In the run up to London’s Mayoral election, HOPE Not Hate have published and distributed a free paper to spread their message of anti-racism, specifically in opposition to the British National Party. It is an unconvincing response, however, and is riddled with its own prejudices and rampant nationalism. Moreover, it typifies a number of current responses to fascist racism, which fail to consider the root causes of these problems.
“Vote for OUR Britain Not Theirs”
Rather than seeking to counter the BNP’s nationalism, HOPE Not Hate seek merely to replace it with their own – they find nothing objectionable about the notion of articulating and defending a national identity, they just want it to be done on their terms. HOPE Not Hate are, rather than opponents to the BNP’s nationalism, merely rivals to it. Much of this nationalism currently focuses, perhaps inevitably, on sport (as we have observed before), and the paper is saturated with contrived slogans and cliches of nationalist rhetoric; “We Are All Team GB”, “come together behind the Union Jack”, etc. The emphasis on defending British national identity extends into society though, with the quasi-nostalgic fetishisation of “Great British Street Parties” (an increasingly common expression), and the somewhat unsettling vision that “we believe we can change Britain neighbour by neighbour”. Of course, HOPE Not Hate claim only to oppose racism, but we argue that turning to nationalism is an inherently flawed response. The approach of HOPE Not Hate is encapsulated in the claim that:
“For racists, the Olympics must seem like a nightmare, all those athletes of different ethnic backgrounds united behind our flag. Because it’s not their flag – it’s ours.”
In this approach, racial diversity is instrumentalised as a sign of the superiority of one nationalist agenda over the other: the increasingly hostile claims to ownership of the flag betray the same attitudes of division and ‘in groups’ & ‘out groups’ which are inherent in racist, nationalist and fascist thought. The ideological opposition to an external ‘Other’ (ethnic, religious, etc) that forms a linchpin of fascist thinking is reproduced here in national terms.
Focusing on the BNP
One article opens with:
“IMAGINE A BRITAIN run by the British National Party (BNP). It’s hard and it’s frightening and it’s probably unlikely.”
Here is, perhaps, one of the most important issues with current centre left responses to fascism. The BNP are not going to win this London Mayoral election, and are not about to start running the country. This paper, and HOPE Not Hate as a group, are (because of being almost entirely focused on the BNP) not addressing urgent concerns. Fascism, nationalism and racism are not phenomena which exist among small sections of society who helpfully identify themselves by joining certain groups. Rather, they are political forces whose influences can be detected in every official and unofficial political channel and power structure. This is one of the impulses behind our own project; to recognise that to be anti-fascist is not simply to counter the BNP (or similar groups) but rather to critically consider and repudiate fascism as an ideology, no matter who espouses it. HOPE Not Hate wishes to oppose racism and violence at the Mayoral elections and beyond, and yet fails to address the inherent racisms and violences of our current political processes. In responding to the BNP’s divisive politics it presents an impression of unity which is otherwise starkly non-partisan. Perhaps a more useful document, for those who believe that racism can be combated at the ballot box, would have addressed the racial politics of the candidates who actually stand a chance of winning, and accepted that rather than being the unacceptable ideology of an unpopular fringe party, racism is the endemic condition of our society, and must be tackled as such. A country run by the BNP is frightening and probably unlikely; a country which is still firmly in the grip of white hegemony is a frightening reality, and while local electoral politics are not going to change that, it would be appropriate to address the issue.
“HOPE NOT HATE speaks out against all extremism.”
HOPE Not Hate dogmatically occupies the centre ground (and, perhaps, seeks to attract a more conservative audience) with frequent declarations that all forms of extremism are wrong, seeking to counterpose ‘far-right extremists’ and ‘Islamist extremists’ as though there exists an equivalence between the two. This is, obviously, a view which allows for no nuance, no understanding of the nature of violence and bears no relevance to racial antagonisms as they are experienced in people’s daily lives, as it continues to relegate the causes for concern to the peripheries, rather than the core, of our social existence.
HOPE Not Hate assures us that “We will campaign against all extremism and we believe in this we are in tune with the vast majority of society”. Claims to represent the will of the majority in objecting to minority political opinion do not have a particularly noble history, and while we want to avoid any glib comparisons, the overlap between this rhetoric and notions of the ‘silent majority’ and the language of the BNP itself is unavoidable.
