Phillip Cunliffe, Peter Ramsay – Whatever Happened to the National Interest?

British and European political elites no longer rely on the national interest to justify their policies or their rule because they no longer make any real claim to represent the nation.

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International RelationsUCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR). He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

This article originally appeared at The Northern Star


For a long time, the ‘national interest’ was at the core of the justification for the exercise of state power. It has been invoked to justify state secrecy, to justify passing draconian emergency powers, to plough resources into arms races, to launch wars, to quash industrial disputes, and to suppress domestic dissent. That the national interest could justify such a range of powerful and even fierce political responses reflected the fact that it was premised on invoking a greater good – that of the nation, a political collective whose interests supposedly transcended partisan divides, sectional interests, class politics, and ideological squabbles. But the often blatantly partisan deployment of the national interest to serve the interests of the powerful has led to a great deal of scepticism about the invocation of the idea.

Yet the national interest also provided the basis of political contestation: who the people would entrust to safeguard their basic interests was one of the most basic questions of the struggle for political power. Who could best define and meet national needs and national interests? A failure to represent the national interest could lead to elites being ousted, governments thrown out of office, and even the revolutionary overthrow of the state. For this reason, laying claim to the national interest was integral to maintaining the hegemony of the old ruling classes. From the nineteenth century onwards, capitalists ensured a state that propped up profits, propelled industrial expansion and expanded global market share through policies of militarism, expansionism, and imperialism because they could articulate their interests as the national interest. Similarly, after the immense effort of World War II, a weakened employing class and a strengthened state bureaucracy and trade union movement laid the ground for a redefinition the national interest as something served by a post-imperial, social-democratic welfare-state based on class compromise. It was only political forces that could sustain these broad claims to represent the national interest that could also deploy the concept rhetorically to justify more dubious purposes when they needed to.

For all its notorious reputation as an ideological trump card, the notion of a national interest was nonetheless integral to the principle of political accountability. This is because embedded in the idea of the national interest is the principle that there is a greater good that can be institutionalised through state structures and policy, and that political power can be meaningfully exercised to protect a people’s collective interests. Even when the national interest was understood to be ‘subverted’ or ‘captured’ by sectional economic interests or sinister bureaucratic elites, this spoke to the idea that a common interest could still be claimed from those who had captured it for themselves.

Today, the idea of a national interest is striking by its absence. ‘National security’ may still offer a vestigial rationale for the functioning of state bureaucracies and political elites, and politicians sometimes appeal to their rivals to join forces with them in the name of ‘national unity’. But the notion of a national interest as a higher collective principle plays little role in political debate or the justification of policy. This is most evident in our most recent and intense episodes of national political emergency. The greatest confiscation of civil liberty in peacetime – the Covid lockdowns – was justified by the need to save lives, not serve the national interest. Immediately following the Covid repression has come the extensive military, economic and diplomatic support that Britain has extended to Ukraine to help them repel the Russian invasion. This has been justified in many terms – defending Ukrainian freedom, defending Ukrainian sovereignty, humanitarian defence of Ukrainian civilians, defending Western civilization, fighting for European values, deterring further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe – everything except Britain’s national interest.

The disappearance of any invocation of national interest in these circumstances is not a recent innovation. The political development of neoliberal globalisation since the 1970s, and the emergence of regulatory states dedicated to reshaping the incentives and behaviours of citizens in accordance with market logic, has transformed the state in a way that has required a retreat from the national interest. To lay claim to the national interest depended on having a plausible claim to embody or channel the interests of the nation, and that could only be achieved through successful political representation of its citizens. The neoliberal state, however, dissolved the nation by converting the political relationship between the state and its citizens into a market relationship between the state and the consumers of public services (health, education, criminal justice, border control, etc).

This development was a deliberate effort, intended to defuse the ‘crisis of rising expectations’ that resulted from the postwar idea of the nation. Citizenship in postwar social-democratic Britain entailed full employment, the institutionalised influence of the trade unions, and an expectation of a degree of social and economic equality between the classes. This led to rising popular demands on the nation-state to deliver on its promise; demands that business elites were unwilling to meet. The profit-dependent, tax-paying, employing classes revolted under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The era of nationalisation was replaced by the era of privatisation; the rights of social citizenship gave way to value for money.

