A lot about this referendum, when all of the faff about jobs and clout is scraped off the government position, comes down to a fundamental argument over one of the most divisive political issues of the last century: nationalism. It is no coincidence that the establishment, so keen to keep us in the EU, also views nationalism as a dirty word and a fundamentally bad principle in itself. After all, according the historically-unversed establishment classes, was it not the driving force behind two devastating world wars? The Nazi party, after all, was the Nationalist Socialist party, was it not?
We are frequently told how being in the EU is required to prevent poisonous nationalism, like vaccination prevents a disease, which in turn is required to prevent war. Hollande even reputedly went as far as to say ‘nationalism is war’ in one heated debate, while people like Ken Clarke, those who read the Guardian and this bloke, who believes that the nation state is an abomination, live in constant fear of a return to 1930s.
I want to argue the opposite, that the establishment totally misunderstand the nature of what nationalism is. I want to tackle the myth that the idea of nationalism in itself was responsible for the huge European upheavals in the last century, and highlight that there is more than one type of nationalism – rather, I want to shift the emphasis to the carrier-vehicles with which nationalism can become associated, mainly grievance. Instead of attacking nationalism in itself, a wholly pointless exercise, our aim should be on highlighting the creation and promulgation of grievance narratives when they attach themselves to nationalist groups. And I will concede that Europe has problems with nationalism – the Balkans is a long-running sore and anything east of the Elbe is such an ethnic mess that it is well beyond my competence to explain. Rather, my focus, as it should be regarding this referendum, is Britain.
In this day and age, I now have to virtue signal just so no one else has any excuse for putting me on the wrong side of the fence. At no point will I utter a word of support for Hitler, Nick Griffin or any other greasy-haired midlife crisis-ridden fool – hell, I won’t even give Hitler credit for the German motorway system (it was actually planned prior to his taking power, as was the re-organisation of the army which proved so devastating in 1939-1940). The bloke was a lazy bigot who found himself, almost by accident, at the head of monstrously efficient state apparatus.
So, what is nationalism? There are two definitions that crop up – one involves patriotic feeling, principles or efforts centred on the desire for a unified state (a nation), while the second one associates all of these feelings with a belief of superiority over other states/ethnicities. The second is a modern addition, just another of the legacies of Hitler – it makes about as much sense as defining racism as something that only white people can do or sexism as something that can only happen to women when put in its proper historical context (although recently there has been a rather alarming tendency to take neutral terms and redefine them to one side of the argument).
There have been many violent nationalist groups – put your finger on a map of the eastern half of Europe and you will probably find yourself looking at a place that has previously been or still is subject to half a dozen of them. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Finns, Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, etc. Similarly, the same can be said of most other areas of the world – the Middle East, for example, is littered with every –ism under the sun (including a healthy dose of nationalism). I could probably fill out the entire word count of this piece just by naming groups, conflicts or civil disturbances in which nationalism played a part. However, most of these groups never believed themselves superior to others – nationalism became violent as a method of overcoming opposition, rather than being used to subjugate others.
|Common specimens of the lesser haired nationalist|
Everyone can name examples of nationalist groups which did or do believe that they are superior to other states, or at least use nationalism as an excuse for imperialism. Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Nasser’s Egypt, extreme Zionists, Hussein’s Iraq, the Young Turk movement, Serbia generally and about the last 300 years of Russian foreign policy. This form of aggressive, jingoistic nationalism is often, but not exclusively, associated with racial ideology (dating from the 1870s, but pretty much dead in Western Europe after 1945, bar some white nationalist groups which tend to believe that there time will come when us sheep wake up – they have plenty of hope, but about as much chance of fulfilment in their views as me in my persistent crusade to bring the ruff back into fashion – both seemed like good ideas to some people in their day but once people saw the dreadful results they got abandoned pretty quickly, never to be exposed in public again).
However, these groups are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, it would actually be very hard, if not impossible, to claim that Moldova was an intrinsic superpower, or that South Ossetia must claim her rightful place in the sun and force other nations to respect her divinely-ordained supremacy by force of arms.
