Conservatives need to win the argument that the nation state matters
Winning against the 'citizens of no-where'
Earlier this year, I attended the “March for Europe” in my home town of Leeds. I often attend marches and rallies of those who are politically opposite to me. I don’t go as an agitator or a rabble rouser as I don’t believe in being rude to people, even those who I disagree with. I go for two important reasons. Firstly, to understand my opponent’s arguments better, as I take them seriously. I also go because I often think my opinions could be wrong. In other words, I attended the march with an open mind in the hope of changing it. However, despite attending several of these pro-EU marches since the referendum result, nobody has changed it.
I had to admire the many banners on show that afternoon. Some were comical; “I can’t live without EU,” was a personal favourite. Others were rude and rather aggressive – not becoming of the tolerance and acceptance which the left likes to lecture many about. Placards in this instance read, “F&@k off Jacob Rees-Mogg,” “Brexiteers, leave our country now!” and “Old people ruined our country,” which is one of the most bigoted placards I’ve ever seen. However, the one which read “I am a citizen of nowhere,” was the one that intrigued me the most. The origin of this statement came from Theresa May’s 2016 Conservative Party conference, in which she declared that those “……who are a citizen of the world, are a citizen of nowhere.” It was, of course, another futile attempt by the leader of the Tory Party to sound like a conservative, without actually believing it. However, many people of the pro-EU persuasion took it as a personal insult. Thus, many pro-EU side of the coin use this as a phrase to describe their stance on this issue.
But why would people want to describe themselves as a “citizen of nowhere?” When I asked the lady concerned, her reply was “because I don’t want to be part of this small island anymore.” I asked her what she was ashamed of, and she didn’t reply. I spoke to another gentleman about why he wanted to be a citizen of the world, he replied “well, we’re all the same and we’re all from the same place aren’t we?” The concept of a world citizen is lovely and nice. The principle is a vision of an entire land, a place without borders, where people move freely, their interactions are frictionless and disputes are settled easily. But the reality is different. People are not the same and not everybody is from the same place. It is shared culture and shared values which bind people together. And whilst these cultures can and do mix the world over, people still need to “belong” to somewhere or something. Roger Scruton, in How to be a Conservative (2015) has argued that this belonging is found in the familiarity between free thinking people and the shared curriculum, language and custom which is not shared by everyone. The impact of globalisation has given the cultural revolutionaries in the western democracies the excuse to pursue the experiment of ending the importance of the nation state and our belonging. This can, in some respects, be understood. It has in the past brought war, violence and genocide – albeit in some countries, but doesn’t seem to me to be an excuse to remove the nation state completely. Especially not ours, of which I am very proud of the fact that it has done so much to protect other nation states in an attempt to prevent those things from happening in the first place. However, the nation state has been misrepresented by many on the left, because they have confused it with nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology and a utopia, which are always won through bloodshed and revolution. Conservatism is, of course, not nationalism. Conservatism is based on compromise and loyalty, not on dictatorship and populism.
I found myself wondering exactly why many people, born into historically one of the most successful countries on earth, are quick to denounce their national citizenship in favour of something else. To me, the alternative to the nation state is nothingness. A place where people have no home, everyone is entirely the same, no one belongs to anything nor do they have any attachment or love for what is around them. We must all act and do and be the same thing and not be a part of a shared environment passed on from generation to generation. Is this really what global citizenship really means? Indeed, the idea of a world citizen seems to me to be a recent phenomenon, which has gone hand in hand with the decline of the nation state idea since the 1990’s. Specific legislation, especially under the Blair government, undermined our idea of what the nation state is. The treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon for example, weakened the British position, giving up many of the principles of a sovereign nation; economic freedom, land borders and the ability to trade freely. But the very essence of the idea of a treaty flies in the face of what the nation state is. Land borders and immigration have, of course, been the centre ground of the debate between independent nation states and world citizenship. Mass migration into Britain over the last 25 years has changed the social landscape of the country. Whatever your political persuasion, that is a fact that cannot be denied. What is also irrevocable fact is that the mass migration experiment can not be reversed. What is controversial, as far as conservatives are concerned, is that nobody was asked if they wanted this to happen. Did people want their country to be changed? No manifesto, no politician proposed the idea that an untold number of people will be imported over two decades. In fact, the reverse of this was true. The government themselves predicted that 15,000 people would migrate to the UK, once the EU expanded in 2004. Was this a deliberate lie to soften the blow of further EU integration? We will never know. However, the idea of the nation state is a viable one, despite the way the mass migration debate has been misrepresented by the left. The narrative put forward is that to be hostile to mass migration automatically makes you hostile to immigrants themselves, culminating in the debate closing words of “racism” and “xenophobia.” This disgraceful lie is told repeatedly to ensure debate is closed down quickly, and has led to a loss of confidence for many conservatives. As mentioned previously, the misrepresentation of conservatism and patriotism with nationalism has given the left opportunity to push back against nation state principles.
