The emotions of Britishness and being English, a response to David Mitchell

David Mitchell has said that the prospect of Scottish independence makes him worried about his British national identity. Gareth Young responds by asking Mitchell and other Brits who wish to save the Union to imagine a multi-national Britain that embraces hybridity instead of relying on Anglo-centric notions of Britishness

OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

David Mitchell, writing emotionally in The Observer, informs us that he’s worried for his British national identity: “If Scotland ever goes it alone...The British will have lost their country”.

As an English nationalist who has long campaigned for an English parliament, you might expect me to delight in Mitchell’s feeling of identity insecurity, but actually I sympathise with him. The British state may deny England a national voice, whilst allowing for Scottish, and Welsh devolved government; it may allow for the promotion of Scottish and Welsh culture and identity through those devolved institutions, whilst promoting ‘Britishness’ in England; and it may deny me democratic representation as an Englishman, but for all that I have no desire to make Brits like Mitchell stateless and deny them representation as Brits – I’m a nationalist not a separatist (see Crick).

In my speech to the Convention on Modern Liberty I asked the audience why it should be the case that the national identity of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (British) and the national identity of Gerry Hassan (Scottish) should have political expression, while my identity (English) is ignored. Some say that England requires no representative, accountable, democractic institutions because the institutions of the British state are, in fact, de facto English. Mitchell alludes to this Anglo-centric mindset when he informs us that “when Palmerston said "English" he meant British”. My challenge to Mitchell and other Brits who wish to save the Union is to imagine a new multi-national Britain that draws strength from its hybridity instead of riding rough-shod over the national identities of Britain by buying into these Anglo-centric, Anglo-British notions of Britishness.

The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution (HM Drucker & Gordon Brown, 1980) makes the case that it is the ‘distinctiveness of Scotland and Wales’ from ‘the rest of Britain’ [England] that provides that case for Scottish and Welsh devolution. No case is made for the distinctiveness of England, and the reader is left to assume that England is therefore indistinct and requires no political acknowledgement of its distinctiveness on account of its relatively weak sense of nationhood vis a vis Scotland or Wales.

But in formally recognising Scotland and Wales as distinct from England, as was done in 1997, England itself becomes distinct from the ‘rest of Britain’, even if that fact can only be felt negatively as an absence of formal recognition and the sense of grievance that flows from that.

For Gordon Brown England is indistinct from Britain, culturally and – post devolution – politically. For Brown Britain is Greater England; Scotland and Wales are semi-autonomous satellites of the English centre. It is therefore possible for Brown to weave a British narrative from entirely English thread by claiming that there is “a golden thread which runs through British history – that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215; on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country to successfully assert the power of Parliament over the King”, and that “Voltaire said that Britain gave to the world the idea of liberty”. He also maintains that an appeal to fairness “runs through British history, from early opposition to the first poll tax in 1381 to the second; fairness the theme from the civil war debates”.

Tony Blair’s trite ‘Cool Britannia’ was as Anglo-Centric as Gordon Brown’s Britishness:

Britain is a great nation. A country where we can watch the most exciting sport - Wimbledon, the FA Cup, Test Cricket. Where you can listen to the best pop music - the Beatles, Blur, Oasis and Simply Red.

Tony Blair, Daily Express, 3rd January 1996

This Anglo-centric idea of Britain, in which England and Britain are easily conflated – politically coterminus - is rendered more sinister when it is transposed into the language of contemporary politics and the words 'England' and 'English' are erased from political dialogue altogether. Gordon Brown achieved this by talking of 'a Britain of nations and regions’, in which the nations are Scotland, Wales and Britain, and ‘the regions’ is government parlance for 'England', thereby dividing and conquering England’s political identity as a discrete nation. David Cameron doesn’t like regions, so he avoids mention of England by a different method. Cameron’s speech on public service reform and the Big Society contained 18 instances of the phrase “our public services”, four instances of “our country” and two mentions of “our schools” (not to mention “our schools and hospitals”, “our universities”, “our teaching hospitals and universities”, “our children”, “our health outcomes”, “our society”, “public services in our country” and “our Foundation hospitals”). Britain was mentioned four times and Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Poland, Germany, France, New York and Shanghai were all mentioned once. Yet there was no mention of England, the country directly affected by Cameron’s Big Society and his reforms to public services. England is imagined as Britain or referred to indirectly with more nebulous terms like ‘our country’ or ‘this country’, even when it is England-specific policy like Health that is being discussed.

This Anglo-British construction of the United Kingdom is the basis of Labour’s devolution settlement. And if devolution has failed to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’, as George Robertson prophesised, it is partly because it has heightened the perception that Britain is the English State by proxy, and devolution merely an exercise in post-imperial imperialism. For the ever more self-conscious English, the British state has become oppressive because it denies England the same political expression of nationhood as was realised by Scotland and Wales, which in turn leads to a feeling that the British state is neglectful of English interests and culture. Or as George Monbiot puts it, Britain ‘the great colonising nation’ has ‘internalised that oppressive power’ and turned England into ‘an internal colony’. For the Scots and Welsh the Anglo-Britishness of the British state denies them equal ownership of British institutions, the UK Parliament is the de facto English parliament and the UK Government is the de facto English government. Today when the public hears British politicians refer to ‘our country’ or ‘our NHS’ it is reasonable to assume that they are talking about England or the NHS in England (see Arthur Aughey’s Hull University lecture).

For the sake of Britain the English need to be allowed to be English and British instead of Anglo-British; a dual identity rather than a conjoined, conflated identity. “The nationalism that urgently needs definition is Englishness”, says Madeleine Bunting. If the Anglo-British nationalism of Blair, Brown and Cameron can be regarded as an English nationalism by proxy, then I agree with her completely. If the way to a new understanding of British identity is to forge a Little England nationalism that replaces the Anglo-British nationalism of a faded imperial power, then yes, let’s reimagine Britain as a multinational, consensual, union of partner nations with an English nationalism that complements the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales. Only a looser – possibly federal – idea of Britain, in which Scotland and Wales are equal partners instead of semi-autonomous parts of Greater England, will allow the nations to sit comfortably in Union.

The alternative is to force Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and increasingly English nationalists (see below), to choose between their national identities and their British identity.

About the author

Gareth Young (alias Toque) is a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament and convener of What England Means to Me and Anthem4England. He lives in Devon with his wife and daughter.