Nationalists Should Give Us All The Shivers

Every day feels the same in this long campaign. Some winners and losers, bar last-minute surprises, are clear. The Tories appear to have seen off the UKIP threat; they won’t be stealing dozens of seats. Labour, however, has been mortally wounded by the rampaging SNP in Scotland; an image of a stricken Ed Miliband, torn to shreds by shrieking Maenads, comes bloodily to mind.

I hate nationalism. Anyone with my kosher background has nightmares when the words nationalism and socialism creep into the same sentence. Nationalism might be justified when an oppressed minority bands together to make its voice heard against a mighty dictator; I can understand the Welsh hating it when their language was suppressed, for example. Metropolitan politicians have ignored the geographic fringes at their peril. If Nicola Sturgeon is dictating terms from Edinburgh after May 7, the English will get a taste of their own medicine, as they learn how it feels to be ruled from a distant capital that doesn’t seem to care a toss.

But wait. The nastiness of their grass-roots supporters, their “hunting” of opponents as described by Andrew Gilligan, their offensive baiting of Ed Miliband outside his Glasgow rally, are all horrible. It grieves me to hear nationalism given respectability in a functioning democracy; it’s a backward step. The argument for Scottish independence boiled down to restricting the electorate till they all agreed with People Like Us, and we often get the same line from UKIP: throw all the foreigners out, because they’re different. Then we can all be cosily homogeneous, and won’t that be a good thing? NO! I want to shout.

SNP and UKIP Leaders may deplore bad behaviour but they do little to stop it, and if it produces a result, they’ll give it the wink. But nationalism, to me, offends against a fundamental element of democracy: that we understand where our opponents are coming from, we hear what their adherents say. We respect them, even while we loathe their ideas. When in power we protect the rights of minorities and dissidents, not least because at the next election, we could be where they are standing now. It’s a system designed for multiplicity, and for change.

This translates into accepting new policies which have been anathema, back to the 1834 Tamworth Manifesto in which Sir Robert Peel accepted the Great Reform Act. Tories accept the NHS; Labour has accepted the nuclear deterrent, at least till now.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall I and other parliamentary colleagues went into the new democracies, helping train them for the struggles to come. We made a point of going cross-party. As we sat together, Polish and Romanian activists were astonished. “We don’t kill the other side or put each other in prison,” we explained drily, “We fight at elections. Bitterly, often. But we’re all trying to make the system work, because everyone benefits when it does.”

Nationalism doesn’t want to go there. It seeks to eliminate opponents, by redrawing boundaries and by showing those it doesn’t like the door. It should be a source not of wonder but of fear. Groundhog Day, it is not.