Nationalism, Brexit, Rebirth (part 1 of 4)

  1. The Olympic spirit

Back in 2012, in the afterglow of the very British Olympic opening ceremony designed by Danny Boyle, historian-turned- commentator MP Tristram Hunt celebrated the coming of age of a tolerant Britain at ease with itself and all its inhabitants, whether they got here by longboat, on the Windrush, or by Boeing 747:

What Boyle’s ceremony did was to visualise the promise the bid had always been based upon: the reality of a new Britain unshackled from its imperial past. From the heart of the East End, where the riches of Empire had once flowed into the docklands, Boyle provided a template of modern, vibrant, multicultural Britain with all its energy and vulgarity.

Four years later, English [1] voters chose Brexit by a narrow margin, and an alarmingly large number of people in multicultural Britain were being told to fuck off back where they came from.

Still, that didn’t stop liberal commentators hoping for the best. In the even briefer afterglow of Olympic medals in 2016, Guardian commentator Suzanne Moore contended, a little more cautiously, that Britain’s success, and the way the British population celebrated it, offered hope for the development of an inclusive nationalism, just as long as the left can get over itself:

[I]n Rio we saw that winners come in all sizes, shades and sexualities and when they do brilliantly everyone gets behind them. I am not always fond of folk wrapping themselves in flags but nationalism is always an imaginary concept that can be mobilised in whichever way we choose. This nationalism — inclusive, warm, sentimental, hardworking — is the one the left should embrace, but is too often embarrassed about. So it leaves nationalism for others to remake in their own brutal image.

A few days later, Arkadiusz Jóźwik was battered to death in Harlow because he was speaking his mother tongue on the phone.

2. Versions of nationalism

You might think Moore’s optimism is admirable; in the face of overwhelming evidence that the left doesn’t currently have a hope in hell of instilling is own version of nationalism amongst the wider population, in which she acknowledges there has been a fast-developing “anti-immigrant and out-and-proud racist discourse”, she still thinks it might be possible if we just try a little harder.

Or you might, as I do, see her and Tristram Hunt’s as a small but significant part of the problem the left now faces in relation to that “out-and-proud racist discourse” and vicious nationalism by which we are now beset.

For me, this kind of article — in which a single positive-looking event is wildly extrapolated upon to create a false story of liberal hope in the face grim reality — is problematic at two interrelated levels.

First. and most superficially, they provide the writer with an insurance policy against future criticism, protect them from having to think hard for a living, and thus perpetuate a stream of mediocre media comment, which receive critical acclaim on the basis of the name of the author, and the level of eloquence displayed, but do nothing to actually help the cause of the left that they claim to espouse. Indeed, the militate against the cause they espouse, because they squeeze out more productive political analysis and development of coherent political response to the issues they pretend to be tackling.

Articles like these are the positively framed version of the articles which pour with monotonous predictability from the laptops of leftwing media ‘heroes’ like Owen Jones, Ellie Mae O’Hagan or Maya Goodfellow — articles which focus a righteous anger on the fact that the left does not do enough to ‘call out’ the racists, the homophobes and all the other hatred, while conveniently ignoring the fact that the rest of the left does not tend to have their access to the mainstream media.

As such, they feed into a rightwing story of people on the left as, at best ineffectual, and at worst desperate hypocrites, and they do so in order that, a little while down the line when racism or homophobia or other brands of hating have got worse, those same authors can hold their heads high in literary public, and declare that “they told us so”, with the implicit message that if only we were as brave and resolute as they are, life would be much, much better for black people, gay people and the myriad of other groups who are now more hated than they were.

The second problem with articles of this type is deeper. The second problem is that they help to consolidate further of white, elite narrative, according to which which people of other colours and faiths are now well pretty well integrated, and that it is only a deviant section of society which has failed to come to terms with that integration, and who must therefore be ‘called out’ until they either go silent or mend their ways.

As a consequence, go the many articles in tune with this white, elite narrative, a fully inclusive Britain can be developed, if only we can be (in their positive or negative variants):

a) warm and cuddly enough to foster total inclusion; or

b) tough and determined enough to keep calling out racists until they all just shut up and let us get on with being warm and cuddly.

But this narrative requires a starting premise. This premise is that the vast majority of English people ate comfortable with and accommodating of multi-cultural Britain, and that any concerns white English people have about immigration and immigrants is not about race, but about ‘legitimate demands’ around service provision and ‘feeling overwhelmed’ This premise, of course, requires a convenient dismissal of an inverse correlation between the percentage of people in an area with ‘legitimate demands’ and the percentage of foreign people who, by their very presence, are supposed to create those legitimate demands.