It is worth considering the word ‘extremist’. In a political moment marked by protest and civil unrest, the branding of ‘domestic extremist’ is being applied ever more liberally by the state and the media. By echoing this, and by reinforcing the notion that all ‘extremist’ politics are inherently wrong, and equivalent to the EDL or Islamist terrorists, HOPE Not Hate are allowing the continued dismissal of dissenting voices. This is an inherently conservative document; it instructs us that “you do not fight one form of extremism with another”, but its calls for moderacy can do nothing but preserve the status quo, and while the BNP won’t be elected, we are also under no threat of having our existing power structures challenged. Without wishing to be unfair to HOPE Not Hate, any response to racism which is based on a majority’s superiority to a minority is entirely inappropriate, any response which resorts to competing forms of nationalism is dangerous, and any response which locates racism in the extremes rather than addressing it in our own politics is futile.
We are living in a time of economic crisis. History indicates to us that this experience will prompt a rise in political and social Nationalism, expressed in discourse and aesthetics. Why this should be is debatable, but it seems reasonably clear that these Nationalist responses to crisis can be grouped into two types (which we might crudely regard as hostile and benevolent): attempts to reject an internal and/or external ‘other’ (however such a group may be conceptualised), on whom our problems can be blamed, and attempts to unite the citizens in pursuit of the nation’s interests.
Exacerbating the growth of ‘benevolent’ nationalism in Austerity Britain this year is the coincidence of a series traditionally patriotic events, with the rugby Six Nations, the European Football Championships, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics occurring in quick succession (as well as the first flushes of posturing over the referendum on Scottish independence), preceded of course by last year’s Royal Wedding. Union Flag bunting, figured in both sincere and faux-ironic retro deployments, will continue to appear alongside ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ variants and commemorative memorabilia of royal events with increasing prominence throughout the early Summer, until clashing awkwardly (perhaps antagonistically) with the first anniversary of last year’s riots in August. British flag designs are currently appearing on an innumerable array of products, sometimes with a wartime, ‘finest hour’ chic and sometimes with post-modern subversions, but more often presented entirely sincerely. To take one example almost at random, Montezuma, a chocolate manufacturer which has traditionally marketed itself on its ethical credentials is now producing a ‘Great British Pudding’ range, “in honour and celebration of being British”, with suitably re-designed packaging.
Though presented as a benign, even apolitical icon, national symbols in daily life denote an often complex set of relationships and assumptions. In understanding the social and political function of these generally harmless images, social psychologist Professor Michael Billig’s notion of the ‘waved’ and ‘unwaved’ flag is useful:
“…one can distinguish between the ways in which national flags are treated. Some are consciously waved and saluted symbols, often accompanied by a pageant of outward emotion. Others – probably the most numerous in the contemporary environment – remain unsaluted and unwaved. They are merely there as symbols, whether on a forecourt or flashed on to a television screen; as such they are given hardly a second glance from day to day.”
Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism
To illustrate this distinction in Britain 2012, the flags will be ‘waved’, that is to say they will be consciously deployed as a patriotic or nationalist image explicitly displayed to demonstrate support for the nation, for us to identify with, at times such as Jubilee celebrations, Olympic events and soldiers’ funerals. The flag appears ‘unwaved’, existing as an unremarkable image in the peripheries of every day thought, on chocolate wrappers, bags, clothing, pens and countless other products, adverts, programs etc. Of course, the flag is only one symbol of the nationalist spirit; the essential sentiment appears in many forms, such as this poster from the Chewing Gum Action Group:
At the crux of it, as well as an obvious reference to Olympic athleticism, is the commonly understood idea that everyone belongs to a nation, and that people should go out of their way to contribute to the well being of ‘theirs’. While it is clearly absurd to regard putting chewing gum in the bin as a demonstration of patriotic values, there is a level on which this does make sense to us; we accept the premise of the advert, which suggests that keeping the streets clean will benefit the nation, and what benefits the nation benefits us all, as citizens.
But what purpose do all these little flags and slogans have? One effect is that they create a cumulative sense of national belonging which translates into a vision of ‘patriotic’ responsibilities (beyond such benign instructions as to Keep Britain Tidy’). Consider, to take one of many examples, the response to Len McCluskey’s recent comments about workers disrupting the Olympics with industrial action in protest over their conditions and the wider program of austerity, and the language used by politicians. David Cameron issued a statement, saying:
“‘The Olympics are a great opportunity for this country to show everything that is great about the United Kingdom and advertise ourselves to the world. It is completely unacceptable and unpatriotic what he [McCluskey] is proposing. Most people in this country, including members of that union, think the Olympics is a great occasion for the country and wouldn’t want to see anything happen that would disrupt it in any way.”
