Yesterday evening I joined 10,000 others in a ‘virtual’ audience for a talk by Simon Schama at the Hay Digital Festival. The talk was titled Return of the Tribes : nationalism in the age of global disaster. It was a fascinating insight into the way that international crises have impacted on feelings of nationalism through history. Schama noted that one would expect that something as all-embracing as a pandemic (the very word implies something that respects no borders) would be a force for bringing people together rather than driving them apart. And yet in reality, it has exactly the opposite effect as countries have closed borders and (in some cases) actively withdrawn from co-operation in international endeavours to control the virus or its consequences. Thus, the UK (in a flush of post-Brexit nationalist fervour, declined the opportunity to join EU initiatives to procure ventilators and PPE; while the US had withdrawn funding support from the World Health Organisation at the very point when the virus was spreading exponentially from across the country.
This behaviour is a form of nationalist exceptionalism – a concept that conceives of nationalism as us against the other. It is an exclusionary, narrowly drawn version of nationalism that reached its peak manifestation in the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany. Defined in this way, nationalism has been conflated with extreme right wing politics, and is used as an argument against independence in places like Wales and Scotland. Even within the last two months, Mark Drakeford, the Labour First Minister at the Welsh Parliament, said in an interview on the BBC that : “[nationalism] is an inherently right-wing creed that operates by persuading people that they are because they are against what somebody else is.” In pursuing this line, Drakeford is simply the latest in a long line of Welsh Labour politicians who believe that it is only through uniting working class interests across the United Kingdom, that those interests can be advanced to fullest effect. You can read more about the debate around Welsh nationalism and whether or not it is consistent with socialism in a fascinating blogpost from Nye Davies for the Wales Governance Centre here.
Schama’s views on the possibilities for progressive nationalism are more nuanced than Drakeford’s. In acknowledging that nationalism is often viewed through lenses that seek to distinguish on the basis of history, language, music, geography or topography, it need not be the case that the undoubted differences between nations should mean that they cannot work collaboratively together. There is no conflict inherent in the statement that a liberal, pluralist democracy can also retain a nationalist identity. The United States itself was formed through the patriotism of immigrants!
Schama opened and closed his talk in typically positive fashion. At the outset, he reminded us that infectiousness is not exclusively a bad thing. We can enjoy infectious enthusiasm, laughter or excitement. Similarly, there must be some hope that a longer term outcome from the current pandemic might be greater international co-operation to improve the health of the planet and that of all the people who live on it.
That is a vision of progressive nations joining together to pursue an internationalist agenda that has real appeal.