There was an interesting little article on yesterday’s Today programme on BBC Radio Four [yes, you may have worked out by now that I’m an avid listener!] comprising an interview with the columnist Jonathan Freedland and the academic historian Dr Lawrence Goldman. The theme of the interview was whether Britain could learn any lessons about national identity from the USA. In particular, Britain’s current confusions over its national identity and its quest for an agreed set of shared values was compared unfavourably with the situation in the States, where the fundamental values informing political and public life are literally written into their constitution and bill of rights. The interview ended by leaving open the suggestion that a similar written constitution might help Britain to unite around a common set of values, leading to the formation of a civic nationalism like that of America, rather than an ethnically defined nationalism, which is one of the reasons – it was argued – that British people tend to shy away from displays of patriotic pride.
In the item, it was mentioned that Gordon Brown – the arch-Britologist who is about to become the country’s PM – has also expressed support for the idea of a written constitution. Clearly, it would be possible to write vast tomes without exhausting this particular topic – not an option for myself at the moment! So what I’d like to do is make some rapid-fire observations about what the implications of such a written constitution might be, for the UK and particularly for England.
1) Support for a written constitution is a back-door vehicle for republicanism: in political terms, the logical expression of a written constitution is a republic, rather than what we have now, which is a constitutional monarchy. If the fundamental values and laws of a society are based on the authority of free rationality and its collective expression through the ballot box, then there is no longer any need for a monarchical ruler whose authority derives from another source – ultimately, the service of God. Jonathan Freedland, who argued in favour of a written constitution on the Today programme, is clearly well aware of the republican character of calls for such a thing, as he is the author of a book entitled Bring Home the Revolution: The case for a British Republic. This made the case that Britain should re-import the rationalist, republican values it had originally exported to America, and should formulate its own written constitution inspired by that of the States.
2) Many Britologists also have a republican agenda. Not just those who would like to see a British constitution, but many Britologists in general have a republican agenda that they do not openly acknowledge. ‘Britologist’ is my term for people who support the idea that there is a set of shared, core British values around which greater social cohesion and a renewed sense of national identity can be forged. In reality, there is little that is distinctively or uniquely British about these ‘values’. Rather, they are concepts whose valuation is derived from the Enlightenment, rationalist, liberal tradition. In political terms, these values are typically expressed in republican form: liberty, equality, tolerance, democracy.
3) A new constitutional settlement would potentially efface what is most distinctively British about British identity: Englishness. Britology involves a drive to suppress and deny public expression to the real core of British identity and culture: England and Englishness. The constitutional-monarchical settlement that has prevailed since the Act of Union with Scotland 300 years ago is quite clearly anglo-centric. England has always been the dominant partner in that marriage – economically, culturally, politically and demographically. As I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g. in my ‘manifesto’ piece republished in this blog on 12 June), ‘Britain’ as such has traditionally been an English political and cultural project: a manifestation and extension to the whole British Isles and (originally via the Empire) the whole world of the English identity and its ambiguously interrelated tendencies towards domination and liberation.
By contrast, the attempt to define and impose a new sense of Britishness purely in relation to a set of fundamental rational principles represents an attempt to write England out of the British story. In other words, it involves pretending that there is an abstract, ideal, pure Britain (a ‘Great Britain’ of the mind and spirit, indeed) that should really have taken form as a rational republic, not as rule over an expanded territory by the Kings and Queens of England (which is what they are, not Kings and Queens of Britain) and by the English parliament. Looking at it from the other angle, however, Britology could be viewed as the continuation and consummation of the English-British project seen as one in which Englishness is subsumed into Britain in the cause of ‘national unity’. The perpetuation of a strong and distinctive English identity then as now is the greatest obstacle to the creation of a ‘United Nations of Britain’ or a British Republic: something which, like the ethnic melting pot of the United States of America, could derive its patriotic fervour and sense of unity from civic, not ethnic, nationalism – pride in, and agreement around, a statement of guiding principles. It seems that, in order for our own increasingly multi-ethnic society to be transformed into a united nation, the pre-eminence and centrality of Englishness within Britishness must be eliminated and denied.
4) Britology is a means to satisfy the objectives of Scottish nationalism via another route. Given that Britology – particularly, the variant of it that involves calls for a written constitution – involves the rejection of the privileges (including those of rule) that have traditionally been enjoyed by the English, Britology could be seen as a means to satisfy the appetite of Scottish nationalists, but in a form that still preserves the ‘Union’. Actually, the Union strictly would not be preserved but would be redefined in a way that ensured full equality between all the peoples of the re-constituted nation: both the ethnically non-indigenous peoples that, it is said, need to be given a clearly defined set of British values with which to identify; and the indigenous Brits – the Celtic nations and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’; although one suspects that, underlying this, is some misguided notion that the Celts are the real indigenous Britons, the very word for Britain being of Celtic origin. Such an ethnically egalitarian, homogenised-Britannic nation might well satisfy the aspirations of many Scottish (and, indeed, Welsh and Northern Irish) nationalists, in that it would fulfil two key desires: the creation of a republic and ‘liberation’ from English rule. Perhaps this is the reason why the Scot Gordon Brown is so keen on a written constitution and the whole Britological shebang: preserving and completing the Union of Britain creates the condition whereby the former ‘slave’ (the Scot) can exercise power over the former master (the English).
5) But the continuing existence of English national pride and identity is the thorn in the Britologists’ side. Britons may well, as the Radio Four interviewees put it, feel distaste for patriotic flag waving because of its associations with the European ethnic nationalisms of the 20th century. But part of this discomfort also relates to the ambivalence which English people have towards Britishness: English people both take pride in the achievements and admirable characteristics of Britain for which they feel particularly responsible; while at the same time they recoil from the associations of these with imperialistic power, for which English people feel especially blamed, in part by the Britologists. And, bound up with this, is a distinctive English reserve and reluctance to indulge in displays of passionate feeling of any kind, including manifestations of patriotic fervour. This combination of factors is one of the reasons why the English desire and need to take pride in ‘their nation’ has increasingly focused on England itself, seen as distinct from Britain as a whole: less jingoistic / imperialist; and able to take pride in and celebrate English culture, tradition and people, but in a more ‘appropriately’ English way – such as flag waving not on military parades but at international football matches, as football was, after all, invented by the English. The idea of a civic-republican British nationalism for which all the peoples of Britain could feel the same pride and enthusiasm simply does not take into account the English character and pride in their nation – including in the way England has moulded and created the Britain we all know and love – and their attachment to the monarchy. And it is this that provides the greatest hope that the ultimate objectives of some of those who have attached their horses to the Britological waggon – a constitutional republic – will be defeated.