Misreading Brexit nationalism

John Chowcat

Lauding Brexit for “uniting and re-energising our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth”, Boris Johnson’s first speech as Prime Minister imagined Britain’s economy becoming the most prosperous in Europe.  His government’s incessant jingoism soon exposed the essence of the EU withdrawal project as a nationalistic ‘culture war’ resting on fragile economic calculation.  Never just about the official focus on the EU, it triggered a predictable range of interlaced popular prejudices and nostalgia for better times, emboldening a hitherto declining minority hostility to ‘foreigners’ in the process.  Today, when Brexit’s social divisions and economic restrictions, and the UK’s reduced standing in the world, are widely acknowledged, the Labour Party’s recent appropriation of emblematic Brexiteer rhetoric warrants attention.  Deploring economic “defeatism”, Keir Starmer claimed “that our prospects will always be squeezed out by the US and EU is declinist nonsense … around the world people want to know, are we still a great nation?  If the answer is about the British people, the answer is emphatically – yes … to those who doubt we can still be great, we are, we can and we will”.  His declared, though statistically problematic, mission is for the UK to achieve the highest economic growth of the G7 countries by the end of a Labour government’s first term in office, while emphatically ruling out re-joining the neighbouring EU’s large-scale single market and customs union.  

With new Conservative Party ‘culture wars’ surfacing, designed to limit anticipated election losses, this Labour response seemed oddly borrowed and overstated for an opposition party otherwise deploying the language of economic caution and governmental pragmatism.  As the political horizon is now dominated by prodigious challenges demanding international solutions, including tensions between strongly armed superpowers, climate deterioration and associated population migrations, global economic insecurity and the risk of further intercontinental pandemics, a nationalist tone appears misplaced.  Hard geopolitical realities now include the EU’s considerable speed and unity in coming to Ukraine’s aid after Russia’s 2022 invasion, which has reinforced the USA’s support for a stronger EU to protect Western interests in Eurasia while it concentrates on offsetting China’s rising influence in the Asia Pacific region.  This emerging strategic role for the EU, combined with its ambitious investment in green manufacturing following Joe Biden’s impressive clean technology drive in the US, effectively constrains Brexit Britain’s competitive prospects over the coming years.  Many multinational companies will anticipate greater profits and stability from investing in the EU or US rather than in a visibly weakened UK economy.  At such a juncture, the reasoning behind Labour’s adoption of nationalistic language plainly reflected a narrow focus on recovering specific parliamentary seats where Brexit populism proved attractive, almost as if their 2019 election results were unconnected to critical ongoing political developments.  This emulation also implied a misreading of the specific nature of British national sentiment, a particularly important subject long assiduously researched and analysed. 

This reflects a deeper facet of Labour’s internal culture.  The party’s former Deputy Leader, Roy Hattersley, bluntly recorded that the most significant contribution made by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s leader in the 1920s, “was to provide a theoretical basis for a party which, then as now, despised political theory”.  He described how MacDonald devised alternatives to radical influences through covert liaison with the Liberal Party and writing books of “little intellectual distinction”.  Labour strategy over subsequent decades has periodically revealed this internal difficulty with theory, with the pioneering theses guiding later landmark Labour government policies penned by prominent Liberals William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.  Ideas advanced by original British socialist theorists like G. D. H. Cole and the impressive achievements of social democratic thinkers in Austria, Scandinavia and beyond were known but largely discounted.  Given today’s pivotal objective of rescuing an uneven and over-financialised UK economy, further burdened by a depreciated currency, barriers to trade with its 27 European neighbours, and doubts about the value of the Union in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and among English nationalists, Labour needs fresh thinking.  Yet it often maintains a polite but effective distance from the in-depth study of underlying socio-economic trends which evidence-based academic debate provides.  The practical repercussions include over-reliance on the conclusions of selected focus groups and a related restriction of national policy options, in turn diluting the party’s key messages to the electorate.  This essay seeks to outline the specific nature of British national sentiment and to assess Labour’s current tactics and prospects against this necessary background, given the long shadow Brexit still casts over the country’s future. 

