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?

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

2 June 2012

The British patriotic colours of the English

As an English patriot and nationalist, I wonder whether I should be dismayed at the explosion of British patriotism that is accompanying the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this weekend. One could be tempted to think that all the patient efforts that have been made, and the slow progress that has been achieved, towards articulating and celebrating a distinct English identity and politics, separate from the British, have been reversed in a single weekend as the English lapse into their archaic, feudal reverence for their British monarchical overlords.

But I’m not sure that such gloom and doom would be justified. People are just getting swept up into a tribal mega-celebration. Meanwhile, I feel like the supporter of a small, local football team within the catchment area of a much bigger and more successful club – say, a Tranmere Rovers follower surrounded by Liverpool and Everton fans: my simple all-white colours dwarfed by the red, white and blue of those other clubs as they celebrate winning the Premier League and the FA Cup respectively in the same season! Some chance I’ve got to show off my more modest loyalties! Indeed, I’m not surprised that not many cars, homes or shops are – yet – decked out with the red and white of England that one might otherwise expect to be sprouting from first-floor windows and the tops of car doors during the run up to Euro 2012. If one were, during this weekend, to display the Cross of St. George instead of the all-conquering emblem of the Union Flag from one’s car or front window, it would be like turning up to a posh garden party in an England shirt instead of the black tie that was stipulated on the invite.

Clearly, however, British patriotism is alive and well, and living in England, and possibly in the UK’s other nations, though not to the same extent or in the same home nation-denying way. I have to say I’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed by it, although I perhaps shouldn’t have been. It’s probably too early to draw many conclusions about the long-term impact of the ‘Great British Summer’ on the English identity and the possibility of a distinct English politics. I think one thing it illustrates – which has been confirmed by surveys over the years – is that more English people than any other category in fact make no distinction between Englishness and Britishness, and see absolutely no conflict between displaying both British and English patriotism, though not simultaneously. It will be interesting to see whether there is a similar explosion of English English patriotism around Euro 2012 once the sound and fury of the Jubilee has subsided – especially if, against the odds, the England team progresses through to the quarter- or semi-final. Will people’s patriotic fervour be too worn out after the Jubilee festivities to get wound up again and refocused on England for Euro 2012? Well, a great deal depends on the performance of the team. Come on, England!

In this context, it was again disappointing that the (supposedly English) FA has chosen to run with the ridiculous away England kit that the team modelled in its friendly against Norway last Saturday: navy blue shirts and light blue shorts.

For a start, these are not England colours (which are, of course, red and white) but are Union colours; indeed, Scottish colours. It is as if the FA has aped the England-denying design philosophy of the British Olympic Association, which opted for Stella McCartney’s all-dark and pale blue Union Jack design for this year’s British Olympics kit (see below).

Look, guys, you might as well re-brand the England football team ‘Team GB’ now and have an end of it! Have these men at the FA got no sense of national pride and heritage? Why can’t they just stick to the red shirts and white shorts of proud 1966, Bobby Moore, World Cup-winning memory? I tell you why: it’s about commercialism. They’ve gone with the England-denying trend of the whole Jubilympics year – thinking, presumably, that English football fans, like suckers, will flock to buy the new kit to replace the red England shirts that are now surplus to requirements. Well, all I hope is that the kit bombs, along with the Olympic kit, and that if the England team does progress to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012, it’s drawn against teams where it has to wear its home kit, which, at least, has expunged the Union blue.

But there’s another thing I’d like to say about the England away kit for Euro 2012. I don’t know of a single incidence, apart from this, of a professional football team’s colours that have violated an unspoken design rule for football kits: that the shorts should not be in a lighter colour than the shirts, unless they are white. Just think for a moment: do you know of any team that plays in, say, red shirts and yellow shorts; or black shirts and red shorts; or, more to the point, dark blue shirts and light blue shorts? I don’t, although I’m sure people could trawl up some obscure examples.

This unwritten rule seems to have as its premise that combinations of dark-coloured shirts and light-coloured shorts (apart from white, which is seen a non-colour) suggest weakness and lack of masculine power: basically, you need to have a strong, male colour in your pants, or no colour at all. This England kit suggests emasculated weakness. It’s a losing kit, as opposed to England’s winning kit of 1966: full-blooded red shirts, with masculine (and English) white in the groin area. The most successful English club teams have all played in red, though it hurts me to say so: Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. And of course, so did the English national team in its hour of glory. So why on earth isn’t this England team going to do so? Do they actually want the team to lose?

All I can hope is that the England team goes on to indeed defy the odds and perform successfully in Euro 2012 in its home kit of white with red trim. Let’s see England’s streets bedecked in England’s colours, and so let the memory of this weekend’s Union fervour fade rapidly into the distance!

11 November 2011

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England

Stuart Pearce’s defence of the Team GB Olympic football team in yesterday’s Guardian exemplifies what I term an ‘England-plus’ way of thinking about Britain. That is to say, Pearce, like many English people, thinks of (Great) Britain or the UK as essentially England + the other home nations. This is not quite the same thing as the traditional ‘Greater England’ conception of the UK – in which ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ were regarded as synonymous – but it is the heir to this way of thinking.

