Why are we surprised to discover that our political culture is dysfunctional, British society divided, perhaps dangerously so? Political leaders have bombarded the public with a stream of stark binary choices: a yes or no referendum on leaving the European Union, ‘the people’ versus the ‘elite’, a vigorous can-do Executive versus a “zombie” Parliament, the poor versus the Establishment and the Rich, a suffering North versus a complacent South, young voters anti-BREXIT, old voters pro-BREXIT.
A better answer would be that globalisation plus Coalition and Conservative government policies have increased inequality of opportunity between, and within, regions; a decade of austerity has depressed the incomes of the less well-off. This experience has created a genuine conflict of interests, feelings and power between so-called overbearing cosmopolitan ‘nowheres’, upwardly and geographically mobile, and the ‘somewheres’, those left-behind, stuck locally with low incomes and few prospects, ignored. It is not that simple. But there is something in the distinction.
The perception of social reality as an irresolvable conflict between ‘them and us’ is the great mainstay of extremism. I can vouch for that after eight years of working on preventing religious extremism. The death of Jo Cox MP was tragic evidence that politicians’ irresponsible language in a dysfunctional society has become lethally dangerous. We see a threatening increase in the percentage of Neo-Nazis joining potential jihadists in the Channel mentoring programme of the Government’s Prevent policy.
And yet, there is something else going on. I was struck by John Le Carré’s recent observation that “Nationalism needs an enemy, Patriotism needs a commitment”. Identifying the enemy is the step after ‘them and us’ into hate-speech with the conviction that ‘them’ are evil. Then comes violence.
There are also ideological reasons for our present predicament. BREXIT is a bi-product of the rise of English nationalism. It takes an Irishman like Fintan O’Toole to name, analyse and ridicule the genie inside the BREXIT bottle. Now that the Farage/Johnson nationalist genie has been released, we will soon face significant pressures for an independent Scotland and a much more Irish Northern Ireland, possibly short of a United Ireland, possibly not.
First a confession: I have a soft spot for John Major’s English myth: Anglican ladies riding their bicycles to church, cricket on the village green, warm beer, cosy pubs. No satanic mills here. Nor rust-belts and boarded up shops. But then I also have a soft-spot for Connemara: the rugged coast and cold churches, horizontal rain, Guinness and oysters round a turf fire, good craic, the Arran Isles, Ireland’s own offshore dream of the past. But fantasy pasts are inherently weak as narratives of nationalism. Society changes leaving them behind. Nationalism finds an enemy.
In a General Election the dark arts of ‘setting the agenda’ come clamouring to the fore. Wrapping themselves in the flag of English nationalism, the new Conservative Party tries to hide its roots in what Will Hutton describes as transnational finance capital: a “regulation-light land fit for hedge funds and private equity capitalism” made for “billionaires of whatever nationality”. Yet, for an era of identity politics, neither Tories nor the statist Corbyn coterie are performing well. Corbyn is acutely vulnerable on political judgement, foreign policy, and Security. Johnson on his past performance as Foreign Minister, his personal values, mendacity, and chameleon politics.
Try applying the Le Carré distinction between nationalism and patriotism to the General Election campaigns. For the Conservative/ Brexit axis, the European Union is the enemy: virile English nationalism stifled by ‘massive’, and effete, EU bureaucracy (in reality the EU employs 32,000 ‘bureaucrats’ with responsibilities for 512 million people, the UK employs 430,000 civil servants for a population of 67 million). As new Leave slogan, ‘Get BREXIT Done’ is a doubly mendacious successor to ‘Take Back Control’; BREXIT will not be done for several years and what Johnson most wants ‘done’ is a big election victory for an English Nationalist Party led by Tory extremists. Many expelled, now former, MPs are patriotic in the Le Carré sense, committed enough to the values of ‘one nation’ Toryism to end their careers. They were unfortunate. Johnson is fickle enough to lead a straightforward ‘one nation’ campaign were it in his interests. On the scale of malignant populist nationalism, a future Johnson government might merit a three, Orban’s FIDESZ in Hungary an eight.
Why only a three? Because the new Conservative Party knows it must pretend to embrace one-nation Toryism and reflect some of the values of the majority of the British people. Not the majoritarian BREXIT values surfaced in the 2016 Referendum, but those of the overwhelming majority of British citizens who share the values and experience of the NHS and are committed to it as a precious national institution.
Founded by the 1945 Atlee Government, the NHS with its egalitarian, free-at-the-point-of delivery, cradle-to-the-grave services, its multi-racial and multi-cultural staffing, and its strong popular support, expresses a cohesive national identity, the kind of identity presented to an admiring world by Danny Boyle at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics. Here was a national institution we were proud to show off to the world. The sense of national pride and healthy patriotism was palpable. That is why, in the current financial bidding war for votes, the Labour Party could not allow another Party to outbid them on commitment to NHS funding.
Viewed from the angle of an individualistic competitive society, and the new Toryism that purports to promote this kind of society, Conservative support for the NHS is an anomaly. “A free health service”, Aneurin Bevan wrote, “is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society”. I await John McDonnell quoting that.
In today’s divisive political culture the NHS remains the touchstone of a cohesive Society with strong human values. And somewhere in our lie-saturated and divisive political culture, the political leaders of the two main Parties glimpse the truth of this proposition…. even during this desultory time of binary identity politics. There is still a glimmer of hope.
See also TheArticle.com 21/11/2019