Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 November 2011

The meaning of the English riots and the meaninglessness of ‘England’

The riots that erupted in several English cities in August of this year seem to have become very much yesterday’s news, particularly as all eyes are now focused on the unfolding nightmare of the euro meltdown. Every now and then, the riots make it back on to the headlines as reports come out, such as when it was revealed a couple of weeks ago that shopkeepers who’d put in requests for the promised financial assistance from the state to make good the damage caused by looters had hardly received a penny – indicative of how the whole thing has slipped into oblivion.

If you do a Google search on ‘English riots’, you might be surprised how little variety and quantity of articles come up: quite a lot concentrated around the actual time of the riots, towards the beginning of August; but then, after that, you get little more than the occasional opinion article attempting to single out the ultimate cause or meaning of the riots – e.g. the pope linking them to ‘moral relativism’ in September; the Campaign for Social Justice deliberating in October on what ‘sparked off’ the riots; or the ‘Scottish violence reduction unit co-director’, no less, linking them to greed rather than anger in the pages of the Guardian this month.

You get a greater range of results if you search instead under ‘UK riots’ or ‘British riots': more on the implications for policy, the courts and the law, the economy and business, and Britain’s international reputation and the Olympics. This in itself would tend to suggest that the political and media establishment is more concerned about the riots as a potential challenge to the effective management of the British state, to law and order, and to business as usual than as a symptom of serious problems within English society that the state has a duty to engage with. There is a disconnect between the terms of reference and spheres of activity of the UK state and those sections of English society that did erupt into violence in August. And perhaps one of the main reasons for that explosion was the existence of that disconnect in the first place.

This week, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots started and were probably more violent than anywhere else, has been publicising his new book: ‘Out Of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots’. This seeks to analyse the causes of the riots and propose some policy changes that might help address them. As the name suggests, Mr Lammy shares the Labour Party’s reluctance to say the word ‘England': substituting ‘Britain’ for England, even though the riots were restricted to England and so should properly be regarded as an English issue. I’ve just been listening to Mr Lammy on BBC Radio 4’s ‘This Week’ programme, and he again erroneously referred to the riots as having taken place in cities across ‘Britain’.

Mr Lammy also believes that there is a limit to what the state can do to directly address the sorts of social problem that manifested themselves in the rioting. The MP points to the ineffectiveness of the Blair governments’ obsession with trying to legislate social problems out of existence; and he points to how Gordon Brown’s response to the break-down of inner city communities was his Tax Credits scheme, which would have looked like irrelevant “madness” to many of his constituencies. Mr Lammy’s view is that the ‘root causes’ of the riots are greed and selfishness. These result from economic and social liberalism and individualism, the latter developing from the 1980s onwards, the former going back to the social and moral revolution of the 60s. One major issue, for Lammy, is fatherless families, with many young men from all ethnic backgrounds lacking the moral example and personal discipline that the presence of a caring and responsible father can provide. So Lammy proposes remedies such as personal mentors to try to give such rootless youngsters more direction and self-belief.

I in fact agree with much of what David Lammy says. But does it go far enough? Can radical change towards a greater policy focus on family, community values and personal responsibility really take effect without political will, and without a wholesale realignment of the British state’s engagement – or lack of it – in English social policy? The break-down in families, communities and morality in many parts of English society may not be something that the state is best equipped to deal with, but it is a matter for the nation: specifically, the English nation. The problem is that the British state is unwilling and unable to take up its responsibilities as a government for the English nation, and confines itself to ‘British’ policy areas for which it has a more genuine democratic remit: law and order, economics, social security and international affairs.

By contrast, the British state has become increasingly both uninterested and disinterested in – disengaged from – social policy areas where its responsibilities are limited to England: education, health care, social services, families and communities, housing, economic development, and even policing. However, these are precisely the areas where an integrated policy response – co-ordinated with UK-level policy areas such as employment and benefits – is required to address the problems that manifested themselves in the riots: the poor educational experiences and employment prospects of many of those involved; the social and personal break-down that Lammy is focused on; the absence of decent, affordable housing, resulting in sink estates where youngsters are exposed to drug abuse, gangs and petty crime; and policing being often more about victimising and containing certain social groups rather than working as part of an integrated approach to taking youngsters away from crime and back into sustainable education, employment and communities.

