Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

29 July 2012

Further thoughts on the Olympics opening ceremony: a new British nationalism

At two days’ remove from the London Olympics opening ceremony, I’ve been able to form a clearer idea of what its underlying narrative was and why it appeals so strongly to lovers of all things British. In short, the ceremony enacted a journey from a pre-industrial, rural, geopolitically undefined Britain made up of the four historic nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to a unified, modern, post-industrial, technological and urban British nation formed from the fusion of the historic nations together with the cultures and peoples that have immigrated to Britain in the post-war era.

Hence, although it was to some extent gratifying that the show began with the singing of the national anthems, or would-be national anthems, of the four historic nations, this places those nations firmly in the pre-modern past; whereas those same four nations were not represented as having any place or voice in the multi-ethnic Britain of today. [And at this point, I’ll just observe that Cornwall had no recognition whatsoever.] In other words, the ceremony dramatised the narrative of the new British nationalism, which sees ‘Britain’ as a civic nation to which all can belong on equal terms – those of an immigrant background alongside ‘native Britons’ – and which subsumes and traverses the supposedly more ethnic identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The face of the nation that the ceremony presented to the world was that of multi-ethnic, mono-national Britain, in contradistinction to a historically mono-ethnic (i.e. white) but multi-national Britain.

But is this multi-ethnic face merely skin-deep? Why, for instance, did Boyle not have the courage of his Briticist convictions, and make the girl and boy that hook up via a Facebook-type social network towards the end of the narrative section of the ceremony a white-black couple, instead of having the female part played by a black-white mixed-race girl and the male role taken by a black boy? Would it have been too shocking and unacceptable to the great British public, even today, to make a white girl getting together with a black boy the focal point of the whole multi-ethnic narrative? Or why not have a white man getting it on with a black girl – or is that too suggestive of the history of colonialism and slavery the ceremony refused to touch upon? How truly multi-ethnic is this brave new Britain if such a black and white beast with two backs is unpalatable to the viewing public?

This particular point touches upon the whole vacuity of the ceremony’s representation of modern Britain, with the multi-ethnic youth dancing in harmony to the fusion beats of grime music and the like. Merely one year ago, the multi-ethnic youth of areas such as Hackney – just down the road from the Olympic stadium – were rocking to a different beat as they smashed shop windows and burnt buildings to the ground. Which is the more authentic vision of contemporary Britain? Possibly both, or neither; or perhaps, one is the hope and the other is the experience. And the experience of many young English urbanites is a lack of meaningful opportunities and hope for work, education, or a better future for themselves and their families. The children may play – in the Olympics or in the disinhibited freedom of the riot – but how will they live? What are their prospects in an England denied recognition by the British state, and as citizens on the ethnic and economic margins of a marketised British society? Will the glittering spectacle of the Olympics, to which they are denied access, make them feel even more alienated from the opportunities and successes that seem reserved for a social elite: bankers, corporations, Olympians?

The opening ceremony identified Britain firmly with the Olympic ideal of nations fusing together as the Olympic rings emerged from the mills that made modern Britain. But is this ideal, in Britain’s case, a mere forgery: a fake, counterfeit image whose underlying reality is far more disunited, chaotic and ugly?

10 January 2009

Lies, damn lies and censuses: nationality, national identity and ethnicity in the proposed 2011 UK censuses

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And the 2011 census belongs, clearly, in the latter category. Or the 2011 censuses, rather; because, in the wake of devolution, there are now three censuses for the UK – or four, if you include the superficial differences, mostly relating to the sequence of the questions, between the forms that will be sent out to households in England and Wales.

The questions about ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ in the proposed forms for England & Wales and Scotland respectively neatly illustrate how the way you gather statistics can pre-determine the answer you want, in the service of a political agenda; whether that agenda is to reinforce the cohesiveness of a British ‘national identity’ or to insidiously drive a wedge between the different national identities of the UK by defining them in ethnic terms.

First, the form for England and Wales. As reported by Toque, the 2011 census will ask people the following question about their ‘national identity’:

So far so good: very good, in fact. In contrast to the 2001 census, there are at least separate ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ tick boxes; and they’re not indented underneath the ‘British’ category (making ‘British’ the implied primary national identity for all UK citizens), as they were in an earlier proposal for the ethnic categories in the census (see my previous discussion). And you can also pick more than one of these national identities, if you so wish; e.g. English and British, Scottish and British, etc. However, Cornish nationalists will understandably decry the absence of a ‘Cornish’ check box. And there’s also still a big problem with this ‘national identity’ list when set against the ‘ethnic group’ question:

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that people aren’t asked to differentiate in ethnic terms between Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness and Britishness: there’s a single ‘white’ category for all white persons who have selected one or more of these terms as their national identity (-ies). However, this implicitly sets up a ‘white-British’ ethnic group (like the one used in the 2001 census), as all of these five ‘national identities’ are basically those of Britain / the UK. This white-British ethnicity is differentiated in the ethnic-group question from ‘white Irish’; in contrast to the 2001 form, which defined a single ‘white Irish’ ethnicity that could include people with political loyalties or affiliations to either Northern Ireland or the Republic. In other words, the form is making an ethnic distinction purely on the basis of a political division: between Britain / the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland.