Pearce clearly recognises the distinction between England and Great Britain, although he expresses this in somewhat professional terms: “Pearce also insisted that the Team GB role will not detract from managing the England Under-21 team. ‘It won’t affect my focus – [it] is my day-to-day job’, he said”. But he also clearly views the GB team he will be managing as basically an England team plus the best eligible players from the other UK nations: “‘What if Ryan [Giggs] had been English and available to play for England'”. In other words, Team GB is like an England team enhanced by the best non-English British players: England-plus.

In reality, Team GB looks as though it will be an ‘England-plus-Wales’ team, rather than England-plus-the home nations, despite the fact that Pearce says he “will be picking from all four nations”. The only non-English players that have been mentioned in connection with Team GB – both in the Guardian article and generally – are Welsh: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Giggs. So it’s pretty meaningless for Pearce to imply he’ll be picking Scottish and Northern Irish players, as none have signalled their interest (and none would be good enough? – dig, dig), and any players that did accept the poisoned Team GB chalice could well end up being banned from playing from their national sides or, worse still, never forgiven by the fans.

But Pearce is not in fact going to pick any Scottish or Northern Irish players for perhaps another reason: that they haven’t crossed his mental radar. The pool of players Pearce is drawing from comprises those of the English Premier League, which is the main career avenue for Welsh players, and which now also includes a Welsh club (Swansea) and could include another Welsh club (Cardiff) if they were promoted. So Team GB is not a genuine UK-wide team seeking to draw upon and give an opportunity to the best young talent from each of the home nations; but it is in fact a ‘Best of British from the English Premier League’ outfit that just happens not to involve any Scottish or Northern Irish players right now. And that’s partly because young players from those countries are developed through their own national club system and youth academies, which Pearce is not involved with.

The fact that Pearce can still talk of Team GB as a genuine British team exemplifies the ‘England-plus’ mentality in general: Britain / the UK is thought of as basically England plus the other UK nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘included’; indeed, that is the reason why ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ is what is said, rather than ‘England’: in order to be inclusive towards the other nations. But ‘the country’ that is in English people’s minds when they say ‘Britain’ in this sort of inclusive context is essentially England. I don’t mean this in a logical or factual sense, but in terms of the feeling, the passion, and the mental and cultural associations that are evoked when English people project their sense of nationhood across the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’. For example, Scottish associations are unlikely to be foremost in an English person’s mind when they’re thinking of typically British things: they won’t naturally think of Edinburgh, kilts or haggis but might think of London, Laura Ashley or that other animal-bladder by-product, the football. When an English person says ‘Britain’ or ‘UK’, they might mean what they say, but they’re imagining England.

This England-plus conception – in which the mental landscape behind ‘Britain’ is essentially that of England, though it nominally includes the other three countries – is in contrast to the Union establishment’s present ‘Britain-minus’ conception of England: England is thought of as the UK / Britain minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the ‘Lesser Britain’ resulting from devolution that I have previously written about, which is in reality England only (i.e. the territory and jurisdiction), but which the establishment refuses to verbalise as England but persists in calling ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’. As a consequence of the establishment of Team GB, a Britain-minus team is what we could end up with instead of our present four home nation sides: FIFA could use Team GB as a precedent and impose on us a single ‘British’ team. But Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players would be strongly encouraged by their presumably disbanding associations to have nothing to do with a Britain team. In other words, such a team would effectively be an England team, but one that is officially designated as the Britain team, though it is minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland players: Britain-minus.

Such a team would be a fitting symbol for an establishment Britain that has become even more devoid of real meaning and inclusiveness than the England-plus understanding of ‘the nation’ of many English people, including Stuart Pearce. In contrast to Team GB, the FIFA-imposed ‘Britain’ team would not only be a Britain without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a Britain without England – Britain-minus.

Forget about the controversy over the home nations’ sides not being allowed by FIFA to wear poppies embroidered in their shirts this weekend, important though this issue is. Such a controversy would pale into insignificance compared with a FIFA ban on English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players from even wearing their nations’ shirts to begin with, because the only ‘national’ team they’re allowed to play for is the ‘Britain’ team.

On one level, this would be a perfect outcome for the British establishment: perhaps the most potent present-day symbolism of the English nation – its football team – would be consigned to the history books where England belongs, as far as the establishment is concerned. But a permanent ‘Team Britain’ would represent only a pyrrhic victory for the Union. A British national football team would illustrate the vacuity of the establishment’s Little-Britain, Britain-minus thinking: not only effectively excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but failing to capture the identification and engage the passion of English fans. It would be a ‘Britain-minus-England/Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland’ team; ‘Britain one – home nations nil’.

In short, under a permanent Britain team, the UK would have won the match but lost its claim to the title: the title, that is, of a consensual Union of proud nations. It would in essence be a ‘minus state’: a state, and a team, without any national core or meaning. And such a minus state could not endure: as space abhors a vacuum, a Team Britain not worthy of the name would be swept away as the nations reasserted themselves, quite possibly politically as well as on the football field.

There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England. And no England-plus Team GB or Britain-minus UK team will ever take that away.

 English parliament

11 March 2009

Shorts (4): Football Team GB – I’ve got a better idea

One of the things that’s truly ‘great’ about football in Britain (by which I actually mean all four nations of the UK, not just England) is the strength of the game at the grassroots. The literally thousands of amateur clubs that are kept going by the dedication of their coaches, the support of family members and the passions of their players; the vast structure of leagues and cup competitions at every level of the game, and for every age and, increasingly, gender. It’s these clubs that keep alive the true spirit of football, which provides a generally friendly way to fight out local rivalries, and a chance for young people to take out their aggression, keep fit and achieve a bit of glory.

