Britain: the English Empire
While other countries formed nation-states, the English built an Empire. If all we English had been bothered about back then in the 18th and 19th centuries had been nation building, then I’ve no doubt we’d have had a unitary Nation of Britain long since: our little island fortress, with our sights and ambitions set merely on looking to our own affairs and keeping our European neighbours out of them.
But that sort of thing was for them, not us. So many of the European nations that emerged from smaller and larger entities alike during the 18th and particularly 19th centuries were landlocked or hemmed in by bigger powers. Not so we English. The open seas stretched out before us, and after we’d seen off first the Spanish Armada and then Napoleon’s navy, we ruled the waves as far as the Americas, Africa, India and Australia.
I’m not justifying all that our world-conquering ancestors did back then in a different world; but let’s not pretend either that our European rivals would not have done the same given half the chance. Indeed, the fact that they had to break out of a land lock helps to explain why the mid-20th-century Germans needed to fight for European domination first as stage one of their plan to rule the world.
The English Empire – what an achievement! Totally un-PC, of course, to speak in such terms – but our modern globalised world and, indeed, our multi-cultural Britain would simply not exist had our mercenary and missionary forebears not sailed off to drag half the world into the modern era. Un-PC, perhaps above all, to dub it the English Empire, not British. But it was the English that were the driving force and the power behind the imperial throne – albeit that many Scots, too, were happy to seize the opportunities for wealth, power and self-advancement that the Empire afforded them, for good or ill.
Should we English be proud of the Empire? To say simply ‘no’ is to conspire with the Britologists that would have everything that is great about ‘this country’ reflect back on ‘Britain’ and lay the blame for all that is bad on England and the English. For them, the English are essentially individualistic, aggressive, even violent; hostile and arrogantly contemptuous towards other cultures, which we supposedly blithely trampled over in the Empire; conservative, narrow-minded and insular. Yet in almost the same breath, they’d have us believe that the Empire in its British essence (as opposed to the ‘English’ aggression and opportunism that drove it) embodied the values that are still true, relevant and British for us today: tolerance, liberty, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. Values, in fact, which – according to Gordon Brown – could and should define a contemporary British ‘Nation’.
Well, I say ‘no’ to that British version of our history: that all-too simplistic dividing of the past into the English ‘black’ and the British ‘white’. You don’t get ‘greatness’ without it containing a little ‘grey’. The Roman Empire was great; its civilisation and technology were prodigies of its time; its law, literature and language, and later its conversion to Christianity, left an enduring legacy throughout Europe and the whole of Christendom. And yet, Rome was built on the back of military conquest, slavery and dictatorship. In the same way, our Empire spread English civilisation, industry, law, language, democracy and Christian faith throughout the world. And yes, it did so on the back of military conquest, slavery and imperial – though not dictatorial – rule. You can’t have one without the other; be proud of one without the other; have your British Empire without your England. You can’t say the ‘good’ values were and are all British but the ‘bad’ actions were all those of the English – because it was the actions and beliefs of the English that created the world in which those values stand today as our enduring legacy: our English legacy. And of that I am truly proud.
Others created nations; we English created the modern world. But as we rightly and democratically surrendered our imperial dominions to their own people, and as other global powers entered the stage, our horizons narrowed to our British island. Without the rationale of overwhelming mutual interest, and without the common enterprise of Empire, the marriage of convenience between England and Scotland that forms the bedrock of the United Kingdom finally looks set to be breaking down. Those who still cherish the ideal image of ‘Britain’s’ imperial greatness – conveniently forgetting the hard realities of domination and exploitation that were an integral part of that story, or ascribing them to England – now seek to build that Britain into a nation; rather than let it slide inexorably into the history books – the books telling the history of England, that is.
Britain never was, still is not and pray God never will be a ‘nation’ in its own right. For some of the Britologists, this is what it should have been from the beginning: from the time of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. If this had happened – say, for instance, if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar and our energies had subsequently been turned in on ourselves instead of Empire – Britain would now be a European nation-state comparable to those of a similar scale, such as Germany and Italy, that were put together from a collection of kingdoms and principalities during the 19th century. This is how Brown and his ilk would like Britain to be today, fearful that a break-up of Britain into its constituent nations would diminish ‘this country’s’ standing among its European neighbours and weaken its ability to defend its interests within Europe and the international community – albeit peacefully in the present era, thank God.
