Appeals for National Greatness are a Dark Delusion

Caricature_gillray_plumpuddingDonald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again has been enthusiastically adopted in a British context by UKIP and deployed in a modified form by Conservatives. But why should we be wary of this seemingly uplifting phrase?

Calls for National Greatness are Nothing New

Last week I blogged about the origins of the autocratic libertarian ideology of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In many respects their political kinship reflects the Thatcher/Reagan consensus of the 1980s but in a much more dangerous form. In fact the phrase Make Britain Great Again has a long history, one which coincidentally involves Britain’s first female Prime Minister.  It was used prominently by the Conservative Party in the 1950 General Election, notable for the first time Margaret Roberts stood for election as MP. They lost, though Roberts was to make her name famous as Margaret Thatcher.

Similarly, in the United States the idea that one person or family could ‘Make America Great Again’ long predates Trump. In fact neoconservatives such as David Brooks had been calling for it since the 1990s. Here is what he wrote in the Weekly Standard an outright neoconservative mouthpiece in 1997:

The national mission can be carried out only by individuals and families — not by collectives, as in socialism and communism. Instead, individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.

It is important to note that Brooks also mistrusted democracy, believing that it would destroy a sense of grand ambition and noble purpose unless accompanied by an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. He disdained what he called a concern with ‘radical egalitarianism’ with its concern for compassion and caring. Surprisingly, it did not actually matter how this greatness was to be achieved, (provided that it was not advancement of the individual):

It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.

National Greatness at the Expense of Rights and Compassion

Whether consciously or not, Theresa May has adopted the assertion of Brooks that it does not matter what comprises the ‘great task’.  This is what allows May, who opposed Brexit to enthusiastically embrace a Hard Brexit in pursuit of this shot at ‘greatness’.  Likewise this great national crusade comes at the expense of private concerns, of the promotion of a caring and compassionate society or fuzzy, woolly things such as rights!

What all these leaders, Thatcher, Trump and May share is a belief that greatness is an objective state of being (possessing an overwhelming military, cultural hegemony or whatever) rather than a process of collective development. There is no room in this view of the nation as a network of voluntary associations working in harmony with the state to resolve differences and advance liberty. Hence, the NHS is debased, schools are underfunded, foreign citizens living in the UK are used as pawns in a power game and higher education is fragmented.  All of these things and more beside do not fit with the idea of a government restoring ‘greatness’ by engaging in a ‘great’ project. Whereas Trump has already started the withdrawal of the state from the protection of private rights, it is widely anticipated that May will perform the same act during withdrawal from Europe with a bonfire of human, worker and environmental rights (aka Red Tape).  This combination of big government project with individual ‘every person for themselves’ is entirely consistent with the autocratic libertarian ethos I drew attention to in my previous post, The point is especially pertinent as the ideology only concerns itself with the wielding of power and not its source or legitimacy ; remember Theresa Government possesses great power despite not seeking the legitimacy of a fresh general election.

It is clear that this conception of greatness is built on exceptionalism. So ‘British values’ are promoted, as though there is something unique about them not shared by, say German or French people. Likewise an economic policy is being overtly constructed from the festering remnants of an imperial past with no public recognition of the possibility that these ex colonial countries have the ability and confidence to drive a reasonable bargain for themselves, maybe in terms of immigration rights for example. The implied argument is that commonwealth countries will look kindly on us and afford us nice favourable trade terms.

Why is the National Greatness Call Attractive?

So much for the advantages for politicians in promoting a message of Make Britain Great Again.  But why is it finding such a receptive audience among large parts of the public. Psychologist  Jonathan Heidt provides some relevant insight focusing on issues of loyalty, respect for authority and increased ‘sanctification’ (treating some things as sacred such as flags, national anthems and so on). He claims that these factors are viewed as creating a tighter social order, though at the expense of individual liberties.  As a result of globalisation and rising diversity, which is perceived as eroding a sense of common heritage within each nation, many people in America and Europe are attracted to a strong conservative message where ‘greatness’ is foregrounded.

Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that – if the duping theorists were correct – should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.

Not so long ago it was common to find opinions (such as here) that a straightforward appeal to Make Britain Great Again would not work as a consequence of the British character. It had limited success for the Conservatives and  Roberts/Thatcher in 1950 and would be even less likely to succeed now ran the argument.  Following the Brexit vote opinions have changed and there are even proposed policy routes which have been dubbed British Empire 2.0! It remains to be seen whether the large sections of the people will really be willing to stick with such plans for attempted ‘greatness’ when the costs in terms of a continuing decline in living standards, degraded public services and the real consequences of damage to our rights become apparent. A final thought; was Britain great in the nineteenth century? In 1811/12 Britain possessed the most powerful navy in the world, was transforming manufacturing with the Industrial Revolution and Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was giving Emperor Napoleon a hard time in Spain.  But back in Britain over 120,000 troops, more than Wellesley commanded in Spain, were deployed to control the unemployed and low paid who were protesting at being driven to destitution by mechanization.  The deceptive greatness comes at a high personal cost which we must make perfectly clear.

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