Nationalism in times of corona

From VE Day street parties to patriots protecting statues, Tom Leach discusses the role of nationalism during a national crisis.

Tom Leach
19th June 2020
Since lockdown began and the country went into crisis, symbols of nationalism have emerged from the woodwork once again. The anniversary VE Day saw celebrations and Union flag bunting line the streets of suburbia. Second World War veteran Captain Tom Moore served Britain once again as he walked around his garden in aid of the NHS. People lined the streets to applaud our healthcare workers. The traipsing out of 'Blitz Spirit' symbolism in times of discontent and difficulty is a time-tested coping mechanism in Britain, but how much of it is just performance? 

The inspiration for this article was the lack of social distancing in my local VE Day street parties. There is hypocrisy in that: how can one stand to espouse love for their nation, yet act in a way that would seek to endanger the people in their community? To endanger the people that, in their absence, would mean there is no longer a 'nation' at all? 

Following Black Lives Matter protests in the US, there have been similar demonstrations in Britain against its own racist institutions. These protests have resulted in the toppling of some statues dedicated to late figures in British history. Conflict is breaking out between groups who view their heritage as under fire, and those who see the statues as symbolising the nation's violent and imperialist past. Herein lies the nature of nationalism.

'Community' in Britain has become but a shell

Since the gutting of the welfare state, destruction of working class communities, and the regime of individualism in the late 20th century brought by Thatcher's neoliberalism, 'community' in Britain has become but a shell. When the free market means competition brings success, it pits people against each other. The culture changed. Where once there may have been a people engaged with each other, the population has become atomised. It has been divided. And so nationalism becomes empty too, a tool of speech rather than anything meaningful. 

This is what it has become in modern Britain. Rarely is the appeal to patriotism employed honestly; rhetoricians know it's a powerful tool, and pay lip service to it. This is becoming clearer as the coronavirus response continues. Politicians and commentators roll out the same grey and sickly symbols of yesteryear – particularly of times of courage in crisis such as the Second World War – to act as surrogate for effective action. It's almost ironic to romanticise an era of huge fatality and struggle and use that fantasy to help deal with another such event. Why should the upper classes respond properly to a global pandemic in order to protect the masses? To protect the people who make up 'the Nation'? They can just pretend we're all in it together instead.  

The attitude is sadly not just quarantined with the ruling classes. Their ideas have become endemic to the wider population: VE Day street parties without social distancing; patriots without facemasks protecting statues from attack; the middle-class demanding their houses be cleaned by the working classes at the behest of doctors' advice. Yet more examples of the espousal of patriotism without action to back it up.

At a time where the idolatry of Britain's historical elites is being brought into question, we should also question what 'Britain' really means. We should question if the nationalism supported by the government and upper classes is entirely sincere or merely being used as a tool for support. 

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AUTHOR: Tom Leach
Spanish and German student. Interested in cultural studies and left-wing politics globally. Twitter: @tleachleach

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