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is nationalism in the uk reactionary or progressive?

Asked by isabel-araceli | Dec 4, 2007 | A Level > Politics > Homework
isabel-araceli asks:

i am really stuck on this question and have no idea what to write............PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE could you get back to ma as soon as possible as it is in in 4 days!!! would be very very grateful

etutor answers:

This is a complex question. It needs a general framework before looking at the specific case of the UK. I have therefore approached in t in this way.

The term nationalism is derived from nasci, which means ‘to be born’. Nationalism is often regarded as a 19th century phenomenon, linked with the creation and development of the nation-state, and seen by many critics as outdated, because it is inherently expansionist, destructive, or both. Essentially the issue of whether it is really depends on the type of nationalism that is being considered. To begin with, there are two contrasting concepts of nationalism. Cultural Nationalism sees the nation primarily as a cultural community, and thus emphasises ethnic or religious ties and loyalties. By contrast, Political Nationalism sees the nation primarily as a political community and so stresses civil and constitutional bonds and allegiances. Cultural Nationalism usually takes the form of national self-affirmation, which provides the means by which people acquire their identity and sense of belonging. Welsh Nationalism, with its stress on the Welsh language, would be an example, as would be Black Nationalism in the USA, with priority given to the ‘rediscovery’ of Africa as a spiritual and cultural homeland. Often there is a strong overlap between nation and ethnicity, derived from the over-riding idea that nations are organic, and are thus not fashioned by political forces. There is also a clear link here with religious fundamentalism, and so Cultural Nationalism is manifestly capable of breeding insularity, which can often be seen as destructive. Political Nationalism stresses civic loyalties, and so the key issue becomes one of shared citizenship, regardless of cultural, ethnic or religious loyalties. On this basis, to some extent at least, nations are artificial edifices, though with definable political characters. The UK, for example, is a union of four cultural nations.

Where Nationalism is a reaction against experience of foreign domination or occupation, or colonial rule, it tends to be a liberating force, and is invariably linked with the goals of liberty, justice and democracy. Where Nationalism is a product of social dislocation and demographic change, it often has an insular and exclusive character, and can then become a vehicle for racism and xenophobia, is thus destructive, and may also be expansionist. There are obvious overlaps between Cultural and Political Nationalism, though the latter is generally regarded as having four basic and recognisable forms - liberal, conservative, expansionist and anti-colonial. The fourth of these is not relevant to this question, except perhaps with respect to some of the British Muslim community..

Liberal Nationalism asserts that states have rights, and especially the right to self-determination; in this sense, all nations are equal. This is the classic form of European Nationalism, and lay behind Woodrow Wilson's ‘Fourteen Points’ in 1918 and the blueprint for the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. There is a critical link between the nation and popular sovereignty; aristocratic or repressive empires must be resisted and over-turned. The goal is the construction of the (independent) nation-state, where the boundaries of government coincide with those of nationality; all nations have an equal right to independence and non-interference. The intended outcome is the enlargement of political freedom, while and Liberal Nationalism provides the framework for securing a peaceful world order, fortified by international law, and supervised by supranational bodies. Liberal Nationalism cannot therefore be described as destructive.

Conservative Nationalism places great emphasis upon social cohesion, which is embodied in national patriotism and in collective consciousness of nationhood. There is a shared past, and thus usually a common defence of traditional values and institutions. Conservative Nationalism tends to develop in well established nation-states, and is often inspired by the perception that the nation is under threat - from socialism, or federalism, or immigration or, increasingly, multiculturalism. Hence, for example, opponents of the euro in the UK have argued that sterling should be retained not simply because the euro represents a loss of national sovereignty but also because the £ is a symbol of a distinctive national identity. Conservative Nationalism is usually regarded as inward-looking and insular. It is may be destructive where it acts as an impediment to change - and particularly where it adopts an anti-immigration stance.

