As someone living in Scotland, the political idea of “nationalism” is not new to me.
Nothing has done more to shape or influence Scottish politics over the previous decade or so. Nearly every person in Scotland will have an opinion on Scottish nationalism. The precise detail of the arguments for and against might be elusive to average Scottish voters, but they will certainly feel an emotional response to nationalism, a sense of attachment to its debates, and some certainty that nationalism affects, or has the potential to affect, their daily lives.
In this regard, Scottish nationalism may be unique as a political issue in the UK, where most political news tends either to be mistrusted, ignored or resented by a public that does not believe the niceties of politics are relevant or interesting. Scottish nationalism has the unique power, if not to inspire, then to involve people in a major political issue.
One way in which Scottish nationalism differs from nationalist sentiments in other countries is the fact that nationalist debates in other countries tend to focus on how the institutions, culture and people of those countries can be protected and advanced by the state. In Scotland, the nationalist debate as it has developed so far has been purely about whether Scotland should be an independent state at all.
The “high tide” of Scottish nationalism came in 2014, just before the No vote regarding the question of whether Scotland should become an independent country. Two years on, however, that sense of potentially immediate, permanent and far-reaching change has not been revived by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she will seek a second referendum in either 2018 or 2019. Nor has the Scottish Parliament’s subsequent vote in favour of a second referendum managed to do so.
The surge, peak, and withdrawal of Scottish nationalism may be written about in the future as a defining epoch in the history of Scotland and the UK. While Sturgeon’s second referendum might not ever take place, and while the excitement of that first period diminishes with the passage of time, the legacy of the campaign will remain.
The nationalist cause, retaining a strong block of public support, has secured for the SNP a firm electoral foundation on which to base potentially several more consecutive administrations of the Scottish Government, while the Labour Party in Scotland has diminished as a political force ever since the No vote. The decline of Labour and the concomitant strengthening of the SNP have, in combination, deprived the UK Labour Party of its once reliable Scottish constituencies. In practice this means that the Labour Party cannot win a UK General Election without winning the majority of English seats, which, given the strength of the Conservative Party in England, is unlikely.
Despite these significant implications of Scottish nationalism, it is the nationalist sentiments of countries other than Scotland which have had a much greater impact on western culture and politics in the recent past. For some commentators, western politicians, and members of the public, modern nationalism in the western world (excepting Scotland) has been perceived and represented as undesirable, destabilising, and indicative of a regression in western political attitudes.
Commentators and politicians complaining about the so-called “triumph of nationalism” in the west disagree about the causes, nature and purpose of this nationalism; but they are broadly in agreement that the “surge” in nationalist sentiment is a disturbing development in western politics and constitutes also the victory of narrow-mindedness.
The continual negativity and criticism with which they treat nationalism demonstrates the insufficient degree to which these commentators and politicians have analysed “the triumph of nationalism”, and the high level of intolerance of which they themselves are guilty. “The triumph of nationalism” presents western politics not with a dangerously extreme ideology with which politicians have to fight, but an opportunity to learn lessons, hear new opinions and eventually benefit in the longer-term.
The most regularly referred-to examples of contemporary western nationalism are those of the Netherlands (where Geert Wilders leads the anti-immigration Party for Freedom), the U.S.A. (where Republican Donald Trump was recently elected President), the UK (where a referendum on its membership of the EU resulted in a vote to leave the EU), and France (where the National Front’s Marine Le Penn could become President in 2017). There are of course notable examples of modern nationalist parties in Germany and Hungary, as well as other countries, but, for the purposes of this article, and in terms of the importance attached to them by commentators and politicians, we shall principally deal with these four examples of western nationalism.
Combined, these “successful” examples allow those who criticise western nationalism to complain of a strident nationalist revival. Across Europe and the United States, they say, anti-immigration extremists are taking control of governments and threatening to overturn the traditional tolerance of their societies.
What the critics fail to realise, however, is that the supposed “triumph” or “wave” or “surge” of nationalism is a product of several reinforcing factors, rather than an inherently malicious phenomenon.
The first of these factors is their own imaginations, which appear, based on their rhetoric, easily influenced by events that do not comply precisely with their expectations of democratic politics. In place of providing convincing explanations for them, they more often revert to exaggeration and hyperbolism to account for those unexpected events. For example, foreign national elections where centrist or Liberal parties fail to win seem to trigger speculation that the country in question is being gripped by a popular nationalist sentiment.
The second such factor, to which a significant part of this article will be devoted, is the absence of credible competition to nationalist arguments. As we shall discuss, the populations of western societies are not intrinsically intolerant or “nationalistic”. There is, however, a longing for political change across the western world. Where established political parties are perceived to fail to deliver or offer that change people look for alternatives, and nationalism is but one such alternative.
