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C.J. Sansom on the Dangers of Nationalism

Dominion by C.J. SansomDominion, C.J. Sansom’s magisterial new novel, hinges on a big what-if: What if Winston Churchill had never become Prime Minister in 1940? What if a coalition government, headed by Lord Halifax, were to choose a policy of appeasement toward the strengthening Nazi party, instead of one of opposition? But Sansom’s novel isn’t just about World War II and what might have been; it also asks a big what-if of contemporary politics: what if we became obsessed with nationhood? What happens when a country becomes so consumed by its myth of selfhood that it forgets its own people? Sansom elaborates on this idea in the historical note that concludes Dominion—which has been updated since its 2012 publication in the UK. Below is an excerpt from the original historical note, and we leave it to you to read the US edition of Dominion to find out what, if anything, has changed.

I find it heartbreaking — literally heartbreaking — that my own country, Britain, which was less prone to domestic nationalist extremism between the wars than most, is increasingly falling victim to the ideologies of nationalist parties. The larger ones are not racialist, but they share the belief that national identity is the issue of fundamental, overriding importance in politics; it is the atavistic notion that nationhood can, somehow, allow people to bound free from the oppression — nationalism always defines itself against some enemy “other” — and solve all their problems. UKIP promises a future that will somehow be miraculously golden if Britain simply walks away from the European Union. (To what? To trade with whom?) At least they have the honesty to be clear that they envisage a particular type of political economy, based on that other modern dogma which has failed so often and disastrously, not least in Russia, that “pure” free markets can end economic problems.

Far larger, and more dangerous, is the threat to all of Britain posed by the Scottish National Party, which now sits in power in the devolved government in Edinburgh. As they always have been, the SNP are a party without politics in the conventional sense, willing to tack to the political right (as the 1970s) or the left (as in the 1980s and 1990s) or the center (as today) if they think it will help them win independence. They will promise anything to anyone in their pursuit of power. They are very shrewd political manipulators. In power, they present themselves as competent, progressive democrats (which many are) but behind that, as always, lies the appeal to the mystic glories of independence, which is what the party has always been for. Once ruling an independent state, they will not easily be dislodged. How people who regard themselves as progressive can support a party whose biggest backers include the right-wing Souter family who own Stagecoach, and Rupert Murdoch, escapes me completely. Like all who think they will be able to ride a nationalist tiger, they will find themselves sadly mistaken.

The SNP have no real position on the crucial questions of political economy that affect people’s lives, and never have; their whole basis has always been the old myth that released national consciousness will somehow make all well. They promise a low-regulation, low-corporate-tax regime to please the right, and a strong welfare state to please the left. The wasting asset of oil will not resolve the problem that, as any calculation shows, an independent Scotland will start its life in deficit.

It does not take more than a casual glance at its history to show that the SNP have never had any interest in the practical consequences of independence. They care about the ideal of a nation, not the people who live in it. They ignore or fudge vital questions about the economy and EC membership. In recent times, before the Euro crisis, they cheerfully talked of an independent Scotland joining the euro (they evade the huge issue of whether an independent Scotland, as well possibly as the remainder of the UK, would have to reapply for EU membership, a legal minefield). Before 2008 they spoke of the banking sector, of all things, as the core of an independent Scottish economy, forecasting a Scottish future comparable to that of Ireland and Iceland, shortly before both countries went so catastrophically bust. Now they talk of keeping the pound but following an independent economic policy. (How would that work? Why should the rest of the UK agree effectively to write a blank check? How would that be independence exactly?) But the practical problems of the real world have never been of interest to parties based on nationalism; on the contrary populist politicians like Alex Salmond ask people to turn their backs on real social and economic questions and seek comfort in a romanticized past and shared — often imagined — grievances. National problems are always someone else’s fault. The unscrambling of the British economy and British debt after three hundred years of intimate unity is impossible to calculate using any accounting formula. Arguments are already leading to bitterness and growing national hostility on both sides of the border. That is what nationalism does, and what it feeds off. And all the arguments, all the ill feeling, are tragically unnecessary.

Meanwhile the SNP are trying to manipulate the independence referendum to secure a maximum vote for themselves, by holding it in the anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn and lowering the voting age to include sixteen- and seventeen- year- olds, because polls have shown that age group is most likely to vote for them. This smacks dangerously of electoral manipulation by a ruling party to stay in power and increase its power. God knows we have seen enough of that in modern European history. John Gray has recently written that while the dictatorships of the 1930s are unlikely to return, “toxic democracies based on nationalism and xenophobia” could emerge in a number of countries and be in power for long periods.11 Scots are proud, rightly, of seeing their country in a European context. This, today, is the context.