I was quite surprised recently at the reaction to a post of mine that was published on OurKingdom. In the piece, I explored some different scenarios for a referendum on Scottish independence. One of them was that, as a vote for Scottish independence would effectively break up Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Union between England and Scotland), then all of the people of Great Britain should be given a say. This proposal was intended only as an exercise in logical reasoning: if you regard Great Britain as a nation, then surely the whole of that nation should be allowed to choose whether it should be broken up. In the event, none of those commenting on the post took up this line of argument: there was not even a solitary unionist to defend the idea of Great Britain’s integrity as a nation. Scottish commenters, for their part, significantly seemed to regard any idea that the whole of Great Britain – or, indeed, the whole of the UK – should be allowed to give its assent to the departure of Scotland from the Union, and to the proposed shape of the continuing Union post-Scotland, as an (English) attempt to block the sovereign will of the Scottish people.
I was left with an impression that to argue that Great Britain is a nation – which is not, by the way, what I believe – meets with incomprehension in serious political debate. This is despite the fact that ‘the country’ and the state as a whole are almost always referred to in national political discourse as ‘Britain’; and the New Labour government has expended vast amounts of time, effort and money trying to invent and inculcate concepts such as ‘British values’, ‘Britishness’ and, indeed, British national identity that are supposed to unite all the peoples of the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
And this is also despite the fact that Team GB – the ‘Great Britain’ Olympic team – returned home earlier this week to the rapturous acclaim of what was referred to by the media as ‘the nation’, Union Flags draped all over them; to be followed in subsequent days by patriotic receptions of their athletes from the peoples of Scotland and Wales with not a Union Flag in sight but only Saltires and Red Dragons. No proposals yet for a victory parade for the triumphant English athletes, although we have been promised a parade in London in October for all of Team GB. Understandably, this absence of an English parade, along with the handing out of Union Jacks to people attending receptions of English athletes in their local areas, has been greeted with howls of ‘foul play’.
But it’s clear that the Great Britain celebrations are meant to do double duty as the English celebrations. There’s something rather unrealistic about demanding or hoping that we might be allowed to fête our triumphant English athletes as English when they’re supposed to be representing Great Britain. This would be an ‘unnecessary’ duplication – precisely because Great Britain is already the double of England; and because the patriotic pride we take in Team GB is the publicly acceptable expression of English pride in her athletes. Look at the kit those athletes are wearing: it’s the England football kit – white tops with red trim; blue trousers. (Or is England’s football kit really in the British colours? But don’t get me on to the subject of the football team GB again!)
How can we unpack all of this? The UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is not a nation: to advocate this idea would meet with even more derision or incomprehension than to suggest that Great Britain as such is a nation. Depending on whether you regard Great Britain as a unitary nation, as a political union of two nations (England and Scotland), or indeed of three (England, Scotland and Wales), then the UK is a political union between – a state composed of – from one to three nations plus part of another (Ireland).
Hardly surprising, then, that ‘the UK’ is not used as the name for the Olympic team: it’s not a nation and, therefore, cannot be a channel of national pride. ‘Britain’, on the other hand (as opposed to ‘Great Britain’), is used informally as a synonym for the UK, while taking on the connotations of nationhood associated with ‘Great Britain’. This is why it is also a synonym for what national politicians refer to as ‘the country’: a term which, in its very imprecision, also encompasses and binds together the concepts of the UK state and of nationhood but avoids officially using the term ‘nation’ for the UK. Similarly, ‘Britain’, informally, is described as ‘the nation’ even when it refers to the UK.
So why isn’t ‘Britain’, rather than ‘Great Britain’, the name of the Olympic team, as this would at least imply the inclusion of athletes from Northern Ireland, as well as from other parts of the so-called ‘British Isles’ that are not formally part of the UK, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Well, I suppose it’s because – formally – ‘Britain’ is the name neither of a state nor of a nation; whereas Great Britain appears to be a bit of both: literally a bit of – part of – the official name of the UK state, and (to judge from its name at least) an integral nation; that is, one of the two nations that joined together to form the UK.
