Sunday, 27 April 2014

Nationhood and the Left, by Taym Saleh

It is in the nature of politics that there be certain disagreements that define the entire conduct of public life. Political parties are meant to represent these most important differences of opinion.

So in Britain, we have a Labour Party and a Conservative Party whose existence is the demonstration of the disagreement over the role of the state in economic affairs, which for a century has been the question with which we have had to most contend.

This is as it should be. Edmund Burke, nearly 250 years ago, prized parties as the means by which public life could be conducted according to private virtues, and by which bonds of personal and ideological affinities could resist the corrupting allure of power.

True, for 50 years the hold of the two major parties over the electorate has weakened, and this perhaps represents a variance between the great issues over which the two parties differ, and the great issues over which the electorate most differ, but the basic function remains the same: there are some profound issues which generate the distinction between parties, and all other political disagreements come to be as a result of the party-division.

But I believe that there is a particular sort of issue that is particularly ill-suited to this scheme, that is particularly important, that I fear is coming, or has already come, to be just one of many differences between left and right. If the misapprehension is not put right, we may soon find our entire political existence crippled and stunted, or scattered to the winds.

I am talking about the continued existence of nationhood.

Of course, the notion that a division between ‘internationalism’ and ‘nationalism’ is compatible with the general division between ‘left’ and ‘right’ does have some standing.

Whether one believed that the only objectively valid allegiances were those based on a common relationship with the means of production, or whether, and this is the more prevalent on the British left, one felt that ‘the world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion’, any ‘internationalist’ appeal has always had a strong pull.

Indeed, such has been the prominence of the word that from a Labour Party conference rostrum it could be used to justify more spending on international aid, a more relaxed attitude to immigration or integration of immigrants, solidarity with the Palestinians or anyone else, an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, praising NATO, invading other countries for their own good, or continued integration into the European Union.

Now, concern for the continued existence of nationhood and the integrity of our political system need not preclude all of these applications of internationalist sentiment, but it obviously puts us very strongly against the last two given, and it is these that we should examine most.

I hope that even the greatest admirers of Karl Marx and Thomas Paine can recognise the folly of letting some of our leaders use their own philanthropic instincts for the most malignant ends.

The notion that this and certain other countries are entitled to annul the sovereignty of other countries and to assume the supreme political power within them, supposedly in accordance with a system of international law but in reality entirely at the aggressors’ own discretion, is incompatible with the representative principle on which our constitution rests.

It is therefore utterly destructive, not only of the uncounted lives churned away by the ministrations of the Angel of Death, nor only of the social fabric of the countries so treated, but also, though we may not feel it immediately, of the basis for the conduct of our own public life, and so of our peace and prosperity.

This is not the occasion to fully set out the grounds for objecting to the creed of ‘liberal interventionism’, but it suffices to say now that it is an insult to our intelligence to suppose that the precedent of the disposability of the national sovereignty of weaker countries can be set without weakening the grounds of our own self-government.

It also undermines our resolve to defend our independence in a more indirect way. This pertains to an instinct among leftists to see this latter-day ‘imperialism’ as part of a tradition that besmirches nationhood itself.

It encourages those who recoil at the memory of the subordination of great swathes of mankind beneath our and other national flags to blame the flags themselves.

Though the reflex is understandable, it must be said that it is not justified to hold past Empires against present nations.

Indeed, a model for patriotism and anti-aggression combined can be found in those formerly oppressed territories, in peoples who know what it is to be spat on. It is an experience to which we ourselves must become accustomed if we wish to continue with the ‘special relationship’ and European integration.

Another consequence of this humanitarian aggression is that it perpetuates a perception of nations that encourages the confusion of political beliefs with polities.

It is common to talk of ‘Western values’, perhaps subdivided into ‘American values’, ‘British values’ and so on, as opposed to, say, ‘Russian values’ or ‘Chinese values’.

If by these labels one wishes to describe the political and social habits of mind that are particular to a society, and are the product of the geography, history and so on to which that society has been particularly subjected, then there is no objection.

But if, as seems to me to be the case, what is being described is a proposition submitted to the world for consideration and possible imitation, then there is a fault. Nations are not arguments.

They are not the product of ingenious minds, but of the continued resolve of their inhabitants to carry on under the control of each other, and through that control to accept the influence of forces echoing down onto the present from the past.

When we understand this, we begin to see the folly in treating the choice between being a member of one sovereign political body or another, and the choice between one political programme and another, alike.

To understand this fully, it is necessary to go back to the importance of party in our political life. It is of course the case that parties may represent permanent, distinct interests that directly contradictory, and so bound to be hostile, to one another.

