The ties that bind… October 26, 2016Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.