The third factor is the willingness of commentators and politicians to interpret certain events as examples of nationalism. This has led, in the UK at least, to Brexit, the vote to leave the EU, being portrayed, spoken of and written about as though it can be explained solely by a sudden surge in British nationalism.
No doubt, some of the explanation for Brexit lies in the nationalist sentiments of some voters. What cannot be justified, however, is the ease with which some have treated Brexit as a purely nationalist phenomenon, and their ignoring or dismissing altogether the possibility that “the triumph of nationalism” might be too simple an answer to the question of “why did we Leave?”
Some have spoken of “the lurch to the right” in the UK in condescending tones, as though Brexit is the result of voters being manipulated or tricked into voting for something they did not want, and that the adherents to the new consensus around lower immigration and lower welfare spending are to be pitied.
The truth of the matter is that whatever we might say concerning the morality of lower welfare spending or lower immigration, Brexit was a decision taken by voters who had, in their own minds, exhausted the political alternatives. The average Leave voter would not consider themselves right-wing or a nationalist. Brexit, the supposed monument of British nationalism and the “lurch”, is better understood as an act of pragmatic patriotism than of nationalism, an act which most who voted Leave believed was in their country’s best interests.
In a recent interview on the Andrew Marr Show, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed what he believed to be the shortcomings of modern centrist politics and what the centre needs to do to push against the right and the left. His chief criticism, indeed his explanation for the downturn in popularity of centrist politics, is that centrist politicians had “become managers of the status quo in circumstances where people want change”.
In relation to Brexit, Blair’s argument suggests that the Remain campaign was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a vote for no change, while leaving the EU offered people the opportunity of the change they wanted.
Our second example of “the triumph of nationalism” is the election of President Trump.
People have pointed to Trump’s anti-immigration policies, his apparently-racist references to Mexicans, his attitude towards Muslims, women and to others. Furthermore, one of his most celebrated and most reviled catchphrases, “America First”, has set out in plain, unmistakable language where Trump’s policy priorities lie. That this man succeeded in being elected President of the United States is often used by commentators to state that nationalism has triumphed in America.
In the same way those who argue Brexit is a nationalist phenomenon are incorrect, so too are those who make this argument in relation to Trump and American nationalism.
First and foremost, it should be remembered that although Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and has advocated various “nationalist” policies, such as a wall around Mexico and a ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, many Americans have not been won over by his arguments, and nor are there any signs that they will be. We have only to look at the difficulty President Trump is having in implementing his so-called “travel ban” to realise that America has not been toppled by nationalist euphoria.
The American system of government’s fabled checks and balances on executive power has prevented Trump’s travel ban from being enforced, while the wall around Mexico has yet to overcome the obstacles of funding and legality.
We must also remember that despite winning the election, Trump never won the popular vote in America, showing that a majority of people were not won over by his arguments. Indeed, the political outlook and behaviour which favoured Trump’s arguments have been around in America for much longer than Trump has been involved in politics.
In the midst of the excitement of Trump’s candidacy and eventual victory it was forgotten that British television reports on a range of far right Republican candidates during every American election. Every four years candidates attaching themselves to pro-gun, pro-family, anti-abortion and anti-government causes make their bid to become Republican nominee for President. Both presidential elections in which Barack Obama emerged victorious featured tough contests in the Republican Party involving such candidates, though in each instance a relatively moderate candidate ended up with the nomination. And even in 2016, Trump was not alone on the far-right of the Republican Party, with Senator Ted Cruz the outstanding example of a far-right establishment candidate.
Trump, then, is not the result or the cause of a sudden and unknown rise in American nationalism; he is the beneficiary of a tradition of election season Republican radicalism into which many natural Republican voters are drawn. Trump also benefited from what we saw in the UK with Brexit: a sense that traditional politics had failed to provide answers to the major questions, particularly immigration. Trump’s status as an outsider and a clear alternative to establishment Republicanism made him attractive to supporters of both major parties for whom politics as usual was simply no longer acceptable.
FBI investigations into Democrat nominee Hilary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State made life easier for Trump during the campaign. There were also vaguer complaints that Clinton was “cold” and seemed “fake”, which compared poorly to Trump’s famously bold public performances. The burden of “baggage” of more than twenty years of involvement in politics was also to Clinton’s disadvantage given the excitement of outsider Trump entering the fray for the first time.
Although Trump won the Presidency in 2016, the American example nonetheless serves to strengthen our central argument about the real strength of western nationalism.
Fewer people were persuaded by Trump’s arguments than by Clinton’s, showing that the political centre is naturally the most attractive electoral option to the majority of voters. Also, since his inauguration, Trump’s policies have repeatedly been thwarted, showing that one election does not determine the direction of an entire country and system of government.
