Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 April 2011

Royal wedding – ‘what Britain does best’ or what Britain is: a union of unequals?

I’m beginning to write this an hour before the service commences: the royal wedding. So I’m starting blind, before the start of the spectacle that I’ll be going round to a neighbour’s to watch – which will provide the necessary flesh to this cultural commentary.

Apart from being a ceremony in which a man and a woman commit their lives to one another, we are told that the royal wedding is an example of ‘what Britain does best’. More precisely, it is the ceremony and the celebration themselves that are ‘what Britain does best’: ceremonial performed with military precision, coupled with joyful but dignified, restrained popular celebration. In other words, the wedding symbolises Britain itself: a hierarchical, orderly society to which the people – like the commoner Kate Middleton – give their joyous but equally solemn assent.

Britain, like a traditional Christian marriage, is indeed a union. And as this particular wedding solemnises the union of the future head of the British state (who in that sense personifies the state and the established order) with a ‘girl of the people’, it symbolises in a particularly apt and condensed way the organic union that is meant to turn a kingdom into a nation: rulers and subjects united, like the married couple, in one flesh.

But is this union – Britain, that is – truly a marriage of equals, or does this wedding in fact symbolise the unequal nature of society and power across the Union, including in the relationship between the different nations (plural) of the kingdom? After all, the wedding takes place in the sacred burial place of the English kings, at the heart of the historic capital of England and centre of English government. It is conducted in a Church of England abbey, with some of the service being led by the pastoral head of the Anglican Communion (its future temporal head being Prince William himself, of course) using the hallowed English rite that is the Book of Common Prayer. This marriage and the union it symbolises are English in all but name, or English but not in name: the United Kingdom of whose perpetuation this wedding is a celebration being in essence a continuation of the ancient English kingdom, with William and Catherine being the future King and Queen of England. No one calls the British monarch the ‘King of Britain’ or the ‘King of the UK’: they’re the King of England – though not explicitly referred to as such in politically correct society – and at the same time head of the United Kingdom state.

This dual function and nomenclature reveals the fact that the UK is not a true and full union whereby the two – England and Scotland – could be said to have come together to form a new entity (Britain); the English crown united with the people (English and non-English) of the realm in an organic, integral British nation. Instead, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall remain as semi-distinct adjuncts to the English crown: like jewels within it but not integral to its English design and manufacture. And a great divide continues to separate the exalted class of the rulers from the people: the crown is not in fact one with the people; and England is not one with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall in a united British nation.

Perhaps this is where a distinct identity for the English people was lost, along with any concept of popular English sovereignty; and where, instead of seeing each other as being oppressed by the same social inequalities and absence of true democracy, the non-English people of these isles have viewed ‘the English’, rather than the British state, as the oppressors. And this is because the English have never divorced their identity as a people and as a nation from the ancient English kingdom that has been subsumed within the British state, which has inherited its powers, prerogatives and mystique. As a consequence, the English have been identified by others with the British oppressor because they have identified themselves as subjects of the English kingdom / British state: not just willingly subjecting themselves to English-monarchical rule as it is continued within the British state, but framing their own subjectivity (their consciousness of themselves as a people) as British subjects: loyal servants and agents of the now British realm.

This is what, for me, is symbolised by the royal wedding: not the true union of a people with its rulers in an integral British nation but the identification of the English with their oppressor, the British state – a ‘commoner’ being ‘elevated’ to royal status, but not in a way that expresses or brings about the equality of the two, but rather in a way that confirms and perpetuates the separate status of those two worlds. But it’s not so much the future king or the present queen that is responsible for this continuing and only exceptionally bridgeable gap between the ruler and the subject. It is the British state – represented by those insipid ministerial faces seated in the row behind the glorious Westminster Abbey choir during the wedding service – that has inherited the privileges and aura of monarchical rule and exercises a power over the English (and non-English) people that is as much subjective as objectively subjecting: a power over our minds – leading us to willingly embrace, indeed celebrate, our subservient Britishness in fawning adoration – as much as it is objective, practical disempowerment and absence of democratic self-determination.

Today, ‘the nation’ may have celebrated a union that in turn symbolised the nation. But this unity of the ‘British nation’ is defined quintessentially in this very act of celebration and of marriage through which the English subject – as personified by Kate Middleton – is subsumed within and identified with the personification of the British state. So this is not a real, mature nation at all but merely a powerful, eloquent enactment of subjection to Britain. And until we break the spell through which the British state charms us into submitting to its ‘majesty’, the English nation will continue to be absent from the party.

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20 April 2011

Land of hope and glory, maybe – but which land are we talking about?