Expansionist Nationalism is aggressive and militaristic. It is invariably associated with chauvinist beliefs, and often also with religious fundamentalism. It blurs the distinction between nationalism and racialism. It is undeniably expansionist in nature - as seen, for example, in the 'scramble for Africa' in the late 19th century and in the imperialism of the 20th century. It is often associated with the irrational belief in the superiority, and thus need for dominance, of a particular group of people, who are generally defined in terms of race or ethnicity. There is a common theme of national rebirth or regeneration, and so a link between past 'glories' and future destiny. Italian Fascism and German Nazism are clear examples. War becomes the testing ground for the virility of the nation, and much the same is true of the acquisition of colonies. They have in common territorial expansion, and so Expansionist Nationalism is destructive.

The case of the United Kingdom presents considerable conceptual difficulties, not least for many of its own citizens! Much of the confusion arises out of the mistaken belief that nation and state are synonymous. The state is officially described as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though this is clouded in ambiguity. Many refer to ‘the UK’ or simply ‘Britain’, while England, easily the largest part of the state, is often confused with the whole. The UK is not, strictly speaking, a nation-state, since it consists of four nations. Some living in the UK claim a dual national allegiance (e.g. British and Irish) while others describe themselves as English or British, depending on their mood and circumstances. There are also members of ethnic minorities who are full citizens of the UK, but whose national identity and allegiance is doubtful in the eyes of others, and perhaps sometimes to themselves. The government’s ‘Citizenship Test’, if anything, engenders still further doubt and confusion.

England was politically united from the 10th century, with strong links with Scandinavia until the Norman Conquest, and then with France until the 15th century. From the 16th century an English national consciousness developed quite strongly. Wales was politically subject to the English crown from the 13th century, being formally united with England in 1536; the Welsh had little say in the process of absorption under English rule. Ireland was more erratically controlled by the English monarchy from the 12th century but, unlike Britain, remained obstinately Catholic, apart from Ulster, which was forcibly settled by Scottish Protestants from the 17th century. In 1801 it was politically united with England under an Act of Union.

Scotland existed for several centuries as an independent state with its own crown, parliament and legal system, and might have fallen to English rule from the reign of Edward I had it not been for Robert the Bruce. Scottish independence was reasserted in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath and remained intact for over three further centuries. The succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 ensured that Scottish and English interests remained closely entangled throughout the 17th century. The Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 created a British state, though Scottish nationalists have always regarded the Act as a betrayal.

Hence the historical background of the UK is complex and explains why the 19th century form of nationalism as a political doctrine asserting the right to national self-determination had little relevance here. Britain was already a nation state that had no need to be freed from foreign rule or to be artificially united. In the 19th century there was no significant movement for Scottish or Welsh independence, though Ireland was always a very different case. Gladstone was converted to Irish Home Rule in 1886. Southern Ireland became a free state in 1922, leaving the six northern Ulster counties as part of the UK. For most of the period of colonial acquisition, empire and victories in wars nationalism was essentially a matter of confirming national superiority, rather than asserting regional differences.

Significant support for nationalism in Scotland and Wales is relatively recent – Plaid Cymru was founded only in 1925, and the Scottish National Party in 1928. Neither achieved much electoral success before the late 1960s. The British Government made some concessions – a Secretary of State for Scotland was appointed in 1885, while a Scottish Office was established. Wales, with legal and administrative systems similar to those in England, did not acquire a Secretary of State and a Welsh Office until 1964. But from the late 19th century there were concessions to Welsh nationalism (which was heavily linguistically and culturally based) on religion, temperance, education and the use of the Welsh language in judicial proceedings and on TV. Both Scotland and Wales suffered disproportionately from the decline of the UK’s manufacturing industries from the 1960s, which nurtured nationalist currents in both countries. The SNP won 30.4% of the vote and eleven seats in the general election of October 1974, while Plaid Cymru won 10.3% of the vote and three seats. Since then support has fluctuated, but the nationalists are now firmly established as the principal opposition party to Labour in both countries.