In turn, this premise feeds back into the convenient (for the commentators) idea that they, the commentators, can be the main drivers of changes just as long as enough people read their articles, pay proper attention to their virtue signalling, and join them in calling out the few unreconstructed racists that are around.

But the problem with the staring premise, and the commentariat approach that flows from it, is that it does not accurately reflect lived experience.

I could take you into any number of pubs around where I live, and a couple of pint in any mention of politics will soon enough lead to the immigration question. The talk, perhaps consciously respectful at first, might make reference to ‘pressure of public services’, or ‘local communities priced out of jobs by cheap labour. You might even get the odd ‘I don’t blame the Poles themselves, but….’ Thrown in for evidence of enlightened thinking. But it won’t last. One pint further on, someone will up the ante, and talk about feeling how their way of life is being threatened by the number of Polish shops, about how these communities don’t integrate, how they refuse to learn English, about how they mistreat their women, and on.

Most people reading this article will have heard exactly that kind fo conversation trend, in which no-one pipes up with an alternative view, because those who do feel just a little but uncomfortable about what’s being said value continued friendship with their mates, who are otherwise decent blokes, and don’t want to run the risk of coming over all liberal wishy washy.

To pretend otherwise is to myth make. To talk of ‘legitimate demands’ is to avoid the truth that a very large number of English people actively look down and disapprove of foreigners, in a way that, at least until recently, foreigners have not looked down on us.

That’s my lived experience, but the more important lived experience is that of the people on the receiving end of Englishness. This is a voice not widely heard, for many reasons, for reasons which I will explore in much more detail below, but which actually include the contemporary narrative, explored above, that the English are lovely, inclusive people really, as long at least as you meet their ‘legitimate demands’.

Fortunately, it is not a totally silenced voice. It best recent expression comes in the ‘Good Immigrant’, edited by Nikesh Shukla, a volume of essays about what it is like to be a person of non-English heritage living in modern England, subject but resistant to what Shukla uncompromisingly calls the “systemic racism” at work in this country.

The title of the volume is take from Shukla’s pre-book conversation with one author of the essays, Musa Okwonga’s, and refers to how the very waay in which black and Asians are defined as ‘good immigrants’ in theu excel at sport, or baking cakes, creates a default positon of all others as ‘bad immigrants’.

Okwonga’s essay, like Tristram Hunt’s eulogy to an imagined modern Britain, takes as its hook the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. It couldn’t not. Though, be more different in its interpretation. While Hunt identifies fully with ceremony Danny Boyle’s attempt to portray Britain as a tolerant, happily multicultural place which has put its imperial dockland past to good post-imperial sporting use, Okwonga focuses obn how this message of vain hope was received by the Dail Mail, in its vuriletn attack on the very idea that England might now enjoy stable, ‘mixed’ marriages of equals.

The sad truth is that the lived experience of people like Nikesh and his fellow witnesses to good/bag immigrant England are belittled by articles like Moore’s and Hunt’s, which are rooted in a false premise about what English people are really like.

By turn, Nikesh et al’s experiences are, at best, relegated to the unfortunate exception, and in there place, we see promoted a fiction -also popularized on TV (just type “Asian family in….” into a search engine) - of black/brown people as totally accepted by the white community for who they happen to be, rather than (as in real life) roles they inhabit, whether these are in conformity to stereotype (newsagent, kebab shop etc) or by exception (artist, TV presenter) ‘that proves the rule’ of that stereotype. [2]

3. The left’s dilemma

To suggest, as I do above that Moore, Hunt et al. are actively contributing to the continued exclusion of ethnic minorities from British life may seem harsh. They are, after all, just commentators earning a living, and their hearts are in the right place.

Indeed, the real reason for focusing on how they support the dominant narrative rather than create it is that it reflects a wider dilemma faced by the left on the phenomenon of English nationalism — a dilemma salved, but not solved, by the soothing words of the commentariat, and a dilemma which is not solvable if we continue to act on the basis of the false premise I have described.

The left’s political dilemma is obvious to anyone who has ever canvassed on the doorstep. It goes like this.

Labour can respond to concerns expressed about immigration by listing them as legitimate demands, and propose policy to meet those demands. In so doing it risks losing the support of its liberal base because it is ‘aping UKIP’, or pandering to intolerance;’ etc.

Or Labour can take the high ground and assert that immigration is a good thing both economically and socially, and risk loss of its core working class vote, with opponents able to argue effectively that Labour is ‘out of touch’ with the people whose interests it was founded to represent.

