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Nationalism in the 21st century

John Harris has written about the rise of UKIP here.

He’s right to note that a vote for UKIP shouldn’t just be reduced to a protest vote, and to note that not all of UKIP’s voters would return to the parties they formerly voted for if only those parties could find some kind of magical formula. He probably misses something of the point however, that many UKIP voters have bought into the pervasive meme of the last fifteen years, that every social ill, whether it’s a lack of decent social housing or secure well paid semi and unskilled work, has been laid at the door of migrants, and that the major parties have been complicit in this. Every time Ed Miliband talks about immigration, he is being a recruiting sergeant for UKIP, even as he tries to shore up his own vote. While all the party managers will be obsessed with switchers and defections to UKIP, the wisest amongst them will also be looking to see if UKIP are also turning stay away voters into enthusiasts whose additional turnout will sabotage all the carefully planned electoral arithmetic in some marginals.

However, and it’s a huge however, Harris’s article is shot through with the blinkered condescension of an Englishman writing about England, as if there aren’t parallels and lessons that could be learned from Scotland or Wales, or even the six counties of North East Ireland.

Whenever an English writer talks about four party politics without looking towards Wales and Scotland I realise they don’t get it. When they talk about UKIP and don’t mention the Greens I realise they are just writing in the moment without any concentrated study of the realities.

It might help people understand UKIP if they stop seeing it as being just an immigration obsessed collection of golfclub bores (although, in part, that’s precisely what it is) and start seeing it as one of several English nationalist parties, competing to win the votes of the kind of people who have St George’s cross flags on their Vauxhall Zafiras, Help for Heroes wristbands and who know where to get the best full English in Bodrum.

Just like Plaid Cymru and the SNP UKIP is trying to form a consensus around an identity and a sense of grievance. Just like PC and the SNP its location on the political compass is less clear than you might discern it from the policies in the manifestos, and like them its policy solutions are likely to be blown about by the prevailing winds of politics, and the micro climate wherever it is campaigning. That could be a weakness for UKIP, but also a strength. A better leader than Farage, with a better grasp of political narrative could take UKIP from where it is now and fashion a party for England outside the M25, a party of the regions that would have both a base of support in the small towns and minor cities, and a ready made enemy in cosmopolitan London.

Ed Miliband could do a lot worse than have a chat with people like the thoughtful Northerners behind the Hannah Mitchell Foundation about Englishness and identity outside the M25. A few days spent talking to people in Wales and Scotland about the perils of campaigning against shape shifting Nationalists wouldn’t go amiss.

I’d add a final suggestion to Ed though. If multi party politics is here to stay he should remember that Labour has lived and flourished in such times before. It may be eighty years since the split with the ILP, and the Co-op party maybe little better nowadays than a moribund device for rigging party selections, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the political future is coalitions and fragmented voting blocs, then Labour should start by regenerating its own internal coalitions.

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One comment on “Nationalism in the 21st century

  1. redpesto
    May 27, 2014

    You’re right about Uklip as an ‘English nationalist’ party (which might explain why the ‘Other’ vote fell so sharply). But Farage isn’t working on the basis of regionalism or regional devolution, and I suspect he was all set to dismiss London/Londoners as part of the ‘metropolitan elite’ until Ukip won a MEP seat there.

    Unlike the Scottish and Welsh nationalists who can bounce off ‘England’, Farage has decided to blame ‘Europe’ rather than have sense of regionalism or federalism – possibly because his roots are in the very same London/South East that, say, the North and the Midlands have had to fight against.

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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