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The ties that bind… October 26, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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This column by Ian Jack in the Guardian is thought-provoking. Jack has problems with English nationalism. Well, don’t we all? But he is himself originally from Scotland – or rather has a self-perception of himself as having a Scottish identity in part, and yet a penny seems to have dropped for him in the way of the Brexit referendum.

The tragedy of the first world war bred a distrust of nationalism among many of my parents’ generation, and increased the appeal of the internationalism offered by socialist groups such as the Independent Labour party. Enhancing that broad philosophy, in my parents’ particular case, was the experience of migrating from lowland Scotland to northern England, where they preferred to be seen as themselves – individuals who happened to be from Scotland – rather than as émigrés announcing a group identity with spectacular enthusiasms such as kilt-wearing and Highland dancing.

An:

As to our own national identity, I suppose we thought of ourselves as British/Scottish, but the question hardly came up. By the time I was old enough to take an interest in such things we were living back in Scotland, not far from a Royal Navy dockyard. Sailors with English accents filled the dancehalls, the cinemas, the buses and the pubs. Still, nobody thought of them as “the English”: their accents didn’t make them different people to us, culturally and politically. It may even be that we saw them as a norm, the standard British issue, the straightforward types in British films where actors from Scotland, Ireland and Wales took the character parts.

That’s really interesting point isn’t it? Consider how that played out. Of course Englishness in Ireland was much more contested. Of course accents didn’t make differences,but actual political structures did.

Anyhow::

Of course, to be British had once been a braggart identity. Some of that boastfulness, rekindled by the coronation, dimmed by Suez and kept alive by war films, survived into the 1960s. But then, in the century’s last decades, “British” as a self-description began to offer something else. With fewer connotations of blood and soil than the growing nationalisms of the United Kingdom’s constituent parts, it had room for newcomers from abroad and for people like me who found its capaciousness and slackness attractive. Here was a civic nationalism that meandered attractively like an old river, its dangerous force spent far upstream.

And:

Constitutional devolution and the strength, in particular, of the Scottish independence movement provided serious threats, but in the Scottish referendum campaign of 2014 many people, including me, argued for the preservation of Britain as a state and British as an identity; and of the people who voted, 55% agreed.

But now:

I’m now much less sure. What Britishness went on concealing until very recently – like a host body with a very large grub inside, struggling to emerge – was Englishness. The England/Britain confusion has existed for centuries: all kinds of people, ranging from London dockers through foreign diplomats to writers such as George Orwell, imagined that the terms were coterminous and interchangeable. (Glasgow was “the centre of the intelligence of England” according to the Grand Duke Alexis, who attended the launch of his father Tsar Alexander II’s steam yacht there in 1880.)

I can’t help but feel there’s another aspect to this. Britishness was a badge that newer communities could assemble around. One striking figure from the Brexit referendum was how black and other communities were overwhelmingly in favour of Remain (along with the epitome of the new – the young). For them, for many others, it was detached from an Englishness that was in many of its outward manifestations backward looking, exclusivist, nativist. Where it had political expression it was a problematic one, at best.

The separatist movements of Scotland and Wales began to dent this idea in England, but the English response was slow. A competing English nationalism was at first confined to fringe meetings about the West Lothian question and a campaign for an English parliament. Then came the rise of Nigel Farage’s Ukip, the Tory strategy for dealing with it and that strategy’s failure in the EU referendum. We have come to where we are – which is to say that English nationalism has found its opportunity, and is taking us out of Europe.

Of course there’s a problem. The UK is an utterly imbalanced federation. Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland might well be constituent parts but their ability to exercise autonomy is – as Irish nationalism understood and attempted to push back against across centuries – utterly circumscribed by the sheer weight of numbers in England. Ironic, is it not, that ‘swamping’ actually exists but not in the form that those who most use that term would comprehend. Jack is on to something here too:

The prospects it offers are fantastical, outdoing anything the Scottish National party promised even in its most romantic period. English exceptionalism has flared up: we are a great country, there is nowhere else like us, we shall lead the world in free trade, we shall sell ginger snaps to the North Koreans. On Thursday night on the BBC I heard Conrad Black, the disgraced Canadian newspaper publisher, evoke “this sceptred isle” in a little speech that drew applause from his audience in Hartlepool.

The notion of Brexit as a popular victory is confined almost entirely to the English, albeit that its prominent cheerleaders include Liam Fox and (in the past) Michael Gove. Its ramifications are troubling for Scotland and particularly severe for Northern Ireland.

But then that’s the reality of “Britain”. It is impossible to conceive of a union where there isn’t this imbalance, this tilt (even were we to throw in the millions on this island it still wouldn’t alter matters). For all the lip service paid to said union in truth it is London and England that decides. Always has been.