Welsh nationalism has never been primarily economic. It has not flourished in the valleys of South Wales which were hardest hit by economic decline, but rather in the core Welsh-speaking areas of the north west where preservation of the Welsh language and culture has been the key concern, as well as fears over English immigration. Wales is essentially divided rather than united by the language issue, which explains the failure of nationalism to grow, at least until the 1999 Assembly elections. Even then seats were lost in 2003. Support for Scottish nationalism has been stronger but more volatile. Language here is a negligible issue, allowing the SNP to make a wider appeal based on national sentiment and Scottish economic and political interests. The negative part of the appeal was for a long period the perceived neglect of Scotland by the remote and politically alien Thatcher government, which was seen as responsible for economic decline, privatisation and the poll tax ‘experiment’, all of which were deeply unpopular in Scotland. At the same time the SNP has always argued that ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ and that Scotland would be economically better off if it had, as it believes it is entitled, control of the revenues arising out of it. More recently the SNP have shifted their stance away from outright independence (which was never popular with more than a third of Scottish voters) and towards campaigning on the platform ‘Scotland in Europe’. The call for independence has, however, been revived under Salmond's leadership of the SNP, and featured prominently in the Scottish Parliament campaign of 2007. Voters were promised a referendum on the issue; the SNP won office by a single seat, though is a minority government, and has found little support from other parties for the referendum.

By the mid-1970s there were, perhaps for the first time ever, serious doubts about the long-term survival of the British state. Northern Ireland was in turmoil, while nationalism was on an upward curve in Scotland and Wales. The Callaghan government’s attempt to introduce devolved assemblies in 1978-79 was botched in Scotland (where it failed to secure the necessary support of 40% of eligible voters in the referendum) and was rejected decisively in Wales. Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, together with its fear of a future loss of seats in both Scotland and Wales) led quickly to the establishment of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, following successful referendums in both countries in 1997 (though devolution was approved only narrowly in Wales). The Conservatives campaigned against devolution on the ground that it would eventually revive calls for independence and ultimately lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. As yet there is no evidence of this, though UK politics is nowadays characterised by multi-level governance, and is certainly more decentralised, fragmented and complex.

Meanwhile a devolved assembly and executive (which have required periodic suspension) were more precariously established in Northern Ireland, where the nationalist threat operates largely outside conventional politics, and erupts periodically in violence. In 2005, the IRA, whose relationship with Sinn Fein has always been a bone of contention among Unionist parties in particular, finally agreed to arms decommissioning. In Ireland nationalism is largely the product of religious divisions, reflecting the minority status of Catholics in Ulster and their overwhelming desire to be part of a united Ireland, despite the Good Friday Agreement and the efforts of the peace process.

In England nationalism exists only at the margins. Its conventional form is insular, patriotic and euro-sceptic, finding expression consistently in the Conservative party, with its emphasis in recent elections upon tighter control of immigration and asylum seekers. In its more negative form it is found on the fringe, particularly in some working class northern towns and more middle class southern coastal towns. There has been some growth in recent years, fuelled largely by the issue of large increases in immigration and alleged preference in council house allocation to members of ethnic minorities. It finds expression in the BNP, a party that has recently registered a little electoral success in local elections in northern towns such as Oldham and Burnley, but which invariably loses its deposits in parliamentary elections. A vociferous section of English football fans mix politics and sport, chanting ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ and wrecking cities abroad with some regularity; there has certainly been a resurgence of white racism in recent years. At the more conventional political level, there has been something of a backlash against devolution, with periodic demands for the establishment of an English parliament and for outright withdrawal from the EU. Membership of the European single currency now appears to be firmly off the political agenda. Similarly, the rejection of the proposed EU Constitution by the citizens of France and Holland in the summer of 2005 soon resulted in the announcement by the prime minister that the UK referendum, scheduled for 2006, would not now be held. The demand for a referendum has, however, resurfaced, following Brown's acceptance of the new constitutional treaty in Lisbon earlier this year. The treaty is the old rejected constitution in all but name. Polls have consistently shown that the UK public would reject the treaty by a margin of two to one, confirming that the UK as a whole is strongly euro-sceptical and suggesting that it represents a plausible example of conservative nationalism.

More recently, Islamic fundamentalism has become the most conspicuous example of Anti-colonial Nationalism, with its attack on Western capitalist values and the social permissiveness and moral bankruptcy that is said to result from them.

Hence, nationalism in the UK is a mixed bag - both in political and in cultural terms. For the most part it can be seen as reactionary, but as shown above there are exceptions.

I hope this is helpful.

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