“The search for identity, and the valuing of identity against the demands of global commerce, is likely to become the critical factor in national elections.”
Roger Scruton, Where We Are, p. 177
In May we saw something rather wonderful in Britain: the coming together of the nation around an ancient institution, seemingly made young and fresh by its most recent addition. No, not Love Island on ITV2, but the wedding of Prince Harry and the American divorcee Megan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex.
I mention this because it is interesting to note that whilst democratic politics have been extraordinarily divisive these last couple of years, a Royal event has brought a degree of, if not harmony, then at least accord.
Even those joyless naysayers who repeatedly profess not to take an interest, do so with a resigned smile saying that, as it is just a prince some steps down the pecking order of heir to the throne, the event wasn’t all that important, showing that they have, after all, been paying attention in class (albeit from the back and chewing gum).
Keep that in mind along with an article in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Heil Hipsters’, where Andrew Gillingham wrote about the new phenomenon of mainly young people uniting under the banner of ‘Generation Identity’ (GI). A Guardian article took umbrage at the article not presenting the group in a way the Guardian writer agreed with, pulling out the usual left-wing incantations of denouncement: “racist” and “fascist”, comparing the GI-ers to ISIS, without actually criticising any specific standpoint the group purports to favour, and fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of ISIS: a “nation” built on religious creed, not blood relations.
I think calling the Identitarian movement ‘fascist’ is slightly off the mark, and risk making the same mistake as it is calling everyone ‘racist’ who wants a sensible immigration policy. Whether we like it or not, we must, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, engage with the ideas we don’t like, and argue in favour of something else. Those calling for a sensible immigration policy do of course have the advantage that they may be right, but the GI-ers most definitely do not. What the Identitarians have done, is embrace a collectivist narrative. On their website they talk of the rights of “peoples” (not individual people but groups of people) and the right to maintain “group identity”. Well, well, well, where have they learned to think like that, I wonder? Perhaps by reading the Guardian?
Group identity – and indeed identity politics – has been a growing phenomenon in our neck of the woods (the Western word, US and UK in particular) for the past few decades. It reached fever pitch with the two phenomena that superficially seem to have so much in common that they are nearly always mentioned in one breath: TrumpAndBrexit.
In Britain, much has been made of David Goodhart’s claim that those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union were the Somewheres, pitted in existential battle against the Anywheres, who voted to stay within the multi-national organisation. In his latest book, Where We Are, the English philosopher Roger Scruton points to polling that, in contrast to this narrative, shows that “[…]both sides of the Brexit debate – the leavers and the remainers – identify what matters most to them as job, family and place, in other words, as the three normal ways of being rooted.” (P. 88).
It is far less about Brexit vs. Remain than Young vs. Old. Younger people tend to be less tied to place than the older generations, and more geographically mobile, connected through networks and virtual communication on social media, rather than physical proximity.
This lack of belonging could be a democratic problem. Scruton, a mainly Conservative philosopher, highlights a point that is very similar to the socialist Yanis Varoufakis, that for genuine democracy to be possible, there must first be a “demos”. As Scruton puts it “[…] we are in need of an inclusive first-person plural, one that unites both the mobile elite and the settled people.” (P. 54).
For Varoufakis this idea leads him down the dangerously Utopian idea that it is possible to develop a Europe-wide sense of “we”, a European demos that can lend democratic legitimacy to the patently Napoleonic institutions of the current EU set-up. Scruton takes in my view a more realistic line, building on the history of nationhood, as developed since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and claims that in order to move forward after the Brexit vote, it is crucial that we now succeed in building a new common understanding.
Now, recall the points mentioned initially: a royal wedding that brought us together, a new youth-led movement that talks of the need for nations to maintain its nature (its identity) as a network of families, actually related by blood. I used to be a republican (i.e. against Monarchy) but I have been cured of this particular malady. The Monarchy is a super-political (in the original meaning of “super”, meaning “over” or “above”) institution through which a family generally, and the Monarch specifically, represents the nation. But a nation isn’t literally a family. It is a set of unifying institutions, values and traditions, which gives us a sense of belonging to the degree with which we subscribe to them. Of course, being born in a nation gives you belonging, but as the many cases of young Muslims who choose to turn their back on belonging to Britain (or other nation states in which they were born) show, it is possible to lose your sense of belonging, by turning your back on the unifying institutions, values and traditions of that nation. Scruton writes: “The first-person plural of nationhood, unlike those of tribe or religion, in intrinsically tolerant of difference.” (p. 69).
