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The 'national interest' con trick

If there’s one phrase that’s dominated parliament, the airwaves and the media over the veto used by David Cameron to block a new European Union treaty, it is the “national interest”. It’s an Orwellian phrase, designed to obscure rather than reveal the truth.

In the House of Commons yesterday, the debate on the prime minister’s Brussels veto was whether it was in the “national interest” or not.

Cameron claimed: "I went to Brussels with one objective – to protect Britain's national interest. And that is what I did."

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, responded: “Faced with a choice between the national interest and his party interest, he has chosen the party interest.”

Using a phrase often enough does not necessarily mean that it accurately describes what’s going on. Especially when it’s deployed by a political class not exactly known for telling the truth.

Some self-evident, basic facts first. Presently, we live within a capitalist economic and political system. In our society, there are those who own and control production and finance (aka capitalists) and those who are employed by them (aka the working class). This relationship extends to the public sector where the employer is the state.

The “interests” may appear identical in the sense, for example, that an employer needs workers and a worker needs resources and a place to labour. But it is an identity of opposites because ultimately the interests at stake are essentially different. Employers need to generate profits and will drive down costs, including wages when they can. Workers have an interest in maximising their income and defending what they have, which is why trade unions have had to strike to defend their pension rights.

None of this is exactly new. Nor is the use of the term “national interest” to disguise the very real social, class-based divisions in society. Yet people are not fooled into thinking that the interests of the banks, for example, are the same as theirs. Or that politicians represent ordinary people rather than powerful corporate interests.

In a the state of the nation survey 2006, only 17% questioned thought they had a great deal or a fair amount of power over government policies compared with 67% that large corporations exercised. No doubt that figure would be higher today in the wake of the meltdown and bank bail-outs.

So a “national interest” actually doesn’t exist in practice. But it is a convenient smokescreen that can be rolled out to justify the odd invasion (Iraq for example), or to justify a veto exercised to protect the narrow interests of (global) bankers, or simply as a way to whip up patriotism and hatred of foreigners in general and France/Germany in particular.

Some like Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty accuse Cameron of being too narrow in his definition of “national interest” by overly focusing on the importance of the City of London and financial services in Brussels.

But Chakrabortty lends the term credibility it does not merit by suggesting that a real “national interest” would be better served if it included a whole range of other economic activities. His sociological, non-class viewpoint is simply a liberal acceptance of the status quo of capitalist social relations.

The interests of ordinary people cannot be served, defended or advanced by submerging them into those of the ruling economic and political elites – in any country. The political crisis within the European Union is driven by the global failure of a debt-driven capitalist economy and its impact on the euro. A new democratic, internationalist framework that unites ordinary people against corporate and financial power wherever it is located has to be our answer to nationalist rhetoric and downright lies.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
13 December 2011

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