The nation is its own enemy when it thwarts the blossoming of radical diversity – and tragically, this is what the Brexit promises for Britain.
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
– T.S Eliot, ‘Gerontion’
Now that Britain has voted in favour of the Brexit, we need to revisit the lessons unlearnt from the heartbreaking murder of Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour Party MP. These lessons are directly related to her comments on immigrants in her constituency. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons on June 3, 2015, Cox spoke endearingly and with conviction about how immigration serves, rather than derails, Britain’s security, stability and membership in the EU.
As the dust settles on the vote, the reasons for Cox’s murder is clearer, as is its timing. Britain has voted in favour of keeping immigrants out, among other matters.
It has always been the conservative nationalists who have tried to derail Britain’s liberal hopes. They managed to buy even the insecurities of the working class for their cause. But the working class in Britain needs to be told they are on the wrong side, in the name of being against the ‘neo-liberal’ character of the EU. Working class politics needs to address the question of nationalism and the repercussions of that politics on ‘other people’. Hackneyed economic theories masquerading as conservative nationalist politics cannot serve the larger international spirit of the working class, if they go against new demands of radical diversity. Europe’s conscience is currently being tested across class, vis-à-vis ‘other people’.
Cox’s commitment to ‘deep diversity’
Cox voiced precisely the paradigm that ‘other people’ are central to the future of the nation. Showing an exceptional commitment to the idea of ‘deep diversity’ (to use Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s term), Cox reiterated, in the context of Yorkshire town and villages, that “communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration”. The idea that democracy is “enhanced” by ‘deep diversity’ is not just a matter of political value but also of the social and cultural principles by which a nation-state may live and thrive. Such a view also empathically acknowledges the historical crisis faced by the people of the Middle East, who are being politically and economically driven to find asylum in European nations, and the ethical responsibility of the ‘First World’.
But, in her speech, Cox went beyond responsibility by stating that immigration strengthens community life. She elevated the presence of non-Christian people of colour (“from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir”) by calling it a crucial, valuable component of English society’s evolvement towards diversity.
The other important phrase Cox used was “spirit of non-conformity” (referring to the spirit that prevails in her constituency). So, Cox clearly drew a connection between a certain non-conformist, cultural British tradition and the need to welcome immigrants. She seemed to suggest that the spirit of deep diversity is not alien to England but rather emerges from a certain liberal, cultural spirit of the local people. This in particular must have sounded dangerous to those who want Britain to make stricter gestures towards the immigrant population of the country. It is instructive that Cox also brought up the question of the economic policy of regeneration, right after she spoke of the anti-conformist spirit. She was clearly optimistic that there is a productive relationship between democracy and a burgeoning economy.
But that hope is further derailed after the vote.
Putting democracy last
It was no surprise to learn that Thomas Mair, the man who shot and stabbed Cox, had pro-Nazi sympathies. While committing the crime, he was heard shouting, “Britain first”, and at his first court appearance, he said, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
At the personal, individual level, there was no sign of remorse on his part. Mair apparently believes he did his country a service – what any right-leaning man would associate with patriotic duty.
At the political level, the man was clear that ‘Britain first’ automatically means ‘immigrants last’. In his conception, the idea of a nation is overwhelmingly majoritarian and conservative, with no place for foreigners.
In such a conception, the idea of democracy is dangerously subsumed under that of the nation. As if to proclaim ‘Britain first’ is also to proclaim ‘nation first’ and ‘democracy last’. This political contradiction is fascist. Endorsing the verdict, a woman who appeared in a video on June 24 in The Telegraph said, “I just feel like we just need to look after ourselves before we look after other people”. Her words are euphemistic. There is no end to looking after ‘ourselves’ as an excuse to ward off one’s responsibilities towards ‘other people’. The woman in question does acknowledge that ‘other people’ need looking after, but the ‘othering’ on which her view depends disqualifies those ‘others’ from inclusion in a larger community. This is ethics turned upside-down in the name of nationalism.
Heeding Tagore on nationalism
Britain would also do well to remember, at this difficult juncture, Rabindranath Tagore’s prescient critique of nationalism a century ago. Just as we in India are re-reading Tagore’s ideas on nationalism in a hyper-patriotic atmosphere, British thinkers and politicians may also profit from his warnings in his perspicacious essay Nationalism in the West.
Tagore distinguishes between the “spirit of the West” and the “Nation of the West”, and how the latter is the antithesis of “social cooperation” and “spiritual idealism”. He goes on to warn, “the exclusive civilization which thrives upon others who are barred from its benefit carries its own death sentence in its moral limitations”. Clearly, the idea of benefit, of goods in the market and of shared space, are moral issues and, by logical extension, political. Isaiah Berlin was impressed by Tagore’s “vision of difficult truth”, along with his condemnation of a “romantic attachment with the past”. Amartya Sen finds these two aspects that Berlin pointed out, proof of Tagore’s commitment to “cultural diversity”.
Tagore refers to a pertinent example from history: “In the ancient days Sparta paid all her attention to becoming powerful – and she did become so by crippling her humanity, and she died of the amputation.” The real danger of a nation’s “amputation”, in Tagore’s understanding, comes from the slackening of its humanity in its flexing of hyper-nationalist muscles. Tagore’s most acute observation lies in identifying the paradoxical quality from which nations suffer, or how “the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation that all its precautions are against it.” In other words, the nation is its own enemy when it thwarts the blossoming of radical diversity and goes against evolving larger solidarities. Tragically, the Brexit verdict is a showing of Britain’s back on ethical solidarity.
The only hope for the nation – Britain, India or any other – is this diversity that must be allowed to flourish against the nationalist threat to it. Only the deepening of diversity, as people of different ethnicities and histories come together in the wake of political and economic upheavals in the world, could possibly weaken the majoritarian idea of the nation in Europe.
Cox’s figure will probably become a historic one for Britain, for she stood for the possibility of a better, more humane future for her nation. To acknowledge that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” was to call the bluff of all nationalist fantasies and fears regarding the outsider and the migrant.
Europe, and Britain, has been home to a predominantly elite section of people from the ‘Third World’. It is time for them to accept and welcome the poor, beleaguered people of that world into their world. Even though Britain’s vote against joining the EU, its showing its back to the open immigration policy, makes the immediate future look uncertain and bleak for a lot of people, and despite coming days of sure economic hardship – the struggle for diversity must go on.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar. He has contributed to publications including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Huffington Post, Outlook, the Hindu and the Wire. His first book, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was published by the London Magazine. He is currently adjunct professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.