Joyce McMillan: Nationalism is not just for Scots

Failure of the establishment to tackle Britain's problems has driven many towards Ukip. Picture: Getty
Failure of the establishment to tackle Britain's problems has driven many towards Ukip. Picture: Getty
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Westminster has embraced patriotic fervour to mask the problems it has failed to solve, writes Joyce McMillan

Bannockburn, Braveheart, the irrational passions of unleashed patriotic feeling – if there was one recurring theme in coverage of Scotland’s independence referendum from outside Scotland, it was the image of the woad-painted warrior with a St Andrew’s cross painted on his (on her) face, and eyes glazed in a roaring ecstasy of aggression.

The idea behind the coverage, of course, was that the politics of national identity always represents a poor, emotive substitute for a genuine debate about who holds economic power, what they do with it, and how far democratic governments should intervene in the interests of people.

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Although the Braveheart imagery deployed by many journalists in covering the referendum was demonstrably – even laughably – wide of the mark in capturing the mood of this year’s Yes campaign, it remains true that even the most liberal, civic and inclusive forms of nationalism struggle to avoid the more seductive aspects of nationalism as a creed; the idea that simply by changing constitutional arrangements, a nation can effectively walk away from major structural problems affecting its society and economy, or immediately make them much easier to resolve.

Five weeks on from the referendum, though, what is increasingly striking about the politics of the continuing UK is that, far from providing a “rational” or “normal” alternative to Scotland’s long independence debate, Westminster politics itself now seems almost entirely obsessed by issues of national identity and security, as a substitute for any real focus on Britain’s current economic and social performance.

Readers of this newspaper will be aware of the famous Ipsos Mori survey, published in the summer of 2013, which showed that, on a whole range of subjects – including immigration and benefits – British public opinion had come adrift of reality to a truly alarming extent.

Yet in the past year, the tendency of Westminster politicians to reinforce these popular myths by using them as the basis for policy has, if anything, grown even more marked, under the rightward pressure exerted by Ukip. To listen to Westminster debates, at the moment, is to be subjected to an increasingly weird litany of pin-striped resentment against an ever-expanding list of external scapegoats and enemies, from the much-hated European Union, through a wide range of terrorists and dissidents, to greedy benefit claimants, and, of course, the rebellious Scots – now apparently to be put in our place through the introduction of “English votes for English laws”.

The discussion of this strange symbolic hitlist of issues often takes place in an atmosphere of the most heated patriotic fervour, including a set of assumptions about the evident superiority and blamelessness of British institutions that seems to belong to a long-gone era of imperial glory.

The reason for this lurch towards an emotive politics of identity and scapegoating is not far to seek, of course; it lies in the adoption, across almost the entire political spectrum at Westminster, of an economic orthodoxy which cannot offer any realistic prospect of a more just, prosperous or sustainable life for most of the people of Britain.

This week, the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang published a devastating critique of the present government’s economic strategy, and of the “fairytales” on which it is based; the myth that the present deficit was caused by excessive public spending during the Labour era, the myth that the present government’s 1930s-style austerity policies are both necessary to reduce the deficit and effective in doing so, the myth that the government’s economic strategy is delivering a “job-rich” recovery, and the myth that that recovery is now the strongest in Europe. The first three of these propositions are demonstrably false, given the abysmal pay and conditions of most of the “jobs” being created; the last is true only if you accept crude definitions of national wealth which do not take account of the still-declining incomes of 90 per cent of the population.

Yet not only do the Conservatives continue to perpetuate these myths, as one might expect. The Labour Party, too – as the country’s official party of opposition – seems to have made some kind of strategic decision not to oppose the broad thrust of them, although they may dispute some details. And it is this reluctance to oppose and expose a failed economic orthodoxy – a failure which lies almost entirely at the door of the post-1994 Labour Party – that largely accounts for the political impasse in which the UK now finds itself. It was this failure which drove hundreds of thousands of Scottish social democrats, in the recent referendum, to make a historic compromise with Alex Salmond’s carefully nuanced form of Scottish nationalism; it was not difficult, given the current mood at Westminster, to conclude that the Scottish national project had a higher chance of taking a progressive path than the current UK national project, such as it is.

What is perhaps even more significant, in the long term, is the extent to which this Labour failure to offer a viable and vivid centre-left alternative has driven many despairing English voters towards a party of nostalgic dissent whose policies might well be described as farcical, were they not now being taken so seriously by so many.

Just how Nigel Farage would actually go about removing from our society all the hundreds of thousands of EU citizens who play such a vital part in our economy, I have no idea; nor does anyone seem interested in pressing him on it.

I’m afraid, though, that I do know who is responsible for the fact that I am even having to think about this kind of future. I accuse a generation of Westminster politicians who, out of sheer cowardice in the face of sensational media coverage, have allowed a series of vicious lies and untruths to take root in the minds of British people – lies about benefit claimants, about migrants, about Europe, and about the real problems facing our economy.

And above all, I accuse the Labour Party, which could have told an entirely different story about the 2008 crash, its causes, and the remedies that might actually help us all; but which, in Professor Chang’s words, has simply failed to meet the country’s desperate need for a counter-narrative – one that might change the terms of debate, at last.