As to the future?

I’m not sure I feel the same level of anger and alienation. Neither, of course, do I share the average east European migrant’s uncertainty over his or her future. But my sense of belonging is a little less, and I have a slight (and perhaps slightly embittering) feeling of betrayal – similar in kind though not in scale to those loyal communities in the old empire such as the Anglo-Indians, who came to believe in the end that they had hitched their fortunes to the wrong star. “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase,” wrote Orwell in 1941, and this autumn it has never seemed truer.

An English nationalism in full flower, even if still part concealed by the rhetoric of union, is a rather ugly thing. I say that as someone with an English heritage. But more importantly it is something that as history has told us is ultimately centrifugal in its political effects. Ireland, or part of it, is testament to that. Someday Scotland, then perhaps Wales.

Comments»

1. Michael Carley - October 26, 2016

I attended a seminar yesterday given by Margaret Curran, ex MP and MSP, and shadow Scottish Secretary until last year. She holds that the SNP has taken over from Labour in Scotland because of its greater discipline (which she seems to think is a bad thing) and better communication of its achievements, including giving the impression it’s responsible for some of what Labour did.

On English nationalism, she came up with the usual guff about reclaiming symbols and reckon Scottish nationalism could be just as bad, saying that there were things said about English people during the independence referendum campaign which would have had people jailed if they had said them about Black or Jewish people. Her principal point was that the centre-left was failing because it did not have a language for talking about nationalism or national identity.

Her example was talking to Sadiq Khan and saying that while she was proud to be Scottish, he should also be able to say he was proud to be English. It did not seem to occur to her that there might be very good reasons why Khan, especially after that mayoral election campaign, might find English nationalism problematic.

Some people just don’t get it.

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

That’s an almost incredible example she uses. Is she completely blind to the context?

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Michael Carley - October 26, 2016

It would appear so, and then they wonder why they don’t do well in Scotland. The problem is that English nationalism cannot be reconciled with the national identities of the other bits of the UK (even with Northern Ireland unionists’), but they don’t get that.

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eamonncork - October 26, 2016

I wonder if her message is much more than ‘pretend we believe in nationalism and the voters might fall for it.’ The problem with stealing other people’s clothes is that you never really look convincing in them. And trying to win a game when the other side have drawn up the rules and marked out the pitch is a pretty sure guarantee of defeat.

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FergusD - October 26, 2016

But what about class? What about the solidarity of the working class that should trump (NOT as in Donald) any nationalism for anyone who calls themselves a socialist. But maybe Margaret Curran doesn’t see herself as a socialist – that’s where the problem is.

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2. Joe - October 26, 2016

It’s complicated innit? So complicated I don’t know where to start.
We need a manifesto for an internationalist nationalism…

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

If that were achieved in a way it would square a circle that has frustrated every effort for centuries, wouldn’t it?

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Joe - October 26, 2016

I vote for something similar to the SP’s socialist federation on these islands – as a part of a world socialist federation of course.
Seriously.
I’ll patronise all of you who will oppose this idea on the basis that it’s a smokescreen for British/English domination by saying that you are blinded by the history of English feudal and capitalist domination of these islands.
A socialist federation would be… socialist. So domination by the socialists from one country in the federation would not be allowed (by me, Marchall Joe Tito).

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Michael Carley - October 26, 2016

The clue is in the name: inter-national. If you abolish nationality, there is no national to be inter. National identity will always be there, I think, but the question is whether it is based on some civic identity (anyone who feels themselves part of the nation and lives by some shared set of values is welcome) and whether it is based on equal respect for other nations or on domination of them.

If you follow Liam Hogan’s study of the `Irish slaves’ rubbish, you can see Irish nationalism doing both: in the US, Irish national identity is being used as a vehicle for racism and domination of another group; elsewhere, the history of oppression of Ireland is used as a basis for solidarity with others.

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Liberius - October 26, 2016

anyone who feels themselves part of the nation and lives by some shared set of values is welcome

And those not feeling part of the ‘nation’ or sharing the same values? What with them? Banishment?

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Michael Carley - October 26, 2016

No, but it depends on what the values are, which is why I add the rider about the type of nationalism.

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Liberius - October 26, 2016

That’s a bit utopian if you don’t mind me saying, we already have ‘progressive’ nationalists on this site (and elsewhere) who spend time fulmination about the enemies within, under terms like ‘southern unionist’, all the talk about tolerance (of others in far off climes) doesn’t stop them thinking of those who deviate internally from national identity as suspicious, potential traitors, actual traitors or, indeed, feeble-minded folk with post-colonial hangups ( I do like that one). Civic and tolerant, yeah right…

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Michael Carley - October 26, 2016

I don’t think it’s utopian. I’m not particularly nationalist (though living in England for sixteen years has made me a bit more so) but I recognize that national identity is a force and is important to many (most?) people. The question is what you do with it, and how you couple identity to decent values. The utopian dream is to think that people will not identify with a nation or with the people around them more strongly than they identify with generic humanity.

