Britain has rediscovered nationalism and Sasha Baker tells us why that’s bad news for all of us.
British nationalism makes no sense to me. I grew up in England without feeling English. My family didn’t eat English food, celebrate national holidays or care about the royal family. I didn’t have another culture to fall back on, having abandoned my Jewish roots, but that didn’t particularly matter. There were parts of Englishness I could identify with: self-deprecation, social incompetence, being unhappy all the time. Other than that, no one I knew considered their national identity because no one felt it to be under threat.
Though the nationalism that led to Brexit was largely a result of cultural and economic circumstances, I think national pride was reignited by the 2012 Olympics. I was in Thailand for almost the entirety of the Olympic Games and upon my return, I noticed a marked cultural shift. People seemed happier and more community spirited. Street parties were popular and there was bunting everywhere. I confess at the time such overt displays of happiness and pride confused and even infuriated me. Now, I almost miss that inclusive, well-intentioned patriotism.
We have seen that more benign patriotism mutate into a regressive nationalism, defined by exclusivity. Britain is no longer European. It apparently has its own distinct values that no one has deigned to define yet. It makes its own laws because British sovereignty is paramount. The news that the British government collaborated with other EU countries in keeping out East African refugees by denying the atrocities committed by the governments of Sudan and Eritrea is sadly telling. It seems Britain will only work with Europe when that means keeping the rest of the world at bay. This brings me to the fundamental problem with nationalism. If Britain is meant to be the greatest country in the world then are British people inherently more important than non-British people? A country that allows child refugees to remain in Calais, during and after the Jungle, clearly does not value the lives or the humanity of others – a tragic byproduct of the extreme nationalism that has entered the mainstream of British politics.
The new nationalism betrays a nostalgia for the days of the British Empire. The idea of taking our country back was one of the more effective platitudes of the Leave campaign but what is Britain harkening back to if not a time when it subjugated and exploited half of the planet? Many hold the view that Britain should be trading less with the EU and more with the Commonwealth, with whom Britain shares a past. I wonder if those same people would readily accept an influx of refugees from the Commonwealth. I suspect those who are white and speak English as a first language – the descendants of colonialists – would have a far more pleasant immigrant experience in the UK than the descendants of the colonised. The British Empire may be dead but the idea that it is acceptable to exploit people and then refuse them entry to the UK lives on.
Of possibly even greater importance is the real and lasting impact that the British Empire has had on world politics. I believe national pride should be based on a sense that one’s country has been of net benefit to the world. In the case of Britain, for people to believe this would be misguided. Britain’s centuries of plundering the globe have left devastating consequences. Lazily drawn borders, particularly in the Middle East, have caused no end of conflict. The partition of India and Pakistan has been similarly contentious, only slightly less frequently leading to outright war. The subjugation of indigenous peoples and cultures is also an inescapable part of Britain’s colonial heritage. Though other European countries were involved, the worst culprits in destroying the native populations of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are undoubtedly the British. Africa has also greatly suffered from British colonialism. The British were the inventors of concentration camps, used in the Boer war to incarcerate Black South Africans and force them to work the land for the British. Similar camps were used to imprison those involved in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1960s, though these had a far greater propensity for torture. This list of atrocities barely scratches the surface of the horrors committed by the British Empire.
I imagine that the average British person today lacks total awareness of the atrocities that have led to their relative privilege in the world. If people were more conscious of the horrors committed by the past rulers of this country and how this superior attitude remains integral to their country’s foreign policy, perhaps they would reconsider their vociferous national pride. Britain’s achievements in areas like technology and literature are rightly acknowledged but the kind of exclusionary national pride that is all too common these days seems to wilfully ignore Britain’s exploitative past.
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