‘Veto nationalism’: populism, nationalism and the Tories

January 11, 2012 — Comment

Written by John Grayson

An examination of the Euroscepticism, nationalism and patriotism being established by politicians and the media in the UK.

‘It takes a rare party leader to reach beyond the arid debates of the political elite and touch the passions of the people. David Cameron has proved himself that kind of leader with his use of Britain’s veto. This controversial gesture has struck a patriotic chord with a large part of the nation. It has put the Conservatives ahead in the polls and left Ed Miliband’s leadership of Labour looking exposed … He is surfing the wave of the new British cultural nationalism.’ (Guardian, 17 December 2011)[1]

The use of a veto by David Cameron at the EU talks on 9 December may have been deliberately choreographed for internal Conservative party reasons, and perhaps to triangulate beyond voters attracted to UKIP. It was certainly successful in terms of the Westminster bubble, designed to appeal to that mythical middle England of swing voters who decide elections. It was followed by a ‘spin’ campaign restating xenophobic themes which enabled the Conservatives after a disastrous year to actually finish ahead of Labour in the polls. By 3 January 2012 the pub chain Wetherspoon had begun brewing and selling a strong ‘Veto Ale’ to show its support.[2]

The darker side of this exercise in constructing narratives and political and media discourses is the sight of the British Conservative Party emerging as a full blown European xenophobic populist party. Campaigners against racism in British politics can perhaps identify an electoral strategy beyond this veto nationalism which mirrors the direction of the Right and far Right throughout Europe faced with economic collapse and challenges from labour movements and Indignado and Occupy movements. This perhaps explains why Cameron was content to leave his MEPs in the ECR (European Conservative and Reformist Group) in the European Parliament far to the Right of the conventional ‘Christian’ conservative Right governing parties in the EPP (European Peoples Party) group.[3] The xenophobic Law and Justice Party of Poland, the other large partner in the ECR, organised a 7,000-strong demonstration in Warsaw on 13 December calling Poland to follow Cameron’s lead.[4]

Over the past few years reports from ‘think tanks’ and political opinion polls (often selectively quoted) seem to have persuaded everybody from Cameron to David Miliband and ‘Blue Labour’ that ‘nationalism’ is a core value which can be mobilised for elections. John Cruddas the Labour MP and anti-BNP campaigner back in April 2011 argued that, ‘We need an English socialism that resists relentless commodification, values the land, believes in family life, takes pride in the country and its traditions: a conservative socialism’.[5]

Christian nationalism against multiculturalism

Following the veto, on Friday 16 December David Cameron delivered a speech in Oxford on the King James Bible in which he called for a return to Christian moral values and emphasised the fact that Britain was a Christian country.[6] He included in the Oxford speech whole sections from his controversial February speech in Munich against multiculturalism. As David Edgar points out in the Guardian: ‘It’s no surprise that Cameron has borrowed so liberally from his February speech: his target is the same. To believe in essentially British, Christian values is to oppose multiculturalism.'[7].

Every school in England had already been reminded of the political importance of the Bible by being promised a copy of the King James Bible with a foreword by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

A news item the day before which might have punctured this attack on multiculturalism was downplayed by the media and the Conservatives. In the annual league tables for primary schools, Newton Farm School in Harrow, where a majority of pupils do not speak English as their first language, gained the highest average points score in the whole of England in this year’s tests. Rekha Bhakoo the head, pointed out on Radio 4 Today programme that the success was due to involving parents and respecting the backgrounds and cultures of the pupils … an advert for ‘multiculturalism’ not picked up by her interviewer.

Political opinion polls and real voters

The speech in Oxford also sidelined the result of the Feltham and Heston by-election the day before. Pollsters had been saying how electorally successful this ‘bull dog spirit’ nationalism was in moving the Conservatives ahead of Labour. But when it came to a real poll of real people in a multicultural constituency it showed an 8.6 per cent swing to Labour with a new ‘ethnic’ MP, Seema Malhotra, a Fabian management consultant, winning the seat. This is one the Conservatives would need to win to gain an overall parliamentary majority in 2015. This actual poll of voters was dismissed universally as simply a ‘low turnout’ result.

