It wasn’t so long ago that the nation state was declared obsolete by the political and media elites. In an age marked by the internationalisation of capital and the predominance of supranational institutions, the idea of an independent self-governing country free to organise its political and economic affairs in its own interests seemed rather quaint.
But recent developments across both the pond and Channel, where populaces have mobilised en masse in defence of nationhood, demonstrate that reports of the death of the nation state appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
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If the doom-mongers are to be believed, this represents a terrible thing. We are on the brink of a return to the Dark Ages, with hordes of racists and fascists at the door. For some, there is only one variety of nationalism – the virulent, destructive kind.
But while the nationalist and populist movements that have emerged in America, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, the UK and elsewhere unquestionably contain some undesirable elements, the suggestion that they are somehow a reincarnation of those that swept all before them in the 1930s is risible.
The key difference is that today’s movements are not motivated by an expansive, aggressive nationalism, nor by designs of imperialism, nor by hostility to other nations. Instead, they are, for the most part, defensive crusades against rapid cultural and demographic change, against the rapacious and disruptive power of global finance, and the weakening of democracy and sovereignty at the hands of remote and unaccountable institutions.
For 40 years, the nation state found itself caught in a pincer movement, assailed by two kinds of globaliser: on one flank, the economic globalisers in the form of the multinationals and speculators, the totems of neoliberal ideology, with their demands for access-all-areas and reductions in regulations, including controls over capital and labour; and, on the other, the political globalisers in the form of a cultural elite whose brand of cosmopolitan liberalism and internationalism became so dominant within our modern establishment.
The first stood to benefit in the form of greater global clout and increased profits; the second from the advance to their desired destination of a borderless world, in which we all exist alongside each other in a diverse and liberal utopia under the benevolent patronage of assorted wise technocrats. Both groups had little more than the bare minimum of loyalty to the nation.
There was, however, a slight problem: the masses wouldn’t wear it. Their sense of attachment to nation was inviolable, born not from some sense of national or racial superiority, but simply passed down the generations through tradition, social mores, history, culture and language. Nationhood, for many, goes to the heart of what it means to feel a sense of place and belonging, to be part of something greater than oneself. Disrupt that with sudden and large-scale flows of population and money, while at the same time limiting the opportunity to do anything about it at the ballot box, and you’ll get blowback.
For globalisation means different things for different people. If you have power, wealth, an education and broad cultural horizons, you may ride its waves on to the golden sands. But what you won’t see is the little people whom those same waves have buffeted on to the rocks. For them, amid the tumult, the nation state represents a lifeboat.
Of course, for the modern Left, there is not mere indifference nor absence of loyalty to the nation state; there is a visceral hatred for it. Few understand how deeply this hatred runs. It is repelled by any demonstration of attachment to country, no matter how benign or understated. Such sentiments, especially if they relate to England, can, in their own minds, stem only from innate xenophobia or racism.
For they see any expression of patriotism among the English through the prism of oppression and colonialism, and thus to be discouraged. Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the defeat of fascism: these struggles for freedom and liberty are not enough to disabuse them of their prejudice.
Today’s liberal-Left politicians never express these views openly, of course. They know it would cost votes. So they feign patriotism by displaying rictus grins during the World Cup or St George’s Day, while spouting vapid words about England’s wonderful tolerance and diversity. The irony is that, having created a society obsessed with identity politics, they do their damnedest to suppress the very identity that for many people matters most: national identity.
In elevating the global over the local, and the cosmopolitan over the communitarian, the liberal and cultural elites stretched the democratic elastic beyond breaking point. They took the words of John Lennon’s Imagine and tried to apply them literally. But their promised land turned out, for millions, to be a desolate wilderness. In short, they forgot the politics of belonging, and they are now paying the price electorally throughout the West. Serves them right.
They also forgot the simple truth that there has never been an example of a political unit larger than the nation state which both fosters a spirit of mutual generosity among citizens and grants them the ability to exercise democratic power over their rulers. That’s why ordinary people remain so unshakeably attached to it.
Something needs to stand in the way of, on the one hand, global corporations, responsible through their ever-increasing hegemony of devaluing national democracy and deracinating communities, and, on the other, liberal internationalists, responsible for the growing sense of cultural and political detachment felt by millions in their own homeland.
The independent self-governing nation state isn’t dead. Not yet. In fact, it may be on its way back.