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Nationalism and Coronavirus in a Divided Society

Sam Pryke

An attribute of a nation, according to Miroslav Hroch, is a belief in horizontal unity, i.e. the perception that national togetherness overrides internal divisions like social class.  Britain, especially England, is historically a country steeped in class divisions.  BREXIT exposed a cultural divide, one of age, geographic location and internal nation (principally England v. Scotland) that didn’t run neatly along class lines.  The emphatic Conservative majority in the December 2019 general election settled the UK’s departure from the EU (if not the terms) and thereby ended the wrangling, but the divisions were still there as 2020 began. 

This was the backdrop for the arrival in the UK of Coronavirus in January.  It is one that gives us a platform to assess aspects of nationalism that emerged out of the (ongoing) response.  The first was a brief but genuine feeling of national unity.  When the PM, Boris Johnson, belatedly announced a set of lockdown measures under the slogan ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ on March 23rd, he seemed to have hit a national note that few would have thought possible.  Of course, there were critics from the beginning of the government’s tardy response as anyone who has used Twitter or watched Good Morning Britain will know.  However, as the opposition Labour Party muted its criticism, there was a period of time into mid-May when it seemed that, yes, we were, as Johnson maintained, ‘all in this together’. 

In understanding this hiatus in the UK’s domestic animosity, the sociology of the great French theorist (and advocate) of national solidarity, Émile Durkheim, is instructive.  He argued that in pre-industrial societies a relative absence of a division of labour made for internal unity.  Even allowing for some distinctions of class and gender, people undertook similar tasks, e.g. brought in the crops during the harvest.  Further, there was a strong collective conscious within the community.  Durkheim referred to this as mechanical solidarity.  He contrasted it, not altogether convincingly, to the organic solidarity of industrial society where cohesion stems from the complementarity of roles within a developed division of labour.  As Britain (as elsewhere) went into lockdown, the division of labour was reduced to a binary unity of key workers in vital services (and some manufacture) and those in non-essential employment, who did their bit by staying home.  The very separation of families and friends, combined with social distancing on essential trips, became in itself an aspect of social congruence because of the sacrifice involved. 

Simultaneously, an overt collective conscious was evident in the public applause for the National Health Service – Britain’s most popular institution – workers on Thursday evenings, starting on March 26th, for all key workers thereafter.  This saw Brits of all classes, regions and ethnicities coming out in front of their houses to applaud ‘our’ NHS staff coping with the influx of Covid19 patients, a heartfelt affirmation of society, the purpose of religious ritual according to Durkheim.  The sentiment began a few days earlier in children painting rainbows for display in their home windows as a way of ‘spreading hope’.  Shortly afterwards, attention and praise grew for Captain Tom Moore, a Second World War veteran, who undertook a 100 lap charity walk of his Bedfordshire garden for NHS charities (eventually reaching over £33 million) as he approached his 100th birthday, on April 30th.  For many, this selfless act exemplified the British spirit that came to the fore during the Second World War.  The Queen, a national figure widely regarded as, like the NHS and armed forces, above party schisms, extolled in a speech on April 5th the enduring attributes that would overcome Covid19 now, as they had a military threat in 1940: ‘Self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling’.  She finished with the wartime song line, ‘We’ll meet again’. 

It is impossible to screen out media and state involvement in the production of patriotic sentiment.  This was certainly true with the subsequent official comparisons drawn between the sacrifices of World War Two and the pandemic in the 75th VE Day commemorations on May 8th.  As is well known, Boris Johnson sees himself as a politician in the vein of Winston Churchill, Britain’s war time PM.

The strength of the collective sentiment produced around Covid19 explains the revulsion for the disregard of lockdown rules by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s principal political advisor, that came to light on May 22nd.  Shortly afterwards, the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, triggered protests in Britain that targeted statues of figures involved in the slave trade and more widely empire, including Churchill.  This saw counter demonstrations by veterans and far right groups to ‘protect our statues’ involving street violence.  Quickly, the integrative unity was replaced by another cultural divide, one bearing some similarities to that over BREXIT, in which rival visions of nation are evident – as stark as those within France over Dreyfus in Durkheim’s day. 

Sam Pryke is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wolverhampton. Contact: Sam.Pryke@wlv.ac.uk