Nationalist Discontents and the Husk of Britain

Sivamohan Valluvan

Much has already been said about what made Brexit Britain possible. For some, Brexit was a ‘death-drive’ poetics of nationalism amidst the rupturing of 20th century social contracts, political ideologies and Establishment authority. For others, it revealed a postcolonial melancholia but also hubris, interacting in contradictory ways. For Brexit apologists, it represented a cultural backlash in the English provinces against shifting mores and demographics. More centrist-minded nostalgics framed Brexit as the consequence of a digital media era which finds it profitable to cynically amplify a politics of ressentiment. Finally, more economistic arguments saw Brexit simply as an attempt to reach for the ostensible certainties of nation amidst the wider dissipation of Western capitalism’s privileges as occasioned by the rise of China but hastened domestically by decades of market-economics evangelism.

However, whatever the key drivers, it remains commonplace to note that the resultant nationalist politics traded primarily in a register of demagoguery about those who do not belong. This involved multiple external objects of loathing, harm and corrosion against which English victimhood and identity could be staged. The cast here is broad, including of course the EU, the alleged liberal-internationalism of metropolitan cosmopolitans, the increasingly confident voice of Scottish distinctiveness, and, of late, the power of China and other 21st century arrivistes.

But it was still, as ever, the overlapping figure of the migrant/refugee, the Muslim, and racialised minorities and ‘multiculturalism’ more broadly, for which Brexit conservatism reserved its primary animus. Brexit acted as a proxy referendum on immigration and it accordingly won itself, in Priti Patel, a Home Secretary equal to the anti-immigration demands it championed. And yet, in spite of a political terrain consistently congenial to the political Right, we continue to hear in Britain calls for a left nationalism, elsewhere presented as a progressive patriotism or left-populism.  

Painting Nationalism Red

It is important not to bundle all prevailing left nationalist invitations into one entity. There are competing reasons why a popular left politics might be tempted today by nationalism. These range from perceived electoral pragmatism and expediency; to pseudo-Marxist readings of immigration and ‘multiculturalism’ as neoliberal; to a melancholic fetishization of the working class as exclusively white and as modelled in a post-war glow; and finally, leftist understandings of today’s nationalism as misdirected anti-capitalist desires which require careful harnessing.

And though such diverse leftist plays to nationalism might be exasperating for many, it is scarcely surprising that a left sensibility might be seduced by the nationalist wager. After all, as Benedict Anderson famously explained, it is nationalism that stages for modernity a sense of political community, a sense of collective identity that sits in an uneasy dialectical tension with the abstract and cold individualism of commercial modernity. As many contemporary observers of fascism dolefully observed, the awkward truth is that it was nationalism that popularly recalled, albeit in reactionary form, assorted pre-, or non-, economistic sentiments nominally antagonistic to capitalist alienation. Similarly, it was nationalism that cultivated what Anderson again calls a sensation of ‘deep horizontal comradeship’.

Nationalism … can create an intoxicating impression that we are united in our equal standing

Nationalism, then, can create an intoxicating impression that we are united in our equal standing, and even endow this common unity with a sacredness befitting an otherwise secular age. When seen like this, this sacralised sense of solidaristic sameness is, of course, vying for a similar sense of solidarity as the left. After all, does not any self-respecting left-wing orator also posit a horizontal comradeship. Do they not also speak in the idioms of collectives, the people, and solidarity.

However, that nationalism is, at best, only partially amendable to a leftist or Marxist appropriation is also well-understood. Nationalism ultimately reconciles the polity to class stratification and exploitation – where the realities of domestic class conflict are subsumed by the falsely unifying ethnic ecology of nation. Similarly, even if a nationalist orientation engages in some variation of capitalist reform, it is still easily critiqued for its intrinsic exclusions, not least on racialised terms – its scope of welfarist amelioration being indexed to a grid of national belonging and entitlement.

But it is also the case that the exclusionary limits of nationalism are not themselves fatal to it as a political project.  Whilst it fails to satisfy a more humanist conception of justice that many of us cleave towards, it might still appeal to others who are willing to sacrifice one expansive sense of justice in the interests of a more contained political possibility. After all, for a majority to stake a principle of belonging, sovereignty and perhaps even some putative material gain to an assertion of national identity will appeal to those ‘natives’ in whose image the nation is ostensibly forged.