That the neoliberal revolt was in fact a revolt against the nation was not obvious at first because Thatcher was such a vigorous waver of the Union flag, and she energetically targeted the ‘enemy within’, be that the Irish Republican Army, the National Union of Mineworkers, or feckless single mothers. The stand-off with Soviet Russia throughout the Cold War and Britain’s dependence on the Atlantic alliance propped up the British ruling elite and its claim to defend the nation from foreign aggression. Yet Thatcher’s actual policies undermined the nation that had been built by previous generations. Thatcher’s bombastic invocation of Britain’s lost Victorian and imperialist past was no substitute for the real relations of citizenship in the nation that she had demolished. It was left to her acolyte Tony Blair and to New Labour to institutionalise the consequences for the state of the dissolution of the nation. Thatcherism became the Third Way, Rule Britannia became Cool Britannia, and the claims of national interest began to fade from view. With the Soviet challenge gone, Britain’s rulers were freed to align their politics with the new global economy.

In the place of national interest, New Labour promoted multiculturalism and social cohesion at home. New Labour enthusiastically embraced member-statehood in the EU, relocating decision-making (particularly over economic regulation) from the national level to the secretive diplomatic forums of Brussels. In the realm of foreign policy, the national interest was substituted by cosmopolitan, global and humanitarian justifications for action – abstract appeals that transcend, relativise or diminish the popular demands that emanate from the nation. War is no longer for the national interest but for humanity. National economic development is now something that has to be retarded for the sake of the global environment. Even in Brexit Britain, where the electorate thrust questions of sovereign nationhood to the front and centre of public life, the politicians who ‘got Brexit done’ and who are currently in charge of the British state have preferred to talk in terms of ‘Global Britain’ rather than of the nation.

As the experience of lockdown and the Ukraine war demonstrates, the fading of the rhetoric of national interest has not led to the transcendence of emergency and war as a paradigm of political rule – quite the opposite. Rather the decline of national interest as a paradigm for national politics shows that political elites no longer claim to represent the nation, and correspondingly that we, the public, have no claim over them, either. The disappearance of the national interest represents the breaking of the bonds of political accountability and responsibility. It is evident not only in the formerly colonised world, where political dependency on external agencies is extensive, but even in the industrialised world, and in the European Union in particular – where political elites have consistently opted for cultivating ties with one another within supranational institutions at the expense of their national constituents – whether it be Ireland during the banking crisis, Greece during the sovereign debt crisis, Britain during the Brexit crisis, or Germany today during the energy crisis. Just as the national interest once allowed elites to transcend partisan political divides, so too today the post-national paradigm transcends party politics: witness Italy’s recently elected, supposedly ‘nationalist’ populists abandon any talk of seceding from the Eurozone, swearing fealty to Brussels instead.

The energy crisis forcefully demonstrates that the question of the national interest is not an abstract matter of devising foreign policy or justifying military adventures in conflict zones remote from day-to-day concerns, but an urgent and practical question of ordinary people’s lives – whether they will have light and heat over the coming winter. That the nations of Western Europe allowed their policies in Eastern Europe to be dictated by the energy-rich United States at the expense of their own citizens’ basic needs exposes a degenerate political elite that is incapable of fulfilling the basic functions of governing industrial societies. For decades they have failed to invest in energy production that was essential to ensuring secure national energy supplies. In recent years they have rationalised that failure as the pursuit of ‘net zero’, a purported global interest rather than a national one. Then this year, in order to play their part in the USA’s proxy war with Russia, they imposed sanctions on Russian oil and gas, which supplies a huge proportion of Europe’s needs. Their failure to articulate a national interest separate to that of the USA indicates that Europe’s governing elites are incapable of fulfilling the basic functions of national survival, let alone anything as grand as mounting a coherent geopolitical strategy based on the national interest.

The British elite’s flight from the national interest opens up the possibility of reclaiming it as a popular and democratic framework in which to reimpose political accountability and responsibility onto the state. We cannot simply recreate the old social-democratic nation any more than Thatcher could restore Victorian values. In any case, there was much about the postwar order – not least its bureaucracy, its sexism and its racism – that we would not want back. We must begin again. If the national interest is to be pursued, we will need a strategy of national sovereignty. We need to foster national energy production and we need to end our participation in NATO’s proxy war. We need to articulate a new democratic politics that can inspire citizens to reimagine the nation and to participate in the national effort that will be needed in the years to come. In this endeavour, we need to collaborate with those committed to national sovereignty in other nations around the world. The national interest of the British people will only be served by a politics of sovereignty, democracy and internationalism.

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