Brexit and a Tale of ​Two Liberalisms (Part 3)

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This is the final article in a series of articles produced where the author attempts to argue for Liberal Nationalism as a means of pursuing progressive politics in post-Brexit Britain. The previous articles principally focused on the history of Liberal Nationalism, as well as why the British public would be receptive to it as an idea. The following article looks at the issues the author has with the current attempts by progressive voices to deal with the Brexit vote, as well as the reasons the author believes Liberal Nationalism would be a good fit for modern, progressive, British politics.

The reaction to Brexit from many on the left has been a mixture of shock, denial and terror. Immediately, following the vote, much ink was spilled on the pages of the Guardian and the Independent decrying the Brexit result as a terrible thing, and attempting to find ways of ignoring or postponing the result. Whether the Brexit vote should be respected in the face of changing public opinion, and what, if anything, could overturn it is a topic unto itself; but what concerned me the most about these anti-Brexit pieces is that one of their favourite punching bags was, and indeed still is, Nationalism. Not Conservative Nationalism, or Jingoism, but Nationalism as a concept. As I have shown previously, I suggest that Nationalism, and indeed aspects of Liberal Nationalism, were the main drivers behind the leave vote, and so to reject Nationalism out of hand is a one-way ticket to irrelevance when dealing with those who voted leave.

The internationalism so beloved of those on the left in this country has never had the widespread support of the electorate, and so when put to the test through the Brexit vote it crumbled almost instantaneously. It is clear that people simply do not feel the emotional attachment to the ideas of European statehood or being a ‘citizen of the world’ that they feel towards local or national identities. Being ‘English’, ‘British’ or ‘Scottish’ means far more to people within Britain than being part of Europe, and no amount of shouting at people that they are wrong is going to change that. As such, those of us who believe in Liberal values have a choice to make, do we reject Nationalism out of hand due to the actions of those who use it to stoke bigotry and hatred? Or do we recognise that despite its faults it matters a great deal to a great many people, most of whom have nothing to do with the racism and xenophobia currently blighting parts of this country? If we choose the former then we sacrifice influence for ideological purity, a toxic path that ultimately leads to fear and loathing of all who subscribe to any form of nationalism, essentially making us just as intolerant and divisive as those we claim to fight against. The second path leads us down the difficult, messy and all-too-human road of compromise and negotiation, a road the left is suspicious of at the best of times. Without this approach, however, Liberals and Socialists alike risk being swept away by a tidal wave of anger and resentment, carried along for the ride whilst being unable to influence its final destination in any way.

Some will argue that what I am suggesting is to accept the bigotry and hatred that has emerged from dark corners since the Brexit result, to insult migrants and scapegoat immigrants as job-stealers and skivers. These people could not be further from the truth. My intention is to suggest a way to have the much needed public debate on immigration and Nationalism while depriving those on the far right their most vicious weapons: racism, bigotry and cultural intolerance. It is a well-known political reality that it’s pretty much impossible to convince someone of the wrongness of their views if you are unable to relate to them and their ideas. If you are a left-wing internationalist who rejects national boundaries and sees Brexit as a betrayal of the younger generation, you are very unlikely to be able to relate to someone who voted leave ‘for the sake of their grandchildren,’ (something I have heard multiple times from older leave voters). The conversation would almost certainly devolve into each of you talking past each other, and possibly worse if it got too heated. If, however, you start from a position of respecting national borders, then you have firm ground to start a conversation about the costs and benefits of immigration and how and why migration should be allowed and managed. If you do manage to have this discussion, it may surprise you how reasonable and willing most people are to discuss this issue. Immigration is a political issue just like any other, and if treated as such, rather than as a litmus test for racism, a lot of interesting discussions can be had about how to deal with the perceived threats that immigrants bring. This does not entail agreeing with racist opinions, or even necessarily arguing for fewer migrants – it could be as simple as pointing out other reasons for issues such as crowded schools or an overstretched NHS. The key here is that without that grounding, that base of understanding that Liberal Nationalism brings, any attempt at a dialogue runs the risk of collapsing due to a lack of common ground between the participants.

It may seem strange to some on the left that I am arguing that Nationalism be used to support the rights of immigrants rather than as a way of spurning them from our shores, but as I have argued previously, Nationalism is far from an inherently exclusionary and divisive ideology. In the first part of this series I discussed the history of Liberal Nationalism and its usefulness in combating unaccountable elites, and this still rings true today. By giving everyone within a country a shared history and Liberal value structure, Liberal Nationalism can work towards achieving tolerance within society while also affording people a place to belong and feel accepted. A modern Liberal Nationalism would consider the cultural and individual factors that influence a person’s identity, allowing people to express their individuality while remaining part of a wider national community. Furthermore, a refocusing on Liberal Nationalism would rejuvenate Liberal ideas such as freedom of speech, equality of opportunity and tolerance, and give a chance for public debate and discussion on how these classically Liberal ideas could be updated for the modern world. It should also be said that being a Nationalist does not exclude one from also being a ‘citizen of the world’. It is quite possible to believe in a greater, global community, while also believing that nation states are the best present way we have of organising such a community. To suggest that being a nationalist means one has to reject the wider global community is absurd, and plays into the hands of those who wish to resort to isolation in the face of the rapidly changing global culture.

In addition, Liberal Nationalism could be used to combat another serious issue affecting British society, the refusal of certain immigrants to accept basic Liberal rights and freedoms. Far-right religious extremism is not just home-grown, it has been imported from the Middle East in the form of Islamism, an idea of Islam as a political ideology which is opposed to democracy and Liberal values such as gay rights, gender equality and freedom of religion. It is a hard pill for many on the left to swallow, but this idea has gained some traction among immigrants from the middle east, as well as their descendants. The failure of the left to deal with these threats to Liberal values have led to the debate being co-opted by the far right, which brands all Muslims as terrorists and sees western civilisation as locked in a battled to the death with Islam. While clearly absurd, the lack of any alternative explanation from the left has pushed many who are concerned about this further to the right; something not helped by the shrill cries of ‘racism’ directed at anyone who attempts to discuss this very sensitive issue by aspects of what is now termed the ‘regressive left’. Liberal Nationalism would give strong support to Liberal values and challenge those who would disagree with them, at once rejecting Islamism and greatly reducing the power of the nativist far right by giving people a tolerant and open identity to subscribe to, rather than one based on fear and division.

Despite the populist and devise forms of Nationalism being peddled by the far right across Europe, and Trump in the U.S, there is nothing inherently wrong with Nationalism. It can certainly be used to turn people against one another; but it can also be a beacon of stability in turbulent times, a rock for people to set their identity on when everything else feels meaningless. As Liberals, we should respect this, and Liberal Nationalism allows us to do so without sacrificing our cherished beliefs in freedom, justice, tolerance and equality. If we fail to engage with Nationalism then I fear we leave the floor open to the far right, and all the venom and bile that they can spew. If we want to have a voice in the post-Brexit conversation then I suggest we adapt quickly, otherwise I fear Brexit will become a battle between the right, and the far right.

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