The fact that nationalism has led to violence in more recent times is normally an independent product of grievance-repression complex between two separate identity groups rather than a case of Small Country Syndrome (the collective of Small Man Syndrome). All political nationalism normally has a certain amount of grievance; otherwise there would be little reason to separate from the existing state. However, instances of grievance leading to civil violence are by no means confined to nationalism, and there is nothing intrinsic in nationalism that makes violence inevitable.
Take the breakup of Yugoslavia – Croats, Serbs and Bosnians et al. were fighting over carcass of a state infrastructure previously dominated by Serbs (who were, admittedly, one of the nationalist groups that did seek hegemony) and linked to the Soviet Union. The fighting was ignited by a grievance against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army. That the war became so delineated along ethnic and then nationalistic lines was because of a desire for self-determination and security – and the only way to achieve this was to remove Serb domination, and as the Serbs were unwilling to relinquish their position of power, force became the only conduit. Then, the whole thing spiralled out of control as grievances escalated through actions during the war. Nationalist-inspired violence can be some of the worst and most intractable, as it was in Yugoslavia, but it depends on circumstances.
There have also been plenty of peaceful nationalist movements. Even German Nationalism was largely peaceful before the 1860s – a notoriously liberal movement full of student organisations (Burschenschaften – the spelling of that word is one of the few things I still remember from A Level history). In our own times, Scottish nationalists, bar a few pathetic attempts at letter-bombing in the 1980s, Bavarian nationalists, Catalan and Basque nationalists (post-ETA), Venetian nationalists, Walloon nationalists, Texan nationalists, and many, many more have campaigned peacefully, attempting to fulfil their aims through the ballot box rather the bomb. The thought of Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru attempting to launch armed insurrection is positively laughable. And of course, Gandhi and his followers (not all Indian nationalists) notoriously made peace their greatest weapon, while the fall of the Berlin wall/reunification of Germany in itself was a triumph for nationalism, the desire for one united nation state.
Indeed, the deciding factor in how violent a nationalist movement becomes seems to be the level of repression, political opportunities and the breadth of grievance (as well as opportunities presented) rather than the aim itself (e.g. Kurdish nationalism became violent as a result of repression, political exclusion and genocide/regime violence – then Saddam’s fall and the Syrian civil war provided opportunities for success, which the Kurds have used to advance their nationalist aims through growing monopolies of power in certain regions).
It is a cheap smear to include all nationalist groups with the Nazis under one umbrella. The nationalism that seeks to assert one nation’s intrinsic supremacy is a different beast altogether to the movements seeking to create/maintain their own states.
|Mormons in action|
It is at this point in my narrative that the bloody Mormons turned up – more persistent than Jehovah’s Witnesses and brimming with missionary zeal in the form of a rather large American. I must confess that I much prefer the English specimen – so used to rejection are our homegrown nutters that threshold confrontations are comparatively quick and painless events. This invasive alien form of the species is not content to leave a leaflet and be about their business, and obviously has little else to do on a Tuesday evening, a warning to anyone else in the general vicinity of Crewe. God knows how they managed to coax 20 entire minutes of my time away.
By campaigning for Brexit, we are nationalists – we believe in a British nation state de facto as an alternative to the EU. But there is nothing inherently wrong with this, as many in the establishment would believe – and there is certainly no cause to jump the gun and run to full-blown supranationalism as a remedy to a problem which does not exist. Notwithstanding that supranationalism comes with its own set of potentially violence-inducing problems.
The other implication of this misunderstanding of nationalism is that the EU’s position on the issue is utterly untenable – in taking advantage of the fact that the English dictionary inexplicably places Nazi jingoism and the peaceful desire for self-determination of identity groups under the same word (why not just make the former a separate word? – ‘prickism’ has a ring to it, although Tony Blair may have borrowed that one already), the establishment rhetoric relating to nationalism implies that the latter groups are as disreputable as the former which is simply wrong.