But Great Britain is also, as I said above, the double of England. It’s the place within which the ‘subjective’ national identity of the English (how they see themselves and what they call themselves as a ‘great’ nation), the ‘objective’ identity of the state (a Union of two to four nations greater than England, but of which England is the greater part) and the physical territory of the ‘country’ (Britain) converge. But that place, increasingly, exists only in the subjectivity – in the minds – of the English (or at least some of them), not in objective reality.
Great Britain is the name that England gave to itself when it took over Scotland in the 1707 Union: it’s the name of the ‘dominion’ of England (its territory and power) expanded to encompass the whole of Britain – ‘Great’ because it is ‘Greater England’; a Union that consolidated the greatness of England as Britain. In the popular imagination of the English, from 1707 till recent times, Great Britain was a nation – was the nation – because it was synonymous with the nation of England; the Union being imagined as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state, which is what it effectively was if you consider only aspects such as parliament, the executive and sovereignty – although Scotland retained many other aspects of separate civic nationhood, such as its own legal and education systems, and established church.
So, for England, Great Britain became the (English) nation: an imaginative fusion – union – of the English national identity, the political state, and the territory of Britain. But the point is the English did invest their sense of national identity into Great Britain to the extent that ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ became indistinguishable and interchangeable. For the Scots, this meant that ‘Great Britain’ always really meant just England, and its domination and subordination of Scotland through the apparatus of the ‘British’ state. However, for the English, this genuinely implied a blending of national identities – a pouring and offering out of Englishness into and for Britain – creating something new: a British nation and nationhood within which the Scots and the Welsh were also taken up; but which, subjectively, was of necessity the extension of Englishness to ‘Britain as a whole’ (Great Britain), because that imagined common Britishness was imagined through the minds of the English – the controllers of the narrative of British identity.
Nothing essentially changed in this dynamic when Ireland was added to the Union in 1801. The name of the state may have changed but it remained ‘Great Britain’ in its core identity: the national identity of the English as subjectively extended and merged into ‘Britain as a whole’, making Ireland, too (and now Northern Ireland), ‘really’ part of Great Britain: British; British Ireland. ‘Really’ in the sense that, insofar as it lived as a nation at all, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (this union of Ireland with Great Britain, which was an incorporation of Ireland into the Union that was Great Britain) fully had the character of nationhood only in the minds of the English, for whom Great Britain was the objective reflection – the image, the double – of their own nation and the greatness of England.
The British ‘project’ – the realisation of Britain as a ‘great nation’ through Great Britain, the Empire and now the attempt to encapsulate the philosophical and political ‘greatness’ that is Britishness – has, therefore, always been essentially an English project. Not only in the objective sense that the English ‘as a nation’ somehow owned, drove and dominated the British adventure; but because the very Britishness of that project was a projection of the English: a creation of something, in their eyes, greater than themselves but of themselves, which in turn conferred greatness (the greatness of Britain) upon them.
And so now, too, our Olympians have gone out to the world and returned home in greatness, battles won. ‘Our’ Olympians, I say? Those of England or those of Great Britain?
For now, they are those of England and those of Great Britain; and our celebrations must do double duty for our athletes’ Englishness and Britishness – including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish among them in whom, as Great Britons, we English also take national pride.
But the objective political reality which, for 300 years, has sustained the Great British dream is rapidly unravelling. As those displays of Scottish and Welsh patriotic pride revealed, it’s increasingly only the English who see themselves as British and their country as Great Britain. And then again, fewer and fewer of them. When that objective political union that binds England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully dissolves, then maybe we can have our celebration of great English achievements. Or maybe, our celebrating English glories as English, not British, will be the thing that finally puts an end to the British project: the projection of our English ambitions and identity onto Great Britain.
It’s the desire to be greater than ourselves that led to Great Britain. Maybe England‘s finest hour will be when we accept that true greatness is just to be ourselves. And to achieve all that we are capable of – for ourselves and our country – in a spirit of friendship to others and personal striving that has its meaning in itself.