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.

Advertisements

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.