Though it barely needs to be pointed out how politically useful nationalism is to Cameron’s political agenda here, it is worth stating explicitly what he is claiming: workers should accept conditions that they are not happy with, because to take industrial action for improvements would be to harm the nation. In this political rhetoric, the interests of Britain are not the interests of the working class but rather the success of a piece of sporting spectacle.
Calling to mind Samuel Johnson’s scathing epithet that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, Ed Miliband (the Labour leader, lest we forget), echoed Cameron’s attitude:
“Any threat to the Olympics is totally unacceptable and wrong. This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted.”
Miliband also caused a minor stir recently when he became an ‘unlikely flag waving champion of British business’, calling for a more prominent ‘Made in Britain’ label on products. His exhortation was odd, though; he did not call for specific action, but rather appealed to a more vague sense of patriotism:
“This is not about a backward-looking Buy British campaign. This is not about making consumers feel bad if they don’t buy products from British business, it’s about something else. We cannot recognise or celebrate our strength in manufacturing unless we know what is designed, invented or made here.”
Miliband is not in a position to demand anything from the public (especially since he does not necessarily buy British himself). He cannot afford to alienate people with specific calls to action, but rather insists on ‘something else’. This ill-defined sentiment that Miliband appeals to is nationalism; the (baseless) idea that we as consumers or citizens should feel some kind of affinity with ‘British’ businesses. It is telling that what Miliband calls for to promote British businesses, rather than a campaign by consumers, is a more prominent symbol – that is, for people to be constantly, subtly, almost subliminally reminded of the ‘Britishness’ of what they buy (and through that to be reminded of the ‘strength’ of the nation). Miliband, perhaps wisely for a nationalist, wants us to understand the products that we buy and use every day through the (relatively arbitrary) prism of nationhood (rather than, say, value, quality, usefulness, environmental impact etc).
What is the ultimate effect of all this nationalism? What is the result of encouraging people to mentally divide things into ‘British’ and ‘not-British’, and of proliferating the Union Flag or other national symbols and slogans? It must be undeniable that one consequence is the rise of ultra-nationalist sentiment on the fringes of accepted patriotism; this emerges as xenophobia, racism and fascism and can be seen in organised groups such as the BNP, the EDL and the Freedom Party. Arguably, these bodies simply push the mainstream discourse of patriotic nationalism to its unsavoury extremes, making overt the implicit subtext of more prosaic, unremarkable forms, and are only able to exist because of the general background of national pride.
This is not the only result of a constantly reproduced sense of nationalism though, and one could make the argument that such a sense is deliberately cultivated. Consider the following posters for BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, photographed in January at Westminster tube station:
The posters are unremarkable; unobtrusively existing in the periphery of the commuters’ journey, and yet through their use of nationalist symbols they contribute to the constant process by which we are conditioned (and condition ourselves) to identify as British. As the possibility of a war with Iran looms ever closer, it is essential to critically consider the role of national identity in the assertion of state power, and the role of incidental, unremarkable symbols in the assertion of national identity. We do not suggest that there is some Machiavellian conspiracy, from Ed Miliband to the Chewing Gum Action Group, with the intention of setting Britain at war, but rather that the rhetoric of patriotism and national pride which is increasingly underpinning so much of our popular discourse is the same rhetoric that is exploited by fascist groups and governments alike to win support for their cause.
We see, as we watch television and walk around our cities (especially in London), a litany of subtle reminders about our national identity. Though this has long been the case, it has recently risen sharply and continues to rise – whether in the context of austerity restoring our nation or the Olympics enriching it, whether a celebration of monarchist tradition or of capitalist prospects for future growth, the nation (and our role as nationals) is a persistent force in modern life. This nationalism is banal, mundane; it is seldom something we are consciously aware of; and yet it is the same ideological sentiment that leads to mass outpourings of emotion and pageantry. When the British public cheer on an army or a sports team, when they take to the streets in celebration of the Royal family or xenophobic protest, that sentiment does not spring from nowhere. Nationalism exists unnoticed, unremarked on, unchallenged, in a thousand familiar images in a thousand peripheral glimpses in everyone’s daily lives. From time to time the wind will catch the flags, their colours will be proudly waved, and we will see extraordinary eruptions of ultranationalist action.