The Olympics, too, was originally supposed to embody this spirit of amateur sport. It was supposed to be – and still is to some extent, even in Britain – about individuals who have a dream, and strive through sheer perseverance, skill and hard work to achieve it or at least give their all in the attempt. And it’s about friendly rivalry between nations – pointing the way to a world of peace in the more serious and vital affairs of life as well as in mere play.

All this trouble about a British Olympics football team is essentially because it’s got caught up in the turbulent national-identity politics of the present. Why not just cut through all of that and organise a mammoth all-UK amateur cup competition for the right to compete at the Olympics as ‘Team GB’ – pitching teams from all four corners of the UK against each other: little village sides from Kent journeying up to farthest John O’Groats, if necessary, in order to progress to the next round; with a team from County Antrim slugging it out in Merthyr Tydfil. If the clubs need help with their travelling and other expenses, then they could get support from the same Lotto fund that is being ploughed into the Olympic facilities – given that it’s going towards the same event.

This could be a real amateur sporting affair, in keeping with the original spirit of both football and the Olympics as I’ve described it. This means the top amateur clubs like those in the English Blue Square League, which are in reality semi-professional, would be excluded.

This would give a chance for talented amateur sportsmen and -women from across the UK to go in pursuit of an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to represent not just ‘Great Britain’ but their community, village, town and, yes, nation (whether England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) at the greatest sporting tournament on earth – well, the second after the Football World Cup! This wouldn’t in fact be the British Olympic football team but merely a British football team. I say ‘merely’; but in reality, this would be more truly and profoundly a British team than any meaningless Team GB packed with overpaid professional players for whom the Olympics did not mean much compared with tournaments like the Premier or Champions’ Leagues. This would be something that passionate football enthusiasts from across Britain would have had to fight for.

A team comprising the ‘best’ amateur club (or clubs, including the women’s team) in Britain (or at least the winner of the All-UK Challenge Cup) wouldn’t in any way compromise the status of the four separate national Football Associations. This is precisely because it wouldn’t be a / the ‘national-British’ team, and because the separate national associations would all be engaged in organising the tournament and administering the participation of all ‘their’ affiliated amateur clubs that were interested in taking part. Indeed, the clubs themselves would doubtless regard their clashes with clubs from other national associations as their own small-scale version of full international matches. So this would be an international amateur contest to select one lucky (or two including the women) representative team(s): a team of Britain and not the Britain Team.

And the point of all this is that it would mobilise a huge amount of support and goodwill from what is known as the ‘British public’ – by which is meant the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of interest and enthusiasm would potentially be immense as local communities got behind their teams and the English / British love of the underdog was played out to the max. This really would be great and would truly bring to the fore the ‘best of British’ – if not the best British Team. And above all, it would exhibit the long-lost idea of sport: that it’s not about the winning but the taking part.

But the powers that be are interested only in winning: winning medals, winning prestige for ‘Britain’, and winning the fight for a Football Team GB as they see it, whether the people want it or not. But contrast the enthusiastic backing that a ‘Team GB’ selected the way I am proposing would generate to the devastation that could be wrought on the precious game of football by imposing a professional Team GB on us.

Football is, and could be even more, something that unites the different nations of the UK. If the government and the BOA get their way, it could become something that divides us, even to the extent of contributing to the eventual break-up of the UK if that is what is necessary to preserve our national teams and associations – because the demand for separation would surely grow enormously if the footballing heart of our four nations was ripped out and stuck to the badge of Britain, instead of being worn with pride on the shirtsleeves of amateur FCs from throughout our islands.

If you think this is a good idea, let me know – and I’ll suggest it to those said ‘powers that be’. How about the BOA, the (English) FA and 10 Downing Street for starters!

Shorts (3): Would a football Team GB be illegal?

I see another English government minister (the Sports Minister – for England only – Gerry Sutcliffe) has been sticking his oar in where he is neither qualified nor welcome to speak, insisting that: “A Great Britain football team will take part in the London 2012 Olympics even if it consists entirely of English players”.

I don’t know why Mr Sutcliffe feels he has any jurisdiction in the matter, as his governmental responsibilities for sport, and hence for football, are limited to England, not ‘Great Britain’ or the UK. But this sort of overstepping of legally defined areas of competency may be required to force through a football Team GB against the wishes of the Football Associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the supporters of all four national UK teams, including those of England.

I’m wondering whether any decision to go ahead with an all-English Team GB would be open to legal challenge on at least two, possibly three grounds:

  1. The FA’s (that is, the English FA’s) constitution limits its responsibilities to “all regulatory aspects of the game of football in England”. I read this to mean that the FA is not legally entitled or even authorised by its own rules to select or regulate anything such as a ‘Great Britain’ football team.
  2. Team GB itself is selected by the British Olympic Association “in conjunction with the governing bodies, from the best sportsmen and women”. The reference to the ‘governing bodies’ means the governing bodies in the UK for the relevant sports. Those for football are listed as the FA and the associations for Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Therefore, if the BOA and the FA ignore the unwillingness of the SFA, FAW and IFA respectively to put forward names of their countrymen and -women for selection for Team GB – and even to recognise the validity of such a team – I would have thought this would be open to legal challenge on the grounds of flouting the established rules for selecting Team GB.
  3. This could also potentially be challenged on the grounds of discrimination: the BOA and FA could be accused of discrimination if they excluded Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish footballers from being selected. If, on the other hand, they did pick footballers from those countries who made it clear they wanted to be considered, this could be regarded as undermining the legally recognised authority of the national associations to regulate the game in their countries. Of course, accusing the BOA and the FA of discrimination in this way could backfire on the other associations, who could also be accused of discrimination for making their compatriots ineligible. However, such a legal challenge, if it were taken out by the BOA or FA, could also be viewed as questioning the authority of the associations to regulate the professional game in their countries. So the whole thing could get incredibly messy!

