The assertion of national identities within the United Kingdom has left Britain in an identity muddle. Englishness, stripped of Britishness, has acquired illiberal connotations. But Neal Ascherson hopes that a benign English identity can now "come out"-within a European embraceby Neal Ascherson / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Jim Bloggs, 101 Inkerman Terrace, Scratfield, Staffordshire, England, Great Britain, Europe, the World, the Galaxy, the Universe…” When schoolchildren used to write things like that in the front of their books, they were producing a classic old model of identities. It was a concentric model. It was seen from the central dot of all those concentric rings: the individual. Your house was the nearest ring; the universe the most remote. It was also a list of overlapping memberships. You “came from” the Potteries, but were also English. You were British, but also European, Terran, Galactic, Universal.
The question which the model does not answer is this: which of these identities, if any, has priority? By which ring does the central dot wish to be identified by others? Pope John Paul II, who derives some of his theology from 19th century Polish patriotic mysticism, also leaves this question open. In his view, God created humanity in three concentric categories: individual, family and nation. But which is the defining identity, and which might you be entitled to betray in order to save one or both of the others? There the faithful receive no clear guidance.
The schoolchild’s site of identity could be the house. It could be the continent. It could, when the child becomes a self-obsessed first year student, be the dot itself: “I am myself, and nothing else.” It could be several different rings at once. In the past, we used to ask a stranger: “Where do you come from?” But these days people are more often asked who they are-a different, more loaded matter. The answer is usually the name of a state or a nation. This is a learned response; ordinary people did not always think like that. In parts of Belorussia, language, religion and custom vary from village to village, and the only common cultural experience is of brutality at the hands of invaders. There, peasants who are confronted with “who are you?” will often reply: “We are tutejszy-we are ‘from here’ people.” But the world will not allow them that answer for much longer.
Identity is now a problem in Britain, too. To talk about an “identity crisis” would be exaggerated. But there is an enormous identity muddle. Many people have difficulty finding a satisfactory answer to the question of who they are. And this muddle has developed with astonishing speed. Fifteen years ago, the suggestion that the British were not sure who they were would have seemed absurd. No people in the world were more placidly certain about their identity and suffered less angst about it.
This new muddle is healthy. It pains some, and gives others vertigo. But it is part of Britain’s adaptation to the new world and its disorder, of which the EU is the leading edge. This adaptation does not just mean institutional change or a less “sceptred isle” approach to national sovereignty. All that is necessary. But with it comes a change in the way in which the British understand themselves as a political community, an ethnicity, a nation, a people-however you name it. We have to transform not only ourselves, but also the names we give ourselves.
Like almost all British problems of modernisation, the identity muddle relates to the archaic nature of Britain’s constitutional system, now a unique survival in Europe. This system was set up by a limited and primitive reform: the principle of absolutism was not abolished, but simply transferred from the English crown to parliament. This was a process which had begun with the democratic hopes of the English revolution but ended in the compromise settlement of 1688-89. This settlement enabled the future British state to escape the political influence of the Enlightenment almost entirely-to say nothing of the French revolution. This has not only deprived Britain of institutional reforms such as a written constitution, a code of administrative law, or a citizenship based on a “culture of rights.” It has kept out of British usage the very language used by all European states to describe their political societies.
Take the distinction between “state” and “nation.” Although in the past these definitions were more pliable, they are now reasonably standardised, on the continent and beyond. “Nation” describes an extensive community which feels united by a common culture. A state is the set of institutions which a nation (or group of nations) may set up as the structure of government and administration. Not all nations decide that they must have an independent nation state of their own. Some (like the Catalans) are for the moment satisfied with self-government within a larger multinational state. But in the last two or three centuries, most communities which have defined themselves as “nations” have tried to establish their own states. The difference between nation and state was quite clear to them. It was expressed with brutal clarity in the old Soviet passports: “Nationality: Ukrainian (or Kazakh or Jewish). Statehood: Soviet.”
In Britain that difference has never been fully understood. England or Britain are sometimes referred to as nations, sometimes as states. Most seriously-because this is a misunderstanding which gets in the way of comparing like with like in Europe-the phrase “multinational state” is almost never applied to the UK. And yet that is what the UK is. It is not tidy or symmetrical in its diversity. The UK consists of two ancient kingdoms united by treaty, one conquered Celtic nation, the rump of another and a scatter of islands. One component-England-is ten times as populous as all the others put together. In spite of that diversity, the state governing these nations is tightly centralised. This centralism, which grew far more painful and constricting with the huge growth of state bureaucracy after 1945, arises from the absolutist doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty whose roots stretch back to 1688. Under this doctrine, sovereignty cannot be shared or distributed.
