Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 June 2008

Nationalism: Positive or Negative?

There has been much discussion recently, including on this blog, of what a ‘progressive’ English nationalism might mean. I can think of three main ways to configure this question:

  1. English nationalism could be viewed as progressive – itself a term that needs more precision; for the moment, let’s just say this means ‘associated with a liberal, left-of-centre social and political agenda’ – if it ascribes to itself many of the traditional values of English-British civic society, including tolerance towards and inclusion of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and ways of life. This would be civic English nationalism as opposed to ethnic nationalism. This was recently criticised by Arthur Aughey (see also the helpful review of Arthur Aughey’s critique here) as essentially just the same as British civic nationalism which, Aughey claimed, English nationalists have to demolish in order to set up English nationalism as a civic movement, at the risk of allowing ethnic nationalism to come in and fill the place left vacant by British civic nationalism. My response to this in essence is that British civic nationalism is really a product of English history, politics and culture in the first place, i.e. it is already English civic nationalism. So it’s just a case of refocusing English civic society on England and the English, with these terms not defined in an ethnic sense.
  2. You can also argue that English nationalism is a positive thing – let’s use this term rather than the ideologically loaded ‘progressive’ – on simple democratic and libertarian principles, as follows: a) the English nation exists; b) as a nation, on established human-rights principles, it has the sovereign and democratic right to determine the form of government it wishes for itself. In this form, English nationalism is merely the defence of the rights and freedoms of a people, i.e. the English people. This is irrespective of any ideological agenda one might have to ‘improve’ that people and its society (progressivism), and does not necessarily make any assertion about the English having particular characteristics (cultural or racial) that make them any better than, or exclusive of, other people – although defenders of English-national rights will generally do so because they love England and its people, for all their flaws. This is the closest to my position, although I would also hope that an independent or federal England would embody the best aspects of traditional, English civic society.
  3. The final way to look at this question, which is one I want to raise briefly here, is considering nationalism from an ethical (as opposed to ethnic) perspective. This is an angle that is not often explicitly explored; but the ethical dimension is implicit behind any questioning of the progressive, or anti-progressive, character of nationalism.

Essentially, the question is as follows: is nationalism, even in some of its civic and libertarian aspects – as defined above – always to some extent discriminatory and exclusive? That is, insofar as English nationalism embodies a focus on creating English civic society, and on defending the democratic rights and freedoms of English people, would this not always in practice involve some element of discrimination and preferential treatment in favour of English people over non-English people, whether these are from other British countries, from other EU states or elsewhere?

Without going into detailed, specific examples or hypothetical cases, I’m interested in highlighting an issue that needs to be thought through, which could be put pithily as follows: is nationalism – any nationalism, not just English – always a form of discrimination like other ‘-isms’, in that it involves favouritism and partiality towards a particular nation; in the same way that sexism involves favouring one sex over another, and similarly for racism, ageism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc.?

To some extent, I think this is a false question – and I’ll explain why in a moment. But I think it has bedevilled any attempt to establish English nationalism as a credible, positive idea. The fact that the question has not been posed explicitly has enabled ‘progressives’ to be unchallenged in positioning English nationalism in the wrong camp and in identifying it as a negative ‘-ism’ and as a form of discrimination in the way I suggest. The predisposition to answer the question I have just raised in the negative (‘yes, nationalism is always discriminatory; and therefore, English nationalism must also always be discriminatory’) has facilitated the negative association of English nationalism as an ethnic nationalism, via an easy slippage between ‘nationalism’ and ‘racism’.

If, on the other hand, you do raise this question explicitly, it forces a more honest, comprehensive answer. Yes, nationalism always to some extent involves being more concerned to protect the rights, freedoms, security and also economic interests of a particular nation, as opposed to those of other nationalities. But this ‘exclusion’ of non-nationals is the very condition upon which civic society and, indeed, democracy are founded and can be advanced. The society that is the civic society is a contingent, limited entity: limited in the number of people included, in the geographical space in which they live and – to a more relative extent – in its culture and traditions. The model of a civic society is therefore a polis (or polity). In the original Greek, this referred to a city state such as Athens – the words ‘civic’ and ‘city’ having the same Latin root; but in the modern sense, the starting point has to be a self-defining collectivity of people exercising its sovereign right to govern itself democratically. And the English nation is just such a collectivity.

This means that it is really down to the English – including those of non-British ethnicity who are British citizens and either live in England or consider themselves to be English – to decide, through properly democratic institutions, which newcomers can join the civic society and enjoy its rights, including social and economic rights such as education, training and the opportunity for dignified employment on a living wage. This is not necessarily discrimination – although, in practice, there could be instances where it was associated with discriminatory attitudes – but is, in essence, a society looking after its own, including those who have tended to be disenfranchised in British society, both democratically and economically. One would aspire to such an English civic society embodying values of compassion towards people of other nationalities (whether living in England or not), and openness towards the economic and cultural benefits of globalisation, while mitigating its negative social effects to a greater extent than has been done up to now. But it is a right – a human right – for a people to say: this is who we are and this is how we want our society to be; and if you are willing to accept us on our terms, we will welcome you and all you have to bring to our country.

