If the Conservatives win the next election, the Scots may end up leaving the union. How can England take a political form without hastening the Scots to the exit?by David Goodhart / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
For reasons of history and national temperament, the British (especially the English) have worn their national citizenship lightly. Such insouciance is now positively embraced by leftists, post-nationalists and even some free-marketeers, but it did not derive from a generous or progressive sentiment. On the contrary, it was if anything the result of a missionary-imperial idea of Britain in which it was not necessary to draw clear lines around the political community. As Krishan Kumar has explained in his book The Making of English National Identity, such fuzziness also helped to veil the overwhelming dominance of the English within the British state.
This fuzziness is now an obstacle to the good society. At a time of mass immigration, European integration, the rise of identity politics and so on, we need clearer markers for a post-ethnic national citizenship that is also open to the world. We need, in other words, a post post-nationalism. The shape of the nation state is constantly evolving, but it is still central to most of the things that liberals want, from democratic accountability to redistribution of wealth and generous welfare. But it needs help, especially from the left, which after all wants the state to make more, not fewer, demands of citizens—whether paying higher taxes or being more active citizens. I do not, of course, advocate a return to Edwardian jingoism, but with the erosion of so many other collective identities a minimum national sense of “being in this together” is still necessary to avoid long-term ethnic balkanisation and a small, low-tax state.
I do not think self-interest, even of the enlightened kind, is sufficient to generate the solidarity required for a thriving public realm. The political battle is now on between the citizenship state and a market state in which citizens have a purely instrumental relationship to both the state and each other.
Unfortunately, from the 1960s onwards, Britain did not develop a modern, post-imperial language of national citizenship and identity that was comfortable with the idea of equal citizenship—regardless of race or background. The right did not fully embrace equality (and after Enoch Powell, the liberal right just wanted to avoid the subject). The left did embrace equality, but thought it meant burying the nation state; it did not accept that even if all people on the planet are in some sense morally equal, we still have a far greater political and social commitment…