The familiar narratives of ‘common sense racism’ were then played out over the next few days to support the main messages of veto nationalism.[8] As Sivanandan has described it, ‘a politics of prejudice and fear to create a culture of xeno-racism and Islamophobia; the asylum seeker at the gate and the shadowy Muslim within’.

In December not only the asylum seeker but also the foreign criminal was at the gate … On 18 December the Sunday Times published a leak from a major UK Border Agency report on ‘foreign criminals’ (a continuing theme in xenophobic political discourses in the UK) which then appeared in the regional press on the 19th as ‘murders and rapes by foreign ex-prisoners’.[9] The issue continued to play in the media and the Daily Mail reinforced the theme on 21 December in a front page feature to out the ‘illegal migrant’ identity of a convicted killer so that his victim’s family could campaign for his deportation in years to come.[10]

Those shadowy Muslim terrorists, we were reminded, were still within the nation and challenging us abroad … On 15 December, it was announced that 13,500 troops would be deployed for the ‘security’ of the London Olympics with an aircraft carrier, typhoon fighters, and special forces and air to ground missile cover. (More troops than the 9,000 at present in Afghanistan.) Even the BBC suggested a ‘festival of sport’ had now become a ‘major military operation’.[11] Also by Sunday 18 December the ‘nation’ was reminded it was at war – by more media support for ‘our heroes’, a trip to Afghanistan by David Cameron, and a convenient Christmas No 1 single from a ‘military wives choir’.

The seamier side of Euroscepticism

The seamier side of the ‘Eurosceptic’ Conservative party and its MPs was exposed by the xenophobic (but not always reliable) Mail on Sunday with stories on 11 and 18 December on one of David Cameron’s ministerial protégés, Aidan Burley, who had to resign for organising and providing a Hitler uniform for a friend’s stag night in a French ski resort (a potential criminal offence under French anti-Nazi laws).

It became clear that veto nationalism would also encourage the darker side of British popular culture to surface. ‘National treasure’ Sir David Jason a prominent actor in Christmas TV specials came out on the weekend before Christmas to comment on the veto and the Eurocrisis: ‘the Germans want to run Europe. They failed to do it by war, twice. What is it? Is this the Fourth Reich?’ He was described as ‘grinning’.[12]

As Christmas approached it was time for an attack on human rights and asylum. The Express managed in its 22 December edition to make waves with a headlined feature ‘Euro Court drops Britain in it again: Asylum Seekers Can stay’ and a comment piece from Gerard Batten UKIP MEP for London and its party Home Affairs spokesman.[13] The patriotic Express in the new climate seems happy to give a national platform to UKIP, a party which is part of the European Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament together with the xenophobic Italian Northern League and the far-right True Finns party. Columnist Leo McKinstry in the same paper neatly brings the Christmas message home with his thoughts on the summer riots and suggests that the ‘fight against urban thuggery would be advanced far more by the repeal of the Human Rights Act, the deportation of foreign criminals and the end of mass immigration than by use of live bullets’.

Veto nationalism in politics and the media also seemed to decide which acts of violence ‘abroad’ ‘played’ to British audiences. Rolling news coverage and headlines reported the shocking events at the Christmas market in Liège on 13 December where, according to the Daily Mail, ‘a crazed Belgian killer from a Moroccan background’ had launched a grenade attack.[14] There was little coverage of the shooting on the same day of Senegalese street traders in Florence markets by a far-right gunman. There was even less coverage of the large anti-racist demonstration in the city on 17 December. (Read an IRR News story: ‘A tale of two cities’) Further afield, the Guardian managed on 19 December a small boxed piece on page 16 reporting events off the Indonesian coast where ‘more than 200 feared dead after refugees’ boat sinks’. The refugees were from the same countries regularly turned back from the borders of fortress Europe – Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Iraq.

Debating racism and populism

Throughout the Christmas period we had indications that racism in football was rife with the charging of the England captain for racist abuse, and the support of Liverpool for its Uruguyan star player Suarez despite an independent tribunal’s evidence of his racist taunts. If one needed evidence of the impact on the streets of Britain of creating a climate of racism and xenophobia then the shooting dead of an Indian student in Salford on Boxing Day in a seemingly ‘motiveless crime’ was a sharp reminder.