There is no middle ground on this, however hard politicians work at trying to find it. The idea of a Migrant Impact Fund, for example, looks to those in ther anti-immgration camp like a sop, while the pro-immigration camp argue that is not logical to argue economic benefit of immigration while also arguing for a fund to mitigate disbenefits. In general, any attempt to steer a course looks and feels like insincerity, largely because it is.

4. Beyond the synchronic

So, changing the metaphor, the left stays stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it will remain so as long as it continues to accept and repeat the current version of history as it applies to the immigration/nationalism debate.

I use the word “history” here, rather than the “narrative” I have used to date, advisedly. To date in this introduction, I have focused on a synchronic assessment of English nationalism, contrasting it to the equally synchronic but more baseless synchronic view of two liberal commentators.

But this creates a starting point only. It does nothing in itself to help the left break out of the political dilemma it finds itself in; to state a case that white, working class England is beset by a narrow nationalism — however well (synchronically evidenced) and leave it at that, would simply be fodder for those who accuse the ‘metropolitan left’ (and I think I am a member by proxy) of a disdain for the working class.

To break out of this dilemma — and this is the central point of the early sections of this essay — we need to move on from a synchronic assessment to a diachronic one.

5. The diachronic, and beyond

In part 2, this is what I will do. Following Bob Jessop’s strategic relations approach in general, but Colin Hay’s reinterpretation of the (dual) post-war settlement more particularly, I will make the case for an historiographic re-assessment of how and why England and the English came to be how we are, why we voted for Brexit when the experts told us not to, and why ‘hard’ Brexit now is the one that is favoured up and down the country, in spite of the growing evidence that it will be an economic disaster.

In so doing, I hope to offer a first glimpse of the route past the left’s current political impasse on the questions of nationalism, identity and (in)tolerance of the other. I will argue that, while Englishness currently expresses itself as nasty, petty nationalism and distrust, this is actually the result of post-war and post-empire manipulations of capitalism, and that if the left can promote this new version of how we got ourselves in this terrible age-of-Brexit mess, we can then start to redress the current structure-agency imbalance, in which agency is all important (hence the journalistic virtue-signalling) and ideological structure is nothing [3].

In part 3, I move back to where we are today, and the paradox of Brexit. Brexit, I will argue, is an economic and cultural disaster of our own making but now probably unavoidable (or avoidable only at the expense of a further escalation of nationalism towards the vicious and violent). But the fact that we are faced by such bleak times offers us hope for the future, as long as the left starts work now on the project of generational justice (via collective guilt processes) and, ultimately, England’s re-emergence (with or without Scotland), as a grown up country. In this section, I draw heavily — and I know this may be a controversial parallel — on Germany’s painful processes of legal and civic reconstruction after the third Reich, and in particular the role played by Habermas and his colleagues.

In part 4, I come back down to the here and now, setting out how the left can and should get to work, girding this grand ideational project of national re-birth with the necessary acts of everyday democratic associationalism which (in Althusserian terms) creates the practices inherent to a new ideological underpinning to English society, based on patriotic commitment to a new constitutional settlement, rather than the current patriotic fervour for a certain skin colour.

And yes, I know full well that talk at this stage of the essay, such loft aspiration are an open invitation for abuse from those who deny the validity of relationship between theory and practice. All I can advise as someone who’s been doing stuff for 35 years but only in the last 5 years become conscious of why, is ‘read on…’

[1] I use the term ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ at most points in this essay, because Scotland and Northern Ireland have, for reasons I will explore, in part 2 especially, a very different nationalist dynamic. As far as Wales is concerned, a lot of what goes for England also goes for there, but simply for brevity I refer only to England, in the same way as the England & Wales Cricket Board’s team is not generally called England & Wales.

[2] Perversely, this fiction of the totally assimilated ethnic minority person is, in effect the reverse of, say, Hanif Kureshi’s actual fiction, in which the eponymous character realises and then knowingly exploits the fact that he will always be ‘exotic’, and can either benefit cynically, or remain abjured for his ‘otherness’. He chooses the former, while Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical character chooses the latter path.

[3] While I will not go into it at any great theoretical length, the essay is informed by Althusser’s insight into how people subjected to ideological formations come to express them in their everyday practices, with the result that these ideological practices become embedded and normalized, In Jessopian terms, these material practices — such as living or seeking to live in different parts of town from brown people — become a material constraint on how we see our future strategic options as agents. Only history can then save us…..

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