Whose Common Good? A Critique of One-Nationism

By Katherine Wall - 16 November 2012
Whose Common Good? A Critique of One-Nationism

When we think of the common good, we imagine it within our own borders. Indeed at the Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband framed the common good in terms of 'one-nation' – the British nation. I want to explore why the adoption of nationalist rhetoric for the left in this country, and beyond it, is highly problematic. There are three key reasons for this. First, many of the problems we face as a society are global in nature and focusing on a purely nation centric politics is deeply flawed for this reason. Second, because of the nature of current challenges, encouraging a nationalist ideology only serves to limit the domestic appetite for solutions to these global issues. And third, without the realization of all citizens of every state that these global challenges require peoples of the world to come together and find solutions rather that continuing to fight solely in the national interest, these issues will never be resolved and global justice will never be achieved.

The communitarian tradition has always been strong in the British left emphasising the link between the individual and their community. This tradition paved the way for the welfare state and continues to fight for its existence. The idea that we are 'one-nation' aims to overcome domestic inequalities and unfair distributions of power; to overcome the individualist pursuit of wealth at the expense of those at the bottom; albeit within a conservative discourse. This is a noble goal but I believe it is a limited aspiration and potentially harmful to the realization of true equality and justice worldwide. We need to unpick the assumption that we should have a stronger allegiance to those within our own community, defined by the borders of the nation-state; why we prioritize the economic and social rights of those who are 'like us'; why the welfare of our fellow citizens is of greater concern than the welfare of the rest of humanity. We need to turn this assumption on its head.

Many challenges now faced in the UK are global in nature. From the financial crisis to climate change, unemployment to security threats, issues cross borders and can no longer be unilaterally solved by domestic governments alone. As Deborah Orr argued in the Guardian, 'It is a global crisis, and Miliband's failure to mention Europe, let alone the rest of the world, suggests that he is nowhere near facing it, let alone addressing it'. The insistence of the Labour leader, on our 'one-nation' highlighted his failure to comprehend the scale of these issues we now face. Thinking about the challenges of unemployment, global warming, poverty in the UK, without acknowledging the impact of global forces and the actions of those beyond our borders is nothing short of delusional. Not only do our actions impact upon those thousands of miles away, but the inter-dependence of the modern world makes a focus on domestic concerns now a narrow minded occupation.

It is also highly problematic to understand the notion of the common good in a UK-centric manner. Nation-states are 'imagined communities', as Benedict Anderson so accurately described them. Identifying the common good and social justice more generally within our own borders, limits the potential of achieving the common good for humanity. As Goodin said 'it is arbitrary, from a moral point of view, where we draw the lines on the map'. Justice begins with the premise that we are all of equal worth, no matter our race, religion, gender or sexuality. The very fact that we are part of this 'one-nation' has purely been determined by the luck of where we happened to be born. Something we had no choice in. Why should the fact that I was born a middle-class, white woman in an affluent country give me better opportunities that someone who was born into extreme poverty. Yet de-limiting the scope of the common good to within the borders of a state does just that – it prioritizes the rights and opportunities available to citizens of that nation. By speaking in terms of ‘one-nationism’, an ‘us/them’ divide is created and enhanced. And pursuing a nationalist rhetoric merely encourages the general public to focus inwards, to think solely of domestic concerns, rather than understanding those concerns in the broader context of a more globalised world.

Rather than focusing on social justice within the borders of the nation-state, we should broaden our understanding of the common good. By realising that the modern world in inter-connected, that the welfare of each is linked to the welfare of all, we can re-define the goals of the left. Instead of a common good within the confines of the nation, we should be pursuing the global common good and articulating how that aspiration can be achieved. ‘One-nation’ rhetoric limits the very ideas of social justice to within the borders on a map. What if we were to reimagine the world? What if we were to be truly one-nation – one world - in which the welfare and the good of all people were as important to us as those who happen to live within our state? Surely this would look a lot more like justice. Surely this would more accurately capture an understanding of the common good.

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