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UK General Election 2015: Nationalism – The one thing everyone agrees on

The following is a guest post by Ben O’Keeffe

One ideological motif has run throughout this General Election campaign: Nationalism. From the rising force of the SNP and UKIP, to Labour and the Conservative’s pandering to calls for greater controls on immigration, an undercurrent of nationalism has made British identity a more prevalent election issue than in any other recent Westminster election.

The unforeseen swell in SNP support following their failed attempt at Scottish secession was arguably the catalyst for the question of nationalism to rear its head with such fervour. Their fellow left-wing nationalists, Plaid Cymru, can only dream of such gains in Wales, but they have received more media coverage than ever before during a UK wide election.

On the right-wing, we may have seen a crumbling of support for the British Nationalist Party throughout this parliament, but the more moderate right, both within the Tory Party as well as UKIP, have increasingly held the ear of the media (and seemingly the Prime Minister) over the last five years.

Labour equally have not eschewed the issues of national identity in their campaign. Both through their presence in the ‘No’ camp of the Scottish referendum and their fronting up to perceived previous failures on immigration (even if it was primarily done through a mug) Labour have exploited the national identity angle to support their message.

But nationalism’s prevalence raises a truly fundamental question. To whom does the ideology belong?

Received wisdom places it at the right of the ideological spectrum. However, the mere presence of left-wing-nationalist parties – the SNP and Plaid are often portrayed as the most left-wing of any of the established parties – puts this in serious doubt.

It may of course seem antithetical to attempt to merge left-wing ideas with a keen nationalist spirit for the many who cite the historical relationship between socialism and internationalism. And they may of course be right, there are clear incompatibilities with the fundaments of both ideologies. However, this has not stopped parties from simultaneously mobilising both.

The allure of nationalism as a concept is that it ostensibly transcends the left-right spectrum. The concept of the imagined community that is ‘the nation’ is so embedded, so ingrained, that the electorate fail to see its strategic political qualities. The national system of political economy goes broadly unquestioned in the UK.

Its uncontentious, unifying properties are therefore extremely valuable to any party seeking to maximise vote-share.

Parties who build their brand around this label also gain from an ability to manipulate their broader politico-economic standpoint to capture the zeitgeist of the moment or appeal to voters at both ends of the spectrum: The SNP have not always been the progressive party they portray themselves to be; and UKIP’s raw patriotism and anti-immigration standpoint is equally resonating with the Conservative Home Counties as well as the depressed Labour coastal towns.

So, in a very nationalist way, we might all own nationalism – well, as long as you don’t try and change things too much.

This of course begs a second question, from where does national identity arise? Unfortunately I cannot tackle this question now as I must take a phone call in a red box from the Queen as we are meeting for fish and chips after I finish my cup of tea.

Ben O’Keeffe graduated from King’s College London with an MA in International Political Economy in 2014. He currently works as a Consultant with Bellenden Public Affairs in London.

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