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By Philippe Legrain 1 COMMENT

David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine, has just written a pamphlet for Demos where he argues that

“A progressive, civic British nationalism – comfortable with
the country’s multi-racial character and its European commitments – is the best
hope for preserving the collective values embodied in the welfare state and a
thriving public realm. Progressives, especially in England, have
an anachronistic hostility to national feeling. It is no longer about
militarist jingoism, it is the last vehicle for meaningful collectivism.”

I disagree.

It is one thing for someone on the centre-left to recognise reality – that national feelings still matter to most people to some degree – but it is quite another to argue that the government needs actively to rekindle a sense of nationalism, ‘progressive’ or otherwise. Leaving aside whether this is possible, what would be the aim? Goodhart fears that immigration, greater mobility and increased individualism threaten to undermine support for a universal welfare state, which therefore needs to be shored up by fostering a sense of nationalism that strengthens our feelings of solidarity towards our fellow citizens. Underlying his concerns is a belief that community feeling is inexorably weakening. In both respects, I think he is mistaken.

As I argue in my forthcoming book on immigration, the welfare state is not threatened in the way Goodhart thinks it is, nor does continued support for it require, or even necessarily follow from, a strengthening of nationalism. Just look at the generosity of welfare provision in super-diverse Canada or hyper-diverse Toronto – or compare cosmopolitan, social-democratic London with the patriotic Tory shires.

Goodhart is, of course, right that people are often willing to be more generous towards those for whom they feel a sense of solidarity – and that one basis for this might be a common national identity – but the welfare state is based on more than just solidarity, and solidarity can be based on many things other than nationalism. Conversely, nationalistic societies need not be full of brotherly love, while cosmopolitan societies may be more compassionate. One can feel a strong sense of solidarity for people who live in the same place rather than belong to the same nation. No doubt the shared experience of the 7 July bombings and the ongoing common threat of terrorism have increased Londoners’ concern for each other. Political beliefs are important, too: socialists support stronger government action to help others than conservatives do; but, although Americans are generally more patriotic than Britons, this does not translate into support for government welfare programmes.

Moreover, the welfare state need not be based on national citizenship: in the US and Canada it is primarily organised at a state or provincial level, with welfare provision varying widely according to local preferences and with eligibility typically a function of residence or contributions, since state or provincial citizenship does not exist. Thus if the British state were less centralised, one could easily envisage an autonomous London region having a generous welfare state, paid for by those working in London for those living in London and
independent of their national citizenship(s).

In any case, solidarity is by no means the sole basis for social provision. The universal welfare state also provides the rich with security against the poor – and provides everyone with security against unemployment, illness and old age. After all, European welfare states stem not only from socialism and compassion, but also from fear: enlightened elites tried to buy off the masses to stave off revolution. Indeed, you may loathe your jobless neighbour but still be willing to pay for unemployment benefits if you fear that he might otherwise rob you – or that you might one day end up out of work yourself. People support the NHS not just out of concern that all should have access to healthcare, but mainly out of self-interest – because they believe a government-funded healthcare system works out cheaper and better for them than a private insurance system would. A society with less solidarity could still support the NHS.

Underlying Goodhart’s nationalist prospectus is the belief that community feeling is weakening. Yet he appears to have a very narrow vision of society that romanticises a particular type of community: national society and old-fashioned working-class communities. He asserts, for instance, that: ‘It is the core belief of the left, against the individualism of free-market liberals, that there is such a thing as society – but in the modern world that always, everywhere, means a specific national society.’ This is nonsense on stilts. Everyone is torn between the urge to do their own thing and the need to live with others: individual choice therefore exists largely within a framework of the aggregated individual choices made by others – ‘society’. In this context, ‘society’ can mean everything from a family to a group of friends, a workplace, a village, an urban neighbourhood, a national society that sets its own laws, or a global sense of humanity that aspires to common norms such as human rights.

So it is simply not true that: ‘the alternative to a mild, progressive nationalism is not internationalism, which will always be a minority creed, but either chauvinistic nationalism or the absence of any broader solidarities at all.’ Misplaced nostalgia for the erosion of the coerced local communities of old – the flipside of which is liberation from the tyranny of geography, social immobility and the straitjacket of imposed national uniformity – should not blind us to the richness and vibrancy of the new chosen communities, be they groups of friends from different backgrounds, multinational workplaces, environmental campaigns that span the globe, or online networks of people with a common interest. Solidarity is alive and well when British volunteer doctors treat AIDS sufferers in Africa, when friends take over many of the roles that family members once performed (or failed to perform), and when the membership of pressure groups never ceases to rise. We don’t need a new-fangled nationalism for society to thrive.

Posted 25 May 2006 in Blog
  1. Simon says:

    an interesting perspective. Thanks.

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