This definition of ethnic categories along the lines of state frontiers is completely inappropriate and unacceptable, politically and methodologically. In actual fact, this introduces into the census a third, unspoken type of ethnic / national categorisation – nationality – that is subtly different from ‘national identity’ but will inevitably skew the way respondents describe their national identity. White-British people are being forced by the form to define their ethnicity in relation to this third type of identity (nationality), i.e. their status as British citizens. If the form succeeds in getting English people to accept a definition of their ethnicity that is based on their nationality (i.e. ‘white-British’), then those same people are far more likely to tick the ‘British’ check box in the question on ‘national identity’ (No. 15 above), whether in addition to or instead of ‘English’.

In this way, the census manipulates the power of ethnic identity to reinforce a political identity: Britishness. In relation to all the ‘non-white-British’ ethnic categories, it also effectively biases people in favour of choosing ‘British’ as their ‘national identity’ by again using the political category ‘British’ as an ethnic identifier (e.g. in the top-level categories ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’). If, on the other hand, the terms ‘Asian English’ and ‘Black English’ were used alongside ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’, respondents selecting those ethnic groups would be far more likely to select ‘English’ as their national identities in addition to or instead of British. But if their very ethnicity is defined in relation to Britishness, this subliminally induces them to also pick an exclusively British national identity.

In the proposed Scottish census, by contrast, ethnically Asian and Black persons are allowed to view themselves ethnically as Scottish; i.e. the terms corresponding to the ethnic-group categories C and D in the England & Wales form shown above are ‘Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British’ and ‘African, Caribbean or Black’ – a heading that includes the sub-categories ‘African Scottish’, ‘Caribbean Scottish’ and ‘Black Scottish’ alongside ‘African British’, ‘Caribbean British’ and ‘Black British’. This is of course designed to produce the same effect as would the inclusion of the categories of ‘Asian English’ and ‘African English’ in the English census (or ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘African Welsh’ in Wales): it encourages people of those ethnicities to indicate ‘Scottish’ as one of their ‘national identities’ or even their only one, especially as the ‘ethnic’ designator ‘Scottish’ precedes that of ‘British’ in each of these ethnic-group categories.

To this extent, the Scottish form works in a similar way to the English & Welsh one, although to politically diametrically opposed ends: it encourages people to identify ethnically as Scottish so that they will also select ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and perhaps their exclusive one. However, the Scottish census exploits ethnic identification in an even more pernicious way still. In contrast to the England & Wales form, the Scottish questionnaire explicitly separates out the terms ‘Scottish’, ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and ‘British’ as distinct ethnic categories, albeit only when identified with the white ethnic group, as illustrated below:

There are many things that could be said about these categories; but the most important point is the utterly insidious way that these ethnic categories are intended to influence the way people will fill in the checkboxes relating to ‘national identity’ (see below). If respondents are forced to define themselves ethnically as either Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish or British (when these are political and cultural identities, not ethnic), then this will inevitably induce more of those that choose ‘Scottish’ to select only ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and not Scottish and British. Here is the bit of the form relating to national identity:

Note the quite astonishing omission of ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and even ‘Irish’ as options for national identity, whereas these terms are options for ethnicity, a discrepancy that was reported on with some bemusement in Wednesday’s Wales Online. This seems to me to be a complete reversal of the correct way of looking at things: Welsh and (Northern) Irish, and Scottish and English for that matter, are properly to be seen as national and cultural identities, not ethnic ones.

What on earth is going on here? My interpretation is that the form is trying to foster an ‘ethnic-Scottish’ identity as the ‘primary’ national identity of Scottish people: one that takes precedence, precisely, over their British nationality. As people work their way through the form, they may well tick both ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ in question No. 14 above on national identity. Then, when they come to question 15 on ethnic group, they are forced to choose between Scottishness and Britishness, purely on supposedly ethnic grounds. Scottish people going through this process will then think to themselves: ‘well, am I more Scottish or more British in terms of my genealogy and family affiliations’, which is how people think of their ethnicity. And, of course, they’re much more likely to answer ‘Scottish’ if they’ve got Scottish family roots and have lived in Scotland all their lives; whereas ‘British’ is a merely political affiliation: nationality as opposed to this faux ethnicity. So, once they’ve decided to describe themselves officially as of Scottish ethnicity, then they are a) much more likely to go back and cross out ‘British’ as one of their national identities (or not select it at all if they fill in question 15 before question 14); and b) more importantly, they may henceforth come to see their national identity as Scottish in the first instance, as the form invites them to see this concept in relation to a spurious Scottish ethnicity rather than their British nationality.

So whereas the England & Wales form defines ethnicity along the lines of nationality to reinforce an acceptance of a British national identity on the part of English people, the Scottish form defines national identity along the lines of a concocted Scottish ethnicity in order to undermine Scottish people’s identification with their British nationality.