It’s common in liberal-progressive circles nowadays to bemoan the emergence of ‘identity politics’, by which is meant a politics of national identity drawing variously on opposition to mass immigration and the assimilation of Britain into the EU, resistance to globalisation, Islamophobia and ethno-racism. Little attempt is made to differentiate between the various modes of nationalism: Scottish / Welsh / Irish-republican, British or English; ethnic, cultural or civic.

The fact that such a wide range of diverse political credos and projects are tarred with the same brush is a reflection of the fact that British liberal progressives themselves do not make a clear distinction between ‘Britain’ (UK or Great Britain?) and England. That is because they themselves are part of the ‘Anglo-British’ tradition of politics and identity in England, whereby traditionally ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ have been interchangeable, overlapping terms and concepts.

This is something I’ve discussed on many previous occasions. But it occurs to me that you could configure this Anglo-Britishness as follows:

  • When (s)he is deliberately or explicitly referring to the non-English parts of ‘Britain’, or to Britain as a whole, your traditional Anglo-Brit might well say ‘Britain’ but still actually be thinking of England or, more strictly, be thinking of ‘Britain’ in English terms, or as an extension of England, or with reference to England, or with England conceived as Britain’s fulcrum
  • When not focusing on or including the non-English parts of Britain, the traditional Anglo-Brit will happily say ‘England’ where technically ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ would be a more accurate word for what they are referring to.

Be that as it may, the English identity has traditionally been bound up with this Anglo-Britishness, and popular national and patriotic (as opposed to ‘nationalist’) sentiment has made little effort to distinguish between England and Britain if it even noticed any difference between the two. I’d like to christen this hybrid ‘nation’ that the Anglo-Brits celebrate as ‘Bringland’: neither strictly Britain nor England but the real nation that the English traditionally took pride in.

Except, of course, Bringland never was real in any formal or official sense. But the unwritten constitution of the UK consecrated this informal identification between England and the British realm in that it made the British parliament the continuation of the pre-Union English parliament, with all its pre-existing rights and prerogatives; and made the English monarch, with his / her historic English role as Defender of the Faith and temporal Head of the Church of England, also the King or Queen of the UK and Commonwealth.

At the risk of gross simplification, one could say that the process of constitutional reform kicked off by New Labour and now being continued by the Con-Dem coalition fundamentally involves undermining and unravelling this organic existential / psychological / symbolic / spiritual fusion between England and the UK. The UK is being redefined as a distinct entity separated from its previous English core; or, as I put it elsewhere, England is being ‘disintermediated’ from the UK: deprived of any role or status, practical or symbolic, within the ‘values’ (economic, symbolic, political) underpinning the UK state.

The liberal establishment is driving these developments. It is happy for the UK to re-define itself as a polity that is to some extent ‘beyond nation’: transcends nationhood (specifically, has gone beyond its former English-national identity) and conceives of itself as inherently multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. In a sense, then, it is hardly surprising that there has been a nationalist backlash, as popular attachment to English / British / ‘Bringlish’ identity and traditions is profound and, I would say, enormously important and valuable.

But, as nationalists, we have to be clear in our own minds which nation we seek to uphold and defend: is it Britain / Bringland, or is it England? We can’t totally swim against the tide of history. The world is changing at what seems like an ever-accelerating pace, and England has to be open to operating in a globalised, culturally plural world if she is to establish herself and survive as a prosperous nation in her own right. And Bringland is unravelling, whether we like it or not: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are seeking to define their own future and their own governance, separate from the Bringlish Union; and the establishment itself has set its face against England and towards further constitutional innovation (which could include repealing the Acts of Succession and even disestablishing the Church of England), which risks definitively severing the organic, historic ties between England and the Union state.

We shouldn’t waste our time extolling and defending historic Anglo-Britain. Bringland is dying on its feet, and our choice is either to side with the trans-national, de-anglicised Britain of the liberals and the establishment, or to define and celebrate a new, distinct English identity and future, symbolically and politically distinct from Britain.

That is why I find it rather dismaying that in a poll of the readers of This England magazine, Land of Hope and Glory has emerged as the favourite candidate for an English national anthem. Land of Hope and Glory is a British, or Bringlish, hymn par excellence, celebrating Anglo-Britain’s ‘glorious’ imperial past and the expansion of the essentially English realm beyond Britain itself across the Empire:

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

This is not an anthem for a modern England, proud of its past, yes, and confident in its own identity, values and traditions but determined to be a partner to other nations and a participant in the international community on equal terms, rather than an imperial subjugator and rival to other powers. I suppose we should take heart from the fact that 93% of the readers of This England said they wanted a separate English national anthem. But this is the old and dying Anglo-British identity, not the New England – the new Jerusalem, indeed – of Blake’s poem.

