A little while ago, an intelligent and usually perceptive UKIP-hating friend of mine decided to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day by saying that World War Two was fought to defeat “racism, xenophobia, and nationalism”. I understand where he got these ideas from: they’ve been the standard fare of British university courses about the World Wars since at least the 1980’s.
The final year undergraduate course I studied in this area was entitled “Nationalism, Internationalism and War: Europe c.1890-1914”. Nationalism was the black-hearted gun-toting villain of the piece; internationalism was the weak-kneed intellectual which shamefully caved in to its demands; and war (in this case, World War One) was the result of this abject surrender on the “battlefield of ideas” (as the Left used to call it). If you’ve ever wondered where our current civil servants and politicians get their current “our project right or wrong” attitude towards the European Union, look no further.
But who would be so foolish as to deny that nationalism played a vital role in the origins and outbreaks of both World Wars? Certainly not me. The problem is that nationalism is being misrepresented in relation to the World Wars of the twentieth century; this is because the cast list of ideas is missing one of its most important members. Let me explain. In 1914, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all went to war with one important feature in common: they fought not as nations, but as empires.
For those who don’t know, nationalism is the political philosophy by which a self-identified people group looks to govern itself within a relatively large, usually continuous geographical area. Imperialism is all about a self-identified people group not only ruling itself but also ruling other people groups in such a way as to deny their present and future nationalistic ambitions.
Imperialism is all about treating others in a way one would rather not be treated. It is a violation of the ethical Golden Rule. This is not to say that empires never benefit their subjects, but it is to say that it’s never their primary purpose to do so. Such benefits are incidental, though not necessarily trivial.
We often think of empires as entities led to war to expand their territories. But mature empires also go to war to try to keep themselves in being; this is essentially what happened in 1914. Austria-Hungary wanted to invade and re-conquer Serbia to stop it from eventually grabbing more (mainly Serb-populated) territory from its holdings. Russia wanted to defend the Serbs from Austrian aggression because the Serbs were and are a Slavic people group, as are the Russians.
Germany wanted Austria-Hungary to remain in being as an empire because it was Germany’s only major military ally in Europe. France wanted to support Russia in the hope of encircling and containing Germany, which became a united empire by defeating France in 1871. Great Britain just wanted to trade with everyone, but eventually concluded that supporting France over Germany would be more likely to keep the peace on which trade depends, or at least leave a mainland Europe which would be easier to deal with after a future war.
World War Two was more than a German nationalistic reaction against the settlement imposed on the defeated Germany at Versailles in 1919. It was about trying to grab enough land and resources from other peoples to guarantee that Hitler’s regime would become and remain the unquestioned and unquestionable master of Europe. Newly conquered subject peoples were either to be deported or enslaved to varying degrees based on Hitler’s then widely shared racial prejudices. Once the Allies closed the borders to further emigration from lands conquered by the Reich, deportation was no longer an option. This was when an existing policy of brutal terror, most notably against the Jews, became instead one of mass extermination.
So what role did nationalism play in these conflicts? In both wars, nationalism was essentially a reaction against an attempt either to prop up an existing imperial settlement or to impose a new imperial solution. Nationalism lit the fuse in 1914, but imperialism put the powder kegs in place and painted the nationalists into a corner. Germany’s imperialistic nature in both conflicts can be seen from the fact that nationalistic propaganda played a key role in mobilising resistance behind the lines to the invading armies of both the Kaiser and Hitler.
So, what does all this have to do with UKIP and the EU? First of all, I think all this means we need to identify the EU as an empire and UKIP as a nationalistic reaction: a reaction against an attempt to integrate the United Kingdom into a new, European managerial empire governed on the basis of political and economic networking rather than along traditional ethnic lines. Secondly, it means UKIP needs to be careful not to give in to a thirst for revenge or retaliation, which often lies at the root of conflicts between rival nationalisms.
It would be best for everyone if the United Kingdom were able not only to leave the European Union peacefully, but afterwards to resume normal trading relations with its peoples as smoothly and quickly as possible. It is one thing to say that the UK doesn’t need to be part of the EU to flourish in the modern world. It’s quite another to say the UK doesn’t need to trade with the EU at all, and thankfully UKIP is not saying that.
Finally, UKIP needs to avoid becoming or being seen as an imperialistic party. Some may accuse it of this already by arguing that UKIP is trying to prop up the United Kingdom in defiance of the wishes of its constituent peoples. But the key point here is democratic consent. True, UKIP argues in favour of the continuing political union of the United Kingdom. But there is no doubt that, for instance, UKIP would recognise a “Yes” vote for Scottish pseudo-independence (rule from Brussels via one government instead of two can hardly be called independence). UKIP would not resort to force to hold the UK together. It would condemn and seek to punish by law any attempts to terrorise the UK’s historic people groups into either staying or leaving.
UKIP is absolutely right to contrast its attitude on this point with the EU’s contempt for democratic consent. In the eyes of the EU’s supreme overlords, it doesn’t matter how many Greek pensioners kill themselves in front of their national Parliament buildings; it doesn’t matter how many French people want to reassert control over their own national borders; it doesn’t matter how badly the Spanish want to devalue the Euro in an effort to stimulate their national economy. These things are seen as irrelevant because the European Project must continue regardless of what the EU’s inhabitants think, say or do. This is what makes the EU an empire and UKIP a nationalistic party. Do you see the difference?
Photo by Lone Primate