Instead of regarding and responding to the riots as a national [English] phenomenon that requires a concerted and co-ordinated national policy response, the British state is in fact intent on transferring all of these policy areas and the social problems that pertain to them to the private realm: increasingly privatised, individualised, personalised and localised management, focus and provision of education, health care, social and community services, housing and policing; no national-level co-ordination around minimum-acceptable standards for shared, national public services and amenities based around a vision for what kind of country we want [England] to be. The attempt to isolate the locus and causes of the English riots, and of their possible solution, down to the individual and community level is another symptom of this inability and unwillingness to embrace a broader, national vision: it’s left to individuals in isolation and ‘society’ in the abstract to heal themselves of the ills of selfish individualism and materialistic greed, rather than the nation as a whole trying to work together to create a better society where young people have something to offer and a stake in a future.

So the English riots arose in large measure from a vacuum: the absence of a nation – England – which English youngsters believe will offer them a future, an identity and a purpose in life. And any attempt to pinpoint the causes of the riot will itself be vacuous if they do not acknowledge, and thereby perpetuate, this absence of a meaningful England. Instead, all such prescriptions will embody the same vacuity of policy vision, understanding and discourse whereby the state transfers English social problems to a private realm beyond its direct sphere of action.

Sure, the riots reveal deep social, psychological, moral and indeed spiritual disorder and chaos within English society. They show that, for many English people – most of them young – life has little meaning, beauty or value. But we won’t get close to understanding the meaning of that meaninglessness until we retrieve its specifically English character from the meaninglessness and intractability to which we have confined it by expelling ‘England’ from the realm of British politics, discourse and collective responsibility.

Many of our English youngsters experience their lives as meaningless. Giving them faith in their own country – England – is a critical part of the meaning we must help them find.

English parliament

7 March 2011

White and English, but not white-English: how to deal with the discriminatory Census for England and Wales

In two weeks’ time, all UK citizens will be required in law to fill in the national Census. Except, as in so many of these matters, there isn’t a Census for the whole UK but separate Censuses for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that you’d know this from the coverage in the England-based British media, though, which hasn’t drawn our attention to the fact that the Census, like so much of domestic policy, has been devolved.

In England and Wales, we’ll be expected to answer the following two questions on our national identity and ‘ethnic group':



The only difference between England and Wales will be the order in which the options ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ appear on the form, and the fact that a Welsh-language version is available in Wales.

In Scotland, the ethnic-group question runs as follows:


Spot the difference? In England and Wales, non-white ethnic groups, as such, are not offered the standard option of including ‘English’ as part of their ethnic group: they’re officially classified only as ‘Black British’, ‘Asian British’, etc., and not ‘Black English’ or ‘Asian English’. By contrast, black and Asian persons living in Scotland are permitted to identify as ‘Black Scottish’ and ‘Asian Scottish’.

Not only is the ethnicity of black and minority ethnic (BAME) persons in England and Wales not officially to be classified as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’, but those latter terms are reserved as ethnic categories exclusively for white persons. I.e., according to British officialdom, if you’re ethnically English, you’re white. If that sounds a bit like the BNP, that’s because this is a form of – indeed, a form for – racial apartheid.

Now, of course, people filling in the form can write in ‘English’ as their ethnic group. But how many black or Asian respondents are seriously going to write in ‘English’ in the space left blank for ‘any other Black / African / Caribbean background’ or ‘any other Asian background’? Even if people from those population groups think of their culture as English, they’re not going to write ‘English’ in here because ‘English’ isn’t exactly an Afro-Caribbean or Asian ‘background’ as such; plus most form fillers will think that their English identity is adequately implied by the term ‘British’ included in the ethnic-group headings, especially if they’ve specified ‘English’ as their national identity in the previous question.

So the Census is going to come up with millions of non-white people who supposedly identify ethnically as ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. But this is totally meaningless because they weren’t even given the option of viewing themselves as English.