Maybe if the FA and the BOA persist in their offensive insistence on an unwanted football Team GB, legal action of the types I suggest might be the way to block it. The whole thing could drag on for years, making it impossible to proceed with plans, preparations and appointments for any eventual team.

Might be worth considering if the worst comes to the worst.

10 November 2008

Home Nations tournament to decide which nation can provide the Olympics Team GB

According to the BBC, David Cameron has suggested there should be a Home Nations football tournament to decide which of the UK’s nations should provide the football Team GB (or should that be Team UK?) at the 2012 Olympics. As the Tory leader said: “Maybe the answer is to have a home tournament, see who wins and that team goes forward, but for the Olympics we’ve got to settle this so there is a representative team”.

Well, Cameron (or at least the BBC report) has got one thing right: it would indeed be a Home Nations tournament – nice to see that expression coming back into currency. However, might I suggest a small but significant modification to Cameron’s idea: it should be the team that loses the tournament that gets to represent Great Britain, not the one that wins it! That’ll really motivate the Scots to beat the Auld Enemy!

27 October 2008

The Olympics and That English Britishness Again

I was in London on business on the day of the English and British Olympics victory parade a week and a bit ago. In fact, my meeting was at a location right on the route of the parade; and, as luck would have it, the meeting finished just moments before the procession came past. So I duly lined up to greet our victorious Olympians as they rode along.

Where I stood was at a relatively ‘quiet’ part of the route compared with Trafalgar Square and its environs. So there were a few Union Jacks and silly Lotto giant hands being waved about; but the atmosphere was not especially jingoistic. I looked around but didn’t spot any Flags of St. George; although I couldn’t exactly say they were ‘banned’ – but as I hadn’t come prepared, I couldn’t put this to the test! Nor were there any busy officials distributing Union Flags by the dozen to the naively enthusiastic masses; just one street vendor pushing a cart along the route and doing a brisk trade: a nice bit of English-British entrepreneurship, I thought!

As for the procession itself, I actually enjoyed it. There was surprisingly little tasteless British patriotism involved. I’d expected open-topped buses bedecked with Union Flags and slogans proudly proclaiming the ‘Great British’ team. But no, the single-decker floats were pretty plain, and all you saw were the athletes themselves: fit, healthy young people with beaming faces, clearly somewhat overwhelmed and delighted by the acclaim (including from myself, I have to say) they were being greeted by. There was something almost innocent about it: the people expressing their delight at these young persons’ individual triumphs, and the athletes in their turn showing pleasure at the joy they had brought.

I am sure that one of the reasons why the floats were so devoid of patriotic symbols was to avoid offending the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes – and viewing public – who had already been treated to their own ‘national’ celebrations immediately on their return from the Games. And maybe also, it was to avoid offending the many English people who feel there should have been a separate opportunity to celebrate the successes of the English athletes. I suppose the last thing the organisers wanted was angry shouts from St. George’s Flag-waving protesters attempting to rip off the British flags and banners from the floats. Well, one can but dream!

Maybe the organisers had more sense than the politicians who couldn’t resist making capital out of our athletes’ triumphs at the time by saying how it proved that ‘Great Britain’ was still something we could all take pride in; and then further rubbing our noses in it by trying to seize the moment and push through a football Team GB: something which – in a sense, with fitting irony – may still be realised even if it ends up being just a Team England in disguise.

But what of the question as to whether England should have had its own Olympics victory parade? I myself went on record at the time to say that I didn’t think it was realistic or sensible to demand one, even if I agreed that it would have been both a fair and popular thing to do given that the other nations of the UK had organised their own celebrations. As with so many illustrations of the ambiguous inter-relationships between Englishness and Britishness, the question is complex.

I think it’s important to differentiate between what you would like to eventually see happening – i.e. English-national civic institutions, sporting teams and celebrations – and what is realistic or practical in the present day. But, at the same time, it’s also important to find a language in which to describe what goes on in the present that more accurately and fairly reflects its variable dual English and British character.

This relates to why I called it the ‘English and British’ Olympics victory parade at the start of this post. The parade was effectively doing double duty as both the ‘British’ and English victory celebration. This was the case not just out of political expedience and logistical practicality, but also for the reason that, as an England-only event would need to be on the same scale – if not greater – than a British parade, holding a British procession after an English celebration would come to seem embarrassingly redundant and also, ironically, a duplication of the English event. And this is because a celebration of ‘British’ achievements of this sort is already primarily an expression of English patriotism, albeit articulated in terms of Great Britain and Britishness.

It’s important to be precise in these matters to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that a British celebration of this sort is somehow ‘sufficient’ to allow English people an outlet to express their national pride and that an England-only event is therefore on principle unnecessary. Such a position would effectively involve conspiring with the present behaviour and attitude of the British establishment, which actively seeks to suppress any form of expression of English-national identity and pride – indeed, to deny the very existence of England as a nation – and to put ‘Britain’ literally in England’s place.

