It is strange how new words enter our language and quickly become commonplace. “Grexit” even has a date of birth – 6th February 2012 – when it was first uttered by Ebrahim Tabbari and Willem Butler of the Citibank Group. And “Brexit” was bound to follow “Grexit” in 2015 when Britain announced its intent to hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union.
After the referendum, it was found that, though we all referred to “Brexit”, none of us – not even its main proponents – could explain what it meant. Perhaps this was because, unlike Greece, we had not actually had a quarrel with the EU.
As soon as she was appointed prime minister, Mrs May tried to clarify matters by helpfully announcing that “Brexit means Brexit”, but even now she is still in the dark about what it means apart from the fact that she says that it is now is “red, white and blue”.
The adjectives, “hard” and “soft” are now frequently applied to “Brexit” to refer to the kinds of deal that Britain might expect to be able to negotiate if it eventually passes the point of no return by invoking article 50. The consensus now seems to be growing that a decision to negotiate is tantamount to accepting a hard Brexit with a bruising hard landing.
Oddly, what could possibly soften the negotiating position of the other 27 EU members is their fear of the growth of ultra-nationalism within their own borders and hence their wish to confront this by making concessions similar to those that the UK might be seeking.
There is a general acceptance that the stirring up of nationalist sentiments played a big role in creating the “leave” majority in the UK’s EU referendum in June. Some analysts have sought to distinguish between types of nationalism, whether it was “civic” or “ethnic”. It seems a great deal easier to call a spade and spade and, just as we are doing in describing Brexit options, talk about “soft” and “hard” nationalism.
I suspect that most of us are soft nationalists – red, white and blue nationalists – at heart. We will listen to the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day; a month or so ago we took pride in honouring those who gave their lives for our country in two world wars by wearing a poppy on 11th November; and some of us will still stand to attention when we sing the national anthem, if we can remember the words. We cheer for our gold-winning athletes in Rio, but are unhappy when England’s cricketers get thrashed by the Indians. More importantly, we are see ourselves as British because we uphold and respect honest behaviour (even if our MPs may fiddle their expense claims); we subscribe to an unwritten code of decent behaviour and politeness towards others, though we may no longer often go to church: and, if we can’t think of anything better to say, we are never short of words about the weather.
The referendum campaign has hardened nationalism, stoking fears that our culture and our values are at risk of being eroded by an uncontrolled influx of migrants from other nations. Sadly, this has manifested itself in a rising tide of xenophobia and hate crimes towards foreigners, even those who have lived peacefully here for decades. It has exposed the ugly face of a more extreme and intolerant form of British nationalism.
The appeal to nationalistic instincts led many people to lay the blame for most of the ills from which our country suffers at the feet of the “unelected bureaucrats” of Brussels. It is easy to forget that Britain has always had the power to control immigration from outside the EU, but has not chosen to use it. And we have failed to realise that it is Britain’s prosperity, its low unemployment rate and generous social security system that acts as such a strong magnet for foreigners, especially from less fortunate countries.
This is not intended to trivialise immigration issues. There are clearly large problems in quickly assimilating new arrivals in our country, especially when large numbers of outsiders descend on quite small communities. But we have also got to remind ourselves that “being British” means being a cocktail of ancient Brits, Picts, Celts, Romans, Vikings, Normans and, since 1066, of waves of migrants from all over the world. Our much-revered monarch is a multinational creature, God bless her!
What the Scottish vote in the referendum, where 62% voted to remain, tells us is that it is perfectly possible to have a very strong sense of nationalism while welcoming foreigners and not feeling threatened by Brussels. The reasons for this are well explained by Iain Macwhirter in his 12th December 2016 blog in The Herald:
“In Scotland, nationalism has not taken the xenophobic form we see elsewhere in Europe, even in the Nordic countries where far-right parties have participated in government recently.
Nicola Sturgeon has been able to harness respect for diversity and social democratic values to an open-minded civic nationalism. Indeed, as we see in its arguments against Brexit in the Supreme Court, the Scottish Government has made internationalism one of the defining features of Scottish nationalism.
This puzzles many on the British Left who assume that the SNP is a right-wing party in disguise. It is not a cause for naive self-congratulation but at least there’s an alternative on offer. The SNP is able to speak to working class white voters in a way that the conventional liberal Left no longer has the ability. Given Brexit, the horror-show throughout Europe and the disarray on the liberal Left, we should be grateful for small mercies.”
If you were to ask young people in England who, unlike most of their elders, voted to stay in the EU, how they would describe their nationalism, I suspect thatmost would also claim “internationalism” as one of its defining features.
Any solution to the challenge set by the referendum result that is arrived at without the genuine involvement of the young – and the Scots – is bound to fail for they are the ones who inevitably have to implement it. They are also the British nationals who have first-hand experience of growing up, studying and working in a multi-cultural society and their vote shows that this is the life that they want for themselves and their children.
It would be unfair to reward their soft nationalism with imposing a “Brexit”, whether hard or soft, upon them.
Future of our Children Team