It’s hard to say which is worse. If anything, I think it’s the Scottish one, which uses a totally unjustifiable division of the UK along dubious ethnic lines in the service of a nationalist agenda. This is the kind of ethnic nationalism that undermines the cause of civic and multi-ethnic nationalism. But both approaches will inevitably generate misleading results designed to support the national-identity politics of the UK and Scottish governments respectively.

As I said: there are lies, damn Scottish lies and UK censuses.

24 July 2008

Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on social cohesion promotes ethnic marginalisation of the English

The left-wing think tank Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report this week on Immigration and Social Cohesion in the UK. This was widely heralded in English-nationalist circles as arguing against the government’s policies of trying to impose normative British values and identity on the English as a means to foster social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration.

The report does indeed refute this approach. As it says about its findings in the Executive Summary: “The dominant ‘consensualist’ sensibility informing current policies of social cohesion, with its implied argument that immigration threatens a shared national identity and its emphasis on identifying processes that can foster commonalities, is out of step with our findings”. In essence, the report regards what it terms ‘relational’ and ‘structural’ factors as being more significant determinants of social cohesion than an artificially imposed Britishness. ‘Relational’ factors are those affecting inter-community relations, inter-change and problem resolution; and ‘structural’ interventions involve measures to address social inequalities, and ensure adequate and fair access to public services, and to economic and educational opportunity, for all ethnic groups, including the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ group, i.e. the group classified in the 2001 census of England and Wales as ‘White British’.

The report is actually quite a long, detailed sociological study; and I must confess not to have read it in full. But I did look more closely at the parts where it attempts to get to grips with specifically English experiences of immigration and the challenges this poses to particular communities. Based on that, I would say there are two fundamental flaws in the report: 1) it fails to tackle the implications of the questions it raises concerning national identity and the varying attitudes towards Britishness in the different countries of the UK; 2) it ends up being primarily about social cohesion and immigration in England, and about how to re-engage the English in an ongoing British-national project in which Englishness is defined in ethnic rather than civic terms.

On the first issue, the report interestingly observes how ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ people in England have difficulty defining what Britishness means to them: it’s just ‘home’ and where they feel they belong, and is associated with values such as fairness and tolerance. This is what the authors of the report describe as “‘minus one ethnicity’. . . . the way predominant identities tend to be naturalised as unmarked and to define all other groups as ethnically marked and different”. This sounds like a general sociological concept that could in theory be applied to any country. In other words, majority-ethnic British people living in England would not think of themselves as just one British-ethnic group among many but would think of themselves as having a sort of zero ethnicity; meaning that only minority-ethnic groups would be classed as ‘ethnic’ – as indeed is the case in popular parlance. If this were a general principle, then in France, for instance, majority-ethnic French people would not think of themselves particularly as ethnically French but just as (nationally) French; while minority-ethnic groups would be designated in an ethnic way, as in fact they are; e.g. ‘maghrébin’ (Arabic-speaking North African), ‘africain’ (sub-Saharan African), etc.

But this analogy does not hold up. The difference is that the French unambiguously see themselves as French in a civic, national sense. While this is non-ethnic in principle, in practice it is also associated with precisely the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ population in France, and its long and proud history and culture. By contrast, the reason why the Rowntree Foundation report’s researchers encountered such fuzziness on the part of English respondents about their ‘White British’ ethnicity is because Britishness is also not a national identity with which majority-ethnic English people identify in an unambiguous and integral manner, as the French do with Frenchness. So what the report describes as a kind of ethnicity-neutral identity on the part of majority-ethnic people in England is in fact the well-known and oft-discussed syndrome of English people not having a secure sense of their national identity: merging it with Britishness at the same time as not feeling that Britishness as such entirely encapsulates who they are in ethnic-national terms; because, in fact, Britain may well be their civic nationality but not their national-ethnic identity, which is English. If the researchers had asked their interviewees about the meaning they attached to belonging to England, rather than belonging to Britain, they would undoubtedly have obtained a much more definite response along the lines of, ‘what do you mean? That’s a bit of a daft question, isn’t it? I am English, aren’t I; and England is my country’.

English people still feel that they ought to belong to Britain; but in reality, they often no longer do feel they belong to and in Britain: that who and what they are, ethnically and culturally, is no longer seamlessly mirrored in the state and society of the ‘Britain’ in which they live. So this is a case not so much of the ethnic neutrality of the dominant ethnic group but of the disconnect from the multi-ethnic (and hence ethnically neutral) ‘nation’ of Britain experienced by its largest national-ethnic group, the English.

The report goes on to observe that there were no such ambiguities towards Britishness on the part of the Scottish and Northern Irish research subjects. As they say: “In Scotland, the issue of belonging to Britain was seen as irrelevant for most people, who would rather relate to Scotland or not relate to any national affiliation at all”. Well, precisely: in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a much more sustained, historical dissociation between the national identity and the civic British nation state, perceived as the English state. But then this makes it clear that the reason why ‘belonging to Scotland’ is so uncomplicated for the Scots is because Scotland is simply their nation; whereas ‘belonging to Britain’ cannot fail to be a complicated matter for the English because Britain is not their nation other than in the ambiguous sense whereby the English have tended to conflate the nation England with the civic state Britain.

