Hard or Soft Nationalism with a dose of Internationalism?

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

Published
Categorised as General

You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink!

We are witnessing a frenzied search by the “brexiteers” for a formula that will ensure that Britain leaves the European Union while retaining most of the benefits that it offers.  They seem to think that the referendum result makes it incumbent on the government to go for a divorce, whatever the costs and pain. They seem willing to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”: this is not simply a figure of speech, because the young are being given no voice in shaping the future of Britain, whether it opts for “brexit” or not.

This is not the place to talk about the merits of the referendum process or whether the executive arm of government or parliament should decide on invoking article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. Nor will we touch on what is good or bad about the EU. And we are not going to pronounce judgment on the single market, immigration or the bureaucrats in Brussels.

The only point we want to make is that any solution to the quandary now facing the government that ignores the expressed wishes of Britain’s young people – the under 50s who voted to stay in the Union – seems bound to fall flat on its face. Don’t forget that over 70% of the 18 to 24 year olds voted to “remain”.

The referendum is very different from a general election, because it will have fundamental implications on many aspects of British life for generations to come. It is not a matter of how many maltesers now come in a packet or whether Boris Johnson has to pay duty on his prosecco, or even whether the pound will crash next week. It is all about the long term social and economic environment in which our children and grandchildren will grow up, socialise, study, work and retire.

The future greatness of Britain depends on how successful the country is in harnessing the enthusiasm, energy, creativity and loyalty of its younger generations. They are the ones who already have a foretaste of the future in the way they now go about their daily lives and most of them said that they want more of the same. They are resentful that, as they see it, the older generations, often including  members of their own families, have robbed them of the future that they aspired to.

Some are also tempted to remind their elders to think about who is paying for the lion’s share of their pensions and the running costs of the NHS!

You don’t have to be a psychologist or a sociologist to see that a response to the referendum that does not have the genuine support of young people – not just those of voting age but also the millions of non-voting children for whom they stood proxy – is bound to sputter forward at half cock.

If this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that Britain – whether the prime minister or parliament – should not hurry to invoke article 50. Instead, it is a time for statesmanship rather than petty politics. Britain’s leaders should have the courage to bring an end to the uncertainty which now haunts all decision-making, and engage in a constructive dialogue with its partners in Europe on how the UK, if it was to stay in the club, could gain the fullest support for forward looking policies which respond best to the aspirations of the young, both those who voted to get out and those who wish to stay.

This approach is bound to find strong support from most of the European governments. After all, they’re all searching for ways of increasing youth employment, providing better care for the old, reducing inequality and social exclusion, renewing run-down urban districts, combatting extremism of all kinds, integrating new-comers within their society and shifting to more sustainable farming and food consumption systems. These are the big issues facing the younger generations not just in UK but across the continent, and Britain is well placed to make a really meaningful contribution to addressing them within its own borders and well beyond.

Only if there is real progress on these crucial areas of policy can we be confident that our young will be able to inherit the peace that we have enjoyed for the last 70 years, thanks largely to the EU. Interestingly, Britain’s foreign secretary observed just two years ago, in his brilliant biography of Churchill that “…… Churchill …. looked at the developing plans for a common market with a paternal pride. It was his idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they would never go to war again — and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”

A country cannot aspire to greatness if its people are as divided as they now are, following the referendum – faced with prospects of a Disunited Kingdom, divided communities, broken friendships and split families.  Healing these rifts has to begin within families in which older and younger members voted differently – with older members reminding themselves that their instinctive role is to foster harmony and to show respect for the aspirations of the younger generations, even when these may differ from their own sense of values.

Published
Categorised as General

A Stupid Question Deserves a Stupid Answer

Unlike in Greece when it almost did a Grexit, most people in Britain – other than those at the extremes of the political spectrum – seemed quite comfortable living within the European Union. However, when, out of the blue, they were asked by David Cameron whether they wanted to stay in the Union or leave it, they found all sorts of good and bad reasons to think that it was better to be “out”. Much of the expressed disgruntlement had more to do with local issues than with the merits or otherwise of the EU.

There was no need for Cameron to ask the question in the first place, except as a means of placating some members of his own Conservative party. It was highly irresponsible for him to engage the whole British population in resolving a party issue – essentially to consolidate his own position.

In the period leading up to the vote, both sides blatantly deceived voters and slanged each other mercilessly, leaving many confused and often angry. In the end, much to his surprise, Cameron got a stupid answer to his stupid question. He ran off the stage as fast as he could, leaving a deeply divided Britain to sort itself out.

The costs of these divisions and the related uncertainties which have followed, whether measured in economic, social or emotional terms, are enormous and are still being notched up. The value of the pound sank to record lows, many of us hesitate to take important decisions about our own lives, and, worst of all, the United Kingdom risks disintegration, political parties are in turmoil, communities are split, friendships have been destroyed and deep rifts have emerged within formerly tranquil families. We often forget that the affair has also created big problems for many of our continental neighbours who are naturally getting fed up with our behaviour.

If we were in Brazil or South Korea, Cameron would be held accountable for the damage and face impeachment.

Mrs May found herself in his empty seat. Most politicians, when faced with a stupid answer to a stupid question, play for time. Instead, before she had even sat down, she fell for the stupid answer, crowing that “Brexit means Brexit” even though neither she nor its champions had a clue as to what it implied. In so doing, she not only bestowed legitimacy on the result of a referendum that only had advisory status but also locked herself into driving along a road into unknown territory, into which even her guides had never trod and still have no credible map. And she told all of us, including the ultimate guardians of British democracy who represent us in parliament, to sit still and be good little girls and boys while we waited for her to pull the rabbit out of her hat.

Sadly, she missed the moment when she could have emerged as a stateswoman who could have brought unity to the country, based on the acknowledgement that the race was essentially a draw and that she had to do her homework, involving both sides, before she could judge what was best not just for her party but for Britain as a whole.

That moment, however, could arise again. It seems that a “hard” Brexit is all that is likely to be offered by the other EU countries to Britain and that, as the full implications of this strike home, public support will diminish. Perhaps the time will come when, rather than invoke article 50 and embark on negotiating an exit, she might see that Britain could get a better deal by changing tune and negotiating terms and conditions for it to stay on board.

The prime minister could find strong support for such a volte face if she was to listen, as all older people should, to the young people of Britain – the 70% of the population below 55 years old. Politicians seem to be so taken up with short term issues that they have failed to grasp that Britain’s future inevitably hangs on its younger generations. It seems obvious that, if they are not comfortable with what is eventually decided, they won’t give of their best to make it work.

Many of the young live quite happily in an increasingly multi-cultural society, don’t see the regulations coming out of Brussels as repressive, and believe in staying in a single market on their doorstep rather than searching for elusive free trade deals in India or arms sales in Arabia. That is why most under 50s, including over 70% of 18 to 24 year olds, voted to “remain”.

Their agenda is not about the shape of a Toblerone bar or where their neighbours come from. It is about the overall environment in which they and their children aspire to pass their lives – the opportunities to get good education, find a decent job, buy a house, travel internationally, live in a green economy and, above all, enjoy freedom from conflict.

Our call is not simply for a greater voice for young people, especially the under 30s, in shaping Britain’s future. We are also convinced that many older people would throw their weight behind younger family members if encouraged to revert to their instinctive role of promoting harmony amongst their offspring and of supporting the younger generations in achieving their aspirations, even when these differ from their own.

Hopefully, if our current leaders don’t soon put the future of our country ahead of their party games, a true statesman will emerge from the younger generations and give us a sensible answer to a stupid question!

Published
Categorised as General