Incidentally, a common habit of nationalists the world over is not to deride their critics as ipso facto villainous or wrong but as simply naïve and idealistic. It is argued here that critics fail to see that the nation, and the territorialised state it encompasses, is the only conduit via which a sense of political community, order and democratic justice can be realised.  Nationalism can seem, then, a rather grounded project and its intrinsic logic of exclusion, as regards citizenship and the cultivation of a common national identity, an acceptable and necessary price.

Nationalism and postcolonial lessons

It is in postcolonial theory, however, that we find the more enduring critiques of nationalism. Its broad archive has consistently shown that nationalism is not problematic simply because it is exclusionary, intolerant or violent. Though it is problematic for those reasons, too. It is also problematic because it is essentially de-politicising. As Paul Gilroy once framed it, nationalism is a politics that stalls at a level of ‘prepolitical uniformity’.[1] Specifically, the assertion of national identity becomes the primary locus of political desire itself.

Politics becomes overdetermined by an endless sequence of increasingly fervent assertions about ethnic and cultural integrity

Politics becomes overdetermined by an endless sequence of increasingly fervent assertions about ethnic and cultural integrity; about majoritarian entitlement or priority; about the symbolic flagging of the nation and its ethically consecrated history; and of course, various agonised laments about the presence of those who don’t belong. In other words, an endless impugning of minorities, migrant interlopers, and neighbouring countries to whom primary culpability for assorted hardships can be ascribed.

There is also often a preoccupation with those excessively cosmopolitan or leftist dissenters who require patriotic disciplining. As regards the latter, it is sobering that in today’s Hindutva India the principal political slur is that of being ‘anti-national’.  Whilst in China, bourgeoning netizen parlance has coined a wildly popular ‘baizuo’ neologism – which nominally reads as ‘white left’ but also speaks much more generically to the foolish idealism of those in China who advocate for both equality and compassion for the outsider. This is a foolishness that overrides the immutable truths of civilizational vitality and the necessity of tightly bound national collectives.

Amidst this context of nationalism’s destructive insularity, it was Frantz Fanon who presciently cautioned, though he is sometimes read otherwise, that the overriding risk for the original decolonial moment was that the new nation, in trying to stake a sense of national authenticity and historic entitlement, itself becomes committed to its own ‘ultra-nationalisms, chauvinisms, and racisms.’[2] Fanon becomes here, in Mahmood Mamdani’s insightful phrasing, both the ‘first prophet of decolonization’ but ‘also its first critic’.[3] And whilst such exclusionary animus, with all its visceral dehumanization, is already unconscionable from the perspective of those who are its object, it is also apparent that the political discourse of those who otherwise belong as the normative majority is also diminished.

the assertion of national identity, itself, becomes the political wager, the principal attachment of the state

Much postcolonial critique, working from this Fanonian impulse, has made it evident that nationalism is not just some instrumental premise, not just an expedient vehicle for some wider political principle or goal, as is often assumed. Rather, the assertion of national identity, itself, becomes the political wager, the principal attachment of the state. Or as Nandita Sharma recently argued, in her broad scan of the former colonized world,[4] much politics collapses into the rehearsal of the ‘ethnic question’ and little else – i.e. who belongs, who doesn’t, who is authentic, who isn’t, who is native and who is a guest. And so forth.

Of course, in the heady ferment of the initial decolonial era, this drive was tempered by the competing imperatives of the communist wager so central to the mid 20th century, alongside a ‘worldmaking’ sense of anticolonial global humanism.  Today, however, the nationalist compulsion acts with full autonomous abandon. Indeed, as regards China and to a lesser extent India, we see that these ‘civilizationist’ nationalisms have also found an elective affinity with what some call the state-managed or ‘authoritarian’ capitalism that has obtained particularly strong grounding.

Accordingly, whilst the earlier communist hypothesis represented a mitigating bulwark against the nationalisms of the postcolonial moment, we now see that the state capitalist imperatives of the contemporary period align particularly well with the nationalist terms of today’s hegemonic claims. And though this concept of state capitalism is subject to intense debate, there is a clear case to be explored about how and why do capitalist imperatives now draw such an easy affinity with nationalist-populism – an affinity that should give pause to those who continue to insist that the politics of nation is still available for a progressive form.

England, Scotland and the husk of Britain

Of course, it is still possible to ascribe distinctly progressive content to the nation in its more embryonic, resistant form, when it is yet to become a nation-state construed by majoritarian authority. From a British perspective, it is Tom Nairn who proves particularly relevant here.

