Skip to main content

Lord Patten Iveagh House Lecture

Brexit, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Speech, Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, 2018




Ireland, Britain and the Challenge of Nationalism


Just over 200 years ago, John Adams – the second President of the United States and its first Vice-President - observed that “while all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a standstill – little better understood, little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago”.   Today, he would be charged with gross understatement, a point to which his present day successor might tweet his dissent, if that is he had ever heard of President Adams.   I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about this question when in my earliest years an even more dangerous world was divided along ideological lines between West and East, Capitalism and Communism, the so-called Free World and Leninist tyranny, with the missiles in their silos preserving peace largely because the alternative was Armageddon.

Of course there were other factors which had shaped politics apart from ideology.   Truth to tell, we had rather forgotten about them.   There was for a start identity, a point of which we were brutally reminded on the eleventh September in 2001.   It seemed, as President Bush said, that on that awful day “the night fell on a different world”.

The rhetoric was wholly understandable.  But this was not the first time, far from it, that what the French, Christian, Lebanese, Arab writer Amin Malouff called “the panthers of identity politics” had hunted down their prey.   As it happened, I had recently read a book by Malouff given to me by a Jordanian minister which he thought might help me to understand the Middle East.   Called “The Name of Identity”, Malouff – whose identity as you can tell from my description of him was far from simple - wrote about this very complexity.  Each one of us has multiple identities.   There is invariably trouble when we isolate one from the others and see ourselves owing an almost exclusive loyalty to a single strand that makes up who we are.  Malouff’s argument was not that cultural identity did not matter, but that it was invariably too complicated to isolate one element, something that often caused trouble.   He noted with a plethora of examples how that simplification of identity was very often provoked by grievance and a feeling of beleaguerment.   One reason for the hostility to the West in the Arab world, he argued, was the treatment for example of the 19th century ruler of Egypt, Muhammed Ali, (often called the modern father of his country) who had tried to modernise it and to close the economic gap with the West; he had been sabotaged in this work by the British and other colonial powers.

Again, and I guess it is the contingent factor in one’s life, I read not long after Malouff’s book two others which make similar points.   First, there was Paul Bowles’ fine novel “The Spider’s House” set in Morocco in the mid-1950s.   He distinguished between Arab nationalists on the one hand, who were fired up by their grievances against colonialism and dreamt of “platoons of Muslim soldiers, street signs in Arabic script, factories and power plants”, and on the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists whose grievance was against the humiliation of imperious cultural disdain and who saw a future that featured  “skies of flame, the wings of avenging angels, and total destruction”.   Soon afterwards I came across Amartya Sen’s book on “Identity and Violence”, which begins with Sen’s early memory of a Muslim day-labourer being hacked to death by a crowd of Hindus in the front garden of his parents’ home in post-independence India.   Again and again, a crude and simple view of identity, of clan loyalty, of self, overwhelms human decency and civic humanism.

Well, all of this got me thinking about the extent to which the most difficult jobs in my own political career had been stoked by the politics of identity.   As a colonial governor, I had to deal with the absurd claims that there was a civilizational clash between Asia and the West which allegedly explained why it was a waste of time to try to assert the universality of human rights and the case for democracy in a Chinese society.

After that, as a European Commissioner, I found myself dealing with the destruction of a region because of the exaggerated difference between two Slavic groups, speaking the same language, who contested regional leadership in the Western Balkans over the corpses of Bosnian Muslims.

And above all there had been my experience in Northern Ireland, first as a junior minister and then as the Chairman of the Commission on Policing there. 

One reason why I felt particularly strongly about this period of my life is because Ireland is a part of my own identity.   And so it is for the 10 per cent of the UK population who have at least one Irish grandparent.   I am part of what must be a far larger group, the offspring of great grandparents.     My great grandfather was born in County Roscommon in 1829 and was driven from his home in Boyle in the 1840s by the famine.   He went to work as a repairer of cane chairs in the north-west of England.   Because of him, and my head teacher grandparents, I am a Catholic (another part of my identity) and had after my father’s early death a step-father from County Mayo, who worked his whole life for the NHS and made his first visit back to the island of Ireland in almost forty years to Hillsborough in the north when I was a minister there.    His family background sounds a little as though it was extracted from a Sebastian Barry novel.   His father was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary who was retired from his career after the assassination of Michael Collins in 1922.