Features of British nationalism

National identification in an era dominated by nation-states remains an unsurprising aspect of individual loyalties, linked to protective feelings for the familiarity of local community, geographical surroundings, and native language.  The sense of belonging to a larger country is powerfully framed by often mythological perceptions of its specific history.  British nationalism was initially promoted to support the effective imposition of a united kingdom across the British Isles, as the stronger English state rose to dominate neighbouring nations by the 18th century.  This unionist outlook consequently retained important Anglocentric features.  A broadly similar pattern was followed in the 19th century as Prussian state power extended to eventually achieve German unification, in contrast to the popular revolution from below that shaped modern France. 

Today’s British national sentiment normally emerges as a moderate civic patriotism, capable only under certain conditions of rekindling a strong minority nativism, mostly among older people with family memories of the annual Empire Day celebrated up to 1958 and the pink British Empire maps on classroom walls.  Key features of principally English social evolution include the early emergence of a marked individualism and later widespread alienation from broader society flowing from identifiable historical developments, necessarily dictating a certain distance from the authority and prestige of the state.  Starting from the 14th century, competitive markets encouraging individual agrarian enterprise appeared earlier in England than elsewhere in Europe.  A proportion of available agricultural land came to be rented out by aristocratic landowners to tenant farmers in lieu of traditional labour services, under leases and rents determined by market forces. 

This contrasted with the forced labour of an oppressed feudal peasantry in neighbouring countries, spurring more efficient farming.  Later, as R. H. Tawney noted, “the development of capitalism in Holland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries was due, not to the fact that they were Protestant powers, but to large economic movements.”  The English state under Henry VIII doubled its manufactured cloth exports and many landworkers became newly dependant for their livelihoods on the weaving trade.  National wealth was further accumulated by dissolving the monasteries, and these changes were closely accompanied by ideological developments.  The medieval church was replaced by a Protestant asceticism based on an individual’s relationship with God unmediated by the priesthood.  Hans Kohn’s acclaimed study of nationalism credited John Milton and Oliver Cromwell with promoting a modern national identity during the subsequent English Civil War, ahead of most European countries, which encouraged Protestant individualistic values.

Social alienation

When mass industrial production developed later, individual alienation from a shifting social order became a major issue for prominent Western thinkers.  Wilhelm von Humboldt pinpointed the negative impact of the new division and specialisation of human labour as factory production expanded:

“Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature: he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness … men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character and exalt and refine their own pleasures.”

Britain was the first country to fully experience industrialisation, and the attendant social alienation inevitably affected popular British culture.  The always perceptive Heinrich Heine visiting the aggressive bustle of London streets in 1827 noted that “the English are a domestic people … in his family circle, the Englishman seeks that comfort of the soul which inherent social ineptitude denies him … consoled by the possession of rights which prevent the aristocracy from disturbing his domestic comforts.” 

Elsewhere, Émile Durkheim detected a decline in people’s “collective consciousness” as the narrowing of work functions eroded earlier common assumptions underpinning social solidarity and encouraged the spread of deviant behaviours.  G W F Hegel, observing weakening traditional beliefs in the wake of the French Revolution, thought that human consciousness was increasingly alienated from itself, unable to realise its own creative nature and needing self-discovery obtainable through state-structured communal effort.  Karl Marx detailed the negative consequences for workers of capitalist manufacturing, as labour’s products became commodities estranged from their producer and the worker became a commodity sold in a market and alienated from competing humans.  In Britain, however, an array of Positivist thinkers, from John Locke to A J Ayer, came to dominate philosophical discussion, confident that advancing science and technology would be accompanied by progress in mass education, social organisation, and heightened moral behaviour.  These assumptions proved simplistic as a decidedly hierarchical social structure ensured that the practical implementation of new technologies frequently prioritised the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful.  ‘Work’ for most people became a burdensome part of life separated from the rest of their existence.  Today, as the industrial machine age rapidly gives way to the electronic communications age, this problem is intensifying.  Dominant private ‘high tech’ corporations in the West have allowed new technologies with enormous potential to benefit humanity to spread damaging disinformation and undermine essential democratic practices.