Long deserving of his status as the public intellectual of Scottish independence, Nairn always understood the aforementioned predicaments of nationalism. His advocacy of a Scottish independence cautioned against romanticist ethnic claims, favouring instead a civic, left-modernist and international sensibility. Indeed, Nairn’s advocacy of EEC membership, unusual at the time for Left luminaries, puts his nationalism in a particularly complex light. A scenario where potential independence would actually see Scotland willingly pool its new-found sovereignty in the collaborative interests of a confederal EU project. The fact that Britain’s exit from Europe renders the cause of Scottish independence (and perhaps Irish unification too) even more attractive speaks to that distinctly open and pragmatic vision of a Scottish future that Nairn was envisaging.

Nairn was prefiguring – indeed, helping to bring it into being – Nicola Sturgeon’s later claim that theirs was a cause of independence tied to ‘social justice and democracy’, as opposed to nationalism per se. Or, to quote from the precocious SNP MP Mhairi Black, ‘nationalism [has] nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland’.[5] And even if Brexiters or Trumpists also often disavow nationalism, in favour of motifs of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’, it is of course true that much of what is presented as regional separatism is routinely allied to a distinctly progressive ambition. (As is also partially evident in the not entirely quixotic arrival in English politics of the Northern Independence Party, who seem to be pressing an open if mischievous left-populist narration of their separatist ambitions.)

‘the very idea that one’s own nation has transcended nationalism is itself a kind of nationalism’

But if the very underlying imprimatur of that future is still the idea of nation, it is also easy to see that it might, in time, override any competing logic of state formation, once and if consolidated as an independent entity. Indeed, as was once noted in a different debate about civic nationalism, ‘the very idea that one’s own nation has transcended nationalism is itself a kind of nationalism’.[6] To acknowledge this, as Nairn himself does, is not to begrudge those who wish to escape, to realise an independence from all that is drab, boorish and ‘Blue Rinse’ reactionary. It is only to note that the authorising alibi of nation is no benign instrument, but sets in play a variety of future political moorings once one is fortunate enough to self-describe as a majority vis-à-vis the nation-state one wished into being. And particularly so when one encounters new stresses, often internal, to the democratic, welfarist and forward-looking aims first championed as the horizon of independence. In other words, in the wake of such separatist battles, it is not the cause of social democracy or some suitable equivalent that triumphs, but the nation. And it remains the case that the cause of nation appropriates, simultaneously, any number of wholly contradictory political stripes as convenient – a ragtag ideological cacophony that only coheres, as an active political demand, around the idea of nationhood itself. 

The wider British context of Nairn’s arguments opens up, however, other considerations regarding nationalism’s allegedly more protean possibilities. Decisive for Nairn was his understanding that the British state is in its very design pathological, forged as it was in the interests of an imperial project. The United Kingdom remains, in turn, irredeemably anachronistic to the possibility of a 21st century politics that reckons openly and fairly with the global at the same time as it roots itself in textures of local democracy.

a liberated Scotland would inadvertently liberate England too

A powerful plea is at work here, where Nairn spies the possibility amidst the dissolution of the Kingdom for its new nations to reconcile themselves to a humbled understanding of their place in the world. In other words, a political temperament that inveighs against denialist ‘world-beating’ hubris, trademarked today by Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ jocularity, and instead, seeks out international collaboration from a healthy position of acknowledged modesty and cooperative sovereignty. Nairn’s parallel intimation is that a liberated Scotland would inadvertently liberate England too, where finally an English politics too might emerge that is free of the destructive imperial worldview that endures when England is still seen as a metonym of (Great) Britain.

I wonder however – as enchanting as the possibility of a humbled, contemplative and constitutionally reformed England otherwise is – if a more global critical lens is still required, lest we unduly provincialize its current problems. In other words, just as Brexit boosters are wont to exceptionalist cheerleading, so too its critics might be prone to an inverted exceptionalisation of the Anglo-British nationalist malaise. The very fact that jingoistic nationalisms abound all around us and across very different historical contexts, be it Italy and Hungary or Russia and Turkey, it seems instructive then to indict nationalism more expansively – as opposed to identifying only the England-as-Britain malaise as being chronically compromised.

