wonder if viewing Mr Carter’s choice of headgear as a sign of xenophobic atavism, or as likely to be perceived as such, is what multicultural theorists really had in mind. And does this affected distaste for national symbols suggest progress, or its opposite?