So here I am:  a British passport holder, the last governor of a major British colony, a London scholarship boy, born in the middle of the middle-class, a Catholic, a liberal Tory, a former Cabinet minister, a huge admirer of that great Dubliner and scourge of the Raj Edmund Burke, a dog lover and gardener, the first Catholic Chancellor of Oxford University since the 16th century, a member of the House of Lords, a Commander of the Legion d’Honneur, a Tory toff or grandee according to some tabloids, a traitor according to others, a man who (when I became a European Commissioner) was according to “The Telegraph” turning my back on the British way of life – all that, and quite a lot of Irish blood coursing through my veins.  So what exactly is my identity?    By what things should I be content to be defined? 

About a year before I became a junior minister in Belfast, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald gave the Dimbleby Lecture.   His subject was “Irish Identities”.  Reading it today reminds one of Dr. Fitzgerald’s intelligent and humane civility.   It is also remarkably prescient.   It would have been, and indeed in a sense was, the intellectual and philosophical framework for the Good Friday Agreement.    In setting out his views on what he called not the Irish problem, but the Irish-British problems, he very fairly noted the ways in which Ireland had been impoverished as well as enriched by the British connection.   (These wise remarks were quite similar to those made a few years later by the then Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, about the British role in India.)   As Queen Elizabeth said when she came to Dublin in 2011, “it is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss”.   So I owe some of the aspects of my identity, as do many others, to that awful historic failure to make a better job over the centuries of sharing this archipelago.  

Near the end of his remarkable lecture, Dr. Fitzgerald made the following point very fairly:

“…..  to my British audience I should like to offer a gentle reminder that we in Ireland would not be in the mess in which we find ourselves today if Britain in past generations had not involved itself so incontinently in our affairs.   I do not, of course, impute collective, inherited guilt; but I think that we in Ireland have a right to ask that you – and your political leaders – give more of your thought and your time than you have done over most of the past sixty years to the resolution of a problem which is, after all, a British creation – and one which continues to cost British as well as Irish lives …..”

Eventually, we did what the former Taoiseach had urged on us.   Working with you in the Republic we negotiated the 1998 Agreement which ended the violence though not by any means all the divisions in Northern Ireland.   It was a great achievement for our liberal democracies.  But sadly today that success is put at risk by another sort of identity politics; not the passionately held and often narrowly defined loyalties that have caused havoc on parts of this island, but a different broader example of identity politics, the resurgence of nationalism, an issue both in my own country of birth and in others too.   It is strange that as Ireland has become more pluralist, more extrovert, more committed to individual liberty and human rights as a constructive member of the European Union, Britain has become less comfortable and has felt less at home as a member of the Union to which it has belonged pretty much on its own terms.

The rise of nationalism in Europe and America should rightly cause us anxiety, especially when we consider our history.   The European civilisation at the beginning of the twentieth century, which enjoyed its moment of hubris at the Paris exhibition of 1900, was rightly praised in a moving book (“The World of Yesterday”) by the Viennese Jewish novelist, dramatist and translator, Stefan Zweig.    He went on however to chronicle how European civilisation was torn apart in the first half of the century, first by what Winston Churchill denounced as “nationalistic quarrels”, and then following the carnage of the First Wold War by the four horses of the Apocalypse – fascism, communism, class conflict and capitalist collapse.     As W.H. Auden wrote in his poem of tribute to W.B. Yeats –

          “In the nightmare of the dark,

          All the dogs of Europe bark,

          And the living nations wait,

          Each sequestered in its hate.”

Fleeing Europe, Zweig wrote from exile in South America “The World of Yesterday”, sent it to his publisher in 1942 and a day later along with his wife committed suicide.   That act of terminal pessimism took place even before the Wannsee Conference plotted and organised the Final Solution.

I imagine that those who had reason to be as gloomy as Zweig were amazed at what happened after the Second World War and that terrible struggle between nations in both Europe and Asia.  A new world rose from the moral, political and economic rubble based on an end to nationalist struggle and on international co-operation.  Led by the United States, most of the world accepted rule books and the leadership of global and regional institutions.  For most there was peace, and for many there was unparalleled prosperity.  All of us who spent the majority of our lives (in our prime if you like) in that period have reason to be very grateful.   Will my children and your children be so fortunate?

