Socialist Worker

Nationalism: Who really benefits when ‘we’re all in it together’?

Esme Choonara argues that nationalism is bad news for the workers’ movement

Issue No. 2138

The slogan “British jobs for British workers” gained widespread notoriety during the recent unofficial strikes by construction workers.

The phrase embodies common-sense nationalism – the notion that if British workers can’t find jobs, then that is because those jobs are being taken by “foreign workers”.

Many of those involved in the construction strikes abhor racism. But even the best formulations of the strike’s demands have been shaped by nationalist ideas. For instance, one Scottish union official framed the dispute in terms of “the right to work in our own country”.

This argument reflects the idea that Britain is “our own country” – that we are all part of a British nation, that we share a common national interest, and that this “Britishness” gives people certain rights that others do not have.

These notions are presented as if they were natural, but they come from the very top of society. Every British government tries to defend the interests of British capitalists against those of other nations – through economic measures where possible and military means where necessary.

Despite his recent rhetoric against the dangers of protectionism, Gordon Brown is no exception to this rule. This is why he has stoked nationalist ideas, including his infamous use of the “British jobs for British workers” phrase at the Labour Party conference in 2007.


There is another reason why the ruling class has always been keen on nationalism – it promotes the notion that workers have a common interest with everyone else in their firm, their country, or both.

So nationalism benefits company bosses and government ministers. It helps them to portray the major divisions in our society as being between different nationalities competing for jobs, resources and political dominance – rather than being between workers and bosses.

Even before the recession hit, one of the bosses’ favourite arguments was that workers in Britain had to accept worse pay or conditions in order to stay “competitive” against rival nations. In some cases they threatened to move work abroad.

Similarly, the government today tries to encourage a “Blitz spirit” – the feeling that we all have to rally round the flag and tighten our belts in the face of an economic crisis that threatens the whole nation.

There is a deeper fit between nationalism and the Labour Party’s focus on parliamentary politics. Reformism – the notion that things can or should be improved through the existing system – easily leads to supporting the existing institutions of the British nation state.

This is why Labour might oppose racism and attacks on asylum seekers when in opposition, but has a record in office of whipping up racism and introducing draconian legislation against immigrants.

It is also much easier for Labour to falsely lay the blame on foreign workers for taking British jobs, housing, benefits or hospital places than it is to confront and address the real issues – such as the failure of the government’s own neoliberal policies.

So we can see how nationalism benefits the ruling class – and why the ruling class embraces nationalism. But nationalist ideology can also frequently find its way into the workers’ movement.

It can seem easier to fight for a larger share of the world market than to take on the bosses directly. This can lead to workers rejecting the idea that they are “in it together” with their bosses, but still accepting that they are in competition with workers of other nationalities.

This “working class” version of nationalism is often encouraged by trade union leaders who push campaigns to defend “British industry”.

Some unions have run expensive campaigns in recent years – encouraging consumers to “buy British”, or to boycott goods that are being manufactured abroad.

These campaigns are ineffective. But they are also dangerous, in that they accept that the enemy is “foreign imports” and, by implication, the “foreign workers” who make them.

While nationalism is not the same as racism it certainly feeds it, because it works by encouraging divisions in the working class.

Some on the left believe they can neutralise these divisions by broadening British nationalism to include black, Asian or Polish immigrants. But ultimately nationalism can only work by defining certain people as “foreigners” and excluding them – so the pressure is always against unity.

Of course bosses will try to play workers off against each other on national lines. But for workers to accept this division is a disaster. That is why there has been a political fight against nationalism throughout the history of the workers’ movement.

Ethical principles

It was revolutionary socialists who stood out against the nationalistic jingoism that fuelled the slaughter of the First World War. And there have been successive battles to bring generations of immigrants into the trade union movement.

These traditions all rest on the idea that workers from different backgrounds and nationalities are not in competition with each other, but are allies in a common fight against a common class enemy.

This is the spirit at the heart of the anti-capitalist movement, and at the core of workers’ movements across Europe that have fought together to oppose European Union legislation that undermines union rights.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed out nearly a hundred years ago that internationalism isn’t just about abstract ethical principles. Its a rational response to the fact that the capitalist economy is global in nature – and so is the class struggle.

Workers have no country. Our fight for jobs and better pay is a fight against bosses who use us to maximise their profits – and against a system that is only too happy to play one group off against another in the pursuit of that profit.

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Tue 10 Feb 2009, 18:24 GMT
Issue No. 2138
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