Understanding concerns about immigration: Nationalism, not racism, is the problem

Posted on September 23rd, 2014 by Clara Sandelind

Following ugly scenes in Glasgow’s George square in the wake of the Sctottish referendum outcome, questions have been raised about British nationalism and the future of citizenship. Our blogs this week focus on understanding nationalism, and wider concerns linked to debates about immigration and national identity. The first, by Clara Sandelind at the University of Sheffield looks at how we should understand concerns about immigration and ‘the national interest’.

Nigel Farage’s controversial statement that it is understandable if people would rather live next to Germans than Romanians led to accusations of racial prejudice. And yet, UKIP support, and concerns about immigration, is not primarily driven by racism. Racism has been steadily in decline in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, while nationalism and the all-means-necessary protection of “the national interest” remains the lens through which immigration policy is judged. Understanding the roots of immigration concerns, and the distinction between racism and nationalism, is vital if we want to debate the politics of immigration without alienating a large part of the electorate.

Understanding anti-immigration arguments

In the May EU election, the anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats (SD) campaigned for abolishing “organised begging”, widely connected to EU migrants, while a finger pointed from one of UKIPS’s posters saying “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?” The immigrant is someone arriving with the intention to deceive and take what isn’t theirs. While arguably appealing to nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments, these statements are not necessarily racist.

I take racism to be negative stereotyping of all individuals within a group based solely on their racial, ethnic or national belonging. These are features of oneself that one cannot choose or unchoose. Such prejudice is normally measured as attitudes towards inter-ethnic marriage or to having an ethnic minority boss, or by more direct questions of attitudes to different groups. Clearly, the trends of this sort of stereotyping against particular groups such as the Roma are deeply concerning. Overall though, racism has declined drastically in the UK over the last three decades.

In order to understand negative attitudes to immigration and support for the far right, both here and in Europe, it is a mistake to focus on racism. Negative attitudes to immigration explain far more of the support for the far right than do racism. Racism also explains very little of why people are negative towards immigration. If you are a racist, you are very likely to also oppose immigration. However, the opposite is not the case.

Nationalism is often equated with chauvinism, but it comes in many different forms. I take nationalism to broadly mean the prioritisation of the interests of one’s co-nationals over the interests of others, where co-nationals are those belonging to a nation with a distinct culture. Those who see immigration as a threat are often more worried about the cultural and economic consequences for their country and don’t see immigration as a direct threat to their personal situation. Immigration is perceived as a threat to the nation, one’s “in-group”, and these sentiments are fuelled by the notorious evocation of the “national interest” in public debates on immigration.

UKIP-Edinburgh Corn Exchange-2014-05-09 IMG 0398
By Brian McNeil (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What does the ‘national interest’ mean?

Farage cannot say that Germans make better neighbours than Romanians without causing an outcry. David Cameron, on the other hand, is applauded when he makes “Britain first” the cornerstone of Conservative immigration policy. “The national interest” is called upon so ubiquitously in the debate on immigration that we are led to believe there are no other interests out there.

But migrants, such as those begging on Swedish streets or looking for jobs in the UK, have interests too. Interests in a safe existence. Interests in being treated with decency and dignity. Interests in creating a better life for themselves and their families. These interests matter too and can be incorporated within a notion of nationalism. In placing “Britain first” in immigration policy, however, these rights are completely subordinated to the interests of the British. What we get is an absolutist form of nationalism, by which we have no moral obligations outside our national borders.

It is not helped by the total fetishisation of the idea of national self-determination being heralded by EU-sceptics and critics of the European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR). Apparently, any imposition of international law on the UK undermines national self-determination. Anything that has not been signed, sealed and delivered by the Houses of Parliament is seen as illegitimate. This is an unintelligible view to take if one recognises, as people do in cases like Syria and Iraq, that there are human interests in life, freedom and dignity that the principle of national self-determination cannot override. Sometimes individuals need protection against majority rule, which doesn’t mean that majority rule is a flawed principle in issues not concerned with fundamental human rights. But we have become obsessed with this absolutist notion of national sovereignty, just as we are obsessed with protecting the “national interest” by any means possible when formulating immigration policy.

Nationalism can be, and in most people’s minds probably is, a much less fetishised notion. I need to take other people’s interests into account in everything I do – this does not make me a less self-determining individual or less able to follow my self-chosen moral compass. Only taking your own interest into account would in fact be regarded by most as an unacceptable moral code of conduct. Yet in immigration policy the guiding principle is the unequivocal protection of the “national interest” that takes precedence over all other concerns, notably those of migrants themselves. This perverted notion of national self-determination is what we really need to challenge to have any hope of a more positive immigration debate.

Neither does nationalism need to entail an idea of national superiority. Indeed, nationalism is a universal idea that recognises all nations’ equal right to self-determination. Accusing those who favour restrictions on immigration of prejudice is misguided. Racism is not the driver of these attitudes and it is not at the core of nationalism. Instead, the one-sided focus on “the national interest” is the problem.


Clara profile

Clara Sandelind is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. Her research explores issues of national identity, immigration, self-determination and social trust from both comparative and normative perspectives. She is the editor of European Populism and Winning the Immigration Debate, forthcoming in November. She tweets @clarasandelind

 Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

Creative Commons license