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Wed 19 February 2020
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The former Prime Minister said in a speech that he agrees with George Orwell’s distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism” and fears the Union of the UK could be over without fundamental constitutional reform.

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Boris Johnson will continue to “play the nationalist card” to hold onto power, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned. 

Speaking at a Hope Not Hate event in Parliament, Mr Brown said that the Union of the UK is under threat because the key political issue is now the “power of competing nationalisms” in an “over-centralised United Kingdom”.

What has caused this? Economic security, cultural fears, anti-political sentiment, a feeling that globalisation is failing, the breakdown of the ‘post-war consensus’ including the shrinking of the welfare state, and big regional inequalities in different parts of the UK, he said – with the difference between the north of England and London greater than those anywhere in Europe and between US states. 

“Brexit nationalism, national independence from Europe… Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism, Irish nationalism, Ulster nationalism. Brexit getting done is leaving Britain undone,” he said.

“Nationalism cannot solve the problem by putting up a few more flags or by changing the borders or by the simple act of leaving the European Union. The idea that the Conservatives have got across that on January 31st something somehow fundamentally changes in terms of people’s living standards when they know that the most likely change over a few months is that people’s living standards will not rise but fall.”

Far from representing a new majority for Conservative values in the UK, the New Labour architect believes that the result of the 2019 General Election showed “that people are not at ease with the country”.

He warned that the Prime Minister will use nationalism to hold onto power; a tool to bring together two divergent groups of Tory voters.

“He’s trying to reconcile two groups of voters,” Mr Brown said. “The north that wants spending and investment on services. The southern shires that want lower taxes and therefore lower public spending and a smaller state. How does he reconcile these two within his neoliberal philosophy and how does he unite these two constituencies in a future election? Play the nationalist card and that is the danger we face. Play the anti-European card again, play the anti-immigrant card, play the anti-Scottish card.”

Mr Brown compared nationalism in the UK to other movements of the same kind happening across the West and said that “defensive nationalism” has emerged as a feature of protectionism, characterised by “building walls, ‘America First’ and closing borders”. 

Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks to Gillian Duffy in Rochdale in 2010. Following the exchange, he was caught on microphone describing a voter he had just spoken to as a “bigoted woman”

“The danger is that the theme of the next 20, 30, 40 years is going to be a history of divisive nationalisms,” he added. “Once you start down this populist, nationalist road, it’s very difficult to see where it will actually end.”

The former Chancellor said he agreed with the writer George Orwell’s distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism” – the former being about a love of one’s country and people being able to identify with and feel they belong to a community, “us”. Whereas nationalism is about an “us versus them” mentality which “invents enemies where none exist, creates and manufactures resentments even if they’re imagined more than real” and requires people to make binary choices over identity.

For Mr Brown, the solutions lie in increasing economic insecurity, confronting concerns people have about immigration, creating “a voice for the regions and nations” through devolved investment and decision-making, establishing citizens’ assemblies in each region, replacing the House of Lords with a “senate of the nations and regions”, setting up a council of the north and ensuring fundamental constitutional reform.

While acknowledging that 15 million of the 17 million votes to Leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum came from England, Mr Brown did not once refer to the issue of “English nationalism”, what it is, how it emerged and what it demands. Instead, he repeatedly referred to “Brexit nationalism”. The interesting question will be how far Mr Brown’s methods to combat “competing nationalisms” in the UK can go if they ignore the English nationalist question which sits at their very heart. 


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