But you have to distinguish, I think, between at least two forms of Britishness, from the English perspective: there’s an objective – institutional and, as it were, ‘instrumental’ – Britishness; and then there’s a subjective – emotional, personal and ‘existential’ – Britishness. The objective Britain basically comprises the establishment: the institutions of government, law, civic society, and formal ‘national’ identity, media and culture. In relation to these things in isolation, you could say that – for the time being, at least – there is no such thing as England. The formal Britain – the UK government and establishment – reduces England to a mere territory over which it has jurisdiction: no English-national governance; English Law, yes, but this is also the law of Wales and it’s decided on by the UK parliament; only British-national media (e.g. the BBC) and their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subdivisions, but no English-national channels, newspapers; etc, etc.

At this point, some people (e.g. Cornish nationalists) might pull me up and say that there are plenty of English-national institutions, e.g. the Bank of England; the Church of England; the English language as the official language of Britain; English Heritage; English National Opera; the English National Ballet; English sporting teams; etc. But then these examples neatly illustrate my point. Some of these things are English only in name, rather like English Law. The Bank of England, for instance, is the central bank for the UK as a whole, and it’s only a historical anomaly that it still has ‘England’ in its title and hasn’t – yet – been re-named the ‘Bank of Britain’. Most of the other examples are not what you would call exclusively and objectively English institutions other than in the sense that, post-devolution, some aspects of UK government power relate to England only, such as heritage, culture and sport. But there’s no English national political control as such, at government level, over these organisations; nor do institutions such as the English National Opera see it as a particular part of their remit to celebrate English culture. The main exception here is the Church of England, which does have both a formal role and status within the UK establishment, and is an England-only institution in more than just name – which is one reason why I’m opposed to its disestablishment, at least until there are some properly England-only government bodies or formal recognition of England’s nation status. Otherwise, disestablishing the Church would mean there would no longer be any aspects of British governance that need make any reference to – or were in any form answerable to – England as a nation.

As for English sporting teams, these relate to the other type of national identity I set out above: the subjective, personal and ‘existential’. There is no sense in which the existence of England teams necessarily equates to the existence of England as an objective, formally established nation; but they do indicate that people living in England identify with England as their nation, subjectively and emotionally. That’s why I call this form of nationhood ‘existential’: England may not exist formally and objectively, but it does exist in the sense that people’s subjective identifications confer existence on it. ‘England exists because I am English, and many millions of my fellow countrymen also feel they are English’. Incidentally, this is the same basis on which a Cornish nation can be said to exist.

And the same could also be said of Britain. As I stated above, Britain, too, possesses this subjective character as a nation alongside its objective, institutional existence. For instance, there are many people living in England – possibly now in the minority – who feel and identify as British more than, or even to the exclusion of, English. This is just a fact, which those of us of the English-nationalist persuasion just have to accept, whether we like it or not: some English people claim they don’t feel any sense of Englishness at all but see themselves – if they see themselves as anything in national terms – as British first and foremost, or even British only. But, of course, a statement like this is deliberately paradoxical: it’s English people who tend to feel British rather than English; whereas feeling one was British to the exclusion of being Scottish or Welsh would be an almost incomprehensible attitude on the part of persons native to Scotland or Wales.

In other words, this form of Britishness is an English phenomenon. Traditionally, in fact, the British and English identities, at this subjective level, have tended to be inseparably intertwined, with the terms and symbols of Britishness and Englishness being seen as interchangeable – in England, that is. And, for many, this is still the case. In other words, the British and English identities are so indissociable for many English people that their feelings of patriotic pride, and the nation they felt they were celebrating, would be the same whether they were attending an Olympic Team GB victory parade or the English Ashes triumphal procession of a few years back. Therefore, in both this subjective sense and the objective, practical sense, the Olympics victory parade was indeed both an English and British celebration, as I wrote at the start of this piece. One iconographic acknowledgement of this I noticed were the billboards for that day’s London Evening Standard, which I glimpsed only in passing. What I thought it depicted was a group of Union Flag-waving Olympians (or perhaps they were just spectators) set in relief against a massive Flag of St. George. Don’t get too excited, though: this was one of those photo-editing jobbies, where one image is superimposed on another – the English flag wasn’t there in reality. However, this seemed to me to exemplify the old happy balance whereby the British and English national identities were fused and celebrated together.

Of course, there are many for whom this was never a ‘happy balance’ – particularly, those in the other nations of the UK. The Scots have always regarded the objectively ‘British’ character of the Union state as really just a front for England and English power; and the subjective merging of the English and British identities was adduced as evidence for this: when English people talked of Britain and British governance as supposedly inclusive terms that also incorporated Scotland, what they really meant – and what was in fact the objective political reality – was English dominance over Scottish affairs. And, indeed, English people did use to think of the British state and government as ‘theirs’, based on their subjective blending of the English and British national identities: the British state was the objective correlative and institutional expression of a British national identity that was essentially English in its subjective and emotional character, and its cultural manifestations.

Many Scottish people seem to think that this state of affairs still prevails, which is one of the reasons why they just don’t get English nationalism. In my terms, they think that the ‘instrumental’ and ‘existential’ British identities are still in harmony with one another. In other words, they see the UK state and its institutions as essentially the instrument of English power, propped up by the unthinking, subjective identification of English people with Britain. But, in fact, instrumental and existential Britishness are increasingly diverging, a process greatly accelerated by devolution. What this means is that the British and English identities are separating out and becoming dissociated from one another. English people are identifying increasingly as English in the first instance, at the subjective, emotional and existential level. And this means that Britishness is defined more and more in relation merely to the institutional and instrumental aspects of public and civic life: British governance, its traditions and the civic values that underpin them.