The European Union was one of the principal vehicles for promoting order and economic well-being in the post-war years.   On these islands we hung back from the enterprise, with London assuming that it was too ambitious to succeed and believing too that in any event Britain could still – not least because of its Churchillian bravery in the war – strut its stuff on its own, America’s adjutant standing apart from what its greatest modern leader had called “the noble continent”.   In our hearts we knew anyway that “the English, the English, the English are best/ I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest”.   We learned our lesson in due course, joined the Common Market as it then was as “the sick man of Europe” and made a huge success of the venture, securing membership of the Club more or less on our own terms.     We hung loose from Schengen, and rightly (as I came to realise) from the Euro, but we took the lead in pressing for enlargement and in developing the single market.   Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Cockfield were responsible for the largest volume of transnational legislation in the history of the world.  So what went wrong?

First of all, I don’t think we ever reconciled ourselves to the fact that we were no longer a “top-dog”.   The scientist, Sir Henry Tizard said after the war that while we were no longer a great power, we were still a great nation:   but (he went on) if we tried to go on behaving like a great power, we would sooner or later cease to be a great nation.   Britain has remained an important country, diplomatically, economically, militarily and culturally.   But we are today middle-ranking when we put our minds to it, not a global power:  a middle-ranking country with admittedly global interests and at our best global influence.

Second, there has been plenty to criticise in the EU.   Putting the case for it in terms of intense and continuing political or economic integration is never going to be attractive to people who observe the extent to which some of its members fall so far below the level of their avowed ambitions and aspirations.   What values and aims do you and I share with Mr. Orban, Mr. Kaczynski or Mr. Salvini?      What odds do we place on any German chancellor signing up to morphing the currency union into a fiscal union and a transfer union?  On the other hand, in a world threatened by Vladimir Putin’s murderous and mendacious kleptocracy, in a global economy which mercantilist Leninism in China wishes to dominate, at a time when American leadership is in dubious hands when visible at all, we need to work more closely with neighbours to look after our own interests.   But this argument has not been heard very often at Westminster.

Third, while I do not over-emphasise the importance of the media in shaping political opinion – especially as the readership of the print media has steadily declined – the tone of truculent populism in some of our tabloids has undoubtedly had an effect on the declining number of political activists especially on the right.   Fewer and fewer listen to the same more and more strident messages, probably a contributory factor to the increasingly violent tone of much social media. Some tabloid front pages recall a much earlier and more poisonous age.

Fourth, just as economic grievances and inequality triggered hostility to elites and to polite received opinion in America, so something similar has happened in England, though clearly not to the same extent to Scotland or Northern Ireland.   Globalisation, China, Mexico and immigration were fingered as the villains in the USA;   Brussels and immigration were the culprits in England, alongside the whipped up hysteria that we had lost control of our democracy and our money.

That slippery concept of sovereignty provided a superficially moral justification for many supporters of Brexit, especially I suspect older ones, to abandon their adherence to the customary relationship between economic evidence and voting intentions, which still matters a great deal to their children.   Undoubtedly, immigration was the cutting edge for the Brexit campaign, to the subsequent embarrassment of some of the more squeamish Brexiteers, who had given the impression that they were mildly in favour of global Britain provided that Mr. Farage and right-wing Conservatives could be left to make clear that this did not mean anyone foreign coming to live in our island home.  Academic studies show that there were 99 front-page stories on immigration in the referendum campaign, 78 of them in Leave supporting newspapers – above all the Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun.  They were not, to put it mildly, extolling the benefits of immigration.

Beyond and in a way above all this is the main reason for holding the Brexit vote.   The referendum was an attempt to manage the right-wing of the Conservative Party, which ever since Europe was (mostly wrongly) blamed for the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, had plotted and schemed to get us out of the EU, latterly using the rise of UKIP and its occasional, indeed regularly occasional, leader Nigel Farage as a way of scaring the Conservative leadership into retreat after retreat.   Taking a rather stronger line on Mr. Farage’s manifest duplicity was hardly ever tried.  Trying to manage right-wing ideologues by feeding them occasional morsels of Euro-bashing was never likely to do any more than increase their appetites.    It is instructive to look at the voting record of the main Conservative Brexit campaigners in the ERG since 2010.   Their Chairman (whose main personal financial enterprise has found a refuge in Dublin – how kind of you!) has voted against the government 113 times.   Some of his co-conspirators have an even worse record of party loyalty.   People talk a lot about the importance of authenticity in politics:  I suppose you could call this authentic disloyalty.   It plainly was not constrained by a policy of concessions and surrenders.

But here we are.   The act of egregious self-harm has been carried out; the blade has flashed.   What happens next?   I cannot do much better than to offer Shakespeare’s “King John”, - “So foul a sky clears not without a storm”.   Where and when will the storm break?