Not only that, but the self-determination group will also only generally resort to mass violence if repressed and driven away from using more democratic means – in other words, it will be the EU and the pro-EU governments will be the main actors determining the levels and forms of repression and grievance, hence dictating whether the violence they so fear occurs.
Unless there is a renaissance in Social Darwinist thought that makes it mainstream again, about as likely as me being next prime minister, most nationalism in Europe will concern self-determination rather than global hegemony. There are a few fringe morons who still treat the gospel according to St. Adolf (Mein Kampf) as fact, even fewer in Britain - probably about enough to mount one fight against UAF with a hundred reserves, or for two more modest civil disturbances at the same time. There is almost no prospect of them seizing power under any normal, or even most abnormal, circumstances.
Of course, it can be argued that the presence of nation states rather than supranational blocs makes the risk of state-on-state war more possible. However, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny – in this day and age, in a world straddled by nuclear-armed alliances, inter-state war is hardly likely to break out in the most democratic spot on earth (not to mention the most bankrupt region – in practice you can have a large welfare system or a large military, not both at the same time).
Imagine trying to get a bill supporting the declaration of war on France through this parliament, let alone one with Jeremy Corbyn at the head – agreeing to blast the hell out of a few jihadis was hard enough. If David Cameron walked onto the Downing Street steps tomorrow and said that he was declaring total war on the entire European Union, even after a diplomatic spat, the public would take it as a poorly-timed joke, or perhaps the result of a bet he must have made the previous night while drunk, rather than an order to ready the spitfires and man the trenches. I doubt there has been a more pacified and less-warlike society in human history than that which exists now in Western Europe.
|The last British king to start a continental war|
Even throughout history, the British have never really gone in for wars of domination on the European continent – the last time we started a war there (excluding the Anglo-Dutch Wars, which were not fought on European soil) we were ruled by a ginger, testosterone-fuelled eccentric who killed several of his wives (future Prince Harry?). In practice, we tend to intervene in European wars that other people start, while our clear borders have historically been one of our greatest assets. There is literally no reason why Brexit would, or even could, contribute to any increase in violence whatsoever.
Nationalism is typically blamed for the two world wars (or at least since Fischer propounded the theory of a Sonderweg, a turn to the right in German nationalism dating from the Prussian victory in 1871 that made popular support for war inevitable). However, this is a gross over-simplification.
The First World War was fundamentally down to a breakdown in the alliance system – the seizure of Alsace-Lorraine in the 1871 war created intractable enemies in Germany and France. This broke up the previous system, whereby the four continental powers – France, Germany/Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – maintained a slowly evolving balance of power by acting against any party that grew two assertive, while Britain intervened on a case by case basis on the side of the defendant/victim.
Because Germany and France were now firmly in opposing camps, the alliance system dissolved into two rough sides (as in every crisis, Germany and France were eying each other as well as the actual issue at hand – normally the Balkans). This meant that Germany’s actions were motivated by the need to deal with French involvement on the other side and vice versa, and also a need to protect allies from defeat in order to prevent being the 1 in any following 2 on 1 war. Instead of calling a conference to sort it all out over champagne and caviar, as Bismarck would probably have done, incidents escalated into crises between two armed ententes and tactical imperatives came into play. Hence, catastrophe, in a nutshell. This is simplified a lot.
The Second World War was a result of the first, or rather the handling of the first. The Treaty of Versailles was punitive enough to create huge grievances among the German people, which combined with Nazi ideology to create a regime that sought to upset the European order and restore Germany to power. With Britain and America playing at splendid isolation again, Austria-Hungary ceasing to exist and Russia following its own rather sordid communist path divorced from everyone else, bankrupt, unwilling France was left to uphold the European balance of power with the help a number of unreliable new states (Poland, Italy) under the auspices of the League of Nations. It is little wonder that the whole thing fell apart so quickly.