The whole Britishness agenda of the British establishment could be described as an attempt to rekindle English people’s identification with Britain, and as British. But because, post-devolution, that Britishness can no longer truly be the explicit expression of English national pride and political power, it ends up having to be a new form of Britishness: a Britishness that deliberately evacuates any overt acknowledgement or expression of the English subjective and national identity that has traditionally underpinned it. And this, ironically, condemns the new Britishness to being something of an empty shell: expressed in terms of civic, political, institutional and philosophical ideals without reference to the English national character, people, and sense of mission that once animated it. This is one of the reasons why the Olympics, which is one of the few sporting occasions where ‘the country’ is represented by a British team, constitutes such a powerful vehicle for the ‘Britologists’ (the would-be architects of the new Britain) to try and reconnect English national fervour and identity with Britain.

But then again, the pride in being British that English people feel in connection with Team GB’s Olympic successes is precisely that: the traditional pride of English people in ‘their’ Great Britain, or – another way of saying the same thing – pride in the greatness of England that is Great Britain. If politicians want English people to feel pride about Britain and her achievements, then there’s no escaping from the fact that that pride is essentially an English feeling and part of the subjective British identity that is an English phenomenon, and is based on a blurring of any distinction between Englishness and Britishness.

But what of those ‘English’ people who say they feel British only, and not English? It’s dangerous to generalise, and there are many different ‘types’ of people who might describe themselves in this way. But I can’t help feeling that the great majority of them still are ‘British only’ in a highly English way. This could be said for instance of Richard Morrison writing in last Wednesday’s Times. The author claims that “We [i.e. the English] are now a nation with a history but no destiny. We exist; we have needs, but no sense of self”. In support of this thesis, he points to all the things we tend to think of as typically English that are in reality of foreign origin. And yet, at the same time, this openness to a cosmopolitan array of overseas influences and newcomers is itself seen as something typical of England. But all the same, the author goes on to state: “I can’t recall a time when so many people living in England, people of all colours and creeds, are so obviously unsettled by the feeling that we no longer have control of our future, no ideal of what we want to be”. Well surely this is because the establishment keeps telling us – the English – that there is no future for us as England; that we are, and can only be, British; and that one of the defining characteristics of Britain is precisely the kind of openness to global influences, trade and migration that the author observes. But no one is saying that such phenomena are leading to a dilution of Britishness: and that’s precisely because Britain – the new Britain – is a nation-less (supra-national, global) concept that is dependent on stripping out Englishness and the English national identity from its core. And it’s this that leads to the alienation Richard Morrison describes.

So what I’m saying is that a ‘British-only national identity’ (itself something of a non-sequitur, as the new Britishness is something that points beyond nationhood, whereas traditional Britishness sat comfortably with complementary English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities), when it is felt by English people, partakes of a very English alienation from what it means to be English; precisely because Englishness, for those people, has more than ever lost itself in Britishness.

And this brings me back round to one of the issues I raised at the start of this piece: the problem of naming and describing the national-existential crisis we are going through. I think it can be a very powerful means of resistance against the establishment’s attempts to banish England from public discourse, and hence from the national consciousness, to reintroduce the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ wherever appropriate, or even inappropriate. On the one hand, this is a political tactic; but, on the other hand, it’s also an attempt at describing things more accurately and honestly than the establishment, which deceitfully omits and suppresses references to England, even when what’s being discussed is either exclusively or at least partially English. It’s a case of subverting the official language in a way that points up what they don’t want you to notice.

In my example of the Olympic victory parade, officially, this is indeed correctly described as the British Olympics victory celebration. However, in reality, as I explained above, it was also the English victory parade, in more ways than one. Therefore, it is correct in another sense to call this the ‘English and British’ celebration. This approach can be extended to many other aspects of public life, particularly the language used about national government. For instance, it would be both subversive and, in my sense, accurate to describe the UK government as the ‘British and English government’ – since, in matters otherwise devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish government, the British government is a de facto government for England only. Similarly, the prime minister is accurately described as the British and English prime minister or, when talking about England-only areas of government, the ‘unelected English First Minister’ – my favourite designation! UK government departments with responsibilities for England only should also be referred to as, for instance, the ‘English Department for Culture, Media and Sport’ or the ‘Department of Health for England’.

In the case of government departments, neither the England-only ministries nor those with a genuine UK-wide remit tend to include ‘UK’ or ‘British’ in their title, as it is just a given that they are UK-wide bodies even when they’re not. Hence, adding ‘England’ or ‘English’ to them could even be regarded as a helpful aide-mémoire to ensure that people remember when some aspect of the government’s responsibilities is limited to England. But what of the many instances of when things are called ‘British’ when they are actually English or, more subtly, the media’s constant efforts to shape and articulate a common Britishness even when many of the cultural expressions of that Britishness are primarily, if not exclusively, English?

