18 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 9


British nationalism and a hatred of all things foreign

seem to be on the upsurge. Ferdinand Mount

asks if this makes sense, in art or politics

ARE we seeing a serious revival of British nationalism? In right-wing circles, the quickening interest in the question of nationhood is undeniable. If you cast a glance at any of the mushrooming orga- nisations in that region — the Salisbury Group, the Conservative Philosophy Group, the Claridge Press, the Committee for a Free Britain, the Freedom Associa- tion — the chances are not only that you will see Professor Roger Scruton's cheerful carroty mane in the thick of things but also that the Nation in one form or another will be under discussion. Twenty years ago, few People would have thought of founding or Joining such organisations, certainly not in order to argue about Nationhood — then generally regarded as the most boring, taken-for-granted topic imaginable. This may not be the first time we have come across the argument recently put by Professor E. J. Mishan in the Salisbury Review that the White Briton's 'sense of national wholeness' has been weakened by the omnipresence in his native land of peoples of Afro-Asian origin'. But it has not often been put so uncompromisingly by an academic. Nor have we often seen in British art magazines since the war a manifesto like Peter Fuller's declaration, in his effervescent new periodical Modern Painters, that the British art world ought to stick up for British artists and has dismally failed to identify itself with 'a common national culture'.

Professor Scruton, the indefatigable edi- tor of the Salisbury Review, is an ally of Mr Fuller's on the aesthetic if not the political front and a frequent contributor to Modern fainters. And he lumps together 'race', nationhood' and 'culture' as 'pre-political forms of unity', which, he says, cannot be detached from political order and political stability. All this, we are given to under- stand, is the red meat which the wimps who cook up the menu of conventional politics leave out. The comfortable 'cosmopoli- tans' — a word now frequently used as a term of contempt — operate a conspiracy of silence which only a select few have the moral courage and the intellectual equip- ment to breach. To the outsider, these discussions of Nationhood tend to be rather puzzling, unsatisfying affairs. The red meat is para- ded before us, the maitre d' sharpens his implements, the sauce is bubbling, but somehow we never get to taste the dish. The trouble is, I think, that it is so difficult to envisage any practical measures which would achieve the apparently desired re- sults of racial or cultural homogeneity — or none which can be mentioned in the polite society we wish to keep one foot in.

We run into trouble as soon as we start talking about 'Britishness', for we know we really want to say 'Englishness', but know we must not, because of the Scots, and the Welsh and some of the Irish; as for `Britons' and 'Britishers', the heart sinks at the first mention of such shatteringly bogus terms. To carry any kind of conviction, talk about nationhood must necessarily be vague, brooding, adumbrating; provoca- tive thoughts can be dangled in front of the audience but not for long enough to be stripped down and examined. Spades may indeed be called spades — that is part of the thrill — but what precisely is to be done with them cannot be spelled out.

So we cannot really expect any sort of practical agenda from those whom I shall call the 'hypernationalists', meaning those who believe that 'the Nation' — sometimes they mean the Race or Tribe, sometimes the Nation-state, sometimes both — is the only political entity that matters and the only legitimate focus of loyalty. As an ideology, hypernationalism is opposed, often fiercely (it does most things fiercely), to other doctrines, such as liberalism or internationalism, but not necessarily to the hypernationalisms of other nations. The French may in fact be admired for being so cussedly French, the Russians for being so redbloodedly Russian. The gentler sort of affection for one's native landscape, pro- vince or nation I shall call 'country-love', in order to steer clear of 'nationalism' and `patriotism' with their confusing, overlap- ping nuances. But if the hypernats have no specific agenda to propose, why have they leapt into prominence at this particular mo- ment? The reflex answer is usually that they are all 'Thatcher's children'. Yet many of these groups and magazines com- fortably predate Mrs Thatcher's full-blown ascendancy. Clearly some of her triumphs — most notably the Falklands — have imbued her more hypernat supporters with fresh enthusiasm. With her at the helm, they feel a following wind at their back. The black-and-white way she likes to de- fine and defend the national interest appeals to them. Yet in some crucial ways, she does not quite seem to share their view of the world: she is keenly pro-American, they are often resentful of American influence; they are obsessed by the politics of race, she is not; she is much concerned with the rule of law, including international law — a subject treated with scorn and derision by the hypernat. A true hypernat would not write such gushing fan letters to President Reagan or welcome Nissan and Toyota to Britain so unreservedly or be happy to see British firms pass into foreign ownership.