But this disparity between the English, on the one hand, and the Scots and Northern Irish on the other (the report doesn’t research any communities in Wales) is based on an inconsistency in the report’s approach that goes right to the heart of its failure as a prescription for Britain as a whole, rather than just England. By the report’s own admission, as in the quote in the paragraph above, both Scotland and Britain are national affiliations, not ethnic ones: Scotland being an ethnic-cultural nation like England, and now well on its way to being a civic nation, or nation state; and Britain being merely a civic nation which, as the report says, the Scots would increasingly rather not relate, and indeed belong, to at all.

But this gives the lie to the report’s use of Britishness (as in the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ or ‘White British’ group) as a unified ethnic designation for all the indigenous peoples of the UK, with which English people’s non-identification is somehow a sign that they are the predominant ethnic group. On the contrary, the Scots do not identify with Britishness either; and the reason why they don’t is because they identify, in ethnic-national terms, as Scottish, just as the English more strongly identify as English than British in this ethnic-national sense.

And, incidentally, this strong Scottish national identity also becomes implicitly an ethnic identity in the sense that, insofar as the Scots identify with any ethnic classification, the report makes it clear that this is Scottish not British; and, indeed, it talks of the difficulties that Scotland has had in integrating the ‘other’ ethnic groups that have immigrated into Scotland in unprecedented numbers under New Labour.

In other words, Scottishness serves as an ethnic term, both in the report and in Scottish society. But the report itself glosses over the awkward questions this might raise in relation to its overall objective, which is basically to foster multi-ethnic cohesion within ‘Britain as a whole’. To throw the idea of distinct Scottish, Irish and Welsh ethnic as well as national identities into the discussion would really muddle things up; and, in any case, the report seeks to mitigate the importance of ethnic distinctions in favour of a progressive, economically redistributive and multi-cultural approach to social cohesion.

But in order to do this, it has to deny the validity of any idea on the part of the English that the new multi-ethnic civic society that is to be nurtured might actually go by the name of England rather than Britain. As was discussed above, it first tries to do this by making out that English people’s non-identification of themselves as (ethnically) British is because, in fact, they are the dominant British ethnic group. In other words, designations such as ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ and ‘White British’ are really the most accurate and appropriate terms with which to categorise English people (English people, note, not Scots whose ethnic non-identification with Britain is said to have a different basis), even though – or perhaps, precisely because – they don’t know it:

“much of the professional and political rhetoric about multiculturalism did not recognise the white population as constituted ethnically. In other words, the term ‘white’ was stripped of ethnic content. For example, a survey of the Irish in England in the mid-1990s found that a majority thought they were a minority ethnic group but a large minority did not think they could be because they were white . . . . This assumed homogeneity of the white population reinforced the idea that ethnicity was the property of historical immigrations and not of the majority ethnic group, the English/British”.

In other words, the majority ethnic group – clearly identified here as in reality white English people – are designated as ‘English/British’: the same as the ‘White British’ category used in the 2001 census, which merges Englishness indistinctly into Britishness – but from which Irishness (‘White Irish’ in the census) and, by implication, Scottishness (effectively seen by the report as another minority-ethnic group within England-Britain, of equivalent status to Ireland in that respect) are distinct categories.

So the English really are majority-White-British, from the perspective of the ethnic mapping of the UK which the report subscribes to. But, by virtue of distinguishing this English-British ethnicity from the ‘minority’ Irish and Scottish ethnic identities, Englishness is curiously reinstated towards the end of the report as a distinct ethnic identity. And this is put to the service of the second way in which the report evades the possibility of any civic English nation and identity: Englishness becomes only one (albeit the majority) ethnic identity among the many identities of multi-ethnic Britain. As the report states: “the framework of social cohesion can offer Englishness the possibility of decentring itself from its condition of invisibility and predominance, and presenting itself to itself and to other groups as a specific ethnic group, with a specific history, values, expectations and affiliation to the national project”.

Note that it’s now Englishness that is said to have remained hitherto invisible as an ethnic identity owing to the very ‘predominance’ of the native-English ethnic group within Britain; whereas, earlier in the report, it was said to be the ethnic Britishness of the English that was blurred and indistinct in many English people’s minds. Having now changed tack and established Englishness as a distinct ethnicity, the purpose of such a move becomes clear in the above quote: if English people can come to see themselves as just one among many ethnic groups within Britain, they will relinquish their claims to pre-eminence or ‘ownership’ of the nation and, at the same time, recover a renewed sense of belonging to Britain and of ‘affiliation to the national project‘ – i.e. of re-engagement with the very British national project and affiliations which Scottish and Irish people no longer feel nor are expected to feel. (Note the use of the word ‘affiliation’, which was the very word used about Scotland’s disengagement from Britain in the quote about Scotland earlier on.)

