Nationalism and Anti-Racist Strategy After the 2015 General Election

by Brendan McGeever

With UKIP on the rise and the collapse of the Union seeming imminent, it’s time to take racism and racialization seriously.

First published: 10 May, 2015 | Category: Racism, Vision/Strategy

For too long leftists have been convincing themselves that UKIP is essentially a middle-class phenomenon.  But the party has support among sections of the working class, and this has now been empirically demonstrated by their considerable gains in Labour heartlands.  It is now crucial to build as accurate a picture as possible of this support: does it emanate from disaffected Labour voters who were unconvinced by Miliband’s promise to be ‘tougher on immigration’? Or are they part of the longstanding Conservative working class support base, sections of which are now moving further to the right? A sober assessment of the composition of the ‘working class’ is urgently required; a disaggregation that takes full account of the nature and extent of racism within (sections of) it. 

The conjuncture does not bode well for the elaboration of an anti-racist left strategy.  With an historic SNP victory, the constitutional crisis of British politics is now impossible to ignore, and will be ‘solved’, it seems, by the articulation of an exclusionary English nationalism.  David Cameron made this quite clear at 6am on 19 September last year, when he spoke of ‘English votes for English laws’.  We can readily imagine the kind of ‘England’ that sections of his and the UKIP support base have in mind.  And added to this is the now very real prospect of the EU referendum to come, which will surely only entrench the anti-migrant mainstream consensus.  And all of this at a time in which the left occupies an historic position of weakness.  The only serious political party to articulate an alternative on ‘immigration’ was the resurgent Greens.  They polled 4% in England, two and a half million votes behind UKIP.  As the results of the General Election became clear, Owen Jones called on the ‘politics of hope to rise from the ashes’.  But hope alone will not help us to make sense of our position of weakness, nor deliver a way out.  Stuart Hall’s advice to take a ‘necessary delay’, a ‘detour’,[1] seems more appropriate.  Why is it that anti-migrant populism can gain such traction across whole sections of the working class?  How do people reshape such populism and make it ‘fit’ with their own lives and their own conditions of experience?  Developing a critical understanding of this will take time.  Hall, we might recall, took his detour through Gramsci, who insisted that ‘organic intellectuals’ cannot afford to ‘exist in eloquence’; rather, they must ‘take into account’ the ‘already existing conceptions’[2] of the world that prevail, no matter how uncomfortable they appear.  Now, more than ever, anti-racists need to undertake this difficult task.  

In many respects, the situation in Scotland is different, and arguably more promising.  Yet the longstanding ‘no problem here’ approach to racism has not been sufficiently challenged.  We need to be equally uncompromising in Scotland.  The desire to project onto ‘Westminster’ everything that is nasty about the Union is not only intellectually dishonest, but historically absurd, and reveals an unwillingness to confront the legacies of anti-Irish racism and Scotland’s disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire.  The relative silence of the SNP on these matters needs to be addressed.  Nevertheless, the prominence of Humza Yousaf and others in Scottish politics is encouraging, and suggests that Scottishness can indeed be imagined as something other than ‘white’.  Still, that imagination is far from hegemonic, as research has shown, and independence will open up these unresolved debates.  We need to win them decisively.

Regarding independence, it is surely one of the greatest ironies that the breakup of the imperialist British state will also see the unravelling of a very fragile multicultural Britishness which was forged by the anti-racist struggles of the mid-1970s. [3]  The Union Jack is not only the butcher’s apron.  For many black and minority ethnic people in England, identifying as British has provided an alternative to exclusionary English nationalisms.  This alternative is steeped in radical struggles and decades of racist violence.  Many have deposited these experiences in the Union Jack and the contradictory British state.  The multi-ethnic composition of England, itself a direct consequence of Empire, has produced contradictory and often competing conceptions of ‘Britishness’, not all of which are reducible to the racism of the British state.  So those actually oppressed and subjugated by British imperialism arguably have something to lose by its demise.  This is dialectics.  Leftists in Scotland celebrating the breakup of a Britain that so embarrasses them need to be cognisant of these contradictions, and above all must extend their anti-racist solidarity to those who will be excluded by the recomposition of the English and Scottish nations.  Scottish independence needs an anti-racism that crosses, indeed ignores, borders.

Given the success in Scotland of posing class questions in a national frame, some are now exploring whether a similar project can emerge in England.  This is difficult territory: the work required to detach English nationalism from its racialized moorings in Empire is significant.  Can the recovery of the history of the Levellers, for example, really gain the traction required to dislodge the extant hegemony of nationalist hostility to migration?  The claim made long ago by EP Thompson, and more recently Billy Bragg, that these radical traditions can be appropriated for the present fails to reckon with two centuries of imperial history and the accompanying racialization of a nationalism that has embedded itself within parts (although by no means all) of the working class. [4] The problem, then, is not one of greater English propensity to racism (attitudes remain broadly similar in Scotland on these questions), but, rather, the historical formation of the two nationalisms: though both have been constituted within Empire, one (the Scottish variant) is now characterised by a significant though incomplete opposition to that history, or rather, an erasure and occlusion of that history, whilst the other remains indistinguishable from it.  This dissimilar relationality to British nationalism is key to understanding the progressive potentials of both English and Scottish nationalism.  It is perhaps also worth stating that any unravelling of the British state would likely coincide with the formation of an English left nationalist project.  Englishness is already the dominant (though by no means sole) manifestation of British nationalism, and this will surely only soon be consolidated at the institutional and political levels by the formation of an English state and English parliament.  The racializing capacities of English populism need to be contended with, not ignored.

Could English left populism remain distinct from and untainted by these broader currents? I remain unconvinced.  Alternatively, can the left in England build something that rejects the terrain of the nation altogether, yet simultaneously ‘coincides and identifies’, as Gramsci put it,[5] with people’s existing conceptions of the world?  Satnam Virdee’s book provides insights into how anti-racist working class struggles were forged in previous historical conjunctures.  These will not translate directly into the present, but perhaps there is a key theoretical and strategic lesson to be taken on board.  The struggles that prefigured the formation of sustained periods of antisystemic collective action had very specific origins: the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 and the Grunwick Strike of 1976-1978, though separated by nearly a century, were both the product of what Virdee calls ‘racialized outsiders’ (in these cases, Irish Catholic girls and South-Asian women).  The precursor to the emergence of universalising class struggles, then, was the mobilisation of very particular experiences of racialized exclusion and class exploitation.  It was the fusion of such experiences that proved crucial for the deepening of the struggle for social justice for all.  Where are the sources of hope today?  Where can the elementary forms of a counter hegemony that might potentially unfold into something wider be located? Campaigns around housing and migrant struggles may be crucial.  The question, however, is not ‘what should the left do’, but ‘what can the left learn’ from these forms of resistance?  It is time to enter a period of significant reflection, a ‘necessary detour’, and this may mean facing up to uncomfortable realities. 

Brendan McGeever is a Early Career Research Fellow at the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London.  His work focuses on racism, antisemitism and anti-racism.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

[1] Hall, S. 1992 ‘Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies’ in Cultural Studies, ed.  Grossberg, L., Nelson, C. and Treichler, P. (eds).  Routledge, New York, p.283. 

[2] Gramsci, A. 1972.  Selections From the Prison Notebooks.  Lawrence and Wishart, London, pp.10, 161, 325. 

[3] I owe this point to Satnam Virdee, who convinced me of it during numerous personal correspondences around the time of the Scottish referendum in 2014. 

[4] Virdee, S. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] Gramsci, A. 1972.  Selections From the Prison Notebooks.  Lawrence and Wishart, London., p.330.

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