Ed West

The new nostalgia for a pre-Brexit world

The new nostalgia for a pre-Brexit world
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Among its many treasures, Brexit has spawned a new genre of think piece, the nostalgic 'what has happened to the Britain I love' lament in the GuardianFrom an Irishwoman here; an Egyptian here; and a German, here.

It is sad to see people on the Wrong Side of History clinging to a mythologised, imagined good old days. This must have been a very different Britain to the one I used to read about in the Guardian that was a hot-bed of racism and intolerance.

Still, I'm not sure what has changed exactly; apart from the issue of hate crimes, which are hard to analyse because they are not broken down by seriousness or the race of the perpetrator (with the telling exception of anti-Semitic violence), and which compared to the everyday toll of mindless violence in London seem tiny in scale.

Other than that, it's hard to find evidence that much has actually changed. People still get on with their everyday lives, talk, meet, trade and sleep with people different to them, as they did before June 23 and will do in the future.

At least people nostalgic for the 1950s can actually cite statistics for crime, unemployment and family breakdown rates to show that life was better for people like them. What do the Remain nostalgics actually have to back up their Sehnsucht, apart from the uncomfortably new feeling that for the first time in their lives progressives are on the losing side?

I wrote in a previous blog that post-Brexit hysteria was partly due to the Nazis crowding out all other history and people being unable to see parochialism as anything other than the road to Auschwitz. A better analogy I should have made was America in the early 20th century, when historically high immigration led to anxiety about integration and extremism.

After a Polish-born anarchist assassinated the president, the US introduced the faith of Americanism that manifests itself with things such as the swearing of allegiance to the flag. This reaction eventually culminated in the great immigration pause of 1924-1965; many are critical of this, which they accuse of being nakedly racist and in particular blame it for failing to help Jews escape Hitler. Others point to the impact it had on integration, with Italians, for instance, beginning to lose their identity in the 1960s (nostalgia for this spurring the mafia film boom of the 1970s), and the very high levels of social capital in the US in the mid-20th century. But it is at least a reasonable comparison of globalism being followed by parochialism.

The current year does not represent a return to fascism either in Europe or the US, but it does suggest that globalism has over-extended. The great divide in politics is now between the universalist and the parochial, something the great Jonathan Haidt explains in a new essay that people on both sides of the debate should read. He writes:

To be a nationalist, in America or in Europe, is to be frequently lectured to and called a rube by the globalist elite. The globalists assert things to be obvious and indisputable facts (e.g., “diversity is our strength”) that seem to nationalists to be obvious and indisputable falsehoods. The globalists explain away the nationalists’ policy preferences as resulting both from lack of education and from selfishness (i.e., not wanting immigrants taking scarce resources from the National Health Service). The globalists assemble panels of economists and other academics, and sometimes even movie stars, to argue their case. This is why Brexit leader Michael Gove said, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” This is why Donald Trump’s attacks on “political correctness” have won him the gratitude of so many working-class and rural white voters. Even if you are a globalist, can you see why nationalists are often full of seething resentment? Can you see why people who feel a deep emotional attachment to their country and want to preserve its sovereignty and culture are angry at people who tell them that they are wrong to do so?

There is also anger, I should add, because those telling us not to close the 'drawbridges' often have their own very effective drawbridges called house prices. Coming up with solutions to a problem like this is the hardest part and Haidt's central message is worth listening to - that in a more diverse society we should emphasise not what divides us but what we can have in common. 

In the long term, globalism will still win, and probably for the best. The terms liberalism and neoliberalism (whatever that means) have taken a battering recently, but even I can see that as a philosophy and economic system, liberalism has done huge amounts to further human happiness and wealth, especially in the past few decades when literally hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty.

Where globalists have gone wrong is to detach their aims from human nature, and the instinct for stability, including the preference for being around people like ourselves. That is not incompatible with increased international trade, co-operation and even free movement of people, so long as that movement is restricted to countries of similar levels of economic development. You might call it Globalism with a Human Face.

So relax, Guardian readers, you still have the cultural hegemony you have enjoyed for the past 50 years - and will do for another 50 years.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexitguardian