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.