The point of this is that nationalism almost certainly doesn’t work in the way that loathsome polemicists like Clegg and his ilk think that it does – the idea that populations in 1914 were stupid enough to declare war out of jingoist spirit is, to quote C. S. Lewis, ‘chronological snobbery’ or to quote Karl Pilkington, ‘bullshit.’
The initial spark in the Balkans necessitated war after the Austrians decided to invade Serbia and Russia decided to challenge the invasion – all sides knew that once this war was certain, failure to mobilise their own forces would be catastrophic, and as a consequence, all sides thought they were acting defensively.
The Austrians thought they were rooting out terrorists, the Serbians thought they were defending against Austrian annexation, the Russians believed themselves to be defending fellow Slavs and preventing Austria gaining too much power in the Balkans, the Germans were defending the Austrians (whose collapse would leave Germany vulnerable) and against Russian invasion, as the Russians knew that Germany would be forced to defend the Austrians, the French were defending against German invasion which in turn was forced by the fact that Germany did not want to fight a war on two fronts so launched a pre-emptive strike, the Turks were defending against Russian expansionism, and finally, the British intervened because of assurances given to France and a genuine alarm at the fate of Belgium. That this immensely complex situation developed was not the result of nationalism but a failure of diplomacy which set up the dominos for a disastrous fall.
The Second World War was a direct result of the first – aggressive German nationalism was only one reason among several: mainly, a reaction the punitive terms of Versailles in the form of Hitler, the lack of a functioning balance of power to stop Hitler, the rise of communism to bolster Hitler’s support, two widespread economic collapses (immediately post-war and the 1929 crash) which made Hitler’s populist authoritarianism more appealing and the lack of allied planning pre-1940 which handed Hitler a miracle victory.
There is literally nothing to suggest that the situation today bears any resemblance to either, with or without the EU – and there is also literally nothing to suggest that a Brexit would destabilise the balance of power. The situation pre-1945 has nothing to do with the realities of the modern world – Europhile arguments referencing the world wars really are clutching at straws and at best represent a skewed misreading of the facts.
To sum up my argument:
1) Nationalist views that seek a state to govern a common identity group and nationalist views that seek to dominate other societies are totally different movements, arising in different circumstances, and probably shouldn’t share the same word
2) Despite prominent examples (e.g. the Nazis), the vast majority of nationalist movements are the first version of nationalism in 1)
3) Among this first version, key factors in determining whether movements are peaceful or violent include the levels of grievance and the extent to which nationalism is resisted through repression
4) Hence, nationalism is neither intrinsically dangerous or violent – Brexit is a form of peaceful, democratic nationalism
5) Because the levels of repression and grievance depend on the actions of the EU and Europhile governments in this case, any resulting violence is likely to have been caused primarily by EU actions anyway – the only real thing that they have to be scared of is their own lack of appetite for true democracy
6) In point 5), I’m speaking hypothetically – I don’t think such a movement would arise, but it is important to address hypothetical Europhile arguments
7) There are very few jingoistic nationalists around – especially not in Britain
8) The World Wars were not caused primarily by jingoistic nationalism, and the situation is so different now anyway that they are irrelevant
9) This piece is all relevant because… ok, most of it isn’t, but the nation state must be defended as a principle to avoid Europhile smear attacks invoking nationalism as a dirty word - it is the only viable alternative to the supranationalist nightmare that we have now
10) I think that that is about it
11) Oh, and never open your door to Mormons – close the door quickly, count to 10 to see if they leave, and if this fails call in a bomb disposal squad (it is important to let the robot with the arm approach them – human contact only exacerbates the situation), an air strike or, if possible, a large, malnourished lion
Sorry for the long, probably unintelligible sentences. Sorry also for the fact that I’m not going to footnote this – I have to write and plan proper history essays for most of the week, and the last thing I want to have to do is another here (although once the referendum campaign heats up and I graduate, I’ll put more effort in). I’ll try to engage with any criticism/requests for sources, etc. and I’ll try to write one for supernationalism to build on this one and to make more of it add up at some point soon.