What about Europe then? Is not Mrs Thatcher's Bruges speech the most re- sonant clarion call yet to hypernats? Does it not presage a great confrontation with the members of the Community?

Now it is true that the speech evoked considerable enthusiasm, mostly from those who had always been opposed to British membership of the Community. Many of them had, I think, more or less given up the cause as lost and were delighted, and not a little surprised, to receive what looked like a second chance — much as Gavrilo Princip and his fellow assassins were delighted to find the Archduke Franz Ferdinand coming round for the second time.

The Bruges Group, a newly formed collection of distinguished academics and journalists — Ralph Harris, Norman Stone, Patrick Minford et al — struggle manfully against the charge that they are `anti-European' and protest that they are primarily interested in seeing that the causes of free enterprise and free trade dominate the new Europe. All the same one or two of them — I hesitate to single out Professor Scruton again — do give the impression that they are suspicious of all such foreign entanglements and are gleefully looking forward to a big bust-up.

By contrast, what the Bruges speech actually says is that 'our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community', and this seems to be the direction in which public opinion, as measured by opinion polls and by random observation, seems to be moving in a sluggish sort of way. Grudging acceptance of membership seems to be shifting towards a more complaisant recognition that the Commun- ity is likely to develop, and so is our role in it, although not into a United States of Europe, or anything much like it, in our lifetime, if ever (although a recent poll showed over two-thirds of the sample as ready to accept a 'USE). The Bruges speech was, I think, counter-productive, not because it annoyed Mr Heath and the federalists, but because its more caustic passages (largely provoked by M. Delors' antics at the TUC a fortnight earlier) encouraged unrealistic expectations among the hypernats, when the reality is that Mrs Thatcher is not about to engineer the break-up of the Community or the with- drawal of Britain from it.

Does the future of race relations offer any more encouragement to the hypernat? My impression is rather that the subject is noticeably less contentious than it was a decade ago, especially relations between the whites and the West Indians. I do not mean that relations are idyllic or that a riot will not break out tomorrow, but some of the edge has gone out of the topic. On the football terraces of North London, anti- black chants are less often heard these days, being sometimes replaced by anti- Semitic chants — no less repulsive but not what hypernationalists claim to be the problem of our times. Serious practical argument about repatriation schemes — whether voluntary or compulsory — seems to have dwindled to a trickle.

This does seem to be an odd moment for hypernationalism to be bubbling up among the intellectuals. Mr Enoch Powell's ex- planation remains unwavering: the coming confrontation with the Continental mem- bers of the Community — and with the non-white population of our cities — will be violent and painful, but confrontation is indispensable if we are to complete the business, so gloriously begun in the Falk- lands, of turning ourselves back into a nation.

To Mr Powell, being a nation is not simply an inert state, inherent in any collection of human beings. It is an achievement, something hard-earned, usually if not invariably purchased by copious donations of blood. Slothful, heed- less peoples can mislay their nationhood by signing away their independence, by careless immigration policies — but it is a recoverable treasure.

Yet are there any serious signs that we are about to recover it? Not merely is there little prospect of the black or brown seven per cent of the population diminishing. There seems every prospect of an ever- increasing proportion of them anglicising in accent, dress, attitudes and birth-rate. What happens if there develops an 'Anglo wedge' within the 'alien wedge'? Would this diminish what Mr Powell calls 'the dignity and significance of tragedy' which resulted from the failure in the 1950s to define British citizenship? Would hyper- nats then affably admit: 'OK, so we got it wrong; it was a question of numbers, just as we said, but it turned out we could assimilate more blacks than we thought'? Certainly not. Such relaxed and informal manners would be foreign to their style, which is normally what Mr Alan Watkins has dubbed Peterhouse Elevated. Hyper- nationalism has to be solemn, minatory, paranoiac. Fear is the spur.

The puzzle remains. Hypernats seem to have so few grounds for encouragement, in politics at least. Indeed, the fascination of so many mainland hypernats with North- ern Ireland looks like a kind of retreat. How relieved they sound to have found the one last crag where the question of being British is being treated with proper serious- ness. They seem unaware of the difficulty which still troubles many of the mainland British, namely, that the Unionists appear so irremediably foreign, far more alien, say, than Mr Lenny Henry or Mr Clive Lloyd. In championing the Unionist cause, the hypernats felt they were at last among people who had a passionately awakened understanding of the centrality of nation- hood, unlike their sleepy English compat- riots.