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Liberius - October 26, 2016

I can see that it is important to many people, but that doesn’t stop it being inflexible when dealing with internal dissent; but then how could it be, if it were then the nation state wouldn’t be a necessary step.

Look, I’ve no particular belief that national identity is going to die any time soon, but that shouldn’t impede recognition of its absurd and intolerant nature. It may be utopian to believe that anything can be done about it (nationalism’s irredentist fashion makes cosmopolitan states somewhat difficult to achieve), but no more so than thinking that you can shape national identity and values that don’t exclude and alienate some.

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

Isn’t there a danger in this of both underestimating and over reifying the power of nationalism – which in any case seems to me to be much more than a single phenomenon. Yes it is has a power but that power is remarkably diffuse. Genuine flag worshipers or those who believe that there is an intrinsic quality to people from a specific location that makes them superior (or even very different) to those from other locations are thinner on the ground than we fear – at least in my experience. Mostly it’s a sort of B Anderson like kinship – rather diffuse, a bit vague,prone to emerge mostly at times of war or sports. And sometimes I think – and this is done by nationalists a lot of the time – much nationalism is in effect more a call for more local democratic accountability. This isn’t to minimise the problems and contradictions – there aren’t two nations on this island but there are at least two nationalisms and they have come into significant conflict (and if we see one of those as being somewhat distinct from English and/or British nationalism there’s more again and it’s three at the party). But on the other hand nationalists and nationalists at least to judge from Republicanism (and in fairness Unionism though rather more tardily) have been able to adapt away from zero sum analyses. I think Scottish and Welsh nationalisms and English nationalism actually make considerable sense in the context of more local and accountable democratic representational structures. The relationships between them is an interesting question too. I’m fascinated by how things are in the North in relation to national identities working together.

As to intolerance as a feature of nationalism, well, socialism(s) of various stripes haven’t exactly stellar track records in that regards from social democracy on outwards so perhaps it is a case of aspirations but the base material – humans – being a bit rubbish actually. And to argue all nationalism is uninclusive or irredentist is simply incorrect but like any ideological or other framework it can and is distorted.

There’s another point I’d make which is that it really doesn’t matter if nationalism doesn’t matter to us, or we don’t bow to its power – the fact is that it does to many many more than us and that inflects their beliefs and behaviours. I don’t know how that changes in any reasonable time period.

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Liberius - October 27, 2016

And to argue all nationalism is uninclusive or irredentist is simply incorrect but like any ideological or other framework it can and is distorted

I really can’t agree with that as the basic notion of nationalism and national identity is people sharing a specific set of attributes, history and cultural baggage to the degree that it is intrinsic to their existence as people. That is blatantly noninclusive as deviants under those conditions must either be from another ‘nation’, or be deniers of their true identity. In practice you are right that there aren’t too many hardcore types amongst the general public, but that people can be tolerant individually doesn’t imply that the basic ideology and it’s more fanatical adherents aren’t intolerant. Additionally, there are very few parts of this earth that various nationalisms don’t claim a right of sovereignty over, and where none exists it is usually a good sign of uninhabitability, lack of economic worth, or both. That isn’t promising for a cosmopolitan state.

I think Scottish and Welsh nationalisms and English nationalism actually make considerable sense in the context of more local and accountable democratic representational structures.

I’m not sure nationalism makes any sense at all in the context of localising government, English nationalism for instance can’t really create government any more local than that of the existing Westminster, you’d have to move towards regional government for that, something which isn’t specifically related to national identity, and in many ways would run counter to it. That entire argument is a case for small polities being superior from a democratic accountability point-of-view than larger ones, beneficial if you only have to think in terms of small nationalisms, less so the larger you get. I can’t escape the feeling as well that democratic accountability is post-hoc justification for nationalism rather than a core attribute.

Finally, and this is a recurring problem, while the fact that our opinions don’t matter to the wider situation is true, and that nothing is likely to change in my lifetime (or several of them), that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to close down criticism of nationalism, national identity and nation states. Agreement won’t be reached on this topic, CLR passim, though going through the motions is second nature at this stage.

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3. eamonncork - October 26, 2016

The Tories at present remind me of the old line about Rhodesia, ‘Surrey with the lunatic fringe on top.’

Liked by 1 person

4. 6to5against - October 26, 2016

I remember a guy I knew years ago in London.. He had been born there and told me he identified as either Turkish/Cypriot (his family’s background) or British, but never as English. As I understood him, Englishness was too narrow a concept, but he felt Britishness was broad enough to include him.