Of course, logically, such a break-up would by definition diminish this country’s standing if ‘this country’ is defined as Britain: Britain – as a would-be nation-state – simply would be no more. But this would not lessen England’s standing. On the contrary, England would re-emerge from Britain’s shadows as the great nation it always has been, both before and through the period of Union with Scotland: comparable but superior in its past achievements to those other empire-building nations and former rivals France and Spain. England did not need to build a nation of Britain. It already was a great nation at the time of the Union, and the uncomfortable truth is that, from day one, ‘Great Britain’ was more the name of England’s Empire than that of a nation subsuming England. The Union with Scotland was in reality more of an annexation of Scotland – followed one century later by Ireland – into the English Empire, which was already beginning to expand across the globe by the beginning of the 18th century.
In fact, one way of thinking about it would be to say that ‘Britain’ itself was England’s ‘home Empire’ (hence, ‘Great Britain’) as opposed to the Empire ‘abroad’. Scotland and Ireland would then be described as having been originally English colonies, subsequently absorbed into the same political state as England: union within a common state (the English state, renamed ‘Britain’ / the UK to reflect its enlarged geographical extent) but not a common nation. Commonwealth of nations, not British Nation. Unlike a power such as France, whose colonies were all assimilated into France itself, each of the ‘British nations’ (both the other nations of the British Isles and those of the broader Empire) retained or developed distinct identities as nations: distinct from England, that is.
British ‘nationhood’: nothing if not England
So the ‘British’ designation of the other British nations in fact signifies their difference from England – in the past and in the present – as well as England’s enduring difference from Britain. At the same time, however, the British nations’ Britishness mediates a continuing union with England – politically, culturally, socially: a state (in both senses) that can persist so long as England, too, continues to see and describe itself as British. England is the central point of reference and underlying national identity of Britain. This latter term also denotes the commonality and ‘sameness’ of Britain, as well as the place of the ‘properly British’: where Britain is thought of as present to itself and in possession of itself, providing a centre of original and authentic Britishness that can be imagined as remaining present through its dispersion across multiple different British nations. But, because it serves this purpose, England cannot define itself as distinct from Britain; it cannot set itself apart from Britain, and / or see itself as superior to the ‘other’ British nations, because this would mean that it was not ‘one’ with – an equal partner to and the means for the unity of – the other nations: the guarantor and foundation of a common Britishness.
These mutually dependent pulls of shared identity / union and continuing difference help to explain why it is over against a distinct, ‘superior’ England that the ‘British nations’ both define their own difference and assert a shared Britishness: a Britishness shared with England, that is, but which is predicated on the suppression of an England that is itself distinct from Britain, since England has to serve as the place (literally) of a continuing Britain and ‘proper’ Britishness that those other nations can then both share and differentiate themselves from.
‘We are Scottish and British but not English’. This is still a view, I think, held by the majority of Scots. But it’s ironically connected with another common Scottish perception, which is that English people simply see themselves as ‘British’; that when they refer to England, they tend to mean Britain – and when they say Britain, they generally mean England. (For the moment, forget about the whole British government thing of saying ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even when England is meant; I’m talking about the traditional Scottish assumptions, which are of course related to present British-government practice.) This is ironic because it exemplifies the conflicting pulls and ties of shared identity and difference with and from England that are mediated through ‘Britain’: Scotland is ‘one’ with England but only through Britain; but then again, an identification of England with Britain is asserted (which is what would in fact make that Union with England through Britain truly a union) but is itself framed as an ‘error’, and as the expression of ‘English’ arrogance, imperialism and will to dominate. So, through and as ‘Britain’, England is seen as both one with Scotland and different from it: an identification of England with Britain (and hence, a fundamental union between Scotland and England) is at once asserted and denied. Or putting it another way: Scotland sees itself as both ‘a part of’ Britain and ‘apart from England’ – but only if England and Britain are seen as both the same as each other and different from one another.
I think the same line of reasoning could be applied to the relationship between England and Wales; perhaps more so given the two countries’ much longer and deeper ties of shared and differentiated nationhood within ‘Britain’, which arguably go back to Roman times (or even earlier), when the actual colony of Britannia comprised roughly the territory of England and Wales today. The relationships are more complicated and painful in Northern Ireland. Here, I think the pulls are not so much between Ireland and England within Britain – on the analogy with Scotland and Wales – but between Ireland and Britain ‘as a whole’; although this structure still depends on England providing the ground and basis on which Britain can be viewed as a proper nation, as opposed to a collection of three or four nations. And hence, alongside the Union Jack, the Northern Irish Loyalists fly a flag that is essentially the Cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster in the centre: as if to say that Ulster’s British centre is England.
