As post mortems of Britain’s decision to leave the EU have emerged, a particularly compelling and convincing explanation of the result is the resurgence of nationalism.
Nationalism is a notoriously complex phenomenon, but it was perhaps best summarized by the philosopher Ernest Gellner as the “political principle…that the political and the national unit should be congruent.” This principle was undoubtedly central to the Leave campaign, whose central slogan was the need to “take back control” of Britain’s laws, politics, and economy.
As the leave campaign perceived it, British judges had for too long been stymied by European courts, Westminster had become the adopted child of the European Commission in Brussels, rather than the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, and billions of pounds were being frittered away across Europe each year when they could have been spent on British infrastructure and institutions, which were in turn under huge pressure from higher immigration levels allowed by the free movement of people between the EU and UK. Fears of outsiders were compounded by anxiety over the migrant crisis which currently grips the continent, exemplified by the notorious poster implying that Syrian refugees in Slovenia could soon be crossing the Channel, pushing Britain beyond “breaking point”.
Following the victory of the Leave campaign, could this be the start of a trend in favour of nationalism? Certainly, similar sentiments to these vote-winning feelings have been and can currently be seen with disturbing frequency across the world. These include the rise of populist parties across continental Europe (such as the evocatively named Front National in France, Alternative für Deutschland, and, less poetically, The Finns); the prevalence of nationalism in the statecraft of Vladimir Putin and his appeals to a sense of manifest Russian destiny in Crimea and eastern Ukraine; and, perhaps most worryingly, the procession to victory of Donald Trump in the Republican Presidential primary on the back of promises to prevent foreigners entering the US, opposing free trade, and threatening to renege on America’s obligations under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.
All of these developments have been and should continue to be causes for concern, but it would be premature to see Brexit as a victory for nationalism, and a possible first domino which brings down the broadly internationalist status quo.
Looking more closely at the British case, since the referendum the British government has moved quickly to reinforce Britain’s ties to the continent and its wider alliances, by committing to the 2% defence spending minimum required by NATO, and by choosing Berlin and Paris for Theresa May’s first major destinations for foreign travel as Prime Minister. In terms of economics, whilst the prospect of leaving the EU’s single market has weakened the British economy, enthusiasm for trade deals with the UK exists in key developing economies such as India and Brazil. Similarly, whilst friction has emerged between the new British administration and China over the Hinkley Point nuclear development, the legacy of strong ties with China built by former Prime Minister David Cameron and the former Chancellor George Osborne could also stand the UK in good stead in projecting economic influence abroad rather than retreating behind the English Channel.
There is also encouraging evidence that the nationalism apparently ascendant in Europe, Russia, America and elsewhere might be a false dawn. In the weeks following the Brexit vote, the Guardian reported that mainstream political parties in Europe have gained ground on their populist, anti-Brussels rivals.
In the case of Russia, the nationalism of Putin’s regime should be put into a wider context. As Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield of Oxford University have argued, Putin is not “a natural nationalist”, and nationalism has only become central to his appeal as a way of shoring up support in the face of economic decline and political criticism. Perhaps more importantly, since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Russia has often looked to international institutions as a way of guaranteeing its influence and status, using its seat at established institutions such as the UN as well as trying to build alternative economic and security frameworks, such as the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Many of these projects have ended in failure or irrelevance, and it can also be argued with justification that many of these new organisations are simply fronts for Russia to regain lost national prestige and influence post-1991. But the trend of using international institutions rather than national power has nonetheless been crucial to Russian policy making.
Finally, we have the example of Trump’s America. Here too historical precedents should be noted carefully. Trump, unconsciously or not, might invoke the example of the ‘America First’ and the memory of isolationism, protectionism and nationalism which tended to direct US foreign policy even after World War One. However, the course of American history since 1941 has been to look outwards and, for better or worse, to underpin the world’s economic, political and security systems, often as the dominant member of bodies like the UN and NATO. Even if Trump were elected president, and even within his supposed nous for negotiation, he would struggle to reverse this course of development, in the teeth of opposition both from Democrats, responsible Republicans, and America’s allies abroad.
Complacency is the enemy of good policy making, and we should be cautious not to follow the example of those who have assumed that progress, peace and stability are guaranteed, only to be humiliated by a serious crisis. This is especially true when discussing nationalism, which has often taken a noxious and aggressive form during times of political, economic and social instability. Nonetheless, following decades of globalisation it is difficult to imagine ‘the nation’ being as central to politics as it once was. No one country, however powerful, can rely simply on its own power to change the world, and it is unlikely that nationalism will threaten the interconnected world we live in today.