In this sense, the report partakes of what I have previously described as the ‘ethnic marginalisation’ of England. If you categorise Englishness and the English as an ethnicity rather than as a nation, this enables you to deny the ‘sovereign right’ of the English to form themselves as a nation – whether as an independent state or a self-governing nation within a larger state. The report seems to say, ‘Why should one ethnic group among many deny to all the other ethnic groups of Britain the British identity and citizenship of which – as the report describes – they are so proud?’ But this view relies on marginalising the English as just an ethnic group and not as what it is: a historic nation. Seen from this latter perspective, it is indeed the right of the English to determine their form of governance and civic nationhood. And this is only a problem for England’s ethnic minorities if you do indeed define the English only in ethnic terms: as the dominant ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you define as English all British citizens living in England who do not actually see themselves as ‘foreign’ nationals (including Irish and Scottish), then they should all have a say in England’s political and constitutional future.

In conclusion, the Rowntree Foundation report disagrees that imposing an artificial and monolithic Britishness onto the ethnically diverse population of Britain will foster social cohesion. But it equally regards the resurgence of a strong and distinct English national identity as a threat to harmonious multi-cultural co-existence and the more equitable society it seeks to promote. So it endeavours to deny English national identity in contradictory ways that manifest the underlying political motivation: English people ‘really’ see themselves as, well, just British in a hazy, ill-defined way that reveals them as the dominant White-British ethnic group. No distinct, cohesive English national identity therefore presently exists, in contrast to the more nationally assertive Scots and Northern Irish. But – in deference to the feelings of many of their English respondents’ sense that the needs and rights of the English people have been neglected by New Labour – English people can be allowed to take pride in their Englishness; but only as one among many ethnicities engaged in forging the new Britain.

But what if the Scots’, Irish and Welsh reassertion of their distinct national identities does lead them to depart from Britain? Will England still have to be called Britain out of respect for the British identities and sensibilities of minority-ethnic groups? Will English people still not be able to call their state by their own name, even when the geographical territory of that state is limited to England?

This is absurd. True social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration in England – let’s call it that, if that’s what we’re talking about – will come about only when English people have a nation to which they truly feel they belong, and which belongs to them – and belongs to all the ethnic minorities that have made it their home, too.

8 July 2008

What are we fighting for? Libertarians and nationalists must make common cause

There has been much discussion recently – including on this blog – about whether English nationalism can be reconciled with progressive politics; and whether progressives need to espouse the nationalist cause, associate it with left-of-centre values, and thereby prevent it from falling into the hands of the far right.

I would go further. I would say not only that English nationalism could and should be taken up as a progressive cause but that it should also be at the forefront of the great cause célèbre of the moment: the fight to preserve our civil liberties, currently being championed by the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis through the by-election he has called to force a public debate on the issues.

I would recommend to my readers the excellent article by Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog on David Davis’s stand and its significance, if they haven’t already come across this. I left a long’ish comment on it, which I reproduce here, as it summarises my thinking and leads to the point I want to make now:

“This is why we should have the confidence to celebrate the fact that a leading politician is taking issues of principle and government to the people, irrespective of his party politics.

“Especially in Britain (or should I say England, as arguably Alex Salmond has already done this in Scotland).”

Naturally, I see this caveat – “or should I say England” – as key. You won’t see Scottish or Welsh nationalists mounting your barricades, as they’re not interested in building open, representative and constitutional British democracy.

The way I’m interested in framing the issue is as follows: is the British state and parliament losing its democratic legitimacy as a consequence of measures such as 42 days and identity management; or is its recourse to such measures a consequence of the fact that it is losing its legitimacy? One of the truths that the database society manifests is that government no longer trusts the people; and it no longer trusts the people because it has lost the trust of the people.

But it’s not just about government but about the state: the British state, in particular. You’re right to link the ‘transformational government’ programme to the break down of the unitary state that the Labour government itself initiated through devolution. The whole British establishment knows that it is engaged in a battle for its very survival and that its legitimacy to represent and speak for the different nations of Britain has been fundamentally and fatally undermined.

And this is why, in more than a merely metaphorical or rhetorical sense, every citizen becomes a potential terrorist: someone whom the government suspects of wishing the British state as presently constituted to fall apart – which growing ranks of its citizenry do in fact wish. 42 days and systematic identity management across all government departments are of a piece, in that they are about – as you put it, quoting from ‘Who do they think we are?’ – discovering the “deep truth about the citizen (or business) based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires”.

In other words, it’s about finding out who is an enemy of the state: the enemy within. For most of us, ID cards and CCTV surveillance are ‘sufficient’ for the state apparatus to reassure itself that we are not a serious threat. For the rest of us, there’s 42 days. But the danger is in the blurring, in the eyes and state machinery of paranoid control, between legitimate, democratic antagonism towards the state, and illegitimate, physically violent hostility: terrorism.

I’m an enemy of the British state, in that I’d like to see it replaced by a federal state or abolished altogether (i.e. through Scottish and English independence). And if we had a federal state, this should have much less central power, with most of the national-level decisions taken by an English parliament and a much stronger local-government sector. Does this make me ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the database state? Probably, yes: and therein lies its true danger.