Meanwhile, if you are, as I am, white and English, the Census form leaves you no choice other than to accept that your ‘ethnic group’ is ‘white-English’. This hyphenated, racialised cultural identity is implied by the very fact that ‘English’ is a sub-category of ‘White’ alone. But I consider myself to be part of an English ethnic group – where ‘ethnic group’ implies culture – not a white-English sub-section of English / British society. I.e. my English ethnicity – culture – has nothing to do with the colour of my skin, and I don’t see myself as part of a culture associated only with one racial group. So what should I put down on the form here, and what should I write in?

Apart from its highly suspect racial-political bias against seeing English, as opposed to British, culture and identity as something multi-racial and multi-cultural, the problem is that the Census completely muddles up a number of distinct categories or types of national / cultural / ethnic identity. I would say there are four main forms of ‘national’ identity:

  • Citizenship / nationality (i.e. statehood): in this sense, I personally am British
  • Social identity: I identify as English and am seen by everyone who meets me as English because I sound, look and behave in typically English ways, and because my relationships, economic activities and engagement in society as a public space are shaped by the structures and institutions of English society (e.g. the English class system, the English as opposed to British public sector, the opportunities and limitations of the economy of southern England, etc.). My national identity is, therefore, English because I’ve been thoroughly socialised as English, and my life is shaped by English social norms and institutions
  • Cultural / ethnic-group identity: here again, I’m English, if ‘ethnic group’ refers primarily to culture. Culture is about how we express ourselves in terms of collective, national rituals, traditions, customs and ways of life, as well as through creativity and the arts. My culture is distinctly English, although I recognise there is a great deal of continuity and overlap between that Englishness and the other national cultures of the UK
  • Race / kinship: so here, I’m white and arguably white-British in the sense that all the ancestors I know of came from different parts of the British Isles, including what is now the Republic of Ireland. So perhaps I should tick both the ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / N. Irish / British’ and the ‘Irish’ boxes? Except the form doesn’t allow you to do so, exercising its own special form of ethnic apartheid again, separating the ‘British’ from the ‘non-British’ white populations. Goodness, even if I could enumerate the full set of my ancestors’ countries of origin – which I can’t – I couldn’t possibly say with any degree of scientific certainty what precise mix of British racial-ethnic-genetic antecedents I embody. I’d just rather call myself ‘white’ and have an end of it; but the form wants me to see myself as white-something, and effectively as either white-British or white-Irish. And if you do write in ‘English’, they’ll have you down as some sort of racial extremist: insisting on specifying ‘English’ in particular, as opposed to lumping ‘English’ in with all the other British-racial categories.

What a load of absurd and politically manipulated nonsense this all is! I’d have nothing to do with it if the law didn’t insist I went along with it. The Census’s national-identity question arguably implies all four types of identity I’ve enumerated here, so I could reply alternately British, English, Irish and even Welsh (given my Welsh maternal family), and all four would be correct on one level but wouldn’t reflect how I really feel, which is English. And the ethnic-group question egregiously conflates cultural and racial identity, and disallows ‘English’ as a term that applies to all racial groups, which is in fact how I view the term.

So how am I actually going to answer? ‘English’, obviously, as far as national identity is concerned. Many of my fellow countrymen will also tick ‘British’, partly because the question also implies the other main type of national identity: citizenship. So again, the Census will generate some marvellous stats about how the majority of English people also or exclusively identify as British; but the data will be completely useless because the Census is so inexplicit about how these terms for national identity are to be understood.

And as for ‘ethnic group’, I’m just going to tick White and then write in ‘White’. If they want to know about race, then fine: I’m happy to be seen as white. But I won’t be pigeonholed as ‘white-English’, still less as someone who insists on a white-English racial identity. My ethnicity is English, not my white skin colour. (Well, OK, that’s English too, on one level: not a pretty sight on a foreign beach!)