An example of the former is the large supermarkets’ and food producers’ growing tendency to (re-)label English produce, such as meat or fruit, as ‘British’. If you can establish that a given item is in fact English (as the labels often indicate which county they were produced in), then I think you should resolutely refuse to call it British, for instance, in conversation with your family as you go round the supermarket or when you refer to it at the tills. But should you boycott produce of this sort altogether out of protest against the suppression of the England tag or, indeed, the England flag from the labels? It’s a matter of individual choice; but I think that, if you can be sure that an item is English, far from boycotting the English produce, you should boycott any goods in the store in question that are labelled as Scottish or Welsh as a mark of protest against the discrimination against England that is being carried out. English farmers and food producers need all the help they can get, especially amid a recession; and it’s not their fault if the supermarkets decide to mis-label their goods.

You should also try to find opportunities to explain to the store why you’re buying ‘British’-labelled produce, and not Scottish- and Welsh-labelled items. For instance, you could say that you might buy Scottish and Welsh items if the English items were labelled as English (which would be fair and non-discriminatory) or if those Scottish and Welsh items were labelled as British, which is, after all, a term that is supposed to apply to Scotland and Wales, and not just England. One convenient opportunity to have this conversation is when a ‘British’-labelled item does not indicate explicitly whether it comes from England. You can simply then go to the Customer Service desk and ask them to find out for you whether it is English or not; and casually toss in the observation that you assume it is because the Scottish and Welsh items are labelled as Scottish and Welsh, and only the English items don’t appear to be correctly packaged!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’m going to try to do from now on. But what of the plethora of TV programmes that try to foster the idea of Britain as a ‘nation’, ranging from the sublime (such as BBC’s Coast – predicated on the clever idea of a Britain that is ‘one’ nation because it shares a common coastline and maritime heritage; and which, of course, just had to be presented by a Scot) to the ridiculous, such as ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent? Here, on one level, the ‘nation’ that such programmes refer to is correctly described as Britain, in the sense that they deal with people and places from all over the UK. But, insofar as these programmes are part of an establishment agenda to set Britain up as ‘the nation’ – for English people only, that is – I tend to favour the deliberately politically incorrect and derisive approach of re-labelling such programmes as English, especially as most of what they relate to is English. So: ‘that programme about the coast of England’ works well – aptly re-evoking England’s proud seafaring tradition and maritime culture; or ‘England’s Got Talent’. The ‘England Olympics team’ also gets people’s hackles up quite nicely, I find, too; although, if you want to be less sarcastic and more fair-minded – in a rather English manner – my choice of the ‘English and British Olympics team / victory parade’ perhaps gets you more of an audience. And if you’ve followed me till now, thank you.

The point about such linguistic acts of subversion, however petty they may seem, is that they are both a private and public act of revolt against the suppression of England from public discourse and, ultimately, from the identity and governance of ‘the nation’ as a whole. England exists and I exist as an Englishman. So long as we keep saying that, then they won’t get away with abolishing our nation.

30 August 2008

Great Britain is England yet awhile

I was quite surprised recently at the reaction to a post of mine that was published on OurKingdom. In the piece, I explored some different scenarios for a referendum on Scottish independence. One of them was that, as a vote for Scottish independence would effectively break up Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Union between England and Scotland), then all of the people of Great Britain should be given a say. This proposal was intended only as an exercise in logical reasoning: if you regard Great Britain as a nation, then surely the whole of that nation should be allowed to choose whether it should be broken up. In the event, none of those commenting on the post took up this line of argument: there was not even a solitary unionist to defend the idea of Great Britain’s integrity as a nation. Scottish commenters, for their part, significantly seemed to regard any idea that the whole of Great Britain – or, indeed, the whole of the UK – should be allowed to give its assent to the departure of Scotland from the Union, and to the proposed shape of the continuing Union post-Scotland, as an (English) attempt to block the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

I was left with an impression that to argue that Great Britain is a nation – which is not, by the way, what I believe – meets with incomprehension in serious political debate. This is despite the fact that ‘the country’ and the state as a whole are almost always referred to in national political discourse as ‘Britain’; and the New Labour government has expended vast amounts of time, effort and money trying to invent and inculcate concepts such as ‘British values’, ‘Britishness’ and, indeed, British national identity that are supposed to unite all the peoples of the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And this is also despite the fact that Team GB – the ‘Great Britain’ Olympic team – returned home earlier this week to the rapturous acclaim of what was referred to by the media as ‘the nation’, Union Flags draped all over them; to be followed in subsequent days by patriotic receptions of their athletes from the peoples of Scotland and Wales with not a Union Flag in sight but only Saltires and Red Dragons. No proposals yet for a victory parade for the triumphant English athletes, although we have been promised a parade in London in October for all of Team GB. Understandably, this absence of an English parade, along with the handing out of Union Jacks to people attending receptions of English athletes in their local areas, has been greeted with howls of ‘foul play’.

But it’s clear that the Great Britain celebrations are meant to do double duty as the English celebrations. There’s something rather unrealistic about demanding or hoping that we might be allowed to fête our triumphant English athletes as English when they’re supposed to be representing Great Britain. This would be an ‘unnecessary’ duplication – precisely because Great Britain is already the double of England; and because the patriotic pride we take in Team GB is the publicly acceptable expression of English pride in her athletes. Look at the kit those athletes are wearing: it’s the England football kit – white tops with red trim; blue trousers. (Or is England’s football kit really in the British colours? But don’t get me on to the subject of the football team GB again!)