If politics seem rather unpromising ter- rain for the hypernat, perhaps we ought to look elsewhere and search some other recess of the British psyche. Are there deeper cultural forces which presage some glorious welling up of Britishness?

Peter Fuller, now in his early 40s, is a spirited polemicist and promoter of pole- mics against fashionable art rubbish and the ninnies who push it and profit by it. He is a champion of works by British artists; he was much taken, as I was, by the 1987 Barbican exhibition of English neo- Romantics — 'A Paradise Lost'; he is anxious to defend the traditional values and techniques of painting and sculpture against commercialism, advertising and mass production. As a young man, he was a Marxist and a disciple of the trendy Marxist critic, John Berger. He has seen through all that. So far, so good. Alas, some of the fierce denunciatory sheep-and-goats habits of his youth have stuck to him. The country-lover comes to look alarmingly like a hypernat. Mr Fuller tells us to sweep away all foreign rubbish and worship instead 'a uniquely British tradition, which has always in- volved resistance to modernity'. Ourselves alone, in fact, or, as the Irish has it, Sinn Fein.

Now there are obvious oddities about this line of argument. Would one want to say that, for example, Turner, Ben Nichol- son and Henry Moore were anti-modern exactly? Would one want to say that Epstein, Auerbach, Freild, Kitaj, Boni- berg and Bacon were uniquely British? I don't just mean because they happen to have been born all over the place (do you know the Worcestershire Gaudier- Brzeskas?) but because as artists they are simply too diverse to be bundled together into a line of direct descent from Constable and Samuel Palmer; shared interests in the natural world and the human figure, which are sometimes advanced as the common denominators of their Englishness/ Britishness, are really too large and loose to count. And what is to be done, say, with the \Scottish colourists — Peploe, Cadell, and Fergusson? Are they to count as British because they painted flowers and Hebridean islands, or to be discounted as traitors because they were so heavily influ- enced by nasty foreign post-impressionist aesthetics?

Ever since the Middle Ages — in fact, especially in the Middle Ages — art has been soaking through and leaping over national boundaries. To embark at the end of the 20th century on the, project of a nation-centred if not nation-bounded art seems not only barmy but morally dubious. It would fly in the face of what has always been regarded as the universality of artistic communication, and do so without ack- nowledging or justifying such a defection.

Mr Fuller has switched his allegiance from Berger to Ruskin — which is certainly a great improvement — and he likes to quote Ruskin's pronouncement that 'all great art, in the great times of art, is provincial'. Just so, let us repeat the underlining: provincial — or local, if you Prefer — not national; that is, rooted to a tune, a place, a group of artists, not to a continuous political entity like a nation- state. The Shoreham visions of Samuel Palmer and their fainter modern simulacra in the Barbican are provincial in just that way; they can, if you like, be said to represent a tradition, but it is a tradition which is far too broken, elusive, anarchic and variable in quality to be dragged up to London and made to stand to attention for the National Anthem.

Mr Fuller does say we must be careful not to be xenophobic. But the trouble with cultural nationalism, as with any other kind, is that it cannot help defining itself in terms of the hated Other. When Herder told his fellow Germans to 'spew out the ugly slime of the Seine', he thought he was only strengthening good German culture, just as Mr Fuller thinks he is only purifying the Scene when he tells us to reject New York bullshit. But the xenophobia de- grades .standards of artistic achievement as fast as it corrupts standards of moral behaviour. Art in this country is already provincial enough in the worst sense with- out being deluded by hypernat flattery. Most of the artists mentioned by Mr Puller; in a recent Sunday Telegraph article on the painters who are patronised by Prince Charles, would be lucky to be described as second-rate.

Nobody is happier with the revaluations of, say, Lutyens, William Burges; Edward Lear, A. E. Housman and all the !slashes than the present writer. But we must be exact in estimating them. One of the great virtues of John Betjeman was that he knew his place — which is what sent him several Places higher. Adding on marks for being quintessentially English (or any other nationality) is both a symptom and a cause of decline.