Clearly, other English people will have their own individual take on these things, and will have their own strategies for filling in, deflecting and subverting these injurious and biased questions about national and ethnic identity. And so the whole exercise will produce meaningless information, because it just doesn’t reflect the way English people – both white and non-white – now see themselves in terms of nationhood and culture. In truth, it’s more of a desperate last-ditched effort on the part of the Anglo-British establishment to mirror back to themselves a population that still views itself as British.

But like all statistical surveys, you get back pretty much what you put in. A load of rubbish in this instance.

23 September 2010

Is it time to reclaim the cross at the heart of England’s flag and identity?

Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?

The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.

‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.

Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.

In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.

You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.

But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.

But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.

Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.

But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?

We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.

24 August 2010

Britishness and the Niqab: Walls Of Separation

There was an interesting item on British women who choose to start wearing the niqab – the Islamic full veil – on last night’s Newsnight programme on BBC2 (available for the next week on iPlayer). I say ‘British women’ advisedly, as the three young women interviewed persistently referred to themselves as ‘British’ and never once as ‘English’, despite the fact that their accents betrayed an English background.

The women claimed that it was entirely consistent with their identity and rights as British-Muslim women to wear the niqab. But it would have sounded incongruous if they had said wearing the niqab was an expression of English identity. Another, older, woman interviewed, who now wears only the hijab (head covering) but used also to wear the niqab as a young woman, argued that the niqab dangerously and needlessly reinforces divisions between Muslims and the rest of British society (yes, not even she uttered the ‘E’ word) at a time when tensions between the two communities are running high.

For me, it seemed rather that the niqab-wearing women featured in the programme were hiding behind their Britishness just as much as they were hiding behind the niqab. Both are an expression of difference and separation from English society and identity. This is an illustration of how British multi-culturalism (discussed in my previous post), which is the doctrine that makes plausible the women’s claim that the niqab is an authentic expression of British identity, in fact reinforces the divisions between migrant communities and cultures, on the one hand, and mainstream English society on the other. If the women had tried to appeal to the Englishness of the niqab, there would have been no hiding place.

This does not mean that women should not have the right to wear the niqab and the burka in public. Indeed, the whole point about those garments is that they are what such women choose to wear in public as opposed to at home, when one of the women said she wears Western clothes. I thought that was a rather striking admission, which should have been brought out more in the interview. English people would perhaps be less suspicious of devout Muslims if they were more aware of the extent to which, in their private lives, Muslim families identify with aspects of Western – and specifically, English – culture. Wearing the niqab could then perhaps be seen as an authentic expression of English-Muslim identity – a means by which young English Muslim women try to negotiate the contradictions of upholding their faith in a highly visual and sexualised Western culture – rather than as an aggressive assertion of a British-not-English Muslim identity.

Indeed, it was significant that all of these women, including the older one, had chosen to take up the niqab when they were at an age when non-Muslim English young women would be exploring their sexuality and having their first relationships. ‘Taking the veil’, as used to be the term for Christian women entering the convent, is a way for such women to abstract themselves from the pressures to have multiple sexual relationships, and to make themselves attractive, slim and sexy, that many Western women find so oppressive. I’m sure many English women would identify with that and would be more sympathetic if the Muslim women could be more honest about the psycho-sexual and cultural aspects to their decision to wear the niqab, rather than emphasising the fact that it was purely an expression of their faith, which non-Muslims could not relate to.

Ironically, after watching the Newsnight interview, I then listened to the ‘Word of Mouth’ programme on BBC Radio Four, which was all about the importance of body language as a complement to speech. The programme came to mixed conclusions: emphasising the importance of body language, in that we do all use visual cues and associations to make sense of what other people are saying to us, although voice and words alone can convey much of the same information and strength of emotional expression. In a sense, women who wear the niqab and burka are removing themselves from body language and making themselves pure voice. Indeed, the women implied that wearing the niqab had enabled them to find their ‘true voice': to be respected and listened to for who they are – as British-Muslim women.

The question, though, is can they be truly known and loved not just by, in and for themselves, but by the English people around them as anything beyond the public wall of their British-Muslim identity: as women with a name, a face and bodily expression? As one of us?