Think what have been the consequences of the opposite attitude; and this is where the falseness of the assumption that nationalism is always to some extent discriminatory is revealed. The opposite view is one that simply can’t bite the bullet of nationhood and consequently won’t ask the national question, let alone the English question. ‘All nationalism is negative’ means ‘all nationalities are / should be included’; and this assumption has been at work in New Labour’s attempts to re-cast Britishness as a merely civic concept that ultimately replaces people’s old national allegiances (whether English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish or to any other nation around the world) with acceptance of a set of universal, civic ‘British values’.

In practice, the ‘all nationalities are included (more properly, ‘subsumed’) within Britishness’ approach has gone hand in hand with the government’s open door policies on migration: ‘all nationalities can be included (accommodated) in Britain’. This has been expressed in the view that people of any nation are welcome to settle here and eventually become British citizens so long as they contribute to society (i.e. in practice, largely, to the economy) and subscribe to said British values. No chance, in this context, to say: ‘wait, shouldn’t we be looking after the social and economic needs of English (and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) people first and foremost, and try to train up our own people to do the jobs (both skilled and unskilled) that the economy needs?’ No: quicker and cheaper to just bring labour in on the cheap from wherever it’s available; this is globalisation, after all. Putting the interests of English people before those from other EU states or those with skills to contribute would be (English-nationalist) discrimination, so the argument goes. But isn’t the opposite necessarily discrimination against the English? And isn’t the out-of-hand rejection of any argument that tries to advance the cause of a particular national group (i.e. the English) over that of any of the many and varied nationalities grouped into supra-national Britain also a form of discrimination? Hence, pushed to the extreme, ‘anti-nationalism’ is also a negative ‘-ism’: discrimination against, and prejudice towards, those who would defend the interests of a particular, limited group as opposed to that of a larger group (the British nation) that is able to deny that it is discriminating against any particular nation because it defines itself as based on the denial of nationality per se.

In either sense of the term ‘denial’, it’s England, Englishness and the English that are denied their civic, democratic and economic rights; and the British state is in denial of this fact, in that it can’t accept the existence of the England it denies. In this way, modern Britain demonstrates a curious paradox: a supposed civic society and democratic nation that denies the nation and nationhood on which it is built subverts its own foundations. In this way, a-national / supra-national Britain no longer represents the English nation who established it and which it exists to serve.



  1. Good thought provoking post.

    If Arthur is saying we have to demolish Britishness, then you are essentially advocating a rebranding exercise. Britishness >>> Englishness.

    I don’t really agree with either to be honest. My problem with Perryman’s book is that it is a study of England after Britain, essentially telling us that the time to take Englishness seriously is now, because Britain might split up and leave us all disenfranchised loners. But there is an argument that says we should build a strong inclusive sense of Englishness for the sake of Britain and Britishness.

    You are giving ISMs a bad name, it’s a spurious argument to argue that they are all discriminatory: secularism, radicalism, conservatism, socialism, liberalism, libertarianism. You might happen to think that some of these are bad….but discriminatory? Nationalism, if you discard the racial claptrap that certain folk ascribe to it, is no more menacing than regionalism. It’s a way of ordering society – in our case the boundaries of our democracy.

    Where it breaks down, perhaps, is when the very people who object to English nationalism or an English parliament ask you why you need an English parliament. The only answer is, let’s be honest, that ethnic nationalism underpins civic nationalism – England is a nation formed through common experience, culture, religion, history, politics and ethnicity.

    It’s complete claptrap to say that English can’t be as inclusive an identity as British. England is more diverse than Britain, just as London is more diverse than England. The difference is that there has been no political gentrification of Englishness. If there was then you probably see the far-right drifting out into other terms like Aryan, of WASP, or Britons (as opposed to British). Language changes.

    Check out the Red Pepper debate on this

    Comment by Toque — 24 June 2008 @ 6.45 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Toque. I wasn’t really saying that all -isms are bad; just that nationalism is often treated by ‘Britologists’ as if it were a negative -ism because, for many of them, nationality per se as an ‘ethnic’ idea (= also cultural, traditional, historical, etc., as you say) is a negative concept – and hence Britishness is configured as above or beyond traditional, narrow nationality / nationalisms.

    I think I was also simplifying my own position when I said I regard British civic values / society as really just English. The values in themselves (e.g. tolerance, the rule of law, freedom of speech / conscience / assembly, habeas corpus . . .) are universal liberal-humanist tenets; but when people talk of the ‘Britishness’ of these values as reflected and enacted in our society, they’re usually talking of Englishness and English society (and the English character, communities, social classes, etc.).

    I like your points about building an inclusive Englishness being vital for building an inclusive Britishness; and the point about political gentrification of Englishness. That’s a good way of looking at it – also because of its class connotations.

    Comment by David — 24 June 2008 @ 7.09 pm | Reply

  3. I was presenting contra arguments rather than picking an argument with you – just for the avoidance of doubt!

    Comment by Toque — 24 June 2008 @ 8.44 pm | Reply

  4. No worries, Toque. Wouldn’t have minded if you had been picking an argument, though!

    Comment by David — 24 June 2008 @ 11.09 pm | Reply

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