But the worst intellectual dishonesty of hypernationalists is the way they claim, With an air of injured innocence, that they are merely giving expression to human instincts which are enduring and ineradic- able — and therefore natural and healthy. They often show a certain inconsistency in being strongly moralistic about most things — sexual conduct and obeying the law, for example — while being indulgently amoral towards manifestations of hypernational- ism, however repugnant to any sense of decency or kindness. National feeling just is, we are told, and-there is nothing much we can or should. do to moderate it.

Only an idiot would deny that national feeling, when frustrated or forcibly sup- pressed, may unleash the most ferocious consequences. But it is also obvious that it is within the power of cultural forces law, religion, tradition, education, art either to moderate or to inflame the ferocity. When a politician invokes 'nation- al identity', he is not referring to something fixed and 'pre-political': on the contrary, he is helping to make something, often by manipulation of the evidence of history or geography, and what he makes may have a momentous impact on events, for good or ill. There are moral responsibilities here which cannot be wished away. Would the Irish Troubles either of the 1916 or the 1969 vintage, have been so savage and prolonged if Irish writers had not romanti- cised blood-sacrifice and if the churches had not damned one another's flocks? Yeats, in youth a hypernat as silly as any poet ever was, knew enough by the end of his life to ask himself:

Did that play of mine send out Certain men the English shot?

The claim that nationalism is an un- quenchable natural force sits oddly with the Powellite lament that the British sense of nationhood has gone to sleep. And it squares even less well with the arguments so tellingly put forward by a line of observers, stretching from Burke through Acton, Mill and Tocqueville to Kedourie and Minogue, that nationalism, of the hyped-up, obsessive kind which is all too familiar to us, is a modern phenomenon. Far from being a visceral, almost biological imperative, it is a deliberately fanned inflammation of those affections and loyal- ties that do come naturally to us. That is why, as some of these observers have noted, the wars of peoples are far more terrible than the wars of princes.

To see nationhood as an eternal, un- altering value is especially difficult for us in this country. We first have to ask ourselves which nationhood, we mean — English, British, UK? And precisely- where do we freeze the frame — at the defeat of Owen Glendower, or the Act of Union, or the Easter Rising? At what point was our nationhood achieved? And if we are to speak honestly of Englishness, does not that much abused concept include notions of tolerance and cultural restraint which look suspiciously like the abhorred liberal- ism? Is there not, in short, something frightfully unEnglish about Mr Enoch Powell and his dichotomous rigour?

Moreover, this rigour is not always as rigorous as it pretends. Sometimes, it seems that 'belonging' is merely a matter of legal classification, sometimes it appears to depend on cultural identity, sometimes on the colour of one's skin. What are minor- ities who do not fit the criteria to do — sit quietly indoors until the parade has gone past? Or can they hold their own parades? Does the good citizen merely have to obey the law, or must he pledge his soul to his country? Are half-castes and dual- passport-holders only half-people? The hypernat seems reluctant to answer such questions, since they would expose too rawly the terrible difficulties of trying to `Watch your step when Lucretia comes round with the cheeseboard.' fuse civil obedience and cultural identity. Even Mr Powell's ultimate criterion of belonging — the willingness to die for one's country — has its difficulties. Even if we condemn pacifists to outer darkness, what are we to do about mercenaries?

The traditional alternative model of country-love does not face such difficulties since it is not concerned with excluding non-belongers. It may be called the Serial or Little-Platoon model, from Burke's formula: 'To be attached to the subdivi- sion, to love the little platoon we belong to in society ... is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.' For Coleridge, cosmopolitanism — to him, a good thing sprang out of and blossomed upon 'the deep rooted stem of nationality'; Balfour thought that 'some combination of diffe- rent patriotisms is almost universal among thinking persons', and that the patriotisms ought to reinforce each other. Since con- servatism teaches that human society de- mands structure and hierarchy, any creed which either concentrates all human ener- gies and loyalties upon one institution or stops at national boundaries and scrawls over the rest of the world 'Here Be Tygers' cannot be conservative in the full Burkean sense.

The idea of any inherent incompatibility between patriotism and enthusiasm for membership of the European Community (or any other international institution) would have seemed peculiar to many great Conservative heroes of the past, despite the fact that they had little or no experi- ence of membership of international bodies (there might, of course, be practical objections to membership, for example, a free trader's belief that the EEC was bound to remain protectionist). Why should this exclusive, sovereignty-hogging hypernationalism have sprung up at a time when we are so accustomed to every kind of sub-national and supra-national institu- tion?