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small 'c' and 'l'] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race'; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi': the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with 'anti-Islamism'] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

8 October 2009

England: the unstated ‘real’ name of the British state

What follows is something of a ‘thought experiment’, as trendy ‘critical-theory’ lecturers might call it. It’s an attempt to logically think through some of the paradoxes of the British establishment’s present ways of describing itself and referring to its affairs. This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, by any means; just an attempt to expose an underlying structure and get inside the establishment mindset.

Case 1: the infamous conception of Britain / the UK as a ‘Britain of nations and regions’. This is obviously closely associated with Gordon Brown, who coined it. But it’s still for many the guiding template for the ‘new Britain’ of the post-devolution era, which requires further constitutional and political reform, including regional / local ‘devolution’ in England. And it even seems to have transformed the way in which ‘the Conservative Party of Britain’, as Gordon Brown erroneously but revealingly referred to it last week (technically, it’s the Conservative and Unionist Party), thinks about the Union, if the participants in that party’s debate on the Union or its proposed ‘Council of the Isles’ are anything to go by: representatives from all the (devolved) nations and from (the Conservative Party of) Britain, but not from England.

The limited question I want to ask here is this: if this new ‘Britain’ is composed of nations (Scotland and Wales, for sure; and more controversially, Northern Ireland) and of regions, what sort of entity is this Britain itself? This is intended as a purely logical question, in the first instance: what is the name for a territory, jurisdiction or sovereign state that has two sorts of subdivisions – nations and regions? A ‘union’ or grouping of nations into a single state tends to be designated as a federation or confederation. As examples of such a union, you can’t really count federal or confederal ‘nation-states’ such as the US or Switzerland respectively, since their subdivisions aren’t nations as such. You’d have to take discontinued states such as the USSR or Yugoslavia, whose subdivisions comprised formerly distinct (though historically variable) national territories that subsequently reaffirmed their status as nation states when the union-states of which they had been a part broke down. The prospective Federal EU that some dream of would be another example.

The USSR is quite a useful example. When it was still in existence, we tended informally to call it just ‘Russia’, because Russia was by far the largest and most dominant nation within the Union. After the break-up of the USSR, Russia itself is now formally known as the ‘Russian Federation': a Union of many federal states or regions. Applying this analogy to ‘Britain’, it is also the case that throughout most of its history prior to devolution, the United Kingdom was often informally referred to – by English people and foreigners alike – as ‘England’, for similar reasons to those for calling the USSR ‘Russia’. Now, post-devolution, the national territories that had been assimilated into a unitary state (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have reasserted a status as ‘nations’, albeit not fully sovereign nation-states like the former Soviet Republics.

On this analogy, then, the residual ‘British regions’ would be like the Russian Federation (i.e. effectively, English regions) but without reasserting their identity as a distinct nation as Russia has done. Applying the British model to the USSR (or however it would be renamed), it would be as if the Russian Federation had continued to be called the USSR, and the break-away Republics continued to be affiliated to the USSR but with recognition of their distinct nation status. The ‘new USSR’ would effectively be a ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Nations and Regions’. Such a state would be a ‘multi-national confederation': a union of nations and subdivisions of nations (regions) having different relationships to the central state and each other, and so therefore not qualifying as a federal nation-state, in which each of the subdivisions would be equal to one another under the constitution.

If such a state had been formed (and the short-lived ‘CIS’, or ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’, was a prototype of something similar), it would doubtless have been imagined by the Soviet-Russian establishment as the means for Russia to maintain control and sovereignty over ‘its’ satellite nations within a single political structure without appearing to do so. But as a condition of achieving this, Russia itself would have had to forego the right to call and run itself as a separate nation, which would have lain bare the realpolitik behind the creation of the new USSR: that it was a means for one nation – Russia – to continue to dominate a number of dependent nations. Instead, officially, the name and nation status of ‘Russia’ would have had to disappear altogether, becoming merely a collection of ‘Soviet regions’ run directly by Moscow and the central-Soviet state, while the ‘nations’ enjoyed a degree of autonomous self-rule.

