The rise of nationalism – and the end of civilisation

Back in 2013 I interviewed Bernard Connolly, author of the best-selling and so far entirely accurate book The Rotten Heart of Europe. You can read the interview here – it was a fascinating conversation. But one of the points he made over and over again was that he expected the rise of the EU to end in social unrest, because it manifests itself as a “deliberate attempt to break down a political sense of national identity”.

Human beings need a “focus of belonging”, says Connolly. If they don’t get it via their nation, they end up “viewing themselves as belonging to a religious sect… or a racial or linguistic group”. You “can’t have a civilised, peaceful democratic society on that basis”. The EU, in “attempting to destroy traditional structures, institutions and modes of thought”, is “destroying… civilisation”.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot over the last few weeks as the debate in Scotland begins to turn nasty. To an outside observer, what is happening here would be completely inexplicable.

As Melanie Reid said in the Times today it all looks to be born of ‘first world’ problems: “one’s born of the luxury of peace, a welfare state, rock solid democracy and romantic indulgence… what spoilt, selfish childlike fools those Scots are, the homeless refugee might think, had he the energy to notice. Why cast themselves off from what two thirds of the world craves? They simply don’t have a clue how lucky they are.”

But view it through the prism of Connolly’s thoughts and it all makes a lot more sense.

Look at this article by Charles Moore. He sees collapse of the strength of the union to be intimately connected to the weakening of our parliament. MPs still speak of their parties as being “in power”, but in 1972 the House of Commons voted to “subordinate itself to what was then called the European Economic Community”. It handed “power up away from itself and the people it represented”. This has inevitably created a sense of powerlessmess among the electorate, alongside a crisis of confidence into which have rushed “other forces”. So now, instead of freely shared identity, we have a “clamorous competition among minorities each claiming rights”.

But it isn’t just about the ceding of power to the EU. It is also about globalisation as a whole. Die Welt refers to the Scottish nationalists as the “voice of hope”  – “an emotional belief in a better tomorrow regardless of political realities”. It is, says John Nugee of OMFIF, part of a “reaction from electorates who feel sidelined by globalisation and the new world of 21st century economics.”

Add these two things together, says Rachel Sylvester in the Times, and all that Alex Salmond had to do to tip the last independence debate against Alistair Darling was to describe him as being from Westminster. The phrase “Westminster elite” coupled with “out of touch” and “bluff and bluster” sways a lot of crowds, “and it is no coincidence” that it is “predominantly male working-class men” who are turning to not just the SNP in Glasgow but to Ukip in Clacton. The real divide is between those who have thrived under globalisation and political distance, and those who feel they have suffered from it.

A piece in the FT by Janan Ganesh picks the same point up. “Trends point to the rise of nationalism – already here in the disguised form of the UK Independence Party – and demands from London for more autonomy.”

So there you have it: the success of the Yes campaign might not be about Better Together running an incoherent campaign (although it hasn’t been great), and might not be about Alex Salmond’s magic powers of persuasion. Instead, it could be about the way in which the rise of the super state which makes people feel dictated to, along with globalisation, which makes them feel invisible, has pushed people to abandon the idea of diverse unions and to retreat to the safety of old identifications.

Connolly has a good record of getting big things right. Watch out for the end of civilisation.


  • Greg

    I think it’s more to do with frustration – not about removal of power to the EU but about people feeling that it’s a waste of time voting because their vote won’t make any difference as all the main parties are now fairly similar – all right wing authoritarian.

    There are very few parties representing those with left and libertarian views, and due to our ‘first past the post system’ and ‘safe seats’ things never change (much).

    We need proportional representation and devolved powers to all regions of the UK with more community involvement in the decision making process.

    I’m pretty sure if we had those things we would not be in the current position facing the break up of the Union – and if Westminster doesn’t wake up and listen Wales and Northern Ireland will be next…

  • Zengas

    Interesting and tallies with what I see happening here in Scotland. The key ‘don’t knows’ unable or unwilling to weigh up merits of these complicated issues (currency defence etc) so voting with their hearts – and many opting for (as Nugee writes) the ’emotional belief in a better tomorrow irrespective of practical realities’. Concessions such as the last minute devo max will just serve to confirm the inadequacy of Westminster. Expect a big party followed by many very difficult years starting with an acrimonious divorce. Another very real problem is that expectations for rapid improvement are highest among the most marginalised.

  • ricard0a

    Great piece Merryn,

    A “focus of belonging” pretty much sums up the current situation, and ultimately why we’re all going to hell in a hand cart (not just the scots). Everyone wants to argue their uniqueness, their difference, their own specialness which is ultimately why big institutions like the EU, which are supposed to harmonise us into one-and-the-sameness are doomed to failure.

    Realistically, the only place on this tiny island that could claim some form of devolved nationhood is London, as some sort of city-state. It has the economy of a small country and all that goes with it. The rest of us are a bunch of also rans.

    No matter what the outcome of the scots vote, there will be a lot of very p***ed off Northern Englishmen/women asking where their slice of devo-max handouts are.

    The revolution is being televised and nothing will be the same again.

    Over to you Alec, Nigel, …

  • Boris MacDonut

    Scotland could do quite well alone. Certainly most politicals cientists believe 5 million is the ideal population for a thriving democracy with the people feeling fully included. Good luck to them, it is just we in England sorely wish they would leave.

  • And

    The Quebec Independence referendum had nothing to do with ceding democratic power to a larger group such as Europe, did it?
    Looking elsewhere for inspiration, Switzerland has managed to accommodate Cantons with three separate languages while running a system of direct democracy.

  • Neil John

    Isn’t it disturbing to think that the votes of about 2 million people will affect the lives of about 58 million.

    Whatever your beefs about Britain, it is a great country (why have we so many immigrants?) and as a Scot who has lived most of his life in England, i believe the nats are selfish , also there are people making lemming-like decisions DESPITE the facts.

    I fear a lot of acrimony in the years ahead – it is so sad.

    • Boris MacDonut

      Neil. There are now nearly 65 million people in the UK excluding the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Scotland has 5.2 million, of whom 3.8 million are adult and allowed a vote. Of these about 3 million are actually Scottish and about 2 million will bother to vote. Still Cornwall next.

  • Merryn

    Christine Lagarde appears to interpret all this in a similar way. In an interview in the FT she refers to the way in which the global political system is becoming more fragmented even as the global economic system becomes more integrated. The former she sees as a “backlash against globalisation…what we are seeing with the Scottish people wanting to go their own way.. is going in the direction of less globalisation.”