The confusion in the UK over identity and terminology is mostly English confusion. For the past few decades, at least, Welsh and Scottish subjects of the UK have found it fairly easy to define themselves as Welsh or Scottish by nation, but British by citizenship (or statehood). The word “English” has been through many vicissitudes, especially in England. Until recently, English people used the word “England” to describe the main island of the archipelago; in my youth London politicians visiting Scotland referred to “England’s victory over Hitler” or “England’s special relationship with America.” The Scots silently resented this, although there had been a time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when middle class Scots travelling on the continent were proud to name their culture “English.”
Then, some 25 years ago, a change set in. I believe it was the huge expansion of higher education in the 1960s, rather than the nationalist surges in Scotland and Wales during the 1970s, which encouraged it. The English began to use the term “British” to describe not only the other inhabitants of the multinational state-but themselves. It was not just that the political and media classes grew aware (led by the BBC) of how irritated Scottish and Welsh audiences became when they were called English. The change went further; the term “English” began to acquire a vaguely improper, even negative flavour to English ears. It implied not only obtuseness to the sensibilities of others, but a right wing nationalist self-assertion (“There’ll always be an England!”) which was best left to football hooligans or Prom audiences. Before political correctness was even heard of, Englishness became politically incorrect.
Some, like Enoch Powell on the right and AJP Taylor on the left, continued to say England when they meant England. Others ducked out. Absurdities appeared, such as travel guide references to “Britain, land of hedgerows, cream teas and thatched cottages.” It looked as if a new nation called Britain was being invented. Closer inspection showed that the word “British” was merely substituting for the word “English.” Was there, then, never a nation called Britain? Can we ask, as Professor Gwyn Williams memorably asked about Wales: “When was Britain?”
The answer is that a common culture did come to exist in certain areas of life, after the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707. “Britishness” existed during wartime and on the frontiers or in the trading houses of the empire, both as a set of standards and as a commitment to defend the particularly British way of doing things. “Britishness” also described a battery of political conventions, involving aspirations to fair, non-corrupt government. As time passed, a homo britannicus was actually bred, although never in sufficient numbers to compose a nation rather than to lead it. This was the British upper class as it existed by the mid-19th century, which wore the same tweeds, remembered the same public schools, spoke with the same accent and owned almost all the land between Land’s End and John O’Groats. The social and political eclipse of this class is an important factor in the decline of this short lived “British” identity. To take a small example, boys and girls emerging from public schools now mostly speak with versions of the “estuary” accent of southeast England. The voice of the ruling class is no longer “above locality” but has become the voice of one geographical region. More importantly, Margaret Thatcher was the first Conservative prime minister to be instantly identifiable as English rather than “British.”
recently i attended a meeting of broadcasters and historians to debate a project for a millennium television series on British history. When was Britain? Many thought that the series should start with the Roman conquest-as if the Roman province of Britannia, which did not extend to Ireland or beyond southern Scotland, had developed in some linear way into the UK. Others acknowledged that in effect Britain as a single “experience” could not have existed before 1603 (union of crowns) or 1707 (union of parliaments), but they proposed to bolt on extra programmes which would rush through the separate histories of Scotland, Wales or Ireland before their respective incorporations by England.
This seemed to beg the question. But my own suggestion-that the series should be called “From England to Great Britain: the Story of English Imperial Expansion”-was greeted coldly. A generation ago, it would have probably seemed acceptable to a similar gathering. In 1995 it reeked of incorrectness. The broadcasters professed to fear that such an approach might give offence at the Celtic peripheries. In reality they were not prepared to accept that there is no such animal as a British history which goes back 2,000 years. To put it another way, they were reluctant to come out as English.
Coming out, all the same, has always been an English option. Since the confusion between England and Britain descended, there have been many in Scotland and Wales who have wanted the English national identity to reassert itself. At least, runs the argument, we would know where and who we were. Great Britain would be revealed as the multi-ethnic state it is. And then a rational future for that state could be worked out. The fearsome “West Lothian question” rests on this confusion of British-English identity. It complains that if there were a Scottish parliament with power over internal affairs, then Scottish Westminster MPs would be able to vote on bills concerning English education, while English Westminster MPs would not be able to vote on Scottish education. Conversely, if the Scots MPs were deprived of the right to vote on purely English legislation, then Westminster might find itself with two conflicting majorities: a Labour majority on British matters, but a Tory one on English matters. Government would become impossible.