How can we unpack all of this? The UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is not a nation: to advocate this idea would meet with even more derision or incomprehension than to suggest that Great Britain as such is a nation. Depending on whether you regard Great Britain as a unitary nation, as a political union of two nations (England and Scotland), or indeed of three (England, Scotland and Wales), then the UK is a political union between – a state composed of – from one to three nations plus part of another (Ireland).

Hardly surprising, then, that ‘the UK’ is not used as the name for the Olympic team: it’s not a nation and, therefore, cannot be a channel of national pride. ‘Britain’, on the other hand (as opposed to ‘Great Britain’), is used informally as a synonym for the UK, while taking on the connotations of nationhood associated with ‘Great Britain’. This is why it is also a synonym for what national politicians refer to as ‘the country’: a term which, in its very imprecision, also encompasses and binds together the concepts of the UK state and of nationhood but avoids officially using the term ‘nation’ for the UK. Similarly, ‘Britain’, informally, is described as ‘the nation’ even when it refers to the UK.

So why isn’t ‘Britain’, rather than ‘Great Britain’, the name of the Olympic team, as this would at least imply the inclusion of athletes from Northern Ireland, as well as from other parts of the so-called ‘British Isles’ that are not formally part of the UK, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Well, I suppose it’s because – formally – ‘Britain’ is the name neither of a state nor of a nation; whereas Great Britain appears to be a bit of both: literally a bit of – part of – the official name of the UK state, and (to judge from its name at least) an integral nation; that is, one of the two nations that joined together to form the UK.

But Great Britain is also, as I said above, the double of England. It’s the place within which the ‘subjective’ national identity of the English (how they see themselves and what they call themselves as a ‘great’ nation), the ‘objective’ identity of the state (a Union of two to four nations greater than England, but of which England is the greater part) and the physical territory of the ‘country’ (Britain) converge. But that place, increasingly, exists only in the subjectivity – in the minds – of the English (or at least some of them), not in objective reality.

Great Britain is the name that England gave to itself when it took over Scotland in the 1707 Union: it’s the name of the ‘dominion’ of England (its territory and power) expanded to encompass the whole of Britain – ‘Great’ because it is ‘Greater England’; a Union that consolidated the greatness of England as Britain. In the popular imagination of the English, from 1707 till recent times, Great Britain was a nation – was the nation – because it was synonymous with the nation of England; the Union being imagined as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state, which is what it effectively was if you consider only aspects such as parliament, the executive and sovereignty – although Scotland retained many other aspects of separate civic nationhood, such as its own legal and education systems, and established church.

So, for England, Great Britain became the (English) nation: an imaginative fusion – union – of the English national identity, the political state, and the territory of Britain. But the point is the English did invest their sense of national identity into Great Britain to the extent that ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ became indistinguishable and interchangeable. For the Scots, this meant that ‘Great Britain’ always really meant just England, and its domination and subordination of Scotland through the apparatus of the ‘British’ state. However, for the English, this genuinely implied a blending of national identities – a pouring and offering out of Englishness into and for Britain – creating something new: a British nation and nationhood within which the Scots and the Welsh were also taken up; but which, subjectively, was of necessity the extension of Englishness to ‘Britain as a whole’ (Great Britain), because that imagined common Britishness was imagined through the minds of the English – the controllers of the narrative of British identity.

Nothing essentially changed in this dynamic when Ireland was added to the Union in 1801. The name of the state may have changed but it remained ‘Great Britain’ in its core identity: the national identity of the English as subjectively extended and merged into ‘Britain as a whole’, making Ireland, too (and now Northern Ireland), ‘really’ part of Great Britain: British; British Ireland. ‘Really’ in the sense that, insofar as it lived as a nation at all, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (this union of Ireland with Great Britain, which was an incorporation of Ireland into the Union that was Great Britain) fully had the character of nationhood only in the minds of the English, for whom Great Britain was the objective reflection – the image, the double – of their own nation and the greatness of England.

The British ‘project’ – the realisation of Britain as a ‘great nation’ through Great Britain, the Empire and now the attempt to encapsulate the philosophical and political ‘greatness’ that is Britishness – has, therefore, always been essentially an English project. Not only in the objective sense that the English ‘as a nation’ somehow owned, drove and dominated the British adventure; but because the very Britishness of that project was a projection of the English: a creation of something, in their eyes, greater than themselves but of themselves, which in turn conferred greatness (the greatness of Britain) upon them.

And so now, too, our Olympians have gone out to the world and returned home in greatness, battles won. ‘Our’ Olympians, I say? Those of England or those of Great Britain?

For now, they are those of England and those of Great Britain; and our celebrations must do double duty for our athletes’ Englishness and Britishness – including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish among them in whom, as Great Britons, we English also take national pride.

But the objective political reality which, for 300 years, has sustained the Great British dream is rapidly unravelling. As those displays of Scottish and Welsh patriotic pride revealed, it’s increasingly only the English who see themselves as British and their country as Great Britain. And then again, fewer and fewer of them. When that objective political union that binds England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully dissolves, then maybe we can have our celebration of great English achievements. Or maybe, our celebrating English glories as English, not British, will be the thing that finally puts an end to the British project: the projection of our English ambitions and identity onto Great Britain.

It’s the desire to be greater than ourselves that led to Great Britain. Maybe England‘s finest hour will be when we accept that true greatness is just to be ourselves. And to achieve all that we are capable of – for ourselves and our country – in a spirit of friendship to others and personal striving that has its meaning in itself.

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