We live in hard times. In India the appointment of the controversial Mahant of the Ghorakpur Temple Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh is an indication that hard Hindutva seems to be emerging. In America, Donald Trump continues to ignore well established conventions in international relations in pursuit of his hard nationalism. Recently he refused to shake hands with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he disapproved of her soft line on refugees. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday will be triggering the start of negotiations for a hard Brexit from the European Union. Only from Holland has there been a crumb of comfort for those who fear that hard nationalism is dangerous divisive, and exclusive. At least the Dutch hardline nationalist Gert Wilders disappointed his supporters in Holland’s election. These hardline positions are being taken under the influence of the hardline nationalism sweeping the world.
In Britain, May is under pressure to give EU citizens who are already living here an assurance that they will be able to stay. Even the hardline Brexiteer trade minister Liam Fox has tried to persuade her that foreign students in Britain, including a large number of Indians, should be counted separately from the overall figure of immigrants so that they are not restricted from coming here. May has dug her heels in on both issues.
The First Minister of Scotland has now become a hardliner by demanding that a second referendum on Scottish independence should take place. The Sunday Observer’s political commentator has blamed this on May’s “rock-hard version of Brexit”. The referendum demand comes just at the time when May and her Brexiteers are trying to bolster the nations confidence by offering them a vision of a united Great Britain becoming an influential independent presence on the international stage.
A threat to the Union of Great Britain has also come from the Catholic and Irish Nationalist Sinn Fein party’s success in Northern Ireland’s Assembly Election. The Catholic weekly magazine ‘The Tablet’ has described this as “a seismic shift in the political dynamics of the Province.” Sinn Fein will certainly not support a hard Brexit, which takes Northern Ireland further away from the Republic of Ireland and could even restore border controls between them.
A hard Brexit would probably mean Britain adopting a deeply divisive economic policy, which would worsen Britain’s chronic employment problem. The post-Brexit economy being talked about out would be a low corporate tax, low social security, low employment protection economy to attract investment. It’s been compared to the economy of Singapore. Yet what is needed in Britain is greater protection for workers. The rosy figures for jobs in Britain hides the shameful fact that two-thirds of the children living in poverty are members of working families. The Trade Union Congress maintains that precariously low pay affects one in 10 workers. A major cause of this distress is the employment of workers on a self employed basis rather than on a staff contract. A scandal has recently emerged about The Royal Mail charging its self-employed couriers for the cost of finding a replacement when they are off sick. May has shown her concern about the problem of low paid insecure work but her problem is that a hard Brexit would push Britain towards an economy which would make work more not less precarious.
This drive towards a hard Brexit is ignoring the deeper but none the less crucial question of Britain’s future European identity. No matter how hard the Brexit is Britain will remain a European nation. Much of the Brexiteers attempts to reassure the people of Britain is being couched in mock Churchillian language. In her first major speech about Brexit May envisioned “a Britain in which with our brilliant armed forces and intelligence services we protect our national interests, our national security and the security of our allies. But Churchill thought Britain should embrace Europe.
In his famous speech at the University of Zurich in 1946 Churchill said, “Under and within the United Nations we must recreate the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe.” Last year when Pope Francis was given the Charlemagne Award for working towards European Unity he asked “What has happened to you the Europe of Humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?” and called on Europeans to “remember, to take a step back, to listen to the voice of our forefathers.” Now Britain’s new football manager has blamed the team’s dismal performance in international competitions on isolationism. He has said “we have to get off the island and learn from elsewhere”. But hard Brexit, and the rhetoric that goes with it is keeping Britain apart from Europe.
So recent events in Britain and elsewhere show how hard nationalism can create divide rather than unite nations, isolate them too, lead to economies which heighten inequality, drive away people who can contribute to the nation. Surely there are some lessons for Indian nationalists here too, specially as their nationalism has to demonstrate that it includes the whole of a very diverse nation. Perhaps they should follow the Pope’s advice and listen to their forefather Mahatma Gandhi.