Nationalism and universalism

November 13, 2012 5:18 pm

Ed Miliband has gone where generations of the left have feared to tread. His audacious raid  on the so-called ‘one nation politics’ associated with Disraeli’s Conservative Party, opens the door for Labour to relate its vision and policies to a national story. As well as signalling a pathway towards a less divided and unequal country, Miliband’s reframing of ‘one nation’ suggests that Labour’s future programme will be judged by its capacity to foster a sense of belonging and mutuality.

In the main, social democrats and Socialists have tended to prefer the terms ‘society’ to ‘nation,’ as a more neutral way of signalling their collectivist aspirations. Internationalism rather than nationalism has been the trend. In using the ‘N’ word the Labour leader has entered territory that can be uncomfortable for the left, and for good reason.  The term ‘national’ has been appropriated by virtually every ultra-right party from National Socialists, to the National Front to the British National Party. Nationalism as an emotional and political reflex to economic recession has been associated with some of the worst excesses in history.

Miliband, the son of Jewish refugees from Nazism, is unsurprisingly at pains to distinguish his championing of ‘one nation’ from that aroused by xenophobes or Europhobes. He talks of “patriotism and loyalty” to an “outward looking country” which “engages with Europe and the rest of the world”. But there can be a fine line between his ‘One Nation’ and the invoking of an essential quality of ‘Britishness’ which will be lost if ‘diluted’ by other cultural norms. It is barely 10 years since the then Tory leader conjured up Britain as “a foreign land” .

Miliband’s version of ‘one nation’ not only rebukes the divisive policies and texture of the current government but could turn the page on New Labour. It reminds us that Labour’s heritage is not one of competing individuals who, like Humpty Dumpty, have to be glued back together again through some state-determined ideology called ‘British values.’ Instead, Danny Boyle-style, Miliband’s vision suggests that we can all  contribute to, and see ourselves reflected in, a rich, diverse and changing national story, which involves all the ‘nations’ of the UK.

Yet if it becomes a mantra, rather than a pathway, ‘one nation politics’ could obscure the obvious ways in which the world has been transformed since Disraeli’s day. There are, self-evidently, pivotal issues that cannot be addressed by any one nation; climate change being an obvious candidate. As fundamentally, the failure of nations and their states to protect their own citizens or residents when defined as ‘outsiders’, ‘troublemakers’  or ‘aliens’ remains the driving force behind  the quest for universal human rights protection.

Men and women from progressive political movements around the world have played a pivotal role in this development since the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Every related advancement within the UK has been Labour-led. It was Atlee’s government which (albeit with reservations) ratified the Churchill-inspired European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1951, Wilson’s that granted individuals the right to petition the European Court of Human Rights in 1966 and Blair’s which passed the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA). For all the criticisms, the bottom line is that the HRA works like any bills of rights. It employs the rights in the ECHR to provide a fall back for anyone in the UK who has no other means of protection – from asylum seekers to the elderly or learning disabled – with explicit limitations on individual freedoms to protect ‘the common good.’

David Cameron is committed to replacing the HRA with a so-called British bill of rights and the Tory right is pushing for withdrawal from the ECHR altogether. The ethical, if not legal, implications are clear. The proposal is not to supplement the ECHR with an additional bill of rights but to distance ourselves from it as an ‘alien imposition’. If the UK will not be judged by universal human rights norms, we can hardly preach that other nations should be. Our baseline about what a ‘good society’ might be risks being at odds with the tide of history.

This stand-off could be an acid test for ‘one nation Labour.’ Tactical considerations might suggest a ‘British bill of rights’ not drawn so closely from international standards and which excludes some ’outsiders’ chimes with ‘one nation’ politics. But this provides an opportunity for Ed Miliband to distinguish his quest to tell a ‘national story’ from insular nationalism. The people who struggled for rights and freedoms down the generations understood this distinction. National heroes of the Labour movement, like ‘Rights of Man’ author Tom Paine, recognised 200 years ago that “Many circumstances … will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected.”

This is part of our nation’s story.

Francesca Klug is Director of the Human Rights Future Project at the LSE. She is writing in a personal capacity.

  • brianbarder

    As I see it, there are two problems about this attractively presented association between One Nation Labour and Labour’s proud history as the champion of human rights and civil liberties. The first and gravest problem is that (especially in its declining years) Tony Blair’s New Labour established a deplorable record of illiberal, authoritarian and unprincipled legislation and attitudes, under cover of the “war on terror” but extending far beyond the detection and prevention of terrorism; and despite the promise made by Ed Miliband in his Conference speech immediately after being elected leader, Labour under his leadership has so far shown no sign at all of returning to its former allegiances and principles in regard to human rights — indeed, rather the reverse (see for example http://bit.ly/STYHNH).

    The second problem, I suggest, is that the ‘One Nation’ concept risks reinforcing the worst aspect of UK governance over the centuries, namely gross over-centralism. Successive governments at Westminster have seen fit to regulate every trivial aspect of life in every corner of the UK, from smoking in private clubs to the far from trivial circumstances in which a woman may have an abortion. The fact is that the UK is not One Nation, but four nations, and devolution, although arrested in mid-stream and consequently beset by anomalies and injustice, has made everyone except the English acutely aware of the fact. It’s time, surely, for Labour to champion the completion of the devolution project, offering full internal self-government to Scotland and eventually also to the other three nations — yes, including England. This would be an essential element in the return to a principled commitment to individual and national liberties by rigorous decentralisation. Labour needs to avoid at all costs appearing, by the adoption of the One Nation mantra, to be the party of centralism and imposed uniformity, the practice of which has driven the Scots to the brink of secession and the disintegration of the United Kingdom. The motto, like that of the Americans (who learn about states’ rights with their mothers’ milk), should be E Pluribus Unum — but with the emphasis on the Pluribus!

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    I definitely don’t think One Nation patriotism and internationalism are mutually exclusive in this world – if anything they are complementary in the diverse and changing society we live in now, as long as they are buttressed in a sense of place and belonging.

    On One Nation and the Olympics and Danny Boyle, I wrote this article which might be of interest http://shiftinggrounds.org/2012/10/one-nation-olympics-opening-ceremony-revisited/

  • http://www.englishstandard.org/ Wyrdtimes

    When it comes to health, education, transport, law and order, the environment and all other devolved areas of legislation; the one and only nation UK MPs can vote on is England.

    Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs ironically have more say on England than they do on their own countries.

    ‘One nation’ is Labour doublespeak because the absolute opposite is true. The UK is not one nation, the UK is Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the undemocratic English regions.

  • Pingback: One Hundred and Ten One Nation propositions | Hopi Sen

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