Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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4 Comments »

  1. I can’t help feeling suspicious that the poll was hijacked by the Brits. Surely any Englishman/woman (or any Divided Kingdom citizen, from any of the DK’s nations) would know that LoHaG is an ode to the DK/Brit empire. What’s wrong with Jerusalem?

    Comment by Geoff, Worcester, England — 20 April 2011 @ 1.12 pm | Reply

  2. An English Parliament , then we can sort out the Anthem.

    Comment by i albion — 20 April 2011 @ 4.09 pm | Reply

    • You think an English Parliament will solve all your woes, but what you English don’t seem to understand is that you are already getting what you asked for. You make up the vast majority of the population of this island, and so what Westminster does is primarily a reflection of politics in England. Do you not realise the electorate will be the same? You couldn’t even bring yourselves to vote for the slighest modicum of progress in the voting system – what hope do you think you have of reforming your society? You should be grateful for the input of the far more socially democratic Celts. God only knows what state your country would be if your country was left to its own self-serving, elitist, anti-reform point of view.

      Comment by Thimble Thimon — 7 September 2013 @ 11.51 pm | Reply

  3. Thimble – your mean-spiritied comment makes the mistake of conflating the ordinary people of England with the British elites who occupy our capital. Not the same thing, at all. And Westminster may or may not be “primarily a reflection of politics in England” – but that isn’t enough. It is institutionally, irrevocably, down to its foundations an imperial, British parliament with imperial, British structures and imperial, British values. It is not and never has been an authentic national legislature for the English people. It is more like a citadel from which the elites pull England’s strings (and to a lesser extent those of our neighbours).

    Nobody thinks an English parliament will “solve all our woes” – but it is a necessary first step to doing so. Did you think that getting a Scottish parliament would solve all Scotland’s woes? Did anyone? Nobody that I know. But look at the good it has done in just a few years. England needs a parliament of its own for the same reasons. Why wouldn’t you want us to have one? What would you lose from us having one?

    You sound like another Scotsman who thinks he knows us better than we know ourselves – but you’re wrong. We can do without the input of “Celts” like Blair, Brown, Darling, Lamont, Kennedy and all the other Anglophobes who have devoted their careers to demeaning and dismantling England (a cause that you’re clearly fully on board with).

    We’re happy to be friends and to make common cause with fellow patriots across these islands (and beyond), but we don’t really have any time to bicker with anglophobes such as yourself. There’s no point. We won’t change your mind, so just carry on wallowing in your prejudice.

    Comment by Rob — 11 July 2014 @ 11.51 pm | Reply


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