Wednesday, 1 March 2017

There's nationalism and nationalism

While on a visit to Llanelli in South Wales, I found myself chatting to a pleasant woman who had spent some years working in bookshops.

“The worst thing about the London-based salesmen for the publishing companies,” she told me, “was that they didn’t want to come down to see us. One of them even said they only delivered to the mainland.”

It’s an interesting notion. Because, you see, Wales isn’t in fact an island separate from England.

OK. So where's the sea between England and Wales?
The conversation reminded me of one I had decades ago with a Welsh lawyer. A fluent Welsh speaker, he’d built quite a practice in a rural area providing legal services to farmers and others whose English was poor.

“We’re always talking about nationalism in this country.” 

We were in Wales at the time and there was, indeed, a great deal of talk about Welsh nationalists who were on the rise and, in their most extreme manifestation, had even taken to torching Welsh cottages owned by absentee English proprietors.

“But,” he went on, “I don’t think it’s Welsh nationalism that’s the real problem. It’s English nationalism.”

He was on to something, it seemed to me. After all, Welsh, Irish or Scottish nationalism might be the ones that made the most noise, but what they were noisiest about was the need to resist an arrogant and overbearing England, intent on treating them as second-rate citizens with no specific needs of their own.

Why, even the iconic British red postboxes had been emblazoned “E II R” since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. However Scotland, part of her realm, had never had a first queen of that name. For the Scots, the present queen is “E I R”.

A trivial matter? I’m sure it is in itself. But symbols matter and Symbolically the postboxes proclaim “Scottish history doesn’t matter. It’s been subsumed into English.”

How English history subsumes Scottish
Both sides of this divide are nationalistic. But there is a difference: Scots and Welsh nationalists, and their Irish predecessors who successfully achieved independence for their nation, are speaking out in defence of rights denied. The English nationalism is an empowered variety, proclaiming its own entitlement to deny rights to others.

It’s that kind of rampant, ugly nationalism whose rise around the globe is so worrying today. It’s bad in Britain. Here English nationalists, ironically supported by the Welsh on this occasion, inflicted Brexit on the entire population of the island, and the six counties of Ireland that are attached to it. It has become ever clearer that the hopes on which that movement based itself are entirely unfounded, not just illusory but self-delusory: there will be no savings to plough back into cherished national institutions like the NHS, despite the deceiving promises of the Brexit-backers; there will be no repatriation of control, but deepened dependency on others, such as the US, without Britain even enjoying the limited say in the making of their policy that it had in the EU; and, it has now been admitted, there will not even be the kind of reduction in immigration Brexiters had hoped for, such is our need for foreign labour to keep our society moving.

However, that only means that Britain will suffer for Brexit. Damage may be inflicted on other countries, but it will be relatively minor.

In the US, however, we have a team in power that has explicitly adopted the slogan ‘America First’. It sounds noble but in reality it means ‘everyone else a (distant) second’ (which, it has to be said in passing, makes it particularly ironic that Brexiters are looking to the US for national salvation). And the worst of it is that Trump has his finger on the button for an unimaginably powerful force – a huge nuclear stockpile.

On top of that, to ensure that in future the America he wishes to put first wins its wars, he’s looking for a large increase in military spending. To achieve it, he’s prepared to cut environmental protection and foreign aid, because he prefers dominating the world to keeping it habitable, and things it makes more sense to bomb people than feed them.

Refusing to deliver books to a part of your own country on the insultingly false belief that it’s an island is bad enough. It’s only the start of the harm that nationalism can do. It can go far further, hurling a nation into regression as Brexit will do, or worse still, jeopardising the future of the world as Trump now threatens.

Ugly and unpleasant, rampant, empowered nationalism turns out also to be dangerous.


Anonymous said...

You forgot Cornwall.

David Beeson said...

True, true. And I was there just ten days ago. I have no excuse.