The logical remedy would be to establish an English parliament as well as a British one. The UK should be reformed into a quasi-federal structure with three (or four, counting Northern Ireland) national parliaments and a central legislature dealing with foreign affairs, defence, shared services and macro-economic policy. Logical-but given the present state of political awareness south of the border, unthinkable. The House of Commons in the palace of Westminster is perceived by the English as England’s ancient parliament, the ark of the covenant honoured and fought over between crown and people through the centuries, the chalice of national liberty and sovereignty. The notion that this sacred place should be diminished to a sort of under-used federal chamber, with hot, living debate on the laws of England evicted to the Queen Elizabeth conference centre across Parliament Square, would seem to most English people like a monstrous, senseless act of vandalism.
But what if the English did come out of the closet to embrace their own national identity? This is beginning to happen. Here and there, Englishness is being displayed without the fig leaf of Britishness. In the 1992 election campaign, Major told his Scottish audience candidly that he was English, and therefore not entirely qualified to understand their feelings. This was significant. Thatcher, similarly, had made no pretence to the old upper class “British” culture and was widely identified in Scotland (pejoratively) as “English.” But she still felt entitled to instruct the Scots about their true national character-and did so, in her notorious “sermon on the mound” before the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. John Major’s humility was not only a contrast. It marked a slight but perceptible change in the relationship of ethnicity to authority in Britain. To govern, it is no longer necessary to deny one’s Englishness.
If we learn to read them, there are other signs of a reviving English identity. Newspapers such as the Independent, founded only ten years ago, are content to be perceived as essentially “English” papers for the English reader-even the southeast English reader. The Guardian and the Observer, in contrast, still strain dutifully to be “British” in their emphasis-although their proportion of readers outside the M25 ring or north of Watford is not much greater than that of their Independent rivals. In scholarship, English nationalism is clearly on the move. We have studies claiming that the Anglo-Saxon peasantry-Thatcherites avant la lettre-developed an individualistic entrepreneurial culture long before the rest of Europe escaped from primitive collectivism. Or that the post-Roman Saxon “invaders” were in fact a tiny elite minority who so dazzled the Romano-British population that they persuaded it to change its language, religion and material culture to that of the newcomers. This theory tries to demonstrate that England really “is” Britain in an ethnic, genetic sense. England therefore would have a continuity which did not start merely at the Dark Ages but reached back for many more millennia: perhaps into the early Iron Age, perhaps even further. It was in this spirit that the archaeologist Lord Renfrew has spoken of ancestral territories which “we” have possessed for many thousands of years.
but if it is true that the English are beginning once again to claim English national identity, is that an entirely healthy development? Clearly, there is a gain in lucidity when British identity is under discussion. But beyond that is a larger, murkier question. What is modern English nationalism going to be like? Could it turn out to be a great deal less “civic” than peripheral Celtic nationalisms? Could it adopt a vengeful and irrational form which would set itself against any reform seeming to diminish this English-dominated Britain? This is a question which nobody asks. We should. So far, English opinion has been strikingly tolerant of Scottish and Welsh aspirations to self-government. John Major apparently believes that his appeals in 1992 to “defend the union” against Labour’s devolution plans went down well with English voters. There is little hard evidence to support him, but the point is that he has begun to “play the English card.” At a certain moment, English nationalism may begin to rise and come to meet him or his successor.
English nationalism has been mobilised by a variety of (mostly tiny) political groups for brief periods in the first half of this century. Putting their experience together, a disconcerting picture emerges. In his book Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff makes the rough contrast between “ethnic” and “civic” nationalism, between the atavistic wish to plunge back into the imaginary past and the modernising impulse to construct a new, responsible society which joins the world on its own terms. Surprisingly, English nationalism registers at a point towards the ethnic end of this scale. It has been xenophobic (anti-French, anti-Irish and anti-Semitic), ruralist rather than urban, deeply suspicious of industrial society and the “uprooting” influence of modern life. As Patrick Wright suggests in his book The Village that Died for England, this blood-and-soil emphasis left English nationalism open to fascist infection in the 1920s and 1930s. Compared to the respectable, small town reformism of mainstream Welsh or Scottish nationalism, the English version is not a pretty sight.
