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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19 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 6): Vaughan Williams and Elgar

You can forgive Hilary Davan Wetton for choosing to defend the cause of the English composer, Vaughan Williams, in the manner he does in last Friday’s Telegraph. The man makes out a case for celebrating the works of Vaughan Williams, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls this year, as a great, indeed “quintessentially British”, composer. This is a tactic: he wants to shame a government that has not funded any commemorations of Vaughan Williams – not even a postal stamp – by talking up his Britishness, arguing that: “Here is a national emblem from which we can all draw inspiration if we want to try to ‘gather together under the Flag’, as we are urged to do. Not the flag of crude jingoism, or even the exuberant patriotism of Land of Hope and Glory, but a deeply felt, understated sense of what it means to be British”.

Vaughan Williams, then, is more ‘truly British’ even than Elgar (the composer of the tune to Land of Hope and Glory), who qualified for inclusion on the old £20 notes, many of which are still in circulation. Err, sorry to dampen your campaigning zeal, Mr Davan Wetton; but maybe one of the reasons why Vaughan Williams has not yet been lauded by the British state is that he was quintessentially English, not British. A collector of English folk songs (those of southern England, too), not “British folk tunes”, as you write; someone whose music traces its heritage back to the traditions of English – not ‘British’ – renaissance music (‘Britain’ didn’t even exist in the renaissance), and whose musical influences that you name are all traditionally thought of as English: Tallis, Purcell, Holst, Walton and Britten.

By contrast, Wetton does not even include the English composer Elgar, in whose music, according to him, “German influences are clearly audible”, in his list of great British composers. Well, I’ll agree with you there, Mr Davan Wetton, as he of all people is a composer you would tend to think of as quintessentially English; not only because of Land of Hope and Glory but of works such as the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance.

As observed above, it’s Land of Hope and Glory that has earned Elgar his fame as a celebrated British composer – claims which, according to Davan Wetton and a commentator from the review Gramophone they invited on to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning to debate Davan Wetton’s claims with him, are highly exaggerated and unrepresentative. This is because Elgar would have rejected the – err, British – jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, whose words he was not responsible for. And, by the way, those words do not actually mention ‘Britain’, or ‘England’ for that matter. They clearly are a reference to Britain and its empire; but like the musical tradition continued by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the anthem traces Britain’s power and essence back to their earlier and deeper roots in Englishness:

Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

It’s a bit rich, then, that Davan Wetton should not include Elgar in his list of British musical greats – whose German influences he appears to regard as contrary to such a claim – when he explicitly dismisses his endorsement of Vaughan Williams and the fellow members of his British pantheon in the following terms: “This is not an appeal for a shallow ‘Little Englander’ mentality. None of these composers was insular: Holst studied Sanskrit, Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel, Walton adored jazz and Britten was entranced by Gamelan music from Bali”.

OK, I get it: ‘British’ composers are internationalist, not narrow Little Englanders – despite the fact that his list of British composers comprises great English composers. And the English composer Elgar represents such English jingoism, despite the fact that he is generally thought of as more British than his fellows (unfairly, owing to the only semi-British / semi-English patriotism of words he didn’t write) and the fact his influences were just as international as all those other ‘British’ composers.

What a load of old bunkum! They’re all great English composers; and, as such, their influences are both typically English and international: they wouldn’t have the universal, worldwide appeal and musical complexity they do have if they hadn’t been profoundly influenced by great music from around the world. If we’re going to celebrate the great music of our country, let this at least be England when we’re talking about England. And, for that reason, I agree that the government should do more to mark the anniversary of Vaughan Williams: a great figure in English music.

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