The dance of the Celtic Utopians could spin out of their control

The dance of the Celtic Utopians could spin out of their control

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 17, December, 2018

AS LEO VARADKAR steps up his campaign to prevent Ireland's main neighbour and chief trading partner from leave the European Union, it is time to examine why he and his fellow globaliser Nicola Sturgeon are so opposed to Britain repatriating powers from Brussels, ones that underscore national self-government.   

It is currently hard to identify any other part of the world as attached to a post-national future as the two mainly self-governing countries of Ireland and Scotland. In both a progressive narrative drives government policy. This was shown by the large majority in favour of abortion in the Irish referendum this May as well as by the more recent Scottish government decision to promote gay and lesbian identities as core features of education.  With little or no internal opposition, the lead has been taken to promote identity politics and espouse equality by Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael and Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party, forces associated in the past with cautious conservatism.

Both have dragooned their parties into espousing a future for mankind based around accelerating transnational cooperation. These Celtic globalisers vigorously espouse a converging world with shrinking borders, commitment to environmental safeguards for the planet, and attention to the needs of various minorities who identify around race, religion, sexuality, and gender. Social changes which placed power in the hands of urban liberal-minded professionals help to explain the new emphasis on being cheerleaders for a progressive global order. 

The fact that the European Union had already placed these radical goals at the centre of its own policy strategy also emboldened two previously low-key players in international relations to actively proselytize for ushering in an increasingly borderless world. 

But this dance of the Celtic utopians has an opportunist beat. Their vision conforms to the economic and professional needs of highly mobile occupational groups. Media, academic and business professionals, who have snatched power from moderate or traditional forces, derive practical advantage from open borders, trans-national labour markets, and laws entrenching secular social norms. 

However, nationalism is far from absent in the discourse of the Celtic liberal elites. The British state, currently run by a Conservative administration, has been assailed by the SNP and Fine Gael and their political allies for going ahead and trying to remove Britain from the European Union after citizens’ approval was given in the referendum on EU membership held on 23 June 2016.

An outbreak of inter-island disharmony has occurred since then. Despite losing a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the SNP has thrown most of its energies into trying to secure a replay before Britain leaves the EU. The Irish government has also insisted that it will impede Britain’s departure unless Northern Ireland remains economically bound to the rest of the island. It has enjoyed success in mobilising EU backing for reviving its territorial dispute with Britain over the future of Northern Ireland. Irredentist nationalism is becoming an increasingly middle-class hipster concern in Ireland. But grassroots enthusiasm is hard to detect in both parts of the island. A section of the growing Catholic population in Northern Ireland clearly prefers the security of continued British rule rather than control by a Dublin government which has misgoverned areas beyond the privileged capital of the Irish Republic. 

The level of friction generated in British-Irish relations has reached a degree of intensity not seen except at some of the most desperate points of the 1969-94 Ulster troubles. But this does not appear to have deterred the EU which seems to have cast aside the painful lessons of taking sides in territorial disputes involving its members. 

The evidence for suggesting that these eruptions from radicals in the Celtic bourgeoisie are based on a profound shift in Irish and Scottish society is sketchy. A case can be made instead that the assertiveness of new elites and opinion formers in both places stems very much from self-interest. Much professional worth depends on reinforcing links with the European Union as Britain heads for the exit. Electoral advantage is also thought to lie in mounting aggressive opposition to Brexit. In some eyes, this opposition is meant to unite the island of Ireland and possibly split in two the larger island of Great Britain. 

It is also hard to find evidence that this spirited Celtic jig is part of any wider global ensemble. A sharp reaction against the features of globalisation that most impinge on the everyday lives of citizens has been gathering pace for at least a decade across much of continental Europe. Parties associated with the post-national European project have suffered stinging losses in most of the core countries of the EU. After Angela Merkel's increasing rejection by German voters, her successor as the standard-bearer of a supra-national Europe, France's Emmanuel Macron, has faced even stiffer resistance at home. At the time of writing his bid to launch a cross-national party to compete in next May's European elections shows no sign of getting off the ground.  

The continental parties making the running express the impatience shown by Macron's foes the Gilets Jaunes about out-of-touch elites making them guinea pigs for globalist experiments which disrupt their communities and leave them materially poorer. Their perspective is branded by influential Irish commentators like Fintan O'Toole as reactionary and dangerous. The governments of Varadkar and Sturgeon are deaf to the slowly rising anger that fiscal policies which favour well-placed niche groups are creating a mounting number of victims, socially excluded citizens who have no alternative but to try and survive on the streets.  As yet, parties emphasising secure borders and preference to be given to long-established citizens in the distribution of social resources, have not taken off. But the strong vote given to Peter Casey in the Irish presidential election this October suggests that old-fashioned patriotism still enjoys staying power. 

The continental revolt against impersonal forces at EU or multi-national level shaping the fate of citizens without their agreement, may chime in more naturally with the continuing pro-Brexit outlook in much of England (but it is easy to forget that in Scotland nearly one million people voted to leave the EU in 2016). 

Currently, ruling elites embraced a progressive agenda based around equality and group rights for a range of favoured groups, have had more success than their counterparts in most other parts of Europe. It is very much a top-down revolution dominated by technocratic and managerial elites in alliance with left-wing lobbies. It is unclear what staying power this espousal of Celtic progressivism will have. But in a world prone to unexpected shifts and disquieting upheavals, the dance of the Celtic globalisers (like all utopian schemes) is likely to encounter adversity.

The economies of both Scotland and Ireland are fragile and remain as dependent as before on unpredictable external forces. The EU has sided with Ireland in its wish for the island to continue as a single trading entity but it is resolute about the need to harmonise corporate tax rates across the 27 EU members. Overnight this would mean that Ireland would lose its low tax status for multi-national firms that has been a source of much of its recent prosperity.

In this radical Celtic spring the Catholic Church has not fared well. In Ireland politicians from the parties which shaped the independent state’s path for nearly a century have opportunistically loaded blame for many of their own failures on its shoulders. In Scotland, the very same church is putting up only spasmodic resistance to becoming absorbed in the SNP's separatist game plan. 

A pair of Celtic countries have come late to radical chic.The self-interest of urban and secular elites who hope to benefit from positioning themselves as ardent globalisers, helps to explain the upsurge. But the tide is going out for hyper-liberalism in much of Europe and beyond.  Varadkar and Sturgeon may end up falling back on grievance-laden nationalism as globalism falters and they wake up to  Britain remaining a strong (and moderating) presence in their lives. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He is the author of 13 books on contemporary European politics and history as well as two novels. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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