So, in order for the other nations of Britain to be seen as nations that are distinct from England, on the one hand, and which are still fundamentally and authentically united with – one with – England in the Union, England itself has to be seen as (and see itself as) one with – identified with – Britain. This provides a core and foundation of ‘proper’ Britishness (British national identity) that the other British nations can then both share and ‘own’ (rather than having to share and own Englishness) at the same time as they can differentiate themselves from and within that Britishness insofar as it is also seen as a self-attributed (and self-defining) ‘property’ and national characteristic of England.
The denial of a distinct England (and England’s self-abnegation) is in this way the precondition for a ‘proper’ British nation to exist: England must be Britain for Britain to be – and for the other nations to be semi-detached parts of Britain not annexes of England. I have to say that I think it is this fundamental structure that allows a phrase such as ‘a Britain of nations and regions’ to make any sense at all. Analysed from a purely logical perspective, this is a complete non-sequitur if you presuppose a logical hierarchy whereby regions are smaller dependent subsets of nations. If Scotland and Wales are the ‘nations’ here, and the ‘regions’ are the sub-national territories formerly known as England, what does that make Britain? A nation or a ‘supra-nation’? Well, yes, perhaps the latter – another word for ‘supra-nation’ being ’empire’, which is what – in my contention – Britain always was: the core of England’s Empire. Or alternatively, if Britain is a / the nation in this phrase, then shouldn’t Scotland and Wales be described rather as regions on the same basis as the [formerly] English regions? Yes, of course they should. But the structure isn’t logical in this way, or rather it obeys a different logic: it is the identification of England with Britain that enables the ‘other’ nations of Britain to affirm a distinct national identity while remaining organic parts of Britain; while, if England has become Britain, the smaller sub-national units into which it has been divided are then aptly described as regions of a British nation.
This paradoxical structure results from the two conflicting pulls within New Labour’s attempt to fashion a new British Nation – integral Britishness, on the one hand, along with devolution for some of its parts, on the other. This leads to the need to assert a strong core of British national identity at the centre, allowing the smaller countries at the periphery to be both distinct nations and partakers of a shared British identity: the British identity of England, that is – turning the whole edifice into an integral British Nation. This is in contrast to what I describe as the original and historic character of Britain as essentially the core and name of England’s Empire, with the other British nations as dominions or ‘possessions’ of England. The two structures could be illustrated as follows:
Nation of Britain
Comparing the two diagrams, it is noteworthy that a former hierarchy of nations (England as the central sovereign national power within the United Kingdom both governing and ‘owning’ the other British nations) has been replaced by a hierarchy of governance: the central UK government exercising governance / sovereignty over the ‘nations and regions’ in some matters but devolving power in other areas. Or at least, that was the blueprint for the [English] regions until the electorate in the proposed North-East region scuppered the idea. But, as we know, the present government has continued with its regionalising agenda, although the Regional Authorities now are little more than unelected arms of central government. So a more accurate rendition of the present situation would perhaps have been to draw the above diagram with a thick arrow going one-way from the centre down to the regions.
This replacement of inter-national UK governance by inter-tier UK governance reflects the fact that devolution as implemented by New Labour did double duty as a process of delegating to the ‘nations’ certain aspects of governance previously handled by the England-dominated UK government alongside a process of developing a new regional tier and structure of governance. That’s to say, this is regional governance effectively within the context of a new integral Nation of Britain. To complete this structural transformation, ‘Britain’ is promoted from its position as England’s ‘dominion’ within the imperial set up (the territory over which England exercised sovereignty and which England ‘possessed’) to the position as the sovereign national power in its own right. Accordingly, England is demoted to the status of a mere territory over which the central British government exercises sovereignty and which it ‘possesses’ as its own; to the extent that it feels entitled to dispose over – indeed, dispose of – the English territory as it chooses by parcelling it up into smaller administrative units.