But what kind of thing would such a state of affairs, or affairs of a state, make the USSR? A ‘multi-national confederation’, yes. But the ‘regions’ within that confederation (i.e. the Russian regions) would actually also be the USSR: run by the state in a fully direct, unitary way; and identified with it, both formally (being called the ‘USSR’) and informally, in that the Russian population would be encouraged to transfer their identification with and allegiance to Russia to the new USSR, which would be the instrument and vehicle for the continuation of a powerful, imperial Russia under another guise.

In other words, the way in which a nation that has previously dominated a number of other nations through a supposedly equal, unitary political system can imagine that its unitary control continues to prevail once those nations start to break away is to re-group those nations into a new unity (new USSR or new ‘Britain’) with which it itself identifies. The former real unitary state (the USSR or Great Britain / the UK) that was often given the name of the dominant nation (Russia or England) becomes a confederation (no longer one nation but multiple nations) the unity of which is maintained in the mind of that dominant nation by a form of mental sleight of hand or fantasy denial of reality: the dominant nation identifies with the confederal state itself – thereby mentally transferring its own identity and personality as a united nation on to the confederal state. A union of multiple nations within a self-identical, homogeneous ‘nation-state’ is replaced by the identification of the leading nation with the new multi-national state. But in that process, the original dominant nation loses sight of its own distinct identity.

Hence, for the British establishment in the post-devolution world, England has become simply ‘Britain': a Britain imagined as identical to – or co-terminous with – the devolved nations and the state itself. The ‘Britain of nations and regions’, therefore, is a UK [Britain] of [British] nations and English [British] regions: the state, the nations and the regions united in a single identity (Britain) whose ‘existence’ for the English is constituted by a process of identification – transferring English identity, nationhood, values, culture, history, tradition, etc. over to ‘Britain’. In reality, Britain is no longer a unitary state dominated by, and often designated as, England. But the way the establishment has reacted to the loss of the former English-British political union is to replace it with a psychological, existential union (i.e. a ‘union of identity’) between England and the new confederal Britain. But to be considered as a single entity, such a union can have only one name; and ‘Britain’ is the single name adopted for this new confederal structure into which England has been absorbed: disappearing in the process of becoming one-with-Britain, and thereby being the imaginary place in which Britain remains one.

But am I any nearer to answering my original question: what sort of entity is the ‘Britain’ that is subdivided into nations and regions? There’s no real logical answer to that question: you can’t easily call this Britain a ‘nation’, because then you’d have a ‘nation of nations and regions’, and you’d have all sorts of difficult questions about what the relationship was between the ‘mother nation’ Britain, and her national and regional children; and you’d have to explicitly acknowledge the non-inclusion of England as such within the system. But in addition to this logical and political dilemma, the reason why no one can satisfactorily answer this question is the same as the reason why the British establishment is incapable of referring to England as an entity distinct from itself: it’s because what this new Britain ‘really’ is, is England. On the analogy with the imaginary ‘continuity-USSR’ discussed above, England has been identified with the new effectively confederal British state (England ‘becoming’ Britain-as-the-UK; Russia becoming the new USSR) at the same time as that state is a sovereign body conferring a distinct national identity on its other parts, which thereby remain semi-autonomous parts of ‘Britain’. So the new ‘Britain’ is the way an essentially English perception of the former unitary UK as an extension of itself (as ‘Greater England’) is re-imagined as a new multi-national union with which England itself is identified – thereby preserving in imagination the old unity of England and Britain, and the ‘ownership’ of Britain by England; though at the expense of calling England ‘Britain’.