I wonder how he feels these days.

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FergusD - October 26, 2016

Didn’t that young man on Gogglebox (do youse over there watch that) with the Cypriot dad stand as a UKIP candidiate? Seemed weird to me. UKIP do have some black and Asian members.

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Joe - October 26, 2016

It’s on the telly here alright Fergus but ‘we’ don’t watch it!
Not that weird really. Lots of second and third generation Irish in the ranks of the English Defence League too apparently.

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5. deiseach - October 26, 2016

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, and my favourite example of that is the idea that UK/British/greater English nationalism isn’t really nationalism but a delightfully benign union of nations sublimating their base animalistic tendencies towards a greater goal that elevates all participants. I’m agog that can anyone look at the clash of empires that was the First World War and think that it was all the fault of Gavrilo Princip and those who put bad bad nationalist thoughts in his head. Bad! Welcome to the 20th century, ya bampot.

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

+19

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

Sorry that was meant to be +1

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Ed - October 26, 2016

Nothing wrong with a bit of enthusiasm now

Liked by 1 person

gendjinn - October 26, 2016

I thought the +19 well deserved for such an eloquent, witty and insightful statement

Liked by 1 person

6. ejh - October 26, 2016

I would have liked that Ian Jack piece more had it not concluded with a much-overused quote from Orwell. Really, if Orwell wrote Politics and the English Laguage now he would have to include an injunction against quoting himself.

By the way is there actually no link to the piece or did I just miss it?

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2016

You’re right, my mistake. Sorry about that. I agree, Orwell is much over-quoted.

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7. CL - October 26, 2016

Trump as white nationalist.

“the nominee of a major political party is tapping a deep well of anti-Semitism and racial hate—intentionally or unintentionally—and is mainstreaming such views in the process.”
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/10/donald-trump-2016-white-nationalists-alt-right-214388

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8. Phil - October 27, 2016

I agree with a lot of what Jack says, but I don’t think we can hang it all on English nationalism. Setting up English (quasi-ethnic) nationalism against British (inclusive) nationalism reminds me of those endless arguments counterposing nationalism to patriotism – either way I don’t think the terms are stable or one-sided enough to make the argument reliable. (It’s the English Defence League, but the British National Party and the UK Independence Party…)

I have a degree of sympathy with Curran (although I ultimately think her whole argument is a waste of energy). Saying that Sadiq Khan should be able to call himself English is a bit tin-eared after what Khan’s just been put through by self-appointed advocates of Englishness, but the alternative is to say that ‘English’ is an ethnic category, and I wouldn’t be happy with that. But ultimately I don’t really care whether people think of themselves as ‘English’, ‘British’ or neither. I’m married to the daughter of a Displaced Person, & as such I’m firmly of the conviction that (to adapt the awful old saying) ‘migrants’ are just fellow-citizens who you haven’t got used to yet. The point is to find ways of living together, & to develop new identities – and new ways of thinking through the identities we’ve inherited – out of that process. (Sorry, just been reading Raymond Williams.)

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WorldbyStorm - October 27, 2016

Just +1 you on terms and concepts not being stable enough to apply blanket frameworks and taking that into account you’re right its not English nationalism as such to blame but perhaps more an aspect of that allied with other dynamics and beliefs.

To me nationalism in a small n fashion is most applicable in its radical democratic and or left form, an argument about representation being closer to each citizen rather than blood or soil nationalism. The latter would make no sense, to me, I don’t believe in blood or soil or intrinsic qualities drawn from place, i doubt any of us here do.

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Michael Carley - October 27, 2016

the alternative is to say that ‘English’ is an ethnic category, and I wouldn’t be happy with that

I think you’re exactly right here but the problem is that Englishness in the popular discourse is made up of an ethnic category (though possibly a bit less than it was) and `pride’ in `our’ history, which turns out to be nostalgia for imperial and colonial domination of lesser breeds. Even on the left, there is a sense that England /really/ matters. I think the second part of that Englishness is the dangerous one, the view of the `greatness’ of the country coming from a history of domination.

It might be possible to construct an Englishness from a slightly radical history and a few centuries of literature, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the mainstream trying to do it.

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9. irishelectionliterature - October 27, 2016

http://www.newstalk.com/Lord-Nigel-Lawson-hopes-Irish-Republic-realises-its-mistake-and-rejoins-UK-following-Brexit
Nigel Lawson hopes Irish Republic realises its “mistake” and rejoins UK following Brexit🙂

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Joe - October 27, 2016

The war is long over Lawson boy. Yis lost. We beat yis.🙂🙂

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10. roddy - October 27, 2016

Whilst I detest Nigel Lawson is it totally un PC to say that Nigella is a real “cracker”!

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