I remain surprised that right-wing English nationalists did not know what should happen the day after the castle was successfully stormed.  We are two years down the road.   We have about 9 months to go before the bell rings for our exit.   We are presumably intent on getting as long a transition as possible.   But we are presently prisoners of decisions already taken:   triggering Article 50 before we knew what we wanted; announcing our determination to leave the customs union, the single market and any jurisdiction by the ECJ; and a categorical “no” to the fourth freedom, free movement of people from across the EU.   I am sure that Mrs. May would like to avoid an off-the-cliff-onto-the-rocks Brexit.   So it appears at the moment (in the words of Mr. Bettel, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister,) that we want to abandon membership of the EU with pockets full of opt-outs, and settle instead for life outside our largest market with as many opt-ins as we can cram on the back of a lorry.  

But how is all this to be managed gaining, as will be necessary, parliamentary and public support for the course we stumble upon?    Are we intent, in so far as the notion of intention is meaningful, on avoiding the cliff edge in favour of a long, if more stately, slide downhill.    

The mounting complications as the real world closes in on us produce predictable reactions.   We still seem to rely on trying to make the facts fit whatever we would like the policy to be rather than use the facts and evidence as a basis for the policy.  Any objections within Britain to whatever we ask for from week to week is answered by the increasingly hysterical reply that we are denying the will of the people.   Fearing disaster Brexiteers fight among themselves or dive for cover and begin the hunt for alibis and for someone else to blame:   judges, “remainers”, the House of Lords, MPs with a conscience, the so-called “bullies of Brussels” who only the other day were going to fall over one another in the rush to secure our favours in order to sell us Prosecco or BMWs.    We seem to forget among much else, that other countries have their sovereignty too.   And then failing any other plausibly guilty party, we can always point the finger at Dublin and some alas do exactly that.  Why don’t you make life easier for us by leaving the EU yourselves?   Why not do what you’re told?   Why make all this trouble by pointing out the obligations of WTO and WCO membership?

To be fair, I don’t believe that this is the Prime Minister’s position.  I think she understands that a combination of the commitments already made and the existence of our only land border with the EU once we have quit, does pose some problems which belong in that geometric category of circle squaring.    I won’t go through all the arguments which you know only too well.   Point one:  you can be outside a customs union, in which case you need a border, which you don’t need if you are inside such a union.  Mrs. May said this herself during the referendum campaign.   Point two:  there is nowhere in the world where that does not apply.   A frictionless border without customs and regulatory alignment belongs to the world of make-believe.   Point three:   technology cannot solve the problem.   Ask the WCO, the WTO and road hauliers.   Point four:   as Mrs May said in her Mansion House speech, Britain caused the problem so it is for us to find a solution.    More midnight oil will be required, or more likely we shall need to manage some sort of retreat to buy time.   Needless to say, it is not only the Irish border which causes problems.   Just talk to Eurotunnel or freight companies who use Dover and listen to what they have to say.   Above all, there is the point to which Garret Fitzgerald referred all those years before in his remarkable and prescient prequel to the Good Friday Agreement, the border is “a recipe for anarchy” or these days at least for unpicking the fabric of the 1998 peace deal.

So our nationalist rage is getting us into a terrible mess, all in order to do two things.  To begin with, outside the European customs union we can purportedly run our own trade policy and, it is argued, make up for any trade opportunities we lose in Europe by deals with others on other continents.  Global Britain can take the road to Mandalay and sweep up new commercial opportunities.   Samuel Becket’s favourite word was said to be “perhaps”, an insufficient word to describe this self-delusion.   First, we will have our work cut out to replicate the EU’s existing trade deals with countries like Japan, Mexico, South Korea and so on.   In trade talks size matters, so do issues like rules of origin.   Second, the old rule of thumb still operates despite globalisation – double the distance, halve the trade.  Third, what sort of trade deals will we win from mercantilists like Presidents Trump and Xi.

The other alleged prize for quitting the EU is not one that you can quantify in economic terms.   Outside the Brussels cage, we can “take back control”.  This begs a thousand questions.   What does control – or sovereignty – really mean and what are we going to regain that is presently lost?  I won’t go into that argument in detail save to make the point that the EU is not a political union but a regulatory union.   There are two other similar blocs in the world – China and the US.   How are we going to go it alone?    We will fetch up taking the rules that determine so much commerce from someone else, without sharing in deciding them.  As we all know, it has invariably been true that if you are not at the table you are on the menu.

There is one aspect of the debate on nationalism which touches on a broader issue affecting all of us who live in liberal democracies.

