Nation-building and political abandonment : a comparative historical sociology of rightist nationalism in post-war Britain and Germany -PhD thesis-

Publication type

Thesis/Degree/Other Honours


Publication date

June 1, 2022


Rightist nationalist politics have emerged globally in recent years. This dissertation traces the developing character of rightist nationalism in Britain and Germany since the early 1990s. The primary aim is to better understand its appeal at different political key moments. I draw on longitudinal individual- and macro-level data, and embed my analysis in a comparative historical sociology that is attentive to both countries' very different post-war periods and longer historical traditions. They form an instructive longitudinal contrast in which they illuminate each other (see Geertz 1971), and the shape of their nationalisms, within a wider European context. In addition to literature on the radical right (e.g. Betz 1994; Bonikowski 2017; Mudde 2007; Rydgren 2007), the thesis thus also speaks to more historically oriented work on the political right (Eatwell 2003; 1992a; Eley 2015b; Gamble 1995; Mann 2004). It further speaks to the literatures of nationalism (e.g. Gellner 1998b; 1990; Hall 1995; Malešević 2019; Mann 2005: Ch.3; 1995) and populism (Berlin et al. 1968; Canovan 1981; Mouffe 2018; Mudde 2004; Müller 2016). I explore inter-relationships between both concepts (e.g. Bonikowski et al. 2018), and contribute to the discussion with a more substantive focus on how their inherent struggle for political recognition and their shared drive towards socio-cultural homogenisation work within real-world rightist nationalism. By contextualising rightist nationalism within both countries' colonial and racialised traditions (e.g. Bhambra 2017b; Eley 2015a), I examine both its surface variation over time and the deeper historical alignment of its exclusionary mechanisms. I undertake largely descriptive data analysis in two steps. First, I examine longitudinal macro-level data to identify socio-economic and political key moments in both countries' recent histories. Second, these key moments then provide occasions in which I explore social backgrounds and political perceptions of the same groups of respondents in panel surveys (BHPS-UKHLS, SOEP), as they lived through their countries' changing socio-economic and political landscapes. The dissertation's methodological contribution lies in its interpretive and historically embedded approach to panel data that draws on as much of its longitudinal dimension as possible. One substantial finding emerging from the longitudinal contrast between both countries is that I found no direct line from socio-economic positions to affinities for rightist nationalism. In a subtle adjustment to theories around the "left-behind" (e.g. Ford and Goodwin 2014b), I found that rightist nationalism was not simply located in the lowest socio-economic positions, although it was characterised by a risk of dropping and relative social stagnation over time. I offer an interpretive account of how both countries' nationalists' feelings of social abandonment became entangled with a broader sense of political grievance and a racialised retrieval of socio-political privileges. Second, the contrast between Britain and Germany allowed me to more clearly delineate their historical and post-war patterns of racialised exclusions. Rightist nationalism came to the surface especially during moments of strong migration. This was more distinctly contained within two key moments in Germany (early 1990s and mid-2010s), and expressed itself more gradually in the UK (since the late 1990s). This difference suggests varying degrees of urgency regarding feared cultural change. Migration prompted a more sudden rightward shift in Germany's political landscape, while Britain foregrounded key moments of European (dis)integration. A third substantial finding highlights Europe's increasing importance for both countries' rightist nationalisms. Britain's moved from a wider racial towards and narrower English ethnic nationalism and a political focus on sovereignty vis-à-vis Europe. German nationalism, by contrast, moved from an ethnic towards a wider racialised focus that locates Germany within the "fortress Europe" to preserve its culture. The dissertation's first argument is that both countries' rightist nationalisms can be understood as different expressions of racialised nation-building in the face of growing cultural diversity, seen as threat to political rights and legitimate belonging. The second, related argument is that they are also indicative of the longer-term tension between class and nation that has recently tilted towards nation, culture, and "race". This suggests that rightist nationalism is not simply "on the rise", but also that the decline of its counterweight, class, has facilitated its increasing pull on political mainstream and self-understandings. My main theoretical contribution is a four-feature framework that helps understand rightist nationalism in these two countries as it emerged from the longitudinal individual- and macro-level contrast. I suggest that rightist nationalism is characterised by racialisation; a populist impulse towards political recognition; a selective retrieval of historical narratives and legacies; and a conservative concern with (dis)order. This is relevant for studies of historical and present rightist politics, and those embedding longitudinal data analysis within historical contexts.







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