A great deal of animosity can arise from this – indeed, too little animosity, and many would be prone to suppose that there is some fault within the representative system, or that a political elite has lost too much affinity with the general population.

Despite this, the entire course of the war between the parties flows with the understanding that one’s opponents, however bitter, are just as much a part of the state as oneself is.

No defeat, however resounding, is taken to be the expulsion of the vanquished from the battlefield. We must all know that the final outcome of all our political endeavours will be some admixture, of unforeseeable proportions, between our allies and our enemies.

I think we can say that our entire constitution can be summed up in the phrase ‘back and forth’. As for the choice between membership of a new political entity and not, how much back and forth can there be? A nation is not like a party – it is intended to be permanent.

All governments are temporary, and even the parties themselves exist only so long as they represent a great animated sentiment within the population, but the nation is the very vessel in which we are contained.

I hope that readers have by their own initiative applied the issue of the European Union to the preceding paragraph. It cannot but be the great contention of our time.

Since its first appearance, it has been used by one party or another to effect changes on our country without subjection to the normal procedures.

The Conservatives, in joining in 1973, in the Single European Act of 1986, and in the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, sought as inconspicuously as possible to create particular conditions for commerce and trade, having despaired for much of the post-war period of ever beating back socialism.

Similarly, the Labour Party, through acceding to the Social Chapter and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, to the Treaty of Nice in 2001, and to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 sought for their cause shelter from an electorate judged to be too unenlightened, too lacking in progressive goodness, to have put to them candidly the terms of policies like immigration and social or commercial regulation which are so obviously good for them.

It is a cause for bitter reflection to see our country and our constitution so cheaply treated by those to whom they are entrusted.

This is especially so for the Labour Party, the party that is so completely born of the great cause of popular government, that has been the vehicle for those who in the past found government so distant and at times contemptuous.

What bauble could the European Commission possibly offer them, to compensate for the loss of their free and sovereign Parliament?

Still, if those on the Left who are guilty of this transgression do not care for the arguments so far presented here, then perhaps they will listen to warnings to do with multinational corporations and the like.

However much we may despair of the tendency of some of our countrymen to vote for the Conservatives, it is idle to suppose that this country’s government, which sits perpetually in the gaze of us all, which is ultimately exposed to us, is a worse custodian of popular interests against hidden hands agitating for secret, private causes than a government that is unknown and unknowable to the great majority of us.

Who can possibly hold faith with the European Commission, or even the European Parliament, after their surreptitious (because it was made to seem on the initiative of our government) privatisation of the Royal Mail, or after the proposed ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ has only begun to be exposed to public knowledge after exceptional efforts by certain journalists and politicians?

There is no better terrain for lobbyists or secret deal-makers than a government carried on a mere technical enterprise, based on expertise rather than popular expression.

I fear these arguments will prove useless in their intent, for in the end it is a matter of instinct. You love the constitution and independence of your country, or you do not; the loss of such things is a cause for bitter grief and mourning, or it is not.

In the adoption of nationhood as an ordinary political issue, perhaps the most infuriating thing has been the habit of the insufferably self-satisfied to, without considering this matter at any depth, see enthusiasm for these pernicious enterprises as a mark of sophistication, as a trait that separates them from the bigoted and the parochial, above all from the unfashionable.

The most forlorn, and charitable, reproach for these people is that they know not what they do.

Less charitably, I say that these people are fools, who treat the most important affairs in a spiteful and sectarian spirit, who so forget themselves and so miss the measure of what they flippantly deal with as to endanger us all. It is no good for such people to protest that they wish to save us from our own government. I too am unhappy with this government, but it is still mine. In the end, they must answer to me and my compatriots.

The bonds created by these national institutions are not like those of a voluntary organisation, to be contracted or broken off at the discretion of any given member, but they flow unimpeded, not only through my friends, but my enemies, not only through my compatriots’ wisdom, but their folly, through knowledge and ignorance, through peace and discord.

It is these sentiments that hold us to obey laws passed by our opponents as well as by our allies, it is these that keep us British regardless of what the British government does, and it is the principle of these sentiments that are jeopardised by the surrender of self-government to unaccountable others.

I talk here not merely of democracy (that wretched word cannot possibly wield the matter), but of the entire process and set of habits by which our public life has been lived, and not only of the ballot box.

The consolation is this: that for all the stupidity and dishonesty practised upon us by both main parties, the issue has never been utterly subdued.

There is still a certain something within us that militates against the error being completed, something that keeps the controversy alive, something that gives us hope that something else will turn up.

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