Opinion: “Brexit and the Rise of English Nationalism”

Over the last thirty years the mainstream media climate (especially that of the largely right-wing press but also Sky, ITN and even the BBC), has become largely anti-EU, anti-immigrant and often contemptuously dismissive of anything that might smack of ‘political correctness.’  A form of bad-tempered English nationalism has thereby been encouraged for decades.  The original intention, no doubt, was one of merely shifting swing voters further to the right, i.e. towards voting Tory.

One might say there has always been such an attitude in the media.  Yet, when Labour oppositions and governments began to talk again of socialist policies in the 1970s and 80s, the propaganda machine was cranked up a notch.  The aim was to denigrate Left ideas generally, to vilify popular Left leaders and demonise the trade unions.  In the 1980s a huge effort was made to whip-up support for Thatcher, to justify her neo-liberal politics and support her most cherished goal: the castration of the trade union movement.  But, like all such turbulent political forces, once released they tend to cause havoc on a scale and in ways unforeseen by those who first release them.  The German capitalists thought they could remove Hitler in 1933 if he got out of hand.  Mussolini, too, was deemed manageable until he abused his office to destroy political opposition and make himself Duce.  The tide of English nationalist opinion has now clearly risen beyond what Fleet Street and Tory Central Office had confidently expected to ride.  True, it has brought millions of previously disconnected voters back into the political discourse.  But it is has also caused a huge increase in, and continues to foment, violent racism on the streets of Britain.

There is nothing I would call new at the heart of this resurgent nationalism.  Except, perhaps, that given the facts of devolution in the rest of the UK, it is more self-consciously English than its self-declared British (though largely English) progenitors.  Like them, though, it is characterised by fear of the ‘other’ and is defined by what it is against, rather than what it is for.  It plays on outdated, outmoded stereotypes and – when expressed through UKIP and the lesser far-right parties – favours downright dishonest electioneering.  So, the workshy immigrant (who is somehow simultaneously “taking our jobs”) and the ‘welfare-scrounger’ – basically, the foreigner and the ‘undeserving’ poor – are demonised in disgraceful Channel 4 and Channel 5 programmes and in endless stories in the press.  The ridiculous mockery in 2015 of Ed Miliband as ‘Red Ed’ is another example of how an intellectual infantilism is debasing so much of our journalism.  When the Labour manifesto revealed so few differences with the Tories, that respondents to pollsters couldn’t identify most of the Party’s policies as Labour, once the rosettes had been removed, Miliband can hardly be considered as anything other than a centrist social democrat.

The popularity of this English nationalism is demonstrated by the significant electoral achievements of UKIP and the widely unexpected result of the UK Referendum on membership of the EU.  This success, and the media-coverage that feeds it, have contributed to a degrading of social taboos against open displays of racism, that had been slowly hardening in England for thirty years or more.  When UKIP won the European elections in 2014 (despite its xenophobic nature and a good sprinkling of openly racist candidates), some of its supporters clearly felt justified in more public discussion of their views.  Views, by the way, that clearly have only lain dormant in the hearts and minds of a significant minority of English people.

So why this rushing to support a xenophobic, racist English nationalism?  For hatred to be misdirected against foreigners and the ‘undeserving’ poor it first has to be created and fuelled by fear.  Mass unemployment, mass poverty, disappearing public services, poor education, poor and scarce housing, rising rents, falling wages, the casualisation of labour (through subcontracting, alleged mass ‘self-employment’ and huge increases in temporary and part-time contracts).  All these socio-economic factors have destabilised the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.  Many working families are living in poverty, paying exorbitant rents and require two or three sets of poor wages (often from terrible employers, often on short-term contracts) to make ends meet.  Many people feel excluded from renting (never mind buying) a home by zero-hours contracts, which prevent them from planning for any of the normal activities the rest of us take for granted.  How can you sign a rent agreement if you don’t know you’ll have any work next week?  How can you take a holiday if doing so means you will have your contract torn up?  This precarious existence is a bitter reality for millions of British people.

But rather than blame the rich and powerful – and their political fixers, the Tories – the disenfranchised and dispossessed are encouraged to turn on each other.  If only we stopped spending so much on ‘welfare.’ If only there weren’t ‘dole-dossers’ at every turn.  If only foreigners weren’t ‘stealing our jobs.’  If only the EU wasn’t “on our backs.”  Then, surely, there would be paradise in England’s green and pleasant land?  Nonsense, clearly.  But it is easy to swallow and to regurgitate.  The ‘anti-politics’ nature of this nationalism has meant the political effects have been channelled against Westminster (all three parties) and the EU. The fact that the pre-Corbyn Labour Party had largely abandoned any real attempt to address any of the socio-economic problems outlined above, meant their leaders were lumped in with the rest when it came to the Referendum.  Whatever message the Labour Party might have had for a ‘Social Europe,’ it was never even considered by many in the traditionally Labour-voting areas – whether these were reluctant Labour voters, or those who had already switched to the Tories or UKIP in May 2015.  Disillusioned by the Westminster consensus, distressed by their economic plight (and or that of their loved-ones) and saturated with propaganda blaming foreigners and benefits claimants, it is not hard to understand why there was such a reaction, politically, in favour of UKIP and against membership of the EU.

It behoves those of us on the Left to provide meaningful solutions to these problems and then persuade voters to support them. It is not as if much of the policy work is difficult. First, put an end to privatisation and cuts. Allow public services to recruit back to the necessary staffing levels as part of a strategy to return the nation to full employment. Restore financial autonomy to local government, allow councils to invest in council housing, municipal energy production, municipal recycling centres, reopen libraries and leisure centres. Establish a national network of council-run nurseries and make Social Care an integrated and publically-run part of the NHS. I won’t go on, there are too many excellent policy ideas to list them all. The point is we need to fight for these policies in the Labour Movement, through our trade unions and political parties and via campaigning on the streets and on social media. We need to become relevant again. And this means less fighting amongst ourselves and more fighting for the bread and butter issues that working-class people care about.

I know some find this hard but I intend to dispute the mainstream narrative that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is unelectable. Comparisons with 1983, for example, are invidious. Commentators should consult the psephologists. The SDP, in a failed attempt to destroy the Labour Party, stood candidates across the country and so badly split the anti-Tory vote that the Tories won very many seats they should never have won. None of these commentators present the facts of the 1983 General Election. None of them have a crystal ball that can see into the future, either. No-one predicted the 1945 result, when Clement Attlee was seen as pathetic compared to the warlord Churchill. I say that Corbyn champions the policies I want to see, the policies that will benefit working-class people. If someone else wishes to champion those policies so be it. Until then, I’m backing Corbyn. It has been pleasing to see the amount of support there has been for Corbyn from our comrades in other Left parties. Perhaps, we can now show a more unified Left approach than has prevailed in recent decades. One thing is certain: disunity never won anyone anything.

Dave Savage is a Vice-Chair of South Ribble (Ribble Valley) Labour Party, Secretary of Unite-Community, Lancashire, Branch – NW/11500 and Secretary of Preston & South Ribble TUC