And here the idea of “Britishness” acquires an unexpected function. It may be that feeling British has protected the English nation against its own worst instincts. We all know what happened when post-Habsburg Austrians decided to feel German in the 1930s. The fiction of a British “nation” has kept English nationalism in check. It has channelled its passions into empire building, into defensive wars against continental powers, into pride in British social achievements-whether as the old “workshop of the world” or as the site of a national health service envied by most of the world. Britain survived the loss of colonial empire surprisingly well. Colonies and dominions became independent, but Britain itself did not change dramatically. It did not lose its identity by losing its empire. The question is whether the next transition can be so successful.
Britain is multinational, but it no longer consists of the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish-plus “a few refugees and foreigners.” There are now some five million British subjects whose ethnic origins are outside Europe: principally in the Indian subcontinent or the Caribbean. Very few of them want to remain in foreign enclaves, living exclusively within the culture of their roots. Almost all of them are happy to venture out and inhabit overlapping rings of identity. There is the ring which has to do with their daily life and schooling in these islands. There is the ring which contains the cultural traditions of their family and milieu which relate to lands far from Britain. And, in most cases, there is the “political” ring with the designation of British citizenship in passport and other official documents.
These inhabitants of Britain raise several questions about identity. First of all, who do they think they are? A few years back, there was a hopeful anticipation that these immigrant communities would emerge as the last true Britons-that they would define themselves as proudly “British” above any petty local ethnicities. They would, in short, replace the gentry as the authentic British class. This would have been a piquant outcome. The “true Brit” would turn out to be a child of the empire-not only son or daughter of those who had created it, but also of the black and brown millions whom it ruled. The reality is more complex. Yes, they do see themselves as British, but usually with the qualification-“black British” or “British Muslim.” To add to the complexity, in Glasgow or Cardiff, locally born children may even say that they feel “Scottish” or “Welsh.” Maybe they are becoming like the Jewish community in Scotland, which, with its roots mostly in Poland or Lithuania, has regarded itself for 100 years as Scottish as well as Jewish, with “British” honoured as citizenship rather than culture.
There is, then, no living heir to British cultural identity. This fact makes the rise of English nationalism, freed of its “British” restraint, all the more dangerous. At one level, it leaves the non-European communities ideologically defenceless; the Britain which “built the empire” and brought them to London, Bradford, Liverpool and Cardiff no longer exists to justify their presence. And at the wider political level, we can begin to see a deadly confluence ahead. The river of Eurosceptic xenophobia is beginning to converge with the river of intolerant English nationalism. If they become one torrent, England may cease to be a country where men and women with ideals would care to live-and not only men and women whose skin is black or brown.
Europhobia, as a party political disease, can be rooted out by fresh air, intellectual exercise and new parliamentary majorities. But intolerant English nationalism cannot. Instead, it must be confronted, educated and slowly tamed. Sooner or later, England will have to come to terms with being English. I leave aside intricate questions such as whether Scottish independence-if it ever came to pass-would produce two successor states, one called Scotland and the other, presumably consisting of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, no longer entitled to call itself Britain or the United Kingdom. The immediate problem is whether English national identity can be managed in a much looser version of the British state, without allowing the unregenerate aspects of English nationalism to break through.
Here I am optimistic. It would be a cruel irony if the long prophesied, long delayed “post-imperial hangover” arrived because of the decentralisation of Britain itself. This does not have to happen. The path to safety lies through the EU. If the Union can both “widen” and “deepen,” then a new notion of identity will emerge. In Northern Ireland there has already been profound and hopeful discussion of how different cultural traditions can co-exist by separating cultural identity from traditional political allegiances to London or to Dublin. This can be the future for Britain.
It is a long road. But in the end, the union of Europe can replace the unions -forcible or contractual- around which the UK was built. The pressure will be taken out of identity. To be Welsh and British, or simply Welsh and European, will no longer imply an unresolved tension with England. To be English in Europe will no longer imply an unresolved nostalgia for “Great Britain.” But children will continue to imagine their concentric rings of identity reaching out to all humanity and beyond, and in this archipelago of ours, one of them will be called “Britain.” The difference will be that no single ring will have sovereignty over the others. Those children, our grandchildren, will be Lords of all the Rings, the heirs to an infinity of identity.