But we need to be clear that the fight is not just with ‘the state’ in some universal sense; but with the British state. And this is because it’s primarily an English struggle, as the Scots and Welsh are pursuing their own paths towards constitutional democracy. And what will emerge, if the libertarians are successful in the present fight, will almost certainly not be a new written constitution, bill of rights and representative democracy for Britain but for England. Indeed, it’s fundamentally because the people of England have lost their faith in the legitimacy of the British state to govern them that the government is so concerned to manage and orchestrate their British identity in the first place.

And it is to popular English national sentiment, and to the sense of our traditional English liberties, that the libertarian cause will have to appeal if it is to touch the hearts and minds of the Sun-reading class.

What I want to say here follows on from these points. The libertarian and nationalist cause in this country have fundamentally the same goals and should see themselves as natural allies. ‘This country’ being England, let it be understood. Put simply, we’re both pushing for an end to the British state as currently constituted, and want a proper representative democracy – responsive to the needs, concerns and sentiments of the people – backed up by a new constitutional settlement and preferably a bill of rights.

But the reality that the libertarians need to get their head round is that this new constitutional settlement must radically address and resolve the asymmetry with which the different nations of the UK are presently governed. There is no way back to the old unitary UK, and the new constitution cannot be one that applies in a monolithic way to the whole of ‘Britain’. The unitary UK no longer exists, and to pretend that it does – as the government has attempted to do since devolution – is either wilful deceit (an attempt to suppress English aspirations for democratic self-governance) or blind self-deception. Similarly, there is no stock of idealism, aspiration, energy and commitment that could unite the English, Scots and Welsh behind a common cause for a new British constitution and a system of governance that pretended to accommodate and perpetuate the present muddled and iniquitous devolution settlement.

The only way forward for the libertarian movement is to accept that there can be no unitary-British process of constitutional reform: the Scots and the Welsh are seeking and articulating their own way forward, and the aspirations of those countries for national self-determination cannot simply be subsumed and channelled into a single British constitutional process. Which means that, for the rest of us, the process is of necessity an English process. The difference, for the time being at least, between the libertarian and the nationalist is merely that the latter regards this necessity as being also a virtue. But it can become so for the libertarian, too, especially if the process results in the outcomes that libertarians have sought for so long: electoral reform; an executive accountable to parliament; a parliament accountable to the people; a truly independent judiciary respecting our age-old, English civil liberties, such as habeas corpus and privacy; etc.

Indeed, I would say that accepting that this process has got to be an English one in the first instance, and espousing this as a positive thing in its own right, actually presents the only realistic possibility of achieving the libertarian objectives in the present circumstances. This is firstly because an English solution – a new English constitutional settlement – is the only realistic goal, for the reasons I’ve set out: no more unitary British fixes to the broken Union. Secondly, it’s the only way that the libertarian cause, such as it has been taken up by David Davis, can become a truly popular cause. This is – as I set out in my comment on Anthony Barnett’s article – because the more profound reason why Westminster politicians and the British government are no longer trusted is because they are out of touch with the English people and are not properly accountable to them: a government that does dual purpose as a UK and as an English administration, elected through a ludicrously disproportionate voting system, and by the votes of Scottish and Welsh people, headed up by a Scottish PM and several senior Scottish ministers who make laws for England but can’t be voted out by English people; whereas the people of Scotland and Wales can vote for two governments – one specifically for their countries, with policy agendas directly addressing the needs and concerns of their countries; and one for reserved UK matters (and for England-only matters to boot).

And then, on top of all this, an emasculated parliament that dutifully performs the will of the executive through a combination of misplaced party loyalty and corrupt deal making, and which is therefore unable to defend the freedoms or represent the will of the people; but which still has the nerve to claim that its ‘sovereignty’ is sacrosanct – as if this had anything to do with the sovereign will of the people, rather than being merely a reference to the sovereign power of the monarch as enacted by an executive whose only claim to a democratic mandate is an election held at its own whim where it is awarded sweeping majorities purely and simply because of the crazy electoral system – and certainly not because of the actual votes of the English people.

This has got to stop. And we need a new constitutional settlement for England. Forget about the British dimension for the moment; that’s out of our hands – ‘our hands’ meaning, of course, the hands of the English. As English people, we have to seek a democratic solution for England, and leave the Scots and Welsh to work out their own destiny. What we can do, however – and this is perhaps the only chance for any British state to survive – is frame our new constitution in such a way that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can choose to join us or not. By this, I’m referring to the fact that there are two dimensions to the reform process:

  1. an English bill of rights, which would enshrine the fundamental, universal principles and liberties I’ve alluded to, e.g. parliamentary accountability, representative democracy, judicial independence, freedom until charged of an imprisonable offence, innocence until proven guilty, etc. There’s nothing wrong in such a bill of rights being referred to as English rather than British; if such a statement is a product of the English people themselves freely articulating and agreeing to a set of fundamental principles, then it should justly and proudly be called English. There’s nothing to then prevent the Scots and Welsh adopting those principles wholesale as laying the foundation for their own governance, or adapting them to their different circumstances and, in the case of Scotland, juridical principles;
  2. the specific forms of governance that are devised in accordance with such principles, and which would form the basis of a new English constitution. In this aspect of the process, we – the English people – could devise a federal, Britain-wide system that could accommodate the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish if they wished to be part of it. If we got the design right, they might decide not to go off on their own. But, in order for that to happen, there would have to be a high degree of autonomy for each of the nations of the UK, so as to give expression to the aspirations for national self-determination in each of them, including, of course, in England. The nations of the present UK would become the primary sources of sovereign authority in the land – sovereign because answerable to their people – and the national parliaments would have to have equal powers, including those of initiating primary legislation and raising all the taxes required to fund the programmes for which they were responsible.

A multi-national, federal constitutional settlement such as this could potentially balance out the four nations’ aspirations for autonomy with the wish to remain in a union of friendship and co-operation in matters of mutual interest, which would be the domain of a federal British government. A constitutional settlement which, on the other hand, tried to impose a unitary British bill of rights and written constitution would be bound to provoke resistance and resentment on the part of Scots and English alike; whereas, letting the Scots and the Welsh appropriate ever greater powers to their devolved bodies while denying the parity of a similar national parliament to the English might just drive the placid English into revolt.

But the important point is that the formulation and realisation of this new federal system of governance should be driven primarily by the English, and not imposed on them from above by the British government, as in the present government’s stymied Governance of Britain programme. We need to devise a federal system that protects the rights of the smaller nations of Britain, so their will cannot be overridden. It would have to be a system they wanted to join; and that’s really how the choice should be formulated: a comprehensive settlement, addressing English demands for freedom and democracy, that the other UK nations should be offered the choice of joining if they wish. As opposed to a process of drift whereby the other nations elect to abandon the rotten British ship, and we English will not have worked out a new system of governance to protect our rights, and give proud and positive expression to England and Englishness, which will otherwise be merely the default option in any case. Such a declaration of intent might give some decent impetus to the whole process of redrawing the national-constitutional map of these islands, and bring the agonising death of the unitary UK to a swift and merciful end. So, we – the English people – would say to our neighbours: ‘OK, you’ve been working your way towards self-governance; now we in England are going to recast our forms of governance, and reformulate our rights, and you can join us – with your national rights and democratic will protected – if you wish, or not’.

But it’s down to us, the English people, to seize the initiative and set the agenda. After all, if we don’t stand up for our freedoms, the British parliament has shown itself unwilling and unable to protect them.

22 June 2008

Nationalism: Positive or Negative?

There has been much discussion recently, including on this blog, of what a ‘progressive’ English nationalism might mean. I can think of three main ways to configure this question:

  1. English nationalism could be viewed as progressive – itself a term that needs more precision; for the moment, let’s just say this means ‘associated with a liberal, left-of-centre social and political agenda’ – if it ascribes to itself many of the traditional values of English-British civic society, including tolerance towards and inclusion of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and ways of life. This would be civic English nationalism as opposed to ethnic nationalism. This was recently criticised by Arthur Aughey (see also the helpful review of Arthur Aughey’s critique here) as essentially just the same as British civic nationalism which, Aughey claimed, English nationalists have to demolish in order to set up English nationalism as a civic movement, at the risk of allowing ethnic nationalism to come in and fill the place left vacant by British civic nationalism. My response to this in essence is that British civic nationalism is really a product of English history, politics and culture in the first place, i.e. it is already English civic nationalism. So it’s just a case of refocusing English civic society on England and the English, with these terms not defined in an ethnic sense.
  2. You can also argue that English nationalism is a positive thing – let’s use this term rather than the ideologically loaded ‘progressive’ – on simple democratic and libertarian principles, as follows: a) the English nation exists; b) as a nation, on established human-rights principles, it has the sovereign and democratic right to determine the form of government it wishes for itself. In this form, English nationalism is merely the defence of the rights and freedoms of a people, i.e. the English people. This is irrespective of any ideological agenda one might have to ‘improve’ that people and its society (progressivism), and does not necessarily make any assertion about the English having particular characteristics (cultural or racial) that make them any better than, or exclusive of, other people – although defenders of English-national rights will generally do so because they love England and its people, for all their flaws. This is the closest to my position, although I would also hope that an independent or federal England would embody the best aspects of traditional, English civic society.
  3. The final way to look at this question, which is one I want to raise briefly here, is considering nationalism from an ethical (as opposed to ethnic) perspective. This is an angle that is not often explicitly explored; but the ethical dimension is implicit behind any questioning of the progressive, or anti-progressive, character of nationalism.

Essentially, the question is as follows: is nationalism, even in some of its civic and libertarian aspects – as defined above – always to some extent discriminatory and exclusive? That is, insofar as English nationalism embodies a focus on creating English civic society, and on defending the democratic rights and freedoms of English people, would this not always in practice involve some element of discrimination and preferential treatment in favour of English people over non-English people, whether these are from other British countries, from other EU states or elsewhere?

