Europe is unique. Nowhere else on Earth has so many markedly different cultures crammed into such a small space. Europe’s jagged coastlines, numerous, high mountain ranges and broad rivers have fostered huge diversity. In recent centuries, this has been largely to the continent’s benefit. Fierce competition between European tribes and nations spurred technological development at breakneck pace, which led to the development of modern science, the industrial revolution and (for a while) to the global dominance of European empires.
This, of course, comes with a big downside. Europe is prone to spasms of nationalistic feeling, which tend not to end well. The last big eruption, ending in 1945, left Europeans, yet again, determined to put an end to all this nonsense. The postwar European project, culminating in the creation of the EU, was a huge, liberal exercise in knitting together countries with long histories of enmity. It is an attempt to gradually eradicate nationalism from the continent and provide us with a more peaceful future.
But 1945 was a long time ago. Those who were adults in that year are all over 90 now. Generation by generation, Europeans have become increasingly seduced (yet again) by the idea that internationalism is not necessarily such a good thing; that nationalism, done right, can be a force for good. So, once again, European nationalism is taken from the back of the wardrobe, dusted off, and accessorised to make it look like a brand new outfit.
So in some ways, we’re in a situation similar to the 1930s. But in the 30s, there was a clear ideological choice to make between left and right. As right-wing nationalism blossomed across Europe, so the left-wing opposition became an international struggle against fascism. WWII, though a national struggle, was also an international one, which united internationalist socialists with national armies. My left-wing Jewish grandfather saw his time in the RAF as a fight against fascism, not a battle for British supremacy.
Today, the divide between right and left is increasingly a cultural, rather than political one. The left, a progressive force in the 1930s, is today a defender of the status quo. From left to right, the argument has been reduced to: Which form of social democracy works best? What proportion of GDP should be devoted to state spending? How much involvement should private companies have in state-provided services? And with no clear ideological divide, nationalism has infected the entire political spectrum. Sadly and dangerously, European politics is becoming a decision about which kind of nationalism one prefers.
The old, ugly nationalism is becoming rampant. In predictable places – Hungary, Denmark and France (for example) – anti-foreigner sentiment is once again fashionable. But this is more than matched by left-wing nationalism, which in many ways is more worrying. From painful experience, Europe understands the dangers of the old, xenophobic nationalism of the right, but that not of the left. Many on the left will respond that left-wing nationalism isn’t nasty like the right-wing variety. But intent is irrelevant. What matters is outcome. If the EU unravels, along with free movement of people, goods and services, who cares whether it’s done under the pretext of progressivism or xenophobia?
So: Scotland has become a nationalist one-party state, under the auspices of fighting for “fairness” and “anti-austerity”. The SNP, once a right-of-centre force, has reinvented itself as a left-wing one. It dangles a social democratic dream in order to achieve a separatist, regressive aim. It proposes contradictory policies and ideas to maximise its populist appeal: thus, it doesn’t want laws made in London, but is fine with those from Brussels; thus it rejects English rule, but embraces the Royal Family; thus, it invokes a false history of colonial oppression under the English, whereas in reality Scots enthusiastically participated in the British Empire. Seeing a sea of national flags waved in Scotland on election night in May conjured up Europe’s darkest past, not its progressive future.
In reality, the SNP’s independence calculations were cynical in the extreme: they realised that, with oil above $100 per barrel, Scotland would be better off keeping its oil revenues to itself, rather than redistribute. This is the opposite of progressivism: successful unions (whether the UK, EU or US) redistribute from wealthy regions to poor ones. Scottish nationalists want to keep it all for themselves. Since the referendum, oil prices have crashed. If it had gained independence, Scotland would be forced to implement worse austerity than England, or face bankruptcy. SNP voters should be outraged that they nearly committed such a gross error under Alex Salmond’s guidance, but they don’t appear to have noticed. Nationalistic fervour outweighs economic and political common sense.
Similarly, Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, and resents sending its hard-earned money to Madrid. Catalans are set for a confrontation with the national government as nationalist populism has surged. In reality, Catalan nationalists resent redistribution of their money to poor regions like Andalucia. This isn’t “progressive nationalism”, it’s good, old-fashioned dislike of poor, “lazy” southerners packaged as a heroic independence struggle.
Anti-EU sentiment has surged on the British left, most notably in this year’s Corbyn Labour victory. So, bizarrely, Labour’s leader agrees with UKIP’s that the EU is a bad thing, while the Tory leader is on the same side as the Lib Dem and Green leaders (underscoring the point that left and right are increasingly blurring into one). Labour still officially maintains a pro-EU stance, but with its most senior figures now being eurosceptics, how effectively will it fight for a pro-EU vote in the coming referendum? While Corbyn’s win won’t take Labour close to power, it has certainly edged us closer to Brexit.
The Corbyn position on the EU (like many of his policies) is deeply childlike: he says the EU is “like a free market“. Which, of course, in part, it is. What he doesn’t explain is why this is a bad thing, or what his alternative might be; the very word “market” is supposed to conjure up horror, without the need for further explanation. I remember this position from my own days on the far-left: we took the meaningless position that we were internationalists, but couldn’t support the EU because it was capitalist internationalism, not the good socialist variety. Owen Jones, the bellwether of the moron-left, has predictably taken an anti-EU position based on the left’s complete misunderstanding of what has been happening in Greece.
The Corbynites say they support the free movement of people, but not free markets. So do they think Polish plumbers should come to the UK but be prevented from selling their labour? Should Spanish companies be able to build British factories, but not sell their products to Germany? The left rails against unskilled jobs moving to China, while ignoring the huge rise in Chinese living standards these jobs have created. This is xenophobia disguised as support for British workers: we can ignore poverty in China or India, or blame it on ‘neoliberalism’. In this attitude, the far-left is virtually indistinguishable from the far-right.
Borders are obstacles to progress; there is no progressive nationalism, in Scotland or anywhere else. In the face of surging inward-looking nationalist sentiment, we need to re-imagine how borders can be dissolved, bit by bit, and this requires three unbreakable principles:
- Free movement of ideas: in other words, an implacable opposition to state censorship. China carefully blocks dangerous foreign ideas using its Great Firewall, under heavy criticism from the West; and yet there are powerful forces lobbying for site blocking here in the UK, under the auspices of “counter-terrorism” or “protecting children from porn”. Both left and right are guilty of failing to defend free expression.
- Free movement of goods and services: here, the left is often guilty of the deepest conservatism. Global poverty is shrinking faster than at any time in history. The rest of the world is catching up with the West; rather than celebrate this, the nationalist left focuses on economic stagnation in the wealthiest countries, and ignores progress everywhere else. To oppose global free trade is to attempt to disconnect the world’s poorest from the global economy.
- Free movement of people: this is the toughest objective of all, and will not be seen in our lifetimes: but it’s an objective towards which we can continually move. We cannot entirely lift border controls while there are such disparities of wealth and poverty in the world. Thanks to the EU’s removal of trade barriers, wealth was spread across the continent. As a result, Europe was able to introduce free movement – something that would have seemed like a utopian dream a few decades ago. The same thing can, and will, happen globally, in less time than we might today imagine.
There is no economic reason why borders cannot continue to be dissolved. step-by-step, worldwide: the reasons are political: the old left and right parties are collapsing into nationalism and xenophobia. The one European hero of open borders, Angela Merkel, is coming under attack domestically for her pro-immigration stance. As the world becomes richer and more interlinked, the need for borders diminishes. The only obstacle to creating a borderless planet is the one in our minds.