IMPACT Article of the Month
In the dying days of the Obama presidency, many people around the world who would describe themselves as liberal or broadly on the left will have felt a terrible sadness at what was passing away, and acute anxiety about what the future might bring. I know I did. It seemed as though a lengthy global era of liberal ascendancy was going to give way the moment Donald Trump placed his hands on that Bible. The spectre of Brexit has produced similar feelings for many, and now there are ugly, populist movements gaining strength all over the world. This is a bleak moment to be a “progressive”.
But whilst it might feel almost as though left-wing liberal, socialist and social-democratic movements are experiencing their death throes (or at least the beginning of a long ideological exile), there is nevertheless a crucial debate beginning within those movements about how to respond to these new nativist threats.
One school of thought seems to rely on a bunker mentality – they tell us we just need to tinker around the edges of the status quo and build electoral coalitions of just enough middle class liberals to narrowly hold on to power. For now. And, when the inevitable defeat finally does come, we should go down fighting, bravely repeating our core maxims and blaming those who exploit voters with snake-oil and lies for our failure. This is the Clinton, Farron and Van der Bellen approach.
The other school of thought says we have to respond to the changes being wrought all around us. This approach says that just because there are Trumps, Farages and Hofers distorting the truth and demonising foreigners doesn’t mean that we haven’t inadvertently created the conditions in which they are thriving. This approach acknowledges the ways in which liberalism as practised by both left and right in the last few decades has failed people. Not just in the economic costs for those who’ve been “left behind”, but also in the dilution of our culture and shared identities. It calls for a new patriotic liberal left with new priorities. This is the approach needed to deal with the problems John Gray diagnoses in his thought-provoking New Statesman article, and the approach of figures like Ed Balls in his frequent calls to reform freedom of movement.
Now, I know this second way of thinking looks to many like an attempt to fight full-blooded nativism with half-hearted, insincere nativism. And if that was genuinely what was being proposed, then we would be quite right to utterly reject it. But that analysis would be a gross, knee-jerk caricature which misses certain hard truths that the left in particular needs to confront itself with, and bases itself on a worldview which is intellectually lazy and only superficially principled.
One of the delusions we have on the left is that all concerns about immigration are ultimately rooted in economic anxiety and nothing else. Of course it’s true that those on lower incomes have been more likely to express these concerns, and more likely to vote for the likes of UKIP and Trump, but if these concerns had originated entirely in anxiety about living standards, then they could never have mutated so strongly into an expression of anti-immigration sentiment anyway. No, something else has been at work. There is a sense among many working class communities that their identity is being eroded by large numbers of people moving to the areas where they live from other countries, opening shops designed predominantly to service new minority communities, and yes, in some areas undercutting wages.
These concerns about a loss of identity may surface disproportionately among people on lower incomes, but that too doesn’t make them a simple proxy for economic anxiety. If, for some reason vast numbers of middle income Poles and Lithuanians decided to move into Britain’s leafy suburbs on the same scale as their poorer compatriots, I would expect to see significant (if less overall) grumbling from those communities as well.
It would be easy to write all of this off as racism, easier still when many people who have these concerns about immigration do then openly engage in racism. But there is an apparent paradox underneath all of this which we need to pay attention to. If we are internationalists, and want to move gradually towards a world with fewer barriers, we have to control the pace of change. If we don’t, we will not bring the majority with us, and that provokes the kind of mood which can be exploited by populists like Trump and Farage, allowing them to arrest progress.
In many policy areas (not just immigration) the pace of change in western societies in the last few decades has been breakneck. This has felt fantastic for those able to benefit, and many of the victories secured such as increasing recognition of women’s’ rights and gay rights are to be celebrated. But we ignored the complaints of the “left behind” about “political correctness”, laughed at them even. We should instead have been working out how to bring them with us.
On immigration, that would have meant more robust and long-term transitional controls on freedom of movement, and a willingness to use them on the part of EU governments. If this had happened, we might well never have had a referendum on EU membership in the UK in the first place, let alone voted to leave. And the likes of UKIP or the Front National may have remained an irrelevance on the sidelines of European politics. Sadly, it seems likely that it is too late to grasp this opportunity now. We will almost certainly have to give up on freedom of movement as an idea that was too far ahead of its time, and bungled in its implementation. Defending it will only exacerbate working class disillusion with the left, and that will not help anyone either here or abroad in the long term. Besides, it strikes me that the best left-wing solution to global poverty and inequality would surely be something which fixed the problem at its source, rather than shifting it around through mass migration of labour. Most Poles and Lithuanians would much rather stay at home if they could earn a decent wage there.
The other delusion we have is that we should either not engage in identity politics, or that the only kind we should engage in is the celebration of minorities. Human beings feel a need to belong. We simply cannot avoid noticing features we share in common with other people. We cannot avoid building up customs, traditions and institutions which are more local than universal. I defy even the most committed internationalist to avoid doing this. The ideological struggle we should be having with our opponents is not over whether to acknowledge group identities that take the form of “national” identities, but over whether to acknowledge our more universal ties as well. We need to shout from the rooftops about the compatibility of being English, British, European and “globalist” all at once. We need to take pride in flags and national anthems again, rather than allowing others to take ownership of them and infuse them with intolerant connotations.
To be left-wing is to believe that the individual does not benefit from competing with everyone around them. Co-operation brings rewards. But this logic is buttressed when we form attachments to a community. When Theresa May declared that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere”, she was only half wrong. We should continue to discharge our duties through international institutions in the character of “global citizens”, but we must also acknowledge that at this moment in time planet earth is too disparate and remote a community to give most people the feeling of attachment they need. That means that at the same time we are working together with others around the world and emphasising our common humanity to help us deal with global problems like climate change and tax avoidance, we also have to reinforce ties closer to home so that we can solve more local problems like the housing crisis through a renewed sense of solidarity.
In 1945, millions of Britons hung out union jack bunting on VE day to celebrate our victory over fascism in World War Two. It was a time of deep national pride, but part of that pride was over the role we had played in assisting our neighbours to liberate themselves from inward-looking nativists. It was both a nationalist (civic, not ethnic) and internationalist moment simultaneously. It was soon followed by a landslide victory for an epoch-making left-wing government, which built strongly on the foundations of the welfare state and created the NHS.
We wouldn’t want to resurrect all the values of that time, but the idea of a left which was comfortable combining liberalism, patriotism and internationalism through solidarity is something we seem to have lost since then. Regaining it could be our salvation, and a potent weapon against the forces which are causing us so much depression right now. We can beat them, but we need to remove their arguments from under their feet by re-framing the concepts they think they have ownership of. They are not the true patriots. We are, because we on the left understand solidarity and belonging in a way they never will.
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