Perhaps a kind of answer may be found in Kenneth Minogue's little classic, Nationalism (1967): The formula that I find most convincing is to say that nationalism provides an escape from triviality. Implicitly or explicitly, men suffer- ing a social upheaval put to themselves the question: what is happening to us? The nationalist answer is clear: our nation is struggling to be born, it is fighting for independence against its enemies. This answer is never the whole truth, and some- times it has absolutely nothing to do with the truth at all. But that does not matter.

Minogue is talking here primarily of pre-industrial societies which are under- going the bewildering shocks of modernisa- tion and the breakdown of peasant life and traditional customs. Nationalism may help such societies to weather these shocks in all sorts of ways. In Thought and Change, Ernest Gellner points out that nationalism may be not an irrational, primitive force but rather a practical and relevant enter- prise, aimed at securing jobs and political and social position for a tribal or linguistic group, and for its intelligentsia in particu- lar; it may be not a sentimental but a defensive campaign. On the other hand, nationalism can also provide a substitute or a prop for a fading faith, a way of re-infusing the world with a sense of meaning and purpose — although few are as candid as Michelet was: 'It is from you that I shall ask for help, my noble country: you must take the place of the God who is escaping from us, so that you may fill within us the immeasurable abyss which the extinction of Christianity has left.'

Nation-worship is not a religion in the true sense of the word. But it is especially attractive to those who are or once were religiously inclined — just as it is attractive to Marxists and ex-Marxists — because it offers the same disciplines: a jealous deity, monopOlistic claims, the simplification of reality. It also offers the same benefits: a shapely picture of the world, a purpose in life, a set of guiding principles, feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence in dealing with strangers.

Looked at in this light, the British experience becomes a little less puzzling. If this country became industrial, urban and secular earlier than others, it did not thereby lurch into purposelessness as many others did. The Imperial mission, by a mixture of luck and design, offered the British a satisfying justification for what was happening to them. Factories were turning out goods, public schools were turning out engineers, clergymen and civil servants, parents were turning out children for the Empire. No doubt the Empire was mostly a matter of indifference to most of the population; but it was there, vast and shimmering, to console anyone afflicted by a sense of futility. It is, I think, no accident that the only organisation of my youth to be seriously concerned with nationhood was the League of Empire Loyalists.

Now all that has gone. Harold Macmil- lan's clumsy efforts to describe our entry into 'Europe' as a comparable mission did not wash for a minute. Clearly joining the EEC was the very opposite of a mission. It was the resumption of the Little-Platoon tradition, the abandonment of nationalism as a supreme value and its installation (or re-installation) as only one link, even if a dominant one, in Burke's chain of 'public affections', stretching from the family to the human race.

British hypernationalism may thus be a response to much the same stimuli as can be observed in Third-World countries to-. day, or in First-World countries the day before yesterday. Although it may be fortified by recent events such as the Falklands victory and economic revival, its driving force seems to be the desire to construct, in the guise of re-constructing, a safe redoubt from which the world-as-it-is can be confronted with confidence.

Hypernationalism here as elsewhere in Western Europe seems to offer a beautiful single answer to all the multi-racial and multi-national perplexities and complex- ities of modern life.

But here I think we begin to catch a strong whiff of humbug. For the conduct of our leading hypernats shows quite clearly that the Nation is not their only god. Free speech, for example, is also in their bones; their journals and debates are conducted on impeccably liberal lines. They would, I am sure, deplore the burning of books, even Salman Rushdie's. And if put to it, they would also deplore racial harassment, even where the law had not been infringed. If challenged to produce a programme for the Nation's youth, it would probably go little further than the average Tory's desire to see that British history is taught properly and that half-baked multi-cultural educa- tion is abandoned, not least because it han- dicaps immigrant children.

In short, when these great brooding clouds break over our society, they are to produce no more than a pleasant April shower. Our eyes were, it seemed, de- ceived by a playful mimicry of continental hypernationalism, designed to appal or thrill us, according to taste. That black, menacing shadow which bore such an unnerving resemblance to Fichte or de Maistre turns out to be jolly old Roger Scruton, after all. The more he goes on, the more we cannot help suspecting he only does it because he knows it teases.