For my part, I accept the charge of identity politics. But for me, this is not a politics that seeks to revive and inflame an old Anglo-British, imperialist patriotism and send it in a new xenophobic, vicious nationalist direction. For me, English nationalism is not so much about identity politics but about establishing England’s political identity. That is, unless and until England can establish its own identity and voice in the shape of formal, constitutionally secure political and cultural institutions, the prospects of its very existence as a nation are at best uncertain, at worst grim. My identity politics are not a case of reviving an ethnic Anglo-British identity in the face of powerful social and economic forces that threaten it but are about creating a new English nation, distinct from the old Anglo-British establishment that has now separated itself from its former English core.

Once England has a political centre of its own, it can indeed then begin to forge a new English identity around which the traditional Anglo-British pride can again coalesce and re-express itself in modern terms: proud of its ‘Bringlish’ past but focused on an English future.

11 April 2011

L’interdiction de porter les burkhas est une honte pour la France

Feel free to Google-translate this, but I felt it needed to be said in the language of Racine.

Si ce n’est pas ridicule, l’interdiction de porter les burkhas dans les lieux publics, qui devient loi aujourd’hui, est une honte pour la France.

Ridicule à cause du nombre minuscule de porteuses de burkha en France, estimé à quelque deux milles. Une honte en raison des fières traditions de la liberté, de l’égalité et de la fraternité auxquelles le nom même de la République Française s’associe dans l’esprit de la communauté internationale.

Évidemment, la fraternité ne s’étend pas à nos sœurs musulmanes. Apparemment, la liberté ne signifie plus le libre choix de ses vêtements. Et l’égalité – au nom de laquelle on prétend justifier cette mesure discriminatoire – n’équivaut plus au droit d’être différent.

Et l’absurdité la plus grande, c’est qu’on pense que cette nouvelle loi va donner plus de sécurité aux citoyens français, et qu’elle aille donner lieu à une meilleure entente entre la France séculaire et la communauté musulmane, en France et à l’internationale. Tout au contraire : cela ne peut qu’aggraver les tensions et augmenter les accusations de la part du monde musulman que la France soit intolérante, raciste même, envers la religion et le peuple musulmans. Et, ici en Angleterre, l’on ne sait que trop quelles peuvent être les conséquences pour la sécurité de notre population d’accusations de cette sorte, quelque infondées qu’elles soient.

Et tout ceci pour quelques deux milles femmes qui désirent exprimer leur foi de cette manière. Cynisme politicien, peut-être, si ce n’était pas si ridicule.

1 April 2011

The ‘nations and regions’ model of the UK enshrines division and inequality

Some of us hoped that Gordon Brown’s demise would have seen his beloved ‘nations and regions’ travesty of the UK put to bed: the idea that Britain / the UK is comprised of (devolved) nations and (British) regions, with no place for an English nation. But it seems this idea is too deeply embedded in the British-establishment consciousness to fade away along with its biggest fan.

One of the reasons why this concept won’t simply disappear relates to one of the ways in which it in fact perpetuates a divided and unequal vision of the UK. There are two main aspects to this:

  1. The nations and regions idea re-works the old Anglo-British conflation of England with Britain / the UK. The language and the thinking have changed significantly, but the underlying structure is the same. Previously, because the identities of England and Great Britain were so profoundly fused in the mind of the establishment, and of many ordinary English people, it used to seem perfectly normal and acceptable in England to say ‘England’ when you really meant Britain, and vice-versa. Now, that’s reversed: the politically correct thing is to say ‘the UK’, ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’ irrespective of whether you do actually mean the UK, Great Britain or England. But there’s still fundamentally the same conflation of England with the UK, except now you can’t overtly express it. Hence, the total taboo on saying ‘England’.
  2. Even within the logic of the nations and region concept, there is an implied inequality and demarcation between the regions and nations, which is perhaps even more divisive than the previous careless projection of Englishness beyond England’s borders. That is, what is effectively England – historically and territorially – is viewed as more ‘properly’ British and as the ‘core’ of Britain; whereas the ‘nations’ are by definition somewhat other than Britain and not viewed as an integral part of it. In other words, instead of four equal but distinct ‘home nations’ joined together in a shared Britain and Britishness (seen as both a political union, and common cultural and national heritage), only England is truly Britain (except, of course, you can’t call England ‘England’ any more, but only ‘Britain’). You end up with a nation of Britain whose heartland is effectively England but is divided up into regions surrounded by other merely affiliated, and not integrally British, nations.

So the ‘nations and regions’ model of Britain / the UK is deeply divisive, and in fact fosters and enshrines a Dis-United Kingdom: it denies the distinct identity of England while also denying full British status to the non-English nations. Ultimately, it’s designed to prevent the emergence of a different, federal model for the UK in which four nations (or five if you include Cornwall) can be joined together in an equal political union without suppressing either their distinct national identities or their shared Britishness.

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