The rise of nationalism – and the end of civilisation

The EU, globalisation and an unaccountable political elite have combined to create a sense of powerlessness among the electorate. It won’t end well.

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.

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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.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.