The weakness of the candidate of the political centre, moreover, contributed to Trump’s success. Because her reputation was damaged by the investigations, Clinton’s failure to overcome the widely condemned rhetoric and political inexperience of her opponent demonstrates that the political centre is vulnerable to defeat by nationalist alternatives when it has been discredited and when the opportunity for change seems much greater with the alternative.
France is another country where the failure of establishment politics (though arguably not centrist politics) has given an opportunity to its political competitors. Muslim immigration, French identity, economic decline, and perceived government mismanagement have allowed the National Front to argue that only it can enact the reforms France needs. Those who fear that France might become the next to fall to “the triumph of nationalism” point to the 2017 French Presidential Election, in which Le Pen, whose party has continuously grown in popularity in recent years, could become the next French President.
Much like the British and Americans, the French are not intrinsically nationalist. Patriotism and nationalism, while occasionally entangled, are nonetheless very different, and real patriots in all three democracies base a portion of their pride in their country in its tradition of tolerance of cultural and ethnic differences. In the National Front, many French see what Americans and the British saw in Trump and Brexit respectively- the potential for improvement in their lives and reform, neither of which were offered by centrist politics.
The unpopularity and perceived inadequacy of the incumbent President, Francois Hollande, combined with the consequences of the German-dominated EU response to the migration crisis since 2015, have no doubt contributed to the demand among the French for dramatic political change.
It would be inappropriate here to discuss the course of the French Presidential Election, given that at the time of writing the result is not yet known, but if the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is able to win the Presidency and deny Le Pen the victory for which her supporters crave, it will be interesting to hear whether commentators and others will still be discussing the triumph of French nationalism.
We are able, however, to reflect on the recent Parliamentary Election in the Netherlands, where Wilders’ nationalist Party for Freedom did not win a majority, or even a plurality, of seats. Instead, the ruling party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte emerged the largest in the Dutch Parliament.
Wilders’ policies and choice of words are well known. He has described the Netherlands’ Moroccan population as “scum”, and said he would expel Muslims from the country and demolish mosques. There may be some parallels to be found between the rhetoric of Wilders and Trump, and also in the popular disappointment and anger their respective electorates feel towards politics. But in the electoral sense, it is Trump and not Wilders who has succeeded.
In conceding that he did not win outright, Wilders claimed to have won a significant victory by changing the terms of debate in Dutch politics, forcing immigration higher up the political agenda. But what secured victory for the Dutch centrists was their ability to manage the new debate Wilders had forced, of being able to react to the new issues and to offer solutions. By embracing the debate, and by accepting that change was necessary, rather than hiding from that change and attempting to defy the public mood, the Netherlands demonstrated that “the triumph of nationalism” is not an inevitable result of hate towards outsiders, and less still an unstoppable populist force sweeping the western world.
Where the 2016 American Presidential Election demonstrates how people can be persuaded to vote for unorthodox nationalist politics when centrist candidates seem inadequate, the 2017 Netherlands’ Parliamentary Election shows how, when offered the choice between a bluntly nationalist alternative party and a credible party of the centre, the electorate will vote for the centre.
Nationalist victories in elections and referenda can, we can see, be prevented by the centre doing what Tony Blair, in the same Andrew Marr interview, describes as being “self-critical”. In admitting where they have fallen short, centrist parties in the Netherlands have made the appropriate and sensible shifts in policy before they cede the debate to their opponents altogether.
“The triumph of nationalism”, then, is not a mysterious and unknowable force. As we have seen, nationalist parties it would not in fact be able to seriously compete in elections unless there was something seriously dysfunctional with centrist politics, which Blair argues should always be the engine of political reform. Nationalism triumphs when the centre fails. Therefore centrists across the west should view the popularity of nationalist arguments as an indication that they are falling short of their electorates’ expectations. They should embrace the challenge of debating nationalist arguments and persuading the public of their own views.
Returning finally to Scottish nationalism, there is one major similarity between Scottish nationalism and the nationalism which commentators bemoan in the “triumph of nationalism”.
Although it differs from the other examples because it focuses mainly on the argument in favour of Scottish statehood, Scottish nationalism, like the others, offers its electorate one possible avenue of dramatic political change. The status quo in Scotland which the nationalists want to change is of course entirely different from the status quo challenged by other forms of nationalism. But what is consistent is the sentiment that the current political establishment is unsatisfactory, and that the nationalists believe only their policies and ideas can bring contentment and trust where there has been disappointment and scepticism.
In 2014 there was no “triumph of Scottish nationalism”. Much like Blair advocates for centrists today, the unionist parties made an offer to the Scottish electorate of change within the union, and on this occasion the Scottish people, like those in the Netherlands, were persuaded to vote for moderate reform. The question for the centre now as in 2014, and not just in Scotland or the UK, but in very country where “the triumph of nationalism” is touted, is whether the centre can make that same offer of meaningful change to voters.