But this also means that ‘Britain’ governs the UK in England’s place. In other words, Britain both takes England’s place as the sovereign and central power within the structure, and represents (indeed, re-presents) England within the continuing inter-national aspects of the system. Or, putting it another way, ‘Britain’ in the new structure continues to also be effectively England: it rests on the British national identity of the English, or the identification of England with Britain; and it exercises and takes forward England’s historic role and responsibility of governance over itself (i.e., in this instance, over the ‘regions’) and over the other British nations. This is still effectively governance from the English centre, albeit that this cannot be acknowledged, as it is supposed to be a unitary system of British governance, with British nations and British regions standing in a relation of equality towards one another within an all-embracing Britishness.
So the Britishness is really just an overlay over a much more long-standing structure, with Britain taking over and taking forward England’s historic role as the power in the land. This system, as it stands, is dependent on ‘Britain’ both being and not being England. Firstly, for Britain to have a ‘national identity’ in its right requires that the people of England (continue to) identify as British / identify with Britain, providing a[n English] core of Britishness that the other nations of Britain can both see themselves as sharing and uniting with in a profound way (as it and they are both British), while differentiating themselves from it in a manner that defines their own national identities as being distinct from that of England / English Britishness.
This is the core problem with Brown’s Britishness agenda: the non-existence, precisely, of a core Britishness. ‘Britain’ is incapable of grounding its identity as a ‘nation’ within itself because it has always been, and continues to be, essentially a system of governance unifying a collection of distinct nations – now even more than ever, in fact, as the second of my above two diagrams illustrates: ‘Britain’ / the UK is just a hierarchical system of governance and a set of relationships between its constituent parts, not an integral nation in itself. This is why Brown and New Labour can define ‘core Britishness’ only in terms of a set of general moral and political values that themselves relate to the processes of governance and civic society: liberty, tolerance, democracy, justice, the rule of law, etc.
The reality is that the ‘core identity’ of Britain is the [only in part British] national identity of the English. And this is made up of a much deeper, broader, more concrete and personal set of characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can ever be encapsulated by a mere set of philosophical and political abstractions. It is of these things – the character, culture, society, history and traditions of a whole national community – that real ‘national identity’ is made. England has and is all of these things; Britain ‘of itself’ does and is not. So in order to be a nation, ‘Britain’ has to appropriate the national identity of England to itself (another way of saying it has to ensure that English people [continue to] see all of their English characteristics and values as essentially British). But Brown cannot engage with the question at this level, because if he did, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his British national identity is, at its core, none other than England’s by another name. And so, because he cannot acknowledge the concrete reality of the English people and identity as the real core of, and dominant culture and nation within, the UK (as it always has been), his Britishness can be articulated only at the level of abstract ‘shared British values’.
And secondly – and this is perhaps even more determining for the future of a continuing Britain – the other British nations also need this core Britishness and centre of Britain to be Britain-but-not-England and to still be England all the same. On the one hand, they need this, as I described above, to feel connected to a common Britishness (of which ‘England’ is the guarantor and foundation) that is the place of an authentic and equal Union between the nations of the UK, rather than being in fact just another name for a separate England of which they have historically been subordinate British-imperial ‘possessions’. And, on the other hand, the fact that this ‘British centre’ is also still England is necessary for them to define their own national identity as distinct [from England] through devolution.
In other words, the other British nations define themselves as nations through differentiation from the English centre of Britain; but they need that English centre to be British first and foremost in order to continue to feel anchored in a common Britishness. If, on the other hand, that Englishness of the British centre were somehow to be effaced altogether, then the other British nations would ironically lose the basis for their own distinct national identities, at least as contained within the British framework. They need England to exist in order not to be English; and they need England to be Britain in order to be British. Pull England out of the whole system – create a Britain ‘without England’ at its centre – and the national identities of the other British nations, and their sense of belonging to a ‘national-British’ community of any description, would be completely stripped of their present anchoring, and the constituent parts of what we now know as Britain would spin off into a chaotic existential abyss.
All of which doesn’t exactly make it easy to see what the way forward might be. But although the present system does shore up some sort of unitary structure for UK governance within the context of devolution – and while it does create a British anchor for the diverging and increasingly autonomous identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is hardly a sustainable, rational or fair set up for England, which is condemned to a limbo land of being and not being a nation, and being the prop upon which the whole UK edifice and its other nations depend for their present existence.
And the point is, if this is not sustainable for England, then it cannot be a sustainable basis for a continuing United Kingdom, either. That is because England is the core national identity of the UK; but a UK that seeks both to deny that fact and yet relies on it is an edifice built on a foundation that undermines itself.