Nationalism, the EU and “the Left”
John Morton examines the contradictions at the heart of various party political attitudes to the EU.
It is interesting to note the positions adopted by various political parties towards the UK’s membership of the EU. Broadly speaking, the attitude maps onto a left-right spectrum, with the more left-wing parties tending to be more favourable towards UK membership and the more right-wing tending to be more unfavourable. But this is far from universal.
One can immediately point to various left-wing and right-wing parties that go against this trend – or that appear on the surface to go against it. For instance, most parties with “socialist” or “communist” in their names seem to be in favour of the UK leaving the EU, whereas some avowedly “nationalist” parties seem to be in favour of the UK remaining in the EU – for instance the SNP and Sinn Féin.
It may be useful to provide a brief commentary on socialism and on nationalism before proceeding.
Socialism is, at heart, a belief in society, a belief that we achieve more through our collective endeavour than we could possibly achieve alone. It is about co-operation, about collectivism, about from each according to their means to each according to their needs. It does not, per se, recognise any borders. One would, thus, expect any genuinely socialist organisation to promote international co-operation, as a means of lessening the effect of artificial borders that divide people from each other. But yet we are left with the conundrum that several apparently socialist parties seem opposed to that, seeking to bring about a situation where borders between the UK and the rest of the EU are built higher.
Before looking at possible reasons for that, let’s look at nationalism. At heart, this is a belief that the people occupying a certain geographical area are somehow set apart from those occupying neighbouring areas. When this happens to coincide with the status quo, the political parties associated with it are invariably far to the right on the political spectrum: as examples, one might consider the British National Party (and similar such UK-wide bodies), the Front Nationale, the Australia Party and so forth. When the coincidence is more aspirational, i.e. the area concerned is not currently an independent entity, the picture is rather more blurred.
I first realised this on an anti-Vietnam War demo (shows my age), when it struck me as rather odd that, on the one hand, we seemed to be opposing the National Front and all its works in the UK, while on the other hand apparently supporting the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. What actual difference was the word “liberation” making? In essence, all it was doing was stating that the nationalism concerned was not the status quo.
Where the nationalism is not the status quo, it is pretty inevitable that the nationalists concerned will concentrate, not on the glories of the state and the need to “protect” it from external influences – as said “state” is not currently an independent entity – but rather on the perceived deficiencies of the actual state they are in. And, just as “status quo” nationalism magnifies the virtues of the state out of all proportion, so “non-status quo” nationalism magnifies its defects out of all proportion. And neither has the spirit of co-operation at its heart.
Coming back to “socialist” parties opposing the UK’s continued membership of the EU, the usual reasons trotted out include such as “The EU is a capitalist club”, “TTIP is an abomination – save the NHS” and “What’s the EU ever done for workers’ rights?”. These arguments are somewhat naïve, as they can immediately be blown away by such facts as (a) the UK is every bit as much a “capitalist club” as the rest of the EU – probably more so, in fact; (b) any agreement on tariffs and trade entered into on the world scale by the EU would also apply to any non-EU country seeking favourable trade relations with the EU (which the UK would undoubtedly do); and (c) EU legislation has actually been of considerable benefit to poorly-paid workers in the UK. So why do they persist in their stance when presented with such arguments?
The reason is relatively obvious: such “arguments” are not the real reason for their opposition. The real reason is actually the same as that openly espoused by the far-right opposition to continued EU membership; it is UK nationalism, a blind belief that the UK is best. But you try telling them that! Put it this way: anybody who actually believes in “left solidarity”, “trades union solidarity” and so forth would support, if not be a member of, the UK’s main party putting the case for workers – the former Labour Representation Committee, the current Labour Party. The fact that these groups are outside that party speaks volumes.
Coming back to the contradictory nationalist case of parties that seem to support the UK’s continued membership of the EU, recent statements from the SNP’s hierarchy undermine this stance very neatly. For, as we know, the SNP’s official line is pro-EU – and there’s been some lip service to campaigning for a “remain” vote in June. However, there’s also been the statement that, were the UK to vote to leave the EU, there would be a further push for Scottish independence.
Now, the current situation is that the “independence” question has been settled – we had a referendum in 2014 that did that. So any call for a re-run would need to be based on some substantial change in the position of the UK, e.g. ceasing to be a member of the EU. So, this statement is tantamount to saying “If you want Scottish independence, vote for Brexit”, neatly running directly counter to the SNP’s official line, but without actually having to say as much.
Indeed, it would not greatly surprise me to see an actual change in SNP policy here – from being “pro-EU” to being “for Scottish, BUT NOT UK, membership of the EU”. Watch this space.