The debate about the impact whether mass immigration has been a source of good will rage on for many years, and will probably never be resolved. Despite the statistical information, people’s attitudes towards immigration and immigrants is a personal choice. I am glad to say whatever your own personal opinion is, Britain is undoubtedly one of the most welcoming and tolerant nations on the planet. We have not suffered with great social conflicts as other European countries, despite the difficulties of integrating so many of our new arrivals in such a short space of time. However, I don’t think it is inevitable that mass immigration and the deterioration of the nation state will go hand in hand. Preservation of our culture in the face of this change is vitally important. One mistake I believe we made is that the integration and assimilation of our new arrivals did not promote our way of life. Our history, heritage, laws, freedoms, language, institutions and even architecture have all derived from a common sense of purpose and desires, and the role of Christianity has been vital in forming our common good. We did not make the message clear; we are open to others, freedom of association and speech are accepted, religious freedom is tolerated and protected under the common law, but our culture and our history is our protection and we demand loyalty to it. This failure to promote British culture and the nation state during the period of mass migration to our country has meant that many have lost touch with who and what we are. Our nation state could have survived unscathed in this period.
What has happened is simple. The debate is being won by those who think the nation state doesn’t matter. The revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s steadily changed the history and the English curriculums, removing the teaching of our historic language through poetry and music (some of this does still survive, but only in private education), meaning that the bonds which Burke argued were the backbone of a meaningful society, that of the relationship between the living, dead and the unborn, were broken. The customs which attach us to our country, our home, have become seriously diluted. But, it is wrong to say that immigration and/or immigrants are the reason why the principles behind our nation state have waned. Declaring yourself a patriot (particularly a conservative one) has all of a sudden become a dirty word. The politicians are to blame. Recently, the same politicians have come to realise mass immigration is unpopular and have attempted to take steps to look tough. Of course, it is the Conservative Party who have failed in their attempt to revitalise the nation state. Paralysed by political correctness, gimmicks such as English tests to get access to benefits, asking new arrivals who Winston Churchill was and the promise of reducing immigration to “tens of thousands” (which was nothing more than a ridiculous lie) has led us to the outrageous paradox of the Windrush generation scandal.
It’s important that the conservative message about the nation state is at the forefront of the debate. It’s about wrestling it away from the misrepresentations of the socialist/liberal monopoly. As a conservative, I believe that the nation state represents the inheritance that Burke suggested. That inheritance is includes the institutions passed to us, and the authority which exists within them. It is also, as many conservative philosophers believe, the record keeper of social, political and religious history of a people. To do away with it would be an incomprehensible error. Why? Well, the answer to that question is to look closely at the alternative:The European Union. It is an institution which doesn’t recognise nationality or heritage. It’s bureaucratic arms, stacked full of treaties and regulations, does not understand the complexity of our accountable bodies, or as Roger Scruton would put it, our “social membership.” It’s why those unelected people who sit on the regulatory bodies of the EU, with their grey suits and clipboards, did not appeal to us. In my opinion, part of the reason people voted the leave the EU in 2016, and still support that decision, is that they wanted the nation state back. They looked at the two alternatives: a stagnating political and economic empire or the nation state which served us so well for many centuries, and chose the latter. It is to our great relief they did.