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Imagine there’s no countries… and therefore no museums

10 September 2016

8:30 AM

10 September 2016

8:30 AM

I’m not a great optimist about the whole Brexit thing, although my colleagues would mostly disagree. It’s as if we were expecting a storm and we’re now cheering because it’s gone quiet. Strangely, eerily quiet. Anyway, like with climate change, I hope I’m wrong, and whenever I have my doubts about the whole thing, I think about the ‘Remain’ protests led by Eddie Izzard. Let’s hope these obviously counter-productive demonstrations continue for the next five years.

However, one disaster that doesn’t seem to have materialised yet is the warning that Brexit would lead to a brain drain. One guy in the Guardian, called Mr Imhof, says he’s going, which is a shame, as I’m sure we would have really got on:

‘We – Generations Y and Z – are the first generation in Europe to almost exclusively change the world with hardly any form of violence. We reject basic ideas of capitalism without even noticing it, simply because technology is making them redundant. We have grown up in multiethnic societies and consciously reject our grandparents’ open and our parents’ ingrained racism. We fight sexism. We denounce exploitation and the devoting of our lives to someone else’s profit.’

So thin does the exodus appear that the BBC ran a story about Miss Edgley from Sedgley who, because of Brexit, was moving to Poland, where of course she’ll finally be free of right-wing nationalist politics. She is Polish by ancestry and who can blame her? I’ve often thought of moving back to the ancestral homeland, but my wife thinks I’d just use it as an excuse to drink even more, which is probably true. Plus there’s the Irish weather.


However, Miss Edgley is not the only one leaving Brexit Britain. Martin Roth, director of the V&A for the past five years, has suggested that he’s off because of the 23 June vote, and the militaristic language the debate brought up. He’s opposed to nationalism, and said:

‘When I came here I wanted to make the museum one of global importance. I hope I have managed that. I say this as this exhibition is all about global impact and comes at a time of nationalism, which we must stand up to. As John Lennon said in ‘Imagine’: ‘Imagine there’s no countries’.’

I imagine that if there were no countries, there wouldn’t be many free museums, nor public transport systems or welfare states or socialised medicine or any of the other shared institutions that require social solidarity. I can see where Mr Roth comes from though; he’s a German of a certain age, and it’s rational that he might see nationalism as dangerous. Then there is the moral burden of coming from a nation that committed the worst crime in history, one that hovers in the background of all debate on the subject of nationalism.

The problem for Mr Roth is that he belongs to a relatively small section of society, true internationalists or post-nationalists, who see the world as their nation. Most people in western countries are not internationalists; the number in non-western countries is vanishingly small, indeed the dysfunction of these lands is partly caused by the strength of more parochial attachments. So while in the West many see nation-states as the problem, every day thousands risk drowning to go from countries with weak national identities to countries with strong ones.

Even among British ‘Remainers’, probably only a minority of the 48 per cent are true internationalists, a large number having voted for economic reasons. Internationalism is more popular among the wealthy and educated, not just because they are more likely to travel, but because it is a high-status idea, and high-status people are therefore attracted to it. They aren’t much more rational than anyone else though.

But internationalism also works as a high-status idea because nation-states are more likely to benefit those further down the hierarchy; borders help with economic and cultural protection and the trust that results from national identity leads to a greater willingness to pool resources, such as museums. Internationalism is a key part of what Christopher Lasch called ‘the revolt of the elites’, the flight of the ruling class away from their traditional ties to society; in that case Brexit and Trumpism are ‘the reaction of the masses’. The obvious solution to this lasting bitterness would be for all internationalists to found a state somewhere, where they could truly enjoy a world without borders and nationalism. It would be interesting to see how it worked out – but I think I’d stick with Britain.


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