David Cameron's EU referendum patriotic blues

Written by Tom Freeman on 14 March 2016 in Comment

Has David Cameron’s flag-waving nationalism come unstuck, asks Tom Freeman

Although they were not given a platform, the Eurosceptic voices were present at the Scottish Conservative conference.

Former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox, tipped by some activists on the right as a future leader, held a busy fringe in which he accused the SNP of being sabre-rattling nationalists over claims a Brexit could lead to a second independence referendum for Scotland.

The decision on June 23 will be made “as a United Kingdom,” he said.


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What struck me was how there remains among fervent unionists a lack of understanding about how British nationalism has had just as big a role as Scottish nationalism in the way politics has transformed the UK in the last three or four years.

Yes, the British National Party is on its last legs, rescued from bankruptcy in February by a bequest in a man’s will, but British identity politics are stronger than ever. Talk of embedding ‘British values’ in schools and tightening national borders have illustrated a prevailing narrative.  

And now another national debate about self-determination rages, this seems clearer than ever, as those on both the left and right who advocate leaving the EU talk of preserving the “sovereignty” of the UK parliament.

Fox displayed his nationalist credentials with the statement, “the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history”. His Conservative Brexit stablemate, Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor, joked about Ireland asking to rejoin the UK after a Brexit vote.

“I would be very happy if the Republic of Ireland – I don’t think it’s going to happen – were to say we made a mistake in getting independence in 1922, and come back within the United Kingdom. That would be great,” he said.

David Cameron, however, has understood the power of identity politics. He has used flags to great effect.

While Better Together focused on the risks of Scottish independence, it was Cameron who focused on the patriotic case, the ‘lovebomb’.

The day before the Scottish independence referendum, he warned about ending “the country we love”, listing the achievements of Britain. “We built this home together,” he said.

The morning after, he had shifted. “Now the millions of voices of England must also be heard,” he said. He understood the battle for Scotland had been won, and he shifted his strategy into one of winning England for the Conservatives.

But is his tendency to play the nationalist card about to come unstuck? Evoking a pride in national identity is now the language of a camp he finds himself opposing, while he finds himself arguing for a loose, homogenous, continent-wide union.

His tightrope was evident in his speech to the Scots Tories. “Scotland proves something important. It shows that you can be a strong, successful, proud Scot and be part of the United Kingdom and European Union.   

“Being in these two clubs doesn’t diminish Scotland’s identity. It doesn’t make you less of a Scot, or less patriotic. What matters is turning patriotism into action,” he said.

Unlike the last referendum, though, the offer to voters is not a choice of two kinds of nationalism, it is about how we define ourselves in relation to Europe. Cameron’s rallying call to Scottish Conservatives ahead of the Holyrood election – “Let’s make this our moment. Let’s drape ourselves in red, white, and Saltire blue” – feels somewhat less appropriate for his cause in the referendum six weeks later.

Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed the section of his speech on the economic case for Europe received more muted applause than his fist-pumping nationalism.

But what would a patriotic case for Europe look like? I imagine it would look a bit like a car advert, driving across cobbles in a German car, munching a croissant and stopping off at a local taverna to watch the Ryder Cup. It’s not reality, but then, what is?

 

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