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  • Andrew O'Brien

Book Review: Climate Change and the Nation State by Anatol Lieven

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

For One Nation Conservatives, the arguments within this book provide useful ammunition for a cause that has already been adopted. Most One Nation Conservatives have accepted the climate science and the need for action. They are agreed that every nation needs to do its part. The only disagreement is around the tools.

For those further on the right that look to technology, spurred by capitalism, to save the day, this book will make for interesting reading, but the author and reader are likely to be talking at cross purposes. Why make this a national priority when entrepreneurs will save the day with climate saving technologies?

If anything, this is a book most needs to be read by the left of the debate. Labour leaders like Attlee and Wilson would have instantly appreciated the potential of “Green Nationalism” for the labour movement. Unfortunately for the left, the nation-state is now something to be transcended rather than harnessed to tackle climate change. Although one can hope that fresh leadership in the Labour Party will lead to a rediscovery of Attleeian principles.

Strong nation, strong state, decisive action

Lieven’s central thesis can be summarized swiftly. A cohesive national identity enables a strong strategic state. When national identity is weak or divided, the state is weakened and diverted from taking long term decisions. Climate change requires a far-sighted strategic state. The nation is the pool from which resources are generated to deliver those actions. As nationalism is the only force, both historically and currently, able to generate the strategic resources necessary for states to combat climate change, it must be put at the heart of the agenda.

Lieven’s thesis is hard to argue against. His own extensive knowledge of the Middle East shows that weak nations, or even non-existent nations, has created weak states that spend more of their time trying to prop up their own legitimacy rather than focusing on the needs of citizens and long term challenges like climate change.

The worry for Lieven, and shared by this writer, is that the West is itself slowly becoming weakened. A lack of care for the nation, a security apparatus that is focused on fighting the last war rather than new threats and open-door migration are undermining collective action according to Lieven. Advocates for supranationalism or a global approach would say that this makes transcending nation-states even more important. But these structures are simply too weak to do the heavy lifting required over the next twenty years. As Orwell succinctly argued “[p]atriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.”

Migration and the Green New Deal

Despite what you may think, Lieven is a big supporter of the Green New Deal. This writer is similarly supportive of the Green New Deal movement. There will be no demand for climate action unless people can see the benefits at home. The problem that Lieven sees is that open-door migration policies have undermined a sense of solidarity within the nation. Open borders have become a cause célèbre on the so-called progressive left. Lieven’s view is that these policies have undermined social solidarity by making people suspicious of the state. This in turn makes a “Green New Deal” harder to gain public support. Lieven argues:

“…there is now an abundant body of statistical evidence demonstrating a relationship between the growing diversity of populations and a decline in social trust, social solidarity, and the willingness of the majority populations to pay taxes to support social welfare for minorities and recent arrivals, showing that, in other words, the welfare state has to be a reasonably homogenous state.”

Lieven relies on authors like David Goodhart and Robert Putnam in his defence. This writer is not expert enough in this particular field to go through the data, and it is certainly tempting to point to Nordic countries which are associated with higher levels of social justice and have a high level of homogeneity.

However, correlation does not mean causality. An alternative that this writer would advance is that during the period from the late 1980s to the present day, diminishing or stagnant standards of living have undermined the concept of the nation-state where all contribute and receive their fair share. This has created growing suspicion between new arrivals and citizens. Immigration has contributed to stagnation in the sense that it has encouraged businesses to focus on cheap labour rather than investing in technology which improves productivity and living standards. In an alternative world where similar levels of migration took place but corporations had chosen to increase investment in new technology, boost productivity and increase wages, one wonders whether social solidarity would have suffered as much as it has done in recent decades.

Can climate change bring fractious nations back together?

The most interesting argument around migration in this book is related to the extreme right. Trump, Farage, Le Pen et al. all seem to view climate change as at worst a hoax, at best, something that only requires minor focus. Lieven’s point is that climate change (which is very real) is going to create huge migratory pressures unless action is taken.

If things are as bad as scientists predict, we could see tens of millions of people forced to move from the Global South to the North. Rather than undermining arguments for action, the extreme right should be its biggest cheerleaders. Logic rarely enters debates within this community, but Lieven’s argument gives hope that a consensus across all parts of the political spectrum can be found.

Climate change and sacrifice

An area which is implicitly referenced in the book and which is another important cross-over between national identity and climate change is the idea of sacrifice. Although there are many techno-utopians out there which claim otherwise, most reasonable experts would say that people are going to have adapt their lifestyles to combat climate change. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up things already gained; but it will likely mean having to defer and reduce future consumption until such a time as the climate crisis has been brought under control.

Edmund Burke b.1729 d.1797

To sacrifice, people motivation and a sense of intergenerational solidarity. The Burkean vision of the nation as a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born truly comes into its own in the climate scenario. So much is written about present day intergenerational division without even considering those of future generations not yet born. We will need a politics which has a much longer time horizon if we are to truly tackle climate change. It is for this reason that Burkean One Nation Conservatives have a unique contribution to make both in Britain and globally on climate action. They are also, arguably, our best hope of success.

Climate Action – A new National Project?

What should excite advisors in No.10 and in the Conservative Party more broadly is the opportunity that climate action brings. Mostly, national identities evolve organically through the natural inclinations of people to associate closely with those that live and work around them. History creates events and stories which can be shared further strengthening those links. Language and culture creates bonds which strengthen the cohesive unit.

But these muscles need to be used otherwise they fail over time. Unfortunately, nations often expend and waste these muscles on war. Lieven is right to point out that the misjudged invasion of Iraq has weakened the American and British nations. This in turn has reduced national solidarity and made climate action harder to achieve.

That being said, climate action is an opportunity to strengthen these muscles and channel national identity into something positive. Climate action, if undertaken correctly, can have a positive far-reaching economic and social legacy for both Britain and the rest of the world. As the first nation to industralise, Britain arguably has a moral imperative to show leadership.

Although some sacrifice will be required, if politicians can begin making the case for why Britain must take action, how this can be done to strengthen the nation (through a Green New Deal, repatriating manufacturing etc.) and the idea of the country giving leadership to the world, there is something deep that can be tapped into. Often slow to act, once roused, Britain (like other nations in Europe) can become inexorable. This writer also continues to believe that British people still see themselves as world shapers, but they need a positive project to channel that desire for global adulation.

For politicians, whomever can channel this latent power, the political and reputational benefits could be enormous. Will our current Prime Minister muster his considerable personal charisma and rhetorical talents to the cause? Only time will tell.

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