Without going into detailed, specific examples or hypothetical cases, I’m interested in highlighting an issue that needs to be thought through, which could be put pithily as follows: is nationalism – any nationalism, not just English – always a form of discrimination like other ‘-isms’, in that it involves favouritism and partiality towards a particular nation; in the same way that sexism involves favouring one sex over another, and similarly for racism, ageism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc.?

To some extent, I think this is a false question – and I’ll explain why in a moment. But I think it has bedevilled any attempt to establish English nationalism as a credible, positive idea. The fact that the question has not been posed explicitly has enabled ‘progressives’ to be unchallenged in positioning English nationalism in the wrong camp and in identifying it as a negative ‘-ism’ and as a form of discrimination in the way I suggest. The predisposition to answer the question I have just raised in the negative (‘yes, nationalism is always discriminatory; and therefore, English nationalism must also always be discriminatory’) has facilitated the negative association of English nationalism as an ethnic nationalism, via an easy slippage between ‘nationalism’ and ‘racism’.

If, on the other hand, you do raise this question explicitly, it forces a more honest, comprehensive answer. Yes, nationalism always to some extent involves being more concerned to protect the rights, freedoms, security and also economic interests of a particular nation, as opposed to those of other nationalities. But this ‘exclusion’ of non-nationals is the very condition upon which civic society and, indeed, democracy are founded and can be advanced. The society that is the civic society is a contingent, limited entity: limited in the number of people included, in the geographical space in which they live and – to a more relative extent – in its culture and traditions. The model of a civic society is therefore a polis (or polity). In the original Greek, this referred to a city state such as Athens – the words ‘civic’ and ‘city’ having the same Latin root; but in the modern sense, the starting point has to be a self-defining collectivity of people exercising its sovereign right to govern itself democratically. And the English nation is just such a collectivity.

This means that it is really down to the English – including those of non-British ethnicity who are British citizens and either live in England or consider themselves to be English – to decide, through properly democratic institutions, which newcomers can join the civic society and enjoy its rights, including social and economic rights such as education, training and the opportunity for dignified employment on a living wage. This is not necessarily discrimination – although, in practice, there could be instances where it was associated with discriminatory attitudes – but is, in essence, a society looking after its own, including those who have tended to be disenfranchised in British society, both democratically and economically. One would aspire to such an English civic society embodying values of compassion towards people of other nationalities (whether living in England or not), and openness towards the economic and cultural benefits of globalisation, while mitigating its negative social effects to a greater extent than has been done up to now. But it is a right – a human right – for a people to say: this is who we are and this is how we want our society to be; and if you are willing to accept us on our terms, we will welcome you and all you have to bring to our country.

Think what have been the consequences of the opposite attitude; and this is where the falseness of the assumption that nationalism is always to some extent discriminatory is revealed. The opposite view is one that simply can’t bite the bullet of nationhood and consequently won’t ask the national question, let alone the English question. ‘All nationalism is negative’ means ‘all nationalities are / should be included’; and this assumption has been at work in New Labour’s attempts to re-cast Britishness as a merely civic concept that ultimately replaces people’s old national allegiances (whether English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish or to any other nation around the world) with acceptance of a set of universal, civic ‘British values’.

In practice, the ‘all nationalities are included (more properly, ‘subsumed’) within Britishness’ approach has gone hand in hand with the government’s open door policies on migration: ‘all nationalities can be included (accommodated) in Britain’. This has been expressed in the view that people of any nation are welcome to settle here and eventually become British citizens so long as they contribute to society (i.e. in practice, largely, to the economy) and subscribe to said British values. No chance, in this context, to say: ‘wait, shouldn’t we be looking after the social and economic needs of English (and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) people first and foremost, and try to train up our own people to do the jobs (both skilled and unskilled) that the economy needs?’ No: quicker and cheaper to just bring labour in on the cheap from wherever it’s available; this is globalisation, after all. Putting the interests of English people before those from other EU states or those with skills to contribute would be (English-nationalist) discrimination, so the argument goes. But isn’t the opposite necessarily discrimination against the English? And isn’t the out-of-hand rejection of any argument that tries to advance the cause of a particular national group (i.e. the English) over that of any of the many and varied nationalities grouped into supra-national Britain also a form of discrimination? Hence, pushed to the extreme, ‘anti-nationalism’ is also a negative ‘-ism’: discrimination against, and prejudice towards, those who would defend the interests of a particular, limited group as opposed to that of a larger group (the British nation) that is able to deny that it is discriminating against any particular nation because it defines itself as based on the denial of nationality per se.

In either sense of the term ‘denial’, it’s England, Englishness and the English that are denied their civic, democratic and economic rights; and the British state is in denial of this fact, in that it can’t accept the existence of the England it denies. In this way, modern Britain demonstrates a curious paradox: a supposed civic society and democratic nation that denies the nation and nationhood on which it is built subverts its own foundations. In this way, a-national / supra-national Britain no longer represents the English nation who established it and which it exists to serve.

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