The Fight Over Fraternity

In Prospect Magazine, Danny Kruger meditates on the Left, the Right and the fraternity in Britain’s political future.

[Gordon] Brown is following the advice of David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, who has called in a recent Demos paper for the left to embrace the concept of “progressive nationalism.” Goodhart’s thesis is that multiculturalism threatens the basis of the egalitarian settlement. He argues that “national identity may be the best way to preserve the left’s collective ideals.” And so he encourages an extension of the concept of citizenship and a rallying of loyalty around the rights and services provided by the state.

Ironically, this approach reflects late Hegel, the Hegel who adapted his philosophy to the reactionary climate of post-Napoleonic Prussia. In the brief interlude between the French defeat of Prussia in 1807 and Waterloo in 1815, the idea of the nation had emerged as the ally not of the state, but of the individual. As Karl Popper, albeit uncomprehendingly, put it, “Modern nationalism, strangely enough, was in its short history before Hegel a revolutionary and liberal creed. By accident it had made its way into the camp of freedom.” That was no accident: freedom and nationalism—liberty and fraternity—are allies. Yet after 1815, and thanks to the use which the Prussians made of Hegel, nationalism was co-opted into the service of the state: the loyalty that individuals felt to the nation was translated into submission to the government. In Bismarck’s day the outlines of the modern left’s domestic programme emerged. Anticipating Brown and Goodhart, Bismarck decided that one way to bind the German nation together was “progressive” state welfare (the other was militarism).

It is a staple of the left’s ideology that, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, tradition is an invention, an imposition of collective false memory by the ruling class. True to this analysis, the left is determined to invent its own tradition, its own idea of fraternity, and impose it through cultural conquest. National identity, says the Labour MP John Denham, must be “created, not discovered.” Brown’s “Britishness” is not the Britishness that the British people know: it is an artificial one, which must be brought into law by statute and regulation.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work.