Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

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.

18 August 2008

Team GB’s Olympic Success: Should We Be Proud?

I suppose this morning’s newspaper headlines were inevitable: ‘It’s great to be British!’; ‘Britannia rules the Games!’. It was, after all, a terrific weekend of success for Team GB at the Beijing Olympics, and Great Britain sat in third place in the medals table at the end of Sunday’s events: an unwonted sporting triumph for ‘the country’, indeed!

That other GB, Gordon Brown, inevitably chimed in. The inappropriate headline I came across in Yahoo! News read, “Brown hails UK’s golden weekend”. Inappropriate because there was no mention of the UK as such in the article’s quotes from Gordon:

“I want to send my congratulations to Team GB on this golden weekend for British sport. Eight gold medals and seventeen medals in total in one weekend is a superb and unprecedented achievement. The whole country has been watching and has been thrilled by Team GB. We are immensely proud of what they have achieved so far, and inspired by their performance. Our Olympians’ talent and dedication represent the very best of Britain and we look forward to another great week of British sporting success”.

Britain, Britain, Britain. Well, I suppose I should stop being a (typically British, English?) misery guts and should just be proud of our sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s successes, as GB says. And, indeed, I was and am proud, not least – but also not only – because the great majority of those medal-winning contestants were English. In most patriotic English people, indeed, rare victories such as these stir up those old sentiments of being ‘proud to be British’ – feelings suffused with memories of our once routinely ‘world-beating’ Empire. This is the way English patriotism has traditionally been expressed; and it’s a more obviously English-British patriotism now than ever, as one no longer feels that the triumphs of the Scottish medal winners (such as triple gold medal-winning cyclist Chris Hoy) really quite belong to ‘us’ (i.e. to us English) any more, if they ever did. In fact, I’m sure that the Scottish media are following and proclaiming the successes of Scottish contestants as Scottish victories in the first instance, and then British only secondarily. No such possibility of celebrating English success: no, that’s British.

The political dividends of all this are obvious; hence, the intervention of GB (the Prime Minister, that is). It’s a chance to reaffirm and orchestrate English people’s identification with Britain as ‘the country’, in our leader’s favourite phrase. As usual, however, this technically misses out Northern Ireland, as the PM is wont to do. In this instance, he’s got official ‘permission’ to do so in that ‘the country’ is indeed referred to as ‘Great Britain’ in the Games, not as the UK. This is one of those historical anomalies. Apparently, people from Northern Ireland can opt to represent the Republic of Ireland, if they wish, so it is in fact only fully a Great British team; plus ‘Great Britain’ (initials GBR) was the name adopted for the UK team by the International Olympics Committee for the 1908 Games. However, clearly, calling the team ‘Great Britain’ facilitates all those stirrings of patriotic emotion, as one calls to mind the ‘greatness’ of the Empire. In addition, ‘Britain’ carries the overtones of nationhood; while ‘the UK’ reminds us that ‘the country’ is merely a state, not a nation.

The ultimate political agenda really converges on the 2012 Olympics: will the country still be represented by Team GB (possibly, for the last time); or will these be the first Games where there will be separate teams for Scotland and – what? – the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland)? Or, if you follow the rationale for calling the present UK team ‘Great Britain’ (i.e. it diplomatically leaves the dual allegiances of Northern Irish people out of play), would this be a ‘Team England & Wales’, or even separate English and Welsh teams (whether for sporting reasons only or because England and Wales had separated politically, too)? Let’s just hope that they wouldn’t try to continue calling an England / Wales team ‘Great Britain’ – I wouldn’t put it past them! More importantly, if Scotland has gained its independence by then, the London Olympics will not be the British Games at all; but the – yes – English Games (as are, let us remember, half the sports involved – English inventions, that is).

Heaven forbid! Such a possibility must be ruled out and prevented at all costs! Billions of pounds of costs, in fact, in hosting the 2012 Games. Just as the 2008 Games are China’s chance to present a modernised, benign image to the world – forgetting about the would-be independent regions of Tibet and Xinjiang – so the London Olympics are the UK government’s lifeline for holding on to at least the idea of a unified Britain beyond the likely Scottish referendum dates of 2010 or 2011. ‘If we can just use the present Games to rekindle pride in Great Britain’, you can hear the politicians say, ‘then we might be able to get “the whole country” to rally round the task of putting on the “best Games ever” in London 2012; and then, who knows, we might have succeeded in whipping up so much renewed pride in being British, that the Union might just survive’.

The bet is on. Will the 2012 Olympics be ‘Britain’s showcase’ or its swansong? You can bet your life, however, that the politicians will do their utmost to prevent ‘Great Britain’ from breaking up before 2012! After all, if we want to finish fourth in the medals table that year, we couldn’t do so as just England, could we? I wouldn’t bet on that not happening, though!

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