A Return to Nationalism

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”

Theresa May, October 2016

I don’t normally venture into politics on this blog; not because I am not interested, but because it is not the purpose of the blog. However, on this occasion I must make an exception, and, who knows, if politics continues on its current trajectory the exception may have to become the norm.

In an excellent article in today’s Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson drew my attention to the above sentences from Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference last week. Reading it in the cold light of day, I cannot but be stunned at the bile-filled attack it represents on everything I have taken for granted throughout my adult life. My key assumption from schoolboy history onwards has been that nationalism as a political force has been the principle cause of war and its attendant miseries through European history. Nationalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And over the past fifty years we seemed to have absorbed that message, in Europe and beyond. We have seen a commitment to international institutions – the UN, NATO and the EU –  national boundaries reducing in importance, people free to travel, trade and live where they like and global trade make the world wealthier by far than it has ever been before.

And this is not just a remote and impersonal development. Not only do we travel widely and without hindrance, but millions of us have spent our working lives in international businesses and seen markets, opportunities and careers in international terms. I’m not talking here about a few thousand people working for international banks. I’m talking about anyone who works in, for example, the car industry, the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the technology industry, the professional services industry, the finance industry and many others. In fact, I’m talking about just about every significant wealth generating sector in the UK economy because the UK has developed a set of political and economic policies which has made it uniquely attractive for these businesses to have a significant presence in this country. You might think this a cause for celebration.

But apparently not, because in a few venom-dipped words Theresa May tells us all that we whose boundaries, connections and roots extend beyond the nation of our birth are the problem. That we are not good citizens and indeed do not understand what citizenship means. She is developing a new definition of citizenship which seems to my eyes to be synonymous with nationalism. She is essentially demanding that we place our commitment to country above all other commitments. In a few short sentences, May not only alienates everyone of foreign birth living and working in the UK but everyone born in the UK who does not want to define themselves by a frame of reference in which the state comes top. As Ferguson comments, in the course of a single speech we moved back in time some 40-50 years. I started my business career in the 1970s in the world of currency controls, industrial strategies and sterling crises. It is beyond my comprehension that a political leader could now be re-setting this country in that environment.

Sadly at a time when there is a vital need for an alternate view, the potential opposition has absented the field. The Labour Party is reduced to irrelevant internal bickering and the SNP trips up because it so continuously clear that the only calculation behind any utterance is whether it supports a case for independence (the irony of an independence-seeking nationalist party arguing at one and the same time for the uniqueness of the Scottish political consensus and for sharing sovereignty in European institutions is surely lost on nobody but the SNP itself).

The even more extraordinary feature of this radical backward shift is that it clearly does not represent the view of the great majority of our elected representatives. We know that the great majority of Conservative MPs supported Remain in the recent referendum. So do the great majority of Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs. In fact we have both a Government and an Official Opposition who seem to be totally out of step with the core instincts of the majority of their MPs. Sadly, with the exception of a few brave figures like Jess Philips and Anna Soubry, that silent majority seem to be adopting the supine position, faces in the dirt and backsides in the air, whilst quietly hoping it will be alright on the night. Well, not while you remain in that position it won’t!

And all of this because of a referendum in which both sides only ever spoke the truth by accident, and which delivered a result that allowed the noisiest Brexiteers to claim 17 million voters as supporting their own narrow views, and ignore the 16 million voters who held an alternative view. Can we now expect referenda on hanging, gay marriage, foreign aid and membership of the UN?

This is a country which has always been defined by openness, tolerance and diversity. It is about time those who believed in those virtues started to say more loudly, “Not in My Name”.