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Nationalism is the enemy of the people

by Paul Taylor | 19.10.2017

“The English, the English, the English are best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.” Thus sang the English satirists Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the 1960s.

Their ditty encapsulated the dangerous absurdity of nationalism. It is a mentality that goes beyond the assertion of a right to self-determination of a group of people who identify together. It involves a collective sense of superiority over other tribes, races, creeds or religions.

Nationalism is about keeping other people out or down, and pursuing national advantage at the expense of others. It is the midwife of other “isms” such as jingoism, militarism, protectionism and, yes, racism. In today’s Europe, it is often directed against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, although it is no longer respectable to say the same things about Jews.

In the 21st century, nationalism is the enemy of the national interest, which requires working with others to manage trade, the climate and security. That means making compromises and sometimes agreeing to be outvoted in a community of democracies.

The give-away about nationalists is that they tend to abhor other people’s nationalism, even as they feed off it. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader in the European Parliament, refused to join forces with Marine Le Pen’s Front National because of what he called “prejudice and anti-semitism” in the French party.

Conservative Brexiters who idealise a free-trading “Global Britain”, even as they distance the UK from its biggest export market, are understandably uncomfortable with Donald Trump’s “America first” protectionism, which stands in the way of their chimera of a tariff-free Anglosphere.

If we fear muscle-flexing Chinese or Russian nationalism, condemn Hindu nationalism when it discriminates against non-Hindus, or Buddhist nationalism when it fuels persecution of Muslim Rohinga in Myanmar, why should we feel differently about British nationalism?

On the left, “socialism in one country” nationalism has endured beyond the death of Stalin. The hard left advocated Brexit in the belief that by leaving a neo-liberal capitalist club, Britain would be free to pursue an interventionist economic policy.

Nationalism may have been a progressive force in the 19th century, when fragmented or oppressed peoples such as the Germans, Italians or Greeks fought for unification against monarchies or foreign rulers that had divided and ruled their countries. But it fuelled colonial rivalries and wars of conquest that wreaked devastation in Europe and around the globe.

The EU was established to make such conflicts impossible by spinning a web of economic and political interdependence to the mutual benefit of its member states and peoples.

In the current stand-off between Catalonia and the Spanish national government, Catalan nationalists say they are pursuing independence – in breach of the Spanish constitution – because they are the victims of Spanish nationalist discrimination.

Like Scottish separatists, the Catalans seek sympathy across Europe by proclaiming that unlike the UK nationalists who drove the campaign for Brexit, they are fervent pro-Europeans. Catalonia wants nothing more than to take its seat in a federal EU, they say.

Yet their nationalism – linguistic rather than ethnic – is just as suspect as other brands. It is built on historical myths or half-truths, on a sense of economic and cultural superiority over other parts of Spain, and on a distorted conflation of modern Spain’s democratically elected conservative government with Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The risk of violence is never far away.

In his final address to the European Parliament in 1995 in the midst of the wars of Yugoslav succession, French President Francois Mitterrand appealed for Europeans to overcome ancient prejudices and enmities. “What I am asking of you is almost impossible because it means vanquishing our history,” he said. “And yet if we do not overcome it, you must realise that a general rule will prevail: nationalism is war.”

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Nationalism is the enemy of the people”

  • I don’t know how much Paul Taylor knows about Catalonia, or where he has got all his condemnatory certainties about the primitive evils of Catalans from, but frankly those who care about the place and know more about its problems are getting pretty sick of this sort of pompous diatribe in British media (the Observer is just as bad) based on ignorant stereotypes and an overriding idea that ‘minority/small country nationalism=bad: big country/status quo nationalism=good’.

    He says re Catalan nationalism, “it is built on historical myths or half-truths, on a sense of economic and cultural superiority over other parts of Spain, and on a distorted conflation of modern Spain’s democratically elected conservative government with Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The risk of violence is never far away.’

    Documentation, please? The relations between Catalan and Spanish culture are complex, and to say it’s all a matter of Catalan ‘superiority’ is a nonsense. They are different, that’s all. Then you say ‘a risk of violence’… You should know if you do any research at all before loosing off your prejudices that in the current situation VIOLENCE HAS BEEN INITIATED BY THE SPANISH AUTHORITIES not from Catalonia. For the past seven years Catalanists have held the largest peaceful demonstrations in modern Europe without a single violent incident. Look at how things are, please, Mr Taylor, not just through a set of assumptions.

    The real problem of Spain is a belligerent Spanish nationalism (and this is not the same as saying things are same as under Franco) that is incapable of articulating any inclusive or positive message towards Catalonia. And this has been stirred in a manipulative and irresponsible way by Spanish parties (who get very few votes in Catalonia) as a crude vote-winner in their home territories and a handy distraction from other issues. If English Tory MPs had ever carried on a campaign re Scotland with slogans like ‘Show the Jocks what for’ you can imagine what the reaction would be, yet this is exactly the kind of thing members of the Spanish establishment (including Prime Minister Rajoy) have done several times in the last 15 years.

    Worst of all, on a website supposedly committed to internationalism like In Facts, is that this crude idea that minority nationalism is inevitably ‘suspect’ and that big-state nationalism is automatically ‘OK” is no use whatsoever in resolving issues between communities and developing a truly multilateral internationalism. Instead it supports the policy of inter-elite, inter-state stitch-ups, which is what the current Spanish government is relying on to mind its back.

    The Catalan situation is complex, and deserves some understanding. Not just the crass condemnations in this article.

    I tried to explain some of these issues on Open Democracy in this article, if I can link it – I’d also recommend the excellent articles on Open D by Patrice de Beer –

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/nick-rider/catalonia-spain-referendum-there-is-more-than-one-nationalism-in-iberian-peninsula

  • What states seem to do is that they nowadays act like empires in relation with their regions and thus with their cultural diversity.
    Like Nick said before, it’s interesting how Spain is reacting to the Catalan issue ( and let’s not forget the Basque) , in a manner that bans any dialogue , like a master to his servant, as if they are alone in the world.
    Also it s interesring to note that Spain behaves like this in the light of the example of United Kingdom and Scotland.
    We seem to forget the painful lessons of 1912 = Balkan wars=, the First World War, the Second World War and many others.
    Are we preparibg for inner wars and Third World War (s) ?