The bellicose era from 1870 to 1945, which saw the rise of the world’s largest empire, significantly affected Britain’s cultural reputation.  The British, once known for publicly displaying their emotions, permitted the militarism and claimed racial superiority of empire to introduce the cold ‘stiff upper lip’ of their rulers and the resigned obedience to authority of many in the ‘lower orders’ as their armies marched across continents and their navy controlled the seas.  Elizabeth Thompson’s famous 1874 painting “The Roll Call” spoke to the whole country through its depiction of battered and exhausted British troops in the Crimean War.  The official bombast and white racism of this period have generally faded, and powerful progressive campaigns can indeed revisit such violent periods of modern history and diminish the associated myths.  In Germany, open debate over the horrors of the Nazi period was stymied for two decades after 1945 but was then forced onto the national agenda by an insurgent younger generation, exposing the serious dangers of nationalist propaganda.  A YouGov survey of levels of patriotism in different countries showed 32% of Britons describing themselves as ‘very patriotic’ during the intensive Brexit campaign, while the equivalent figure in Germany was just 9%.  While a genuine national debate over the legacy of the British Empire has yet to take place in the UK, public attitudes have nonetheless slowly evolved towards a restrained patriotism, as immigration and instant electronic communications deepen our contact with the rest of humanity and our common global challenges are exposed.

The ‘Virtual Workforce’

Social alienation is still spreading today with the increasing fragmentation of the UK workforce, reflected in growing job insecurity and eroded work-related rights as labour’s share of national income declines.  Repetitive daily work functions in narrowly focussed jobs under zero-hours contracts already cover one million workers while four and a half million others are officially registered as self-employed, many of them now experiencing the real hazards of competing under a system that only rewards the successful.  The application of Artificial Intelligence to a wide range of occupations threatens to deskill many information-based roles over coming years.  Major corporations already anticipate future labour flexibility by auctioning more online work across the globe, solely as and when they require, whenever the type of project permits.  The resultant ‘virtual workforce’ is deprived of basic income security.  Already, the arts and humanities are declining across UK schools and universities, rendering Labour’s July 2023 pledge to encourage creative education a highly significant statement of future policy if it is seriously researched and developed.

The socially alienated individual has long featured in European fiction, in such classic works as Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and persists today in novels like Peter Stamm’s “The Sweet Indifference of the World”.  Working class people confronted by modern pressurised society still seek to humanise their existence by valuing personal, sensual, and often family relationships, a phenomenon regularly mirrored by the commercial media focus on the personal lives of celebrities.  At the same time, a certain wariness is maintained towards the possibly competitive or financial motives behind new contacts and work-based relationships.  Alienation can erode the uncynical mutual disclosure of people’s ideas and emotions, substituting poverty of attention, shallow conversation, and periodic hedonistic excess.  Loneliness and related mental health problems represent a growing hazard, alongside political disillusionment.

Immense concentrations of wealth and influence, often acquired today through financial and property speculation, have inevitably generated distortions in shaping much of the West’s public education and communication systems, underplaying the importance of critical enquiry and careful reflection for many while protecting the social dominance of a distant establishment.  The pessimistic conclusion drawn by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer from their 1944 overview of European societal development following the Western Enlightenment still resonates:

“Since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind … culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information … so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated.”

Britons’ longstanding individualistic perceptions and relative social alienation have coexisted for some time now not only with rapidly expanding worldwide electronic communications and the presence of immigrant communities essential to the UK economy, but also with more people experiencing longer years of education and more women going out to work.  These trends have reinforced an openness towards greater diversity.  A benign social indifference, shaped by the country’s singular history, has indeed tempered modern British patriotism.  Richard Hoggart reminded us, in his insightful review of Northern English working class life in the 1950s, that its “dull conforming fatalism” was influenced by “a residual puritanism” displaying a certain tolerance towards people of different nationalities, races, and sexual orientation. 

National loyalty today therefore usually appears in limited affirmative forms as support for national sports teams, a rarely played national anthem, and flying Union Jacks on special occasions only.  Loosely echoing the legal analysis of Sir Edward Coke in the 17th century, the country’s royals are widely perceived as symbolising the enduring dignity of a constitutional monarchy protective of civil liberties, overshadowing concerns over the undemocratic aspects of this pre-modern legacy.  A well-regarded 1995 study memorably defined the resultant British attitudes as a “banal cultural nationalism”.  This was accompanied, however, by the prophetic warning that it remained capable of turning dangerous if successfully mobilised and amplified in exceptional periods of real or imagined national trauma.  Strong government-supported Brexit nationalism, although recently effective, is now associated with both a failed economic project and the country’s growing isolation on the international stage.  The country’s usually mild patriotism has broadly returned, but the party-political consequences of this traumatic episode unquestionably endure.

