The threat of political nationalism as a result of the economic crisis
Last month The Economist warned that the world recession was leading to a new wave of economic nationalism. It claimed that countries were rejecting global solutions and free trade, and turning inwards, trying to protect their own financial systems, markets and jobs. The USA had initially inserted a “Buy America” clause into its stimulus package, the French and British governments were trying to force banks to lend to the home markets, which in turn would result in the repatriation of cash, and the Chinese were accused of manipulating their currency for their own economic interests.
The article warned that the mistakes of the 1930s could potentially be made again. “Economic nationalism – the urge to keep jobs and capital at home – is both turning the economic crisis into a political one and threatening the world with depression,” the magazine noted.
“If it is not buried again forthwith, the consequences will be dire.”
But political nationalism is already emerging as a consequence of our economic downturn. Thousands of people, backed by the majority of the public and large swathes of the national press, backed construction workers in the power industry who protested against foreign labour.
The dispute flared up in response to the use of foreign labour on construction projects at oil refineries and power stations. What began at Lindsay Oil Refinery soon spread to almost 20 other plants where similar issues had emerged.
The unions were quick to distance themselves from a nationalist approach. “We are not against Italian or Spanish workers working over here but we just want a level playing field,” said Dave Smeeton, a Unite branch secretary at Staythorpe power station. “We actually want to work alongside them, just as we work in Spain and Italy. But we are not being given the chance.”
Dave was one of 50 people who had gathered outside the power station last month in protest at the use of exclusively foreign labour on a new power station being built.
For Dave and others at the protest this is a problem that has been brewing for some time. They say European workers have been here for a while, often on worse pay and conditions, but this changed over time as they interacted with unionised British workers. They say that the decision to refuse to employ any British workers can only be because hiring from abroad is cheaper (i.e. they are cutting corners on pay and conditions) and/or so they can’t interact with British workers who might be able to unionise them.
With many workers using Gordon Brown’s slogan of British jobs for British workers against him, the BNP saw an opportunity. It quickly produced downloadable leaflets, a Wildcats website and short online videos explaining how this was the consequence of membership of the EU, mass immigration and a Labour government that no longer cared about the white working class.
There was little sign however that the BNP made any impact amongst the protesters. At Lindsay Oil Refinery BNP members from Wakefield tried to leaflet the pickets but were quickly told they were not welcome. There was a similar hostile reaction to the BNP at Staythorpe.
While the BNP appears to have made little headway in winning support from union activists it is bound to be more successful among the wider population. Recent council by-elections have shown a surge in support for the BNP, helped in no small part by a daily diet of incendiary headlines from the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Star.
The BNP won a council by-election in Swanley well ahead of the other candidates and it is now predicting successes in the European election.
Britain is not alone in experiencing unrest. In France, more than one million people marched for jobs and wages, while 350,000 marched in Dublin. Riot police were used in Greece to quell protests by farmers demanding more assistance, and in Bulgaria windows were smashed and shops attacked after demonstrations calling for economic and social reform. Latvian farmers blocked roads in the capital and laid siege to the Agricultural Ministry, while in Lithuania 80 people were arrested and 20 injured after protesters pelted the parliament building in anger over spending cuts. In Russia there have been demonstrations in almost every city against the government’s handling of the economic crisis.
And the situation is only likely to get worse as the recession deepens and economic insecurity grows. This will play out differently in each country but nationalism is likely to be a major winner.
Britain has escaped the rise in the far right that has been experienced by many other western European countries over the past decade, but this could well change this summer. The BNP poses a serious threat in three regions in the European election and a more moderate threat in a further three. The nationalist tone under which the elections will be contested, again fuelled by Eurosceptic media, will benefit the BNP.
In countries such as France the leftwing parties will attract a substantial proportion of the disgruntled working-class vote, but in Britain, without such an option, the BNP could benefit by positioning itself to the left of Labour on some issues and to the right of the Conservatives on others.
“The BNP has been steadily growing over the last few years during a period of benign economic conditions,” Jon Cruddas MP noted recently. “Now the economy is going into recession we are really going to face some problems.”
The question is how we respond to these threats. Part of the answer will be to challenge the nationalist responses to the recession, particularly exploding the myth of the British jobs for British workers approach. The slogan might be a catchy sound bite but it is no political solution. Over 300 of the largest 800 companies in the UK are foreign owned and hundreds of thousands of other UK jobs are reliant on foreign contracts.
If the BNP and the rightwing media support a British jobs for British workers approach then they must logically support a US jobs for US workers line, even if that means companies such as Rolls Royce and British Aerospace lose contracts to US firms.
It is also vital that we stand up for the rights of migrant workers and prevent one group being pitted against another. What is needed is to improve workers’ rights and conditions throughout Europe, including full rights for temporary and agency workers and paying the right rate for the job in the country where the work is undertaken. By doing this we can reduce the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers, reduce the likelihood of unscrupulous employers using foreign workers to undercut their UK counterparts and so hopefully reduce the friction between groups of workers.
We must also stand in defence of immigration, particularly at a time when immigrants are under such attack. Just as we should remember the contribution foreign-born workers have made to the UK economy we should also think about the 5.5 million Britons who work and live abroad.
Can you imagine the nationalist outrage from the BNP and rightwing press if hundreds of thousands of British migrant workers working across Europe or in the Middle East were ordered out?
It is this sort of hypocrisy that needs to be exposed.
The BNP also needs to be taken on politically, not just morally. Over recent weeks Searchlight has been approached by representatives of all three major political parties wanting to know our assessment of the BNP threat and how they can get involved in the campaign against them. Our answer to them all has been simple. Bland and empty rhetoric about BNP extremism is at best ineffectual and at worst counter-productive. A political party needs to say more than don’t vote BNP because they racist – it needs to offer a political reason why people should vote for it rather than the BNP.
Simply moralising, particularly at a time of such economic problems, will be seen as political bankruptcy.
Over the next year we are likely to see growing social unrest. Unless the political parties, the trade unions and anti-fascists develop a more combative approach to dealing with the BNP – based on issues – then we are going to face a really difficult time. The Economist warned of a return to the failed protectionist remedies of the 1930s. We should equally be very wary of a retreat into political nationalism.