Of course the massive media and political interest in the Stephen Lawrence murder trial has now put racism on the streets back in the spotlight. Even the stark and shocking evidence exposed in the trial did not seem to stir political consciences. Politicians like Jack Straw and David Blunkett who had often themselves been accused of helping create xenophobia through their pronouncements, especially on asylum and immigration, were now ready to boast as to how central their role had been in the Macpherson inquiry and the enacting of its recommendations. Other ‘political’ statements have concentrated on admiration for the Lawrence family and their long battle for some kind of justice, and the mantra about how all has now changed for the better. Some voices have been raised reconnecting political reality to the summer riots, deaths in police custody and a regime of stop and search now affecting twice as many young black men as in 1999, when Macpherson reported. Michael Mansfield QC seems to have been the only public figure to actually suggest the laws on hate crimes and incitement need to be strengthened.[15] It is perhaps most significant that Diane Abbott, the only major Labour politician to draw the media’s attention to the continuing realities for black young people, was pursued and herself bizarrely accused of ‘racism’ for a misjudged tweet, and made to apologise to keep her position in the Shadow Cabinet.

One is forced to the conclusion that the results of veto nationalism at Christmas will be depressingly familiar. Labour, as Richard Seymour has pointed out, is already seeking to match Conservative authoritarian populism with policy statements on welfare from Liam Byrne, a former hard-line immigration minister with a controversial record on racism in electoral politics.[16]

And the media too seems poised to exclude mention of state policies on immigration from debates about racism. Professor Tony Kushner on the Radio 4 Today programme on 7 January had the temerity to suggest that racism was alive and well in the media with the Daily Mail campaigning for the Lawrence family at the same time as attacking asylum seekers. Justin Webb the opinionated BBC interviewer did not see any contradiction. He ticked off the professor by explaining them as: ‘two completely different things. You can believe that there should not be racism, and certainly not racism at an official or attitudinal level. And you can also believe that the country is full.'[17]

Anti racist campaigners and asylum rights campaigners are perhaps a little clearer after the past few weeks about the nature of the political tasks ahead. We now face in British politics what David Marquand describes as a ‘scepticism (which) has morphed into phobia. There is a raw virulence about today’s anti-European rhetoric. It is visceral, not intellectual. It draws upon a deep existential anxiety.'[18]

[1] Jonathan Jones, 'How Britain got its patriotism back', Guardian, 17 December 2011. [2] Andrew Trotman, 'J.D.Wetherspoon supports Prime Minister David Cameron with Veto Ale', Daily Telegraph, 3 January 2012. [3] The ECR contains MEP representation from the Danish Peoples Party recently ousted from government in Denmark but one of the most crudely Islamophobic and anti-immigrant parties in Europe. [4] 'Warsaw rallies against Brussels power grab', Morning Star, 15 December 2011. [5] Jon Cruddas, 'Raising the dead', New Statesman, 4 April 2011. [6] Riazat Butt, 'Cameron calls for return to Christian values', Guardian, 17 December 2011. [7] David Edgar, 'We can't allow the Bible to be high jacked for narrow and partisan politics', Guardian, 19 December 2011. [8] See A. Sivanandan, 'Race, Terror and Civil Society' in Race & Class, Vol 47, No 3, 2006. [9] Yorkshire Post, 19 December 2011. [10] Jack Doyle and Neil Sears, 'The killer shielded by the Home Office', Daily Mail, 22 December 2011. [11] 'London 2012: Britain's biggest military deployment', BBC News, 15 December 2011. [12] Charles Brown, 'Del Boy actor speaks of German "Fourth Reich" amid EU turmoil', Yorkshire Post, 19 December 2011. [13] Macer Hall, 'Euro Court drops Britain in it again: Asylum Seekers Can Stay', Daily Express, 22 December 2011. [14] Peter Allen, 'A haul of guns and a cannabis shed', Daily Mail, 15 December 2011. [15] Michael Mansfield, 'Stephen Lawrence verdict is about society as much as his murderers', Guardian, 3 January 2012. [16] Richard Seymour, 'Authoritarianism and free market orthodoxy in Liam Byrne's welfare ideas', Guardian Comment is Free, 4 January 2012. [17] Today programme, BBC Radio 4, broadcast Saturday 7 January 2012. [18] David Marquand, 'England's Identity Crisis', Guardian, 19 December 2011.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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