Conservative populism

Brexit nationalism constituted the British Conservative Party’s version of a tendency across traditional Western centre-right parties to adopt populist ‘anti-elitist’ tactics previously associated with the far right, to win support from worried voters facing declining living standards.  Following the deregulation of UK financial services under Margaret Thatcher’s government, the City of London, which had come to dominate the lucrative international Eurodollar market, became even more globally focussed, in time changing the composition of the Tory Party’s range of powerful financial donors.  A historically successful political party, once primarily funded by British industrial corporations, finance houses invested in the domestic economy and traditional landowners, is now increasingly financed by international asset managers and hedge funds distant from the ‘real’ economy.  These donors display loose UK allegiances, oppose EU-style market regulation, sometimes benefit financially from such disruptions as Sterling’s decline after the Brexit referendum, and are open to populist politics. 

The Brexiteers’ “Take Back Control” slogan was well chosen, while irrationally blaming the EU for longstanding UK economic failings and its ‘dog whistle’ undertone was revealed by detailed polling data.  A disturbing 26% of British respondents to a survey undertaken at the height of the Brexit campaign admitted they were to some extent racially prejudiced, with the accompanying data analysis noting that “being a Conservative Party supporter and a Leave voter are all associated with a higher likelihood of an individual describing themselves as racially prejudiced.”  Brexit oratory had given ‘permission’ for airing latent nativist views. 

Boris Johnson called himself a “Brexity Hezza”, a new-style advocate of both Brexit and the state interventionist outlook of former minister Michael Heseltine.  Improved NHS funding and the ‘levelling up’ of deindustrialised English regions were loudly pledged but the enduring Thatcherite vision of a smaller state ensured that this gave way to a Tory focus on cutting public services and immigration, reducing welfare provision, and restricting trade union rights.  Brexit anti-EU fever finally delivered wider economic hardship, national pessimism, and a dwindling Conservative Party membership dominated by Brexiteers.  This embittered party base, however, will not disappear.  Convinced that Brexit was sabotaged by obstructive elite conspirators, it knows that nativist ‘culture wars’ still appeal to segments of the electorate, reinforced by the Tory tabloids, and will endure, albeit for now as a minority political movement.  This vengeful impulse will also encourage some individuals on the extreme right of UK politics to harass ‘foreigners’ in their localities, a danger already experienced since the 2016 referendum.

Labour’s restricted options

A centre-left party seeking electoral advantage in a period of economic adversity, climate degradation, accelerating social inequality, and ‘culture wars’, requires a positive programme of fairer and greener policies enabled by wealth distribution.  Joe Biden’s successful campaign in the 2020 US presidential election attracted support from younger, newer, less educated and recently undecided voters, to supplement his traditional party base, by advancing such policies.  His advocacy of large-scale investment in green manufacturing was accompanied by proposals for a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, equal rights, increased corporation and capital gains taxes and the reversal of Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the rich and draconian immigration controls. 

The harsh realities of today’s interconnected world restrict the alternatives available to British Labour for devising a credible programme to overcome the UK’s distinct social and economic dilemmas.  The emergence of a US-supported stronger role for the EU limits Britain’s options for independently improving its damaged trade and diplomatic influence, as Rishi Sunak’s cautious bridge-building with Europe already implies.  Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves reflected this in a key speech in Washington, noting that “to witness Britain today is to witness a country buffeted by global forces”.  She praised Biden’s “modern supply side economics” and similar strategies underway in the EU and Australia and stated “Britain cannot and should not and – with Labour in power – would not try to go it alone.  In 2025, the UK’s deal with the EU will be reviewed.”  Reeves also highlighted the case for “a green special relationship focussing on the clean energy economy, where both Britain and America have signature strengths.”  These tacit suggestions of closer UK integration under Labour with the current overall repositioning of the US and Europe to address looming global challenges contrast markedly with the party’s adoption at home of Brexit nationalist terminology and imply potential policy changes, once in office at Westminster.  Yet it is still assumed that a relatively ‘hard Brexit’ tone will contribute to the requisite election victory, despite the broken promises of Brexit nationalism. 

