Brexit and the Resurrection of Nationalism

Yesterday marks the end of an era.

In World War II the world came together, but in brutal opposition and violence. Since then, or for the last 70 or so years, we’ve been very deliberately coming together in peace and trade. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and provided a new forum for international relations and potentially the foundation for world government. NATO, while still being a military alliance, has operated (at least ostensibly) on the premise of promoting and safeguarding peace and democracy in the world. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have overseen the globalization of trade, weaving the economic activities of nations around the world together to not only increase prosperity (again, ostensibly for the whole world) but also stability. The European Union marked an even greater integration, effectively dissolving borders between nation states (in most respects) and pooling the political and economic futures of member nations into a single body. For the past 70 years we’ve been on a global path away from nationalistic division and toward a global community.

Until yesterday, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

To be clear, this is not the first sign that the trend toward fewer barriers between nations was coming to an end. It’s just the first big, official step by one of the most powerful nations in the world. and the first time that a privileged/colonizing nation has claimed “independence” from a body of the less powerful. While the world in general, led by powerful nations, has been moving toward more unity, at the exact same time small nations or people groups have been seeking a national identity and international recognition, and I want to draw a sharp distinction between that and what happened yesterday.

The 20th century included the creation of dozens of “new” nations, and several unsuccessful attempts. The new nations arose from Western colonies, largely in Africa, as those people reclaimed and reforged their national identities after being suppressed by typically racist colonial regimes. Even in Western nations, there have been attempts at independence: Ireland won freedom from Britain, but lost Northern Ireland in the process; and Quebec has tried and failed a few times to gain independence from Canada. As recently as 2014, Scotland held a referendum on the question of leaving the United Kingdom, a bid that lost with a vote of just 55% in favour of staying. In all of these situations, oppressed or historically conquered people were seeking to re-establish their identity as a people, distinct from their conquerors and colonizers. That is not what Britain has just done.

Britain has always been the conqueror, the colonizer. They’ve always only had one foot in the EU as it is, wanting to maintain their own currency and border controls, and they command enough international respect and economic and military power that they can decide for themselves just how committed they will be to an international body. Even in the EU they are a privileged nation, somewhat distinct from the rest in ways that many other member nations are not. Their national identity as a people is strong, even globally dominant (behind the US), as more of the world speaks English than any other language.

There are many issues involved in the Brexit, and I don’t want to be reductive, but I do want to draw attention to a pattern or trend that I’ve been seeing over the past few years related to the rise of nationalism: racism and xenophobia.

It’s only been about a week since British MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street as she met with constituents. She was known for her passionate work serving her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, and for her championing of immigrant and refugee rights. The man who killed her, when brought to court, refused to give his real name, saying his name was “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain.” His real name isn’t worth reprinting, in my opinion, and his sentiments echo a shockingly large movement in Europe that see welcoming immigrants as a form of treason. The logic behind this movement is that people believe that immigrants are “taking over” their nation, and fear being pushed out culturally and politically. All of this is patently false, as Doug Saunders makes very clear in his excellent Myth of the Muslim Tide, but it taps into very real fears for uninformed and xenophobic people. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian so-called Christian, killed over 70 people, mostly children at a liberal-political themed summer camp, because he viewed them as the children of traitors (as the liberal government of his country had allowed immigration at levels he believed to be treasonous). If this sounds like the work of a few madmen, consider that one of the biggest political parties in the UK right now is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader spews this kind of xenophobic rhetoric on a regular basis and spearheaded the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum; and the second biggest party in the Netherlands is an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his heavily racist and xenophobic comments, particularly against Muslims. Then also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America is Donald Trump, who is known for his policies of banning all Muslims from entering the US, building a wall to keep Mexican migrants out (whom he characterizes as rapists) and making Mexico pay for it, and accepting the endorsement of the KKK. It seems that the rise in nationalism in western democracies is largely in direct response to the influx of immigrants and refugees from poorer nations with very different (and mostly Muslim) cultures.

I want to make clear that there are very good reasons for a measure of nationalism. Establishing and maintaining a national identity as a people group is important; but most of these nations have been cosmopolitan for so long that any cultural narrative tied to race is either long gone or long since integrated.  (A British woman commented last year (in a sermon in church, no less!) that Britain used to be about fish and chips, and now it’s about curry (like that’s a bad thing!), completely missing the fact that fish and chips was brought to Britain by eastern European immigrants just a hundred years ago while curry as we know it (as a specific dish rather than as a spice more generally) was adopted and adapted by Brits in colonial India.) Economic concerns about the European Union are very logical in a time when Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, but the UK kept its own currency, and has such close trade relations with the EU that it would be affected by a Greek default anyway. Concerns about sovereignty are certainly understandable, but as I said above, Britain is a strong player in the EU and does not bow to anyone. While I am not British, or an expert on European political economy, the reasons for Britain reasserting nationalism in today’s world all seem pretty weak in comparison to the deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept the West as fast as the refugees have marched across Europe. I sincerely hope that I’m just missing some reasons for nationalist sentiments, or that there are better arguments that strengthen those other reasons I’ve mentioned.

But we’ll see. The implications of the UK leaving the European Union are enormous: scads of policy will have to be re-written on both sides of this divorce, and with David Cameron stepping down there will also be new leadership. What emerges in the coming year will confirm the real motivation for this renewed nationalist movement. So, UK leadership: impress us. Show the world, with your innovative policies and new take on diplomacy, that this wasn’t about anti-immigrant xenophobia. Set a new standard for engaging with your neighbours in this new world that, with this Brexit, you’ve created – a world where globalization, individualism, and inclusivity as the standards of foreign relations are being replaced with nationalism yet again. Make sure this is a new direction for global relations, because we’ve been down the road of hyper-nationalism before, too many times, and we know that we don’t like where it leads.

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