When Samuel Johnson declared patriotism to be “the last refuge of a scoundrel” one feels from the uneasy perspective of the post-20th century world that he had not seen anything yet. Johnson was not of course against all patriotism, only against what he considered a politically insincere simulacrum of it. But now we find that, at least in the view of Anatol Levin in the Guardian, we need a dose of small-minded national self-interest to defeat the dreaded scourge of climate change. “The task then is to mobilise patriotism by convincing national populations that global heating is a threat, not just to humanity and the planet but to the interests and the future survival of their own countries.” Though if you weren’t trying to convince them of something so obviously implausible you wouldn’t need to resort to politically insincere strategies.
The piece is not without its merits including some unexpected historical analysis. As well as an all too predictable patronising reference to “the latest episode in the 200-year-old history of efforts to save capitalism from itself” and hyperventilation about how “Climate change, if unchecked, threatens the destruction of Britain” while “unrestrained capitalism… by continuing to boost carbon emissions… can destroy the whole of modern civilisation.” Yes, one is tempted to retort. And by shutting them off you can do the same and a lot quicker. But let us not be snide.
The core of his argument is an interesting excursion through history. While we are now inclined to see the welfare state as the work of the left, for better or worse, Levin says, it was really the work of “the social imperialism movement” that stretched from Wells, Shaw and the Webbs on the left through Churchill and Beveridge to Kipling, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Lord Roberts, Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s an unusual group of people to find standing together in a room, even an imaginary one. But according to Levin, “What all these figures had in common was a fear of social disintegration and revolution; a belief (right or wrong) in the British Empire as a force for progress; and a belief that social solidarity, “national efficiency”, and a degree of national self-sufficiency were essential to survive what they (correctly) saw would be the colossal social, economic and political strains of a new European war.”
To quibble, Bismarck probably did not take that view of the British Empire. But Levin has a point that in Britain in particular, which is his focus, “The social imperialist tradition flowed into the later development of the welfare state as a result of the Second World War. In the course of these conflicts most of the Labour party became intensely patriotic, while the Conservatives became one-nation Tories, committed to social solidarity and state involvement in the economy.”
That both trends may have been dead ends does not concern him. Instead, he says it’s the way out of the trap that “International agreements and protest movements are valuable and necessary but they can’t do anything themselves. Their purpose is to nudge and shame states into taking action. And state governments, in the end, take action on behalf of their national populations. That is their duty, and it is also what those populations expect and vote for.”
So what we have to do is get people’s enlightened self-interest engaged, so that “society, as a whole, will pull together, alleviate suffering and make sacrifices as part of a common effort.” Otherwise, as usual, we’re all going to die. “If we can’t manage this I very much doubt that liberal democracy will survive what is coming at us down the line.”
It’s an interesting, original, informed approach to the problem. Which is good. But it seems to us to suffer from two flaws.
First, it’s the umpteenth account by climate alarmists of how to manipulate people into accepting climate alarmism through psychology because rational argument seems to have failed. And second, it therefore fails to address the issue rationally. Including that the real reason people are not already telling governments to save us from the wrath of Gaia is that she doesn’t seem very angry.
If temperatures had risen the way we were warned they would, starting with James Hansen in 1988, you wouldn’t need the shades of Beatrice Webb or Rudyard Kipling to galvanize voters into demanding action. (And if you’re thinking well the British government has been pushed off the green end, Levin says no, its response is far too tepid.)
If the floods and storms and crop failures of which alarmists confidently speak were actually happening, citizens would be marching gaunt and desperate through the streets, not sitting fuming in their cars while Extinction Rebellion wackos in weird masks blocked traffic. And if there were a real threat of social revolution from the masses sweltering due to the excesses of unchecked carbon capitalism, governments would react to the danger.
If they’re not, well, patriotism looks like the last refuge of an alarmist. And it’s not a good look.