Brexit relies on the wrong kind of nationalism

23 Jun 2016




The messages dominating this referendum campaign have been about two issues: the economy and immigration. Yet, the way the two campaigns have each sought to take ownership of one of these issues has also reinforced their differing positions on a third (some would say much more important) issue - that of national sovereignty.



The Leave Campaign have told us that we don't have control over levels of immigration unless we have the power to set all our border controls here in the UK - if we don't control levels of immigration into Britain, then we are not truly sovereign.



But the Remain Camp have quite rightly retorted that if we end up outside of the single market, the damage done to our economy will render any sense of increased control meaningless.



I don't want to get too far into the endless claim and counter-claim that has characterised this campaign - suffice it to say the truth about both the economics of Brexit and the effect on immigration may be far more complicated than either side would care to admit. But the fundamental truths about sovereignty and what it means to cleave to a national identity are integral to this referendum, and easily distorted amid all the heat and noise of a passionate campaign.



One of the arguments I saw made time and again (especially on the left) against independence during Scotland's referendum in 2014 was that nationalism of any kind is dangerous, and that anyone who believes in co-operation and internationalism should want to be part of a political union, rather than seeking to break it apart. This argument goes to the heart of what it means to talk about "sovereignty". Sovereignty is fundamentally about how we exercise control over our own lives. We each give up a little of our own personal sovereignty in order to be part of society. We co-operate with others because it is easier than competing with them - in effect, because we actually gain control this way rather than lose it. 



But the logic of co-operation doesn't end with the people who live in your street any more than it did historically with the people who lived in the next mud hut. Throughout history, we've constantly built wider and wider alliances, put ourselves under the authority of governments, parliaments and courts representing a larger and larger section of global society. At its most noble, this is what the emergence of nations was initially about - co-operating with other people that it made sense to co-operate with.



But if the logic of co-operation doesn't end with the people living in the next mud hut, then it also doesn't end with the people living the other side of Hadrian's Wall, or beyond the white cliffs of Dover. In the case of Scotland's referendum, there was a clear argument that could be made for independence which didn't contradict this logic - that Scotland should be part of a wider union, it just didn't need an infinite number of overlapping layers of union. The UK, unlike the EU, is lopsided (with 85% of its population living in England), and therefore it could be justified to vote to leave if the union was heading in a direction Scots didn't like.



This is why it was always unfair for unionists in that referendum to tar all of those campaigning on the Yes side as ugly, divisive sectarians, reeking just a little too strongly of the 1930s. A genuinely civic nationalism (as opposed to an "ethnic" nationalism) is not only possible, but actually very hard to disentangle from what it would really mean to be a principled "unionist". That is why the overwhelming majority of Scotland's Yes campaigners are right in this referendum to be supporting a "union" rather than voting to exit. 



Yet, I suspect many on the Leave side in this referendum would like to be viewed similarly to those figures who better embodied Scotland's civic nationalism (and admittedly, many of them did often fall short), as noble defenders of the idea of British independence from the EU, not motivated by hatred of outsiders or a belief that Britain is somehow intrinsically greater than other nations in the world. And I have no doubt that many of them (though definitely not all) are sincere in their belief that Brexit really can embody these values.



But here's their problem: as I've already alluded to, the bar for making a civic nationalist case for UK withdrawal from the EU is considerably higher than it was for Scots wishing to exit the UK. "We should make all our own laws" simply isn't a good enough argument. It wasn't for Scotland, and it isn't for the whole of Britain either. Why? Because a "we" that excludes everyone under the category of "them" needs some strong reasons if it's avoid the charge of resorting to the politics of arbitrary in-groups and out-groups. This isn't to say that anyone making this argument is an ethnic nationalist - I don't think it would be fair to label them this way if all of their other statements show that they do understand the logic of co-operation. But I do think they're making an incoherent argument.



The best attempt I've seen to make a coherent argument of this form was Gisela Stuart's comment in a documentary (I can't remember which one unfortunately) that Europe isn't sufficiently cohesive to operate as a common demos (Plato's word which brilliantly captures the relationship between notions of society and democracy). This is basically an argument that the EU is too large, too unwieldy, too conflicted to serve its own citizens' interests. I don't agree with that, I think the pressures being exerted by voters across Europe in their anxieties about poverty, immigration, democracy and transparency will force the kind of reform Leave campaigners have been airily dismissing throughout this campaign.



But I can at least respect an argument made on these terms. Too many on the Leave side have frequently resorted to tropes about "our" democracy, "our" laws, "our" borders and "our" money (sadly, Stuart included) that demonstrate they either haven't really understood the logic of co-operation, or they are choosing to dismiss it whenever it suits them.



They have been on the wrong side of this debate. Co-operation is the future. It is always the future, eventually. Union allows us to co-operate on climate change, on tax avoidance and evasion, on cross-border crime and terrorism, and on refugee crises better and more efficiently than multiple bilateral agreements and conflicted talking shops.



Yes, the EU needs reform. No, that reform is not impossible. And no, Brexit would not be internationalist or outward-looking. And that's why I'm voting to Remain. 


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