Which is true, but at this point I would have liked to see Scruton discuss the Cambridge spies, some of whom turned their backs on their country in favour of internationalist Communism in part due to a feeling that as homosexuals their country had turned its back on them. Not to mention how the actual disenfranchisement of Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries led to several terrorist attacks perpetrated by English Catholics, most famously the plot to blow up Parliament during session in November 1605 – still commemorated to this day on the 5th November with Bonfire Night and the recitation of the famous children’s verse: Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. The greater inclusivity of Catholics, along with Catholics’ own willingness to moderate their religious allegiance (putting King before Pope in matters temporal) is, I think, a relevant historical parallel to the present day problem with radical Islam. The acceptance of homosexuality is also important, as it shows how, once people feel accepted, they also embrace the establishment back. Gay activists like Peter Tatchell used their activism for equal rights as a spearhead in a broader neo-Marxist fight against the family as a bourgeois, patriarchal institution, and many of the early activist didn’t want gay marriage at all. But for most ordinary gay people, all they wanted was to take part in normal, civil society like anybody else. So Scruton is right that the nation-state has the potential for an inclusive first person plural, but it is one that must be worked on, and the accommodation must go both ways: today, as society strives to be inclusive towards Muslims, they must in turn embrace British values and, like Catholics of old, pledge true allegiance to the Monarch and the institutions she represents, in all things temporal. (Whether this is possible for a religion that it is claimed has no distinction between things temporal and spiritual is of course another matter, and something Muslims, across the different schools of Islam, must work out).
But it is not only religion, or a religious identity defining itself in opposition to a secular state and society, that is problematically exclusive according to Scruton. Exaggerated family loyalties can displace the culture of trusting the stranger, so crucial in building a sense of national togetherness, and the mass immigration of communities that depend on such loyalties, can therefore be problematic (p. 131).
At best, a family thrives when it is open to new members, as the Royal Family itself has shown itself eminently to be. At worse, family loyalties can descend into tribalism. The views put forward by the Identitarians are pure tribalism – locking out from membership anyone who does not have a blood connection to the land. As Scruton points out:
“It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood.” (P. 61).
He goes on to say: “Members of tribes see each other as a family; members of creed communities see each other as the faithful; members of nations see each other as neighbours.” (P. 62).
The fanatical anti-nation attitudes, peddled for decades by Neo-Marxist who impertinently has sometimes been called or call themselves “liberals” (they are of course no such thing, read this article by F.A. Hayek to get a proper understanding of what Liberalism really is), an attitude Scruton cleverly calls “oikophobia” (from the Greek words for “home” and “fear”), have undermined the nation-state as the proper entity for identity and political discourse, in favour of the multi- or supranational institutions, of which the EU is the most striking example.
Those who have wanted to protect and restore the centrality of the nation-state have been denounced as “racists”, whilst identity politics – the rights of groups of people rather than the individual – have dominated the discourse. A recent survey by YouGov for the BBC showed that fewer than half of 18-24 year olds felt proud to be English. They have never been allowed to be, and have constantly been fed a narrative of how horrid Britain’s and England’s imperial past is.
These are some of the reasons for the rise of the Generation Identitarians. They have grown up in this way of thinking. They have no memory of the Berlin Wall, no experience of growing up under the shadow of the Cold War with the Communist regime of the Soviet Union as a constant threat not only to liberty, but to life itself.
What they have grown up with is a sense that it is illegitimate to be fond of your country. That it is racist to appreciate the culture of your own people. That internationalism is the only way forward. And that individuals’ rights are trumped by the rights of groups of different identities. But if the research that Scruton refers to is correct, what matters most to all of us are those things that are closest to us: our jobs, families and places. The only way this young, post-Cold War generation knows for asserting this legitimate need for belonging is through group identity, and so they reach for the tribal language of family ties and blood relations.
Although Scruton in this book specifically set out to address the troubling schism between Remainers and Brexiteers, and to point to a way forward together, and did not set out specifically to address the Identitarian movement, I think the issues he discusses do that as well. The Generation Identity has emerged as the bastard child of Identity Politics and Multiculturalist internationalism. Scruton points out “…that a large number of young people voted for Marine LePen in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, on the grounds that she spoke for France against the dilutions of the global market”. (P. 172). Varoufakis warned against the rise of extreme nationalism in Greece and other nations, if the people feel powerless against a supranational cabal making political decisions that the people – and not the rulers – had to pay the high price for. The claim is that the extreme internationalism of the EU – leaving national institutions impotent to deal with the grievances of the people – is directly responsible for a rise in extreme nationalism. But where his solution is an ideologically motivated call for more internationalism, Scruton, I think, has a more level-headed, pragmatic approach.
Where We Are by Roger Scruton explains how we can inoculate against nationalist extremism, by reasserting the proper place of the nation-state, both as a clearly identifiable and non-sectarian entity to unify within, and as a place where decisions can be made close to those affected by them, with transparency and accountability.
The book furthermore provides the arguments to refute – but in a sympathetic and understanding way – the erroneous claims made by extremists on both sides of the argument: the tribalist Identitarians and the anti-national Remainers.
Scruton has, I think, made an extremely important contribution to the debate on the way forward from where we are now.
I bought my copy from my local bookshop, Red Lion Books of Colchester.