In this sense, England exists (or perhaps ‘subsists’ or ‘persists’ would be better) within the Britain of nations and regions not as an ‘object’ that can be described in rational, realistic terms (i.e. as a ‘nation’ or the collective name for a group of regions) but as its subject: it’s the hidden, nameless ‘national’ personality of the trans-national, confederal state – its inner psychological identity. England is in the mind of those English people – politicians or ordinary citizens – that have lived out the state’s identification of England with itself psychologically: in terms of their own personal sense of identity. ‘England’ is the unnamed, suppressed, subjective national identity of those English people who now explicitly identify as British first and foremost: who are content to regard the ‘Britain of nations and regions’ as a description of their ‘country’ and nation. It is, and can only be, English people who identify with the ‘nation’ of ‘Britain’ from which they are content to recognise that three other ‘nations’ have branched out (i.e. separated themselves from English control) and who also recognise that the ‘regions’ in question are regions of ‘their country': in a more intimate and direct relationship with their country than that with the nations – because they are English regions (regions of their country England) even though it is not permitted to refer to them as such. The whole system only makes sense as an articulation of an ‘English’ point of view: the English ‘I’ (and eye) as it views the new British landscape – nations that are still really ‘ours’ (i.e. British) and regions that are even more so (i.e. English). England is the ‘we’ of Britain; but this fact must not and cannot ever be acknowledged, because then the realpolitik of the new Britain would be blown apart and exposed as an attempt by an England-centric establishment to retain power over a group of ‘other’ nations by re-imagining itself and them as a single entity known as Britain.

This relates to case 2, which I (mercifully) will not have time to explore in such depth: the articulation by national politicians of English matters as British. It is a cause of considerable exasperation to myself and many others that politicians whose ministerial portfolio or responsibilities are relevant to England only, because of devolution, continue to talk as if their policies and actions related to the whole of ‘Britain’. We’ve witnessed this tendency time and time again in this year’s party-conference season: none of the three established parties seems willing or able to refer to English matters as English matters. While it is true that this is a deliberate attempt to blind English people to the differences between English and devolved governance and policies, it is not enough in my view simply to hammer on endlessly about wilful deceit and insulting ignoring of England – which I’ve done frequently enough myself in these pages.

At one level, the fact that politicians and the media refer to English matters as British also reflects the fact that they genuinely don’t perceive the difference. And this is not even the same as saying that they are simply ignorant about devolution: of course, journalists and politicians are rational human beings (relatively so, perhaps!), and they’re aware about devolution in the part of their brains that deals with reality and facts. But rationality and realism are not what’s going on here because, quite simply, carrying on as if matters that relate to just one part of the Union related to all of it is irrational and at times not a little mad – like the recent row over parties’ commitments to the NHS, which was all about the English NHS, in practical terms, despite the fact that not a single item of commentary that I saw referred to England.

No, what’s going on – in addition to deliberate deception – is this process of psychological identification of England with Britain, predominantly by English people. If the politicians and media in question don’t properly make the distinction between England and Britain, it’s because they actually don’t see it (in) themselves: they’ve bought into, and completed in their own subjective minds, the state’s assimilation of England to ‘Britain’. They’re rather like the women in the film The Stepford Wives, who get replaced by identical, obedient automatons that are mechanical apart from one detail: the eyes are taken from the real women. In other words, these politicians and citizens have completed the process of national transformation and now answer only to the name ‘Britain'; except that this Britain is a re-working of an English ‘eye’ / I: a traditional English subjective perspective on the Union.

On this level, it actually doesn’t matter if the politician concerned knows that his portfolio extends only to England, and that when he’s referring to ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’ he actually means England. This is not only or always deceit, which involves passing one thing (England) off as another (Britain), because, in the politician’s mind, they’re not actually two different things: for them, there is only Britain; it’s just that in their particular case (e.g. education or health), their ‘British’ responsibilities stop at the borders with Scotland and Wales. So, in their minds, they’re actually ‘correct’ in referring to the country affected by their policies as ‘Britain’, because that’s how they genuinely see it. But then, of course, if the Britain involved in such cases does not extend to the ‘other’ UK nations, this is another way in which the ‘real’ name for ‘Britain’ is in fact England.

And this is why I believe that a self-governing England, with a distinct national identity, will emerge only when English people – including the English people who by and large still run the British state – are able to disentangle their English subjectivity from the objective reality that is known as Britain. After all, self-government implies that one knows who and what one’s ‘self’ actually is; and until English people can accept themselves as English, they will continue to be suppressed ‘subjects’ of the British state. Freeing ourselves politically as English citizens, therefore, will follow from freeing our minds to be English.

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