European and anti-European identities in the UK

For reasons much like those that Friederike sets out in her superbly sharp post, I couldn’t suppress an little inward groan on visiting the slick 1989 Generation website. It’s not that it wants for sincerity; that the authors are “passionate” about the European project is clearly announced. It brims with confidence in the ability of “the brightest” to meet the seriousness of the moment and come up with a “new mission”. Brief experience with something similar as an invitee to an Apeldoorn Conference  makes me think it’s not easy to set aside politics and at the same time come up with original political ideas.

An elite project need not necessarily be a bad one, but if that, as a factual description, holds, and if there is disappointment in the current generation of “politicians and technocrats”, what are the alternative bases of social power and legitimacy through which an alternative project might be advanced?

In this vein, Florian’s contribution points out that European(-ising) experiences of “EasyJet and Erasmus” are confined to a certain segment of the population. The corollary is that there are many for whom the context and components of identity are overwhelmingly local, the widespread use of internet among the young notwithstanding: that the internet is global doesn’t automatically connections over it so. All this is not going to change any time soon. So a question for discussion of any putative “European identity” is how such a thing might resonate with the class experience and identity of those who are (or see themselves as) hard done by in the current economic and social order.

This is partly, but only partly, a matter of working class identity and politics. In both Britain and Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, social democratic parties languish, unable to articulate a programme even at national level that can attract the support of much more than a third of the population. In Britain’s recent election, Labour played a doomed game of aping the language of fiscal rectitude whilst trying to cling on to the more or less grudging support of its traditional backing. A well-worn but relevant sociological theme is the erosion and change of the economic base of social class in post-industrial societies, its forms of identity, and its political expression. The recent UK elections offers some material for reflection on class and (anti-)identification with Europe.

A year ago it seemed a given that the kernel of UKIP (UK Independence Party) support – the most obvious expression of  anti-European identity in Britain –  was the old, the conservative, the rural and the regional , and sections of all classes (in standard British classifications) that saw their economic circumstances as insecure and worsening. Things turned out a little differently on the day: UKIP prospered especially at Labour’s expense , in poorer, ex-industrial working class parts of England and Wales (in votes, though not in seats, as a result of the UK’s bizarre electoral system).

The votes of the poor and the working-class for UKIP seem paradoxical on the basis of material interests: UKIP, like the AfD in Germany, holds a strongly free-market, anti-welfare-state, anti-regulation position, even if UKIP is selectively discreet about this. Other parties’ propositions about “tackling inequality”, at least as they have been thus far formulated, have only limited resonance – it seems easier to convince people that it’s the Bulgarians, and not the bankers, who are profiting to their disadvantage.

Of course, a vote is not an identity, but the pattern of UKIP voting should give cause for thought. What, in the longer-run, might give a material and political basis for, if not European identity, some minimal identification with and tolerance of Europe among the poor and insecure who at the moment are in large numbers strongly opposed in Britain, as elsewhere.  There is a depressingly consistent tendency in “liberal elite” discourse, in the UK at least, to treat the political expressions of anti-European or (English) nationalist sentiment (as in support for UKIP, or for their older, uglier and less salonfähig relatives, the British National Party) alternately with uncomprehension, hand-wringing and ridicule, and a serious discussion of identity ought to avoid this trap.

It’s fairly elementary sociology to point out that “cultural” identity and affective attachments, for all their symbolic complexity, are not detached from the material and everyday bases of social life. Thus a project that hopes to animate support for a new European mission might well wish to consider not only symbols and representations and techniques for their dissemination, but these material (and unavoidably political) bases of identity.

Cite this article as: Alex Fenton, European and anti-European identities in the UK, in: Sozialstaat | État Social, Juni 11, 2015, https://etatsocial.hypotheses.org/799.

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