Nationalism and universalism

13th November, 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.

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