This is now seriously debateable.  The British electorate is clearly disillusioned with the Conservative Party’s record in office yet remains uncertain about the political alternatives.  Major by-election advances for the opposition parties have been secured by former Tory voters abstaining in large numbers, and a trend towards tactical voting among non-Tories to defeat the Conservative candidate at all costs.  Many voters are highly sceptical of all politicians and Labour pro-Brexit themes will hardly convince those distrustful anti-intellectual former Labour voters swayed by fear of immigrants and related prejudices.  Many of them will detect opportunism in Labour’s repetition of Brexiteer rhetoric and heed the ‘Brexit has not been properly pursued’ arguments of the Tories and Reform Party.  The more reflective ex-Labour voters in the English North and Midlands, experiencing serious economic pressures including the consequences of Brexit, would be better persuaded by proposals for concrete progress towards re-joining the EU single market.  Scottish voters, already mainly anti-Tory in outlook, certainly seek a softer line on the EU and many liberal recent Tory voters in Southern England dislike overly nationalistic proselytising.

There is also little point in downplaying the reality of immigration when global migrant flows are set to grow, driven by sharpening military conflicts, ongoing climate deterioration and the deepening poverty of many debt-ridden underdeveloped countries.  Shadow Minister Stephen Kinnock has controversially stated “we want and expect net immigration to reduce”.  He was doubtless reflecting the short-term expectation that recent crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong will come to an end.  However, further mass migrations will follow on their heels until effective international cooperation alleviates their root causes.  Last year, an unprecedented 32 million people worldwide were forced to flee their native communities driven by severe climate deterioration.  Present-day UK public opinion has already begun to reflect this development

Pro-Brexit Labour policies also risk hollowing out Labour’s strong base in Remain-voting urban centres.  The established two-party system sustained by first-past-the-post voting may encourage a view that the party can afford to lose some votes in these areas. However, there are significant medium-term considerations here as well as short term electoral prospects.  Maintaining Brexit policies can make the task of a potential Labour government harder when events soon require it to mend more fences with the EU.  An economic growth plan heavily reliant on new private sector investment may prove very difficult to implement without effective coordination with the EU’s green manufacturing programme, further alienating a population increasingly disillusioned with Westminster politics.  This would risk both the implementation of the government’s wider programme and a reinvigorated populist resurgence.

A certain shift in Labour’s tone on the key ‘culture war’ issues of UK relations with Europe and migrant Channel crossings did emerge in September 2023, following persuasive polling evidence of majority public support for re-joining the EU and softer attitudes towards immigration.  New data had indicated that 2016 Leave voters now leaning towards Labour disproportionately include people who have since changed their minds about Brexit. Yet the party’s altered tone was scarcely reflected in detailed policy.  The relevant statements favoured a broader dialogue on trade and immigration with the EU and additional Home Office staff to process asylum claims, but were again expressed in nationalistic terms.  Migrant traffickers across the English Channel were highlighted, to be treated like murderous terrorists through such measures as Serious Crime Prevention Orders, and Keir Starmer strangely denounced critics of this approach as “un-British”.  A few days earlier, a Labour Together report had broadly advocated this type of ‘bridging’ UK political divisions but had also urged making the ethical as well as the electoral case for such policy ‘balancing’.  This would have replicated the twin-track tactic exemplified by the Blair government’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” theme.  However, compassion for refugees barely registered in the party’s new announcements and the emphasis placed on discussions with the EU conveyed little about desired outcomes. 

The new tone at last suggested an awareness of the need to address Tory ‘culture war’ campaigns, rather than leaving Tory propaganda unchallenged.  This response was nonetheless late in arriving, well after the government’s attempted ‘Stop the Boats’ distraction was embedded in the public mind.  This modified tone resurfaced in Starmer’s speech to this year’s party conference.  Although delivered in a hall festooned with Union Jacks while new party membership cards reading “Country First” were printed, it referenced ‘working people’ more than national pride.  Promising “Britain will get its future back” was less boastful than the earlier objective of becoming “a great nation again”. 

Further Labour policy evolution will certainly be required as the general election nears and the realities of powerful international developments render nationalistic appeals even more of a hindrance to resolving the severe challenges a Labour government must inherit.  Fortunately, features of the UK’s distinctive history have fashioned a subdued patriotism, with little demand for intensive flag waving.  Labour can move beyond nationalism and advocate a feasible role for Britain in overcoming global economic, environmental and geopolitical threats through effective European and international coordination.  The party might also usefully reconsider the deeper aversion to theoretical political debate responsible for this misreading of British nationalism.