It is another decolonial irony as regards Global South nationalisms that is again telling here. As the political theorist Chenchen Zhang captures so forensically [7], much of contemporary right-populist discourse in China is increasingly referencing the West as a cautionary tale about an allegedly excess liberalism; an allegedly excess tolerance of minorities, immigration and Muslims via which the West is perceived as undergoing a naïve and self-willed implosion from within. Zhang excerpts here a dizzying online discourse, culminating in one commentator’s claim that ‘It’s about the instinct of survival. The West has lost this instinct, but China has it’, whilst another observes that ‘Nothing can save Europe when she’s digging herself a grave through self-deception and giving up on cultural assimilation.’

the West no longer features as some sort of Eurocentric beacon of modernization

Whilst the context here is China, we could without much difficulty also extend such political trends to other less world-historical settings such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In turn, from a contemporary postcolonial perspective, it becomes possible to note how the West no longer features as some sort of Eurocentric beacon of modernization that many early postcolonial nation-making leaders were reluctantly obliged to reference; and nor does it act as a reference of violent and hypocritical reaction against which postcolonial progressive politics might be pursued in contradistinction. But instead, in a sort of macabre decolonial reversal, the West is increasingly invoked as a salutary tale about the dangers of being inadequately nationalist, inadequately assertive about one’s cultural cohesion and ethnic integrity, inadequately anti-immigration and/or inadequately assimilationist.

And notwithstanding the ironies of Europe being construed here as insufficiently nationalist – doubly ironic for someone who has staked an entire book on saying otherwise – other instructive questions also arise then about nationalism’s sui generis limits. If the very countries that were once subjected to colonial domination can today assert themselves with such chauvinistic belligerence, it is no longer self-evident that the former colonizer’s attempt to fashion a postimperial, post United Kingdom nation-state design will summarily allow for a healthier orientation towards nationhood. I would instead venture that there seems to be something much more corrosively immanent about how modernity helps fix sovereignty and political community to a sense of national identity and belonging and the distinctly nationalist framings of political problems, anxiety and resolution that flow out of that very premise.

This is not to deny that other much more inviting political possibilities are also available to the new set of nation-states that might succeed any mooted break-up of the Union. In Scotland certainly, but also England, whole generations are taking shape that are much more assertive about a post-neoliberal political possibility – an economic sensibility that is also finding some diluted traction in the early months of Joe Biden’s U.S. administration. This is also a generational ethos that is being re-aligned to the more internationalist scale of their cultural imagination and as a practical necessity. This being a realism more open to a pooled sense of sovereignty and post-imperial global collaboration and accountability when contending with the planetary immanence of climate change, the fleet-footed global mobility of a predatory capitalism, and also just the borderless vectors of pandemics.

What Nairn calls the ‘maelstrom’ of generatively unknown possibility that awaits us amidst the dissolution of the United Kingdom is accordingly very inviting, given the impasse of a present political and electoral culture where the UK is staring toward a future of oligarchic one-party rule. I only note that much of this energy is likely to be frustrated if we continue to tie our demands to an underlying attachment to nationhood and national identity. This is a nationalist attachment that consistently bends politics towards its own autonomous imperatives as opposed to it bending towards politics.


[1] Gilroy, P. (2004[2000]) Between Camps, Abingdon: Routledge, p.8. 

[2] Fanon, F. (2001[1961]) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books, p.125.

[3] Mamdani, M. (2002) ‘Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa’, Identity, Culture and Politics, 3(2), p.5.

[4] Sharma, N. (2020) Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[5]  These quotes as well as some of the wider context about Nairn are sourced from Anthony Barnett’s Introduction (‘Tom Nairn is the One’) to the recent reissue of Nairn’s defining classic. Nairn, T. (2021[1977]) The Break-Up of Britain, London: Verso. See also James Foley’s (2021) recent ‘Scotland After Covid-19’.

[6] Read, J. (2004) ‘Writing in the Conjuncture’, Borderlands, 3(1), p.6.

[7] Zhang, C. (2019) ‘Right-wing Populism with Chinese Characteristics’, European Journal of International Relations, 26(1), 88-115.

Sivamohan Valluvan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Clamour of Nationalism (Manchester University Press) and has written widely on debates of race and racism, nationalism and multiculture, as well as postcolonial and social theory more broadly. He has also contributed to Salvage, Red Pepper, Renewal, Juncture, Guardian, and Fabian Review. 

Header image credit: Maggie A-Day


Valluvan, Sivamohan 2021. ‘The Husk of Britain’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)