A small cottage industry has developed recently which questions the likely survival of liberal democracy.   Most of those who write these books – academics and commentators – have one thing in common:   they have never been elected to any political office.   A common theme is that nationalism has been ignited in its most populist forms in part because democratic parties have taken insufficient account of the natural ties and loyalties of the national community.   Voters have turned to populist parties because national identity has been sacrificed to the idea of international partnership and the obligations that accompany that.    They even go further occasionally and suggest that maybe authoritarian nationalists – from Orban to Trump to Erdogan, even to Putin and Xi – have found a more successful and long-lasting model of governance which makes liberal democracy look well beyond its sell by date, its one-time triumphalism hollowed out by cumulative failure.

Now it is true that liberal democracies have had a difficult few years almost since Francis Fukuyama pronounced their total victory after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The notion that democracy itself – the act of casting a vote - was not enough, that to create a harmonious and successful society required institutions and values – the rule of law, a vigorous civil society, freedom of speech and worship, autonomous institutions and so on – was certainly borne out by much of the experience of the world since the Second World War.   This point was very well made by Fareed Zakaria in a wise book, “The Future of Freedom” about 15 years ago. 

What has eroded liberal democracy is not an assault on identity by elites.   Rather there has been a series of policy failures some of which were not caused by ignoring national community but by forgetting that many of the problems facing national communities can only be dealt with through international co-operation.   You cannot govern nation states successfully on the basis of Rudyard Kipling’s couplet –

          “All the people like us are We,

          And everyone else is They”.

What cracked the foundations of liberal democracies?   In most cases you can point to policy failure and political mistakes.   There was the combination of ideologically driven deregulation in America with excessive borrowing that brought on the financial collapse of 2008:   the years when we made debt seem benign by calling it leverage.   There was growing economic inequity – with flat or falling average pay, untaxed corporations and over-paid corporate executives.   There was a failure to match greater global trade with more investment in retraining those who lost their job to the lower paid in other continents.  We declined to confront electors with the unsustainable costs of entitlement programmes.  We failed to deal adequately with immigrant flows, an issue (if ever there was one) which will require even more international co-operation in the future not less.   We voted at the United Nations to assert the principle that citizens, and not just states, had rights, and then suffered an almost terminal case of buyers’ remorse when we were required to deliver on the policy of the Responsibility to Protect.

There is nothing inherent in liberal democracy that brings it down.   Nor is there any better way of managing international relations than co-operation and the acceptance of binding rules.   We tried to manage differently a century and less ago.  It did not work very well – visit the cemeteries.

Nationalism does not of course inevitably lead to the sort of moral and political catastrophe that we have engendered before.   But the first half of the last century shows that it can do exactly that.   Read Stefan Zweig.   Read Winston Churchill.   If you don’t know the past, you don’t know how the future may turn out.

There are so many things that I love about England, made – as it has been - by what Defoe called a “mongrel breed”.    There is our language.  There is the common law.    There are so many of our cultural institutions.  There is or certainly was our sense of tolerance, now fractured by the awful binary nature of Brexit and the attitude to it of some of our tabloids.   And there are also the things that in my view distinguish nationalism from patriotism.   At our best in England, we have not drawn strength from hostility to others.    Most politicians have not whistled up xenophobia to win support.  We have tried not to sentimentalise our history, “snopaking” the bad or embarrassing bits.   We have tried not to glamorise our institutions too much but instead – eventually – to make them work better.   We have usually treated with considerable circumspection those who tell us there are simple solutions to the predicament of being human.

So what most concerns me about Brexit and the debate which it has occasioned is that it has started to turn into an assault on the institutions and values that work, that have made liberal democracy itself work so well – from an independent judiciary, to the Burkean notion of parliamentary democracy, to autonomous universities, to tolerance and resistance to majoritarianism.   Moreover, for Britain to leave the E.U. will hurt us;  it will hurt and damage an important part of the international infrastructure of co-operation;  and it will hurt you – another example of what Dr. Fitzgerald called (very gently) one of the careless and incontinent interventions in Ireland’s affairs for which we have been from time to time recklessly responsible.

The international order in the second half of the twentieth century chose on the whole to turn its back on the Hobbesian view of might and right.  Thomas Hobbes was himself the first translator into English of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War.  It was the Melian dialogue recorded by Thucydides which reflected what is taken to be the Hobbesian view of international affairs: “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”.   I hope that is not one of the long-term consequences of Brexit.  But who knows?   As Professor Sir Adam Roberts of Oxford University once opined, “the future would be a good subject to study if only the sources were more forthcoming”!