Fate of the First Born? English nationalism and Euroscepticism

One of the most respected contemporary voices on nationalism gives his take on an important new book exploring the relationship between England and Europe. 

English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace, by Ben Wellings (Peter Lang 2012) ISBN 978-3-0343-0204-3

Prevalent theories and histories of nationalism invariably indicate England as a prime mover. Benefiting from both geographical isolation and the first industrial revolution, the early-modern English launched an outward-moving trend that was to transform the whole North Atlantic zone, as well as building an overseas empire. Nationality politics was inseparable from this development, and the accompanying '-ism' founded a 'nation-state' world. No-one has put it better than Liah Greenfeld in her classic Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992): 'The significance of the English case is that this was not the birth of a nation; it was the birth of the nations, the birth of nationalism' (Intro.p.23). All peoples sought industrial-commercial modernity, and had to do so 'on their own terms', including rather than suppressing an inherent diversity of tongues and their freight: 'cultures'.

But nowhere would the resultant problem of Babel be more acute and persistent than in England itself. The first-mover could never turn into just another 'nationalism'. Here is the dilemma described by Ben Wellings' book. From English origins, he has now become Deputy-head of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, where he looks after European Studies. His problem is neatly summed up in Chapter I, 'The Idea of England': the four-fifths majority of today's United Kingdom habitually think in terms of British sovereignty and the Thames-side institutions: “Defence of British sovereignty generated a national ideology which historically inflected “the idea of England” with wider categories of belonging”(p.12) and made it difficult to re-focus on the narrower concerns of nationhood. The latter became 'little England', a transcended nativism irrelevant to rule in Canberra, Hong Kong and Cape Town.

English nationality politics were for centuries subsumed as 'British'. As Wellings puts it: “The defence of British sovereignty generated a national ideology which historically inflected “the idea of England” with wider categories of belonging...” like Empire and Great Britain. The prime mover also fostered a crucial sub-national ideology, that of 'class'. The latter is strangely absent from Wellings' account, but the suspicion must be that only following its post-1989 retreat has more direct consideration of Anglo-nationality become inevitable. In the mid-19th century, two political exiles in England built up an alternative idea-system that colluded with their host society's 'wider categories of belonging': 'Marxism' arose from this exceptional persistence of hierarchies and status in a social order not reconfigured by standard-issue nationality-politics. It was then fatally over-generalised, since most of the globe recognised backwardness all too easily. But, as Wellings goes on to explain, the moment of reconfiguration has come at last. Neither the Empire nor Great Britain can plausibly be reinvented, and the English have to re-modernise themselves in another context altogether: European Union.

Most UK electors voted to join the E.U. But comparatively few of them felt that their identity was deeply involved. Hence the popularity of 'Euroscepticism', the other half of his title. They know the E.U. free trade area is good for exports, and for City of London banks; so they put up with it, but unlike the founding members, rarely perceive it as vital either culturally or personally. The emotivity of nationalism is absent, and surfaced mainly via the experience of Thatcherism. Chapter 5, 'Thatcherism and English Nationalism' is a very useful introduction to the present-day dilemma. Unable to find direct expression, Anglo-nationality has sought surrogates and new turns, among them a scarcely veiled hostility to non-economic Europe: free trade yes, but no interference with the Sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament. In a recent essay Neal Ascherson remarked how mournful most Europeans feel about 'British semi-detachment', and suggests the only way forward is to strip England of “Great British pretensions, its archaic view of sovereignty and its Special Relationship delusions” (London Review of Books, March 22, 2012). Perhaps, but Wellings' sobering narrative underlines how these things have really become a kind of nationalism — not so easily shed. It's easier to stamp one's foot, as in David Cameron's preposterous walk-out last year. The point was not just saving City finance capital from foreign exactions, but stirring up the reservoir of frustrated Englishness: justifying it via a caricature of Euro-tyranny. “By the time of the fall of Major's Conservative government in 1997”, reckons Wellings, “...the intellectual framework for an English nationalism based around Euroscepticism was in place.” (p.179)

The framework no longer includes Wales and Scotland, where being independent-in-Europe can be seen as national achievement, another step towards statehood and recognition. But south of the Tweed and east of the Severn, quite different 'ideological contours' not only prevail but are gathering strength, as “a conservative populism wedded to an individualistic, negative understanding of freedom and liberty, cast primarily in opposition  to the European Union” (p.224). Hence the book's sub-title: 'Losing the Peace' — the post-Cold War peace of agreement on social-democratically inflected capitalism, and finally settled borders including what Ascherson calls the “unexpected litter of small brothers and sisters”. England is needed as part of this deal: the first-born may be last, but will be none the worse for that.

It may not be very inspiring: the 'Gentle Monster' as Hans Magnus Enzensburger has labelled it, in his recent polemic on 'The Disenfranchisement of Europe' (Seagull Books, 2011). But what's the alternative? Wellings argues that something of that sort has to emerge: “a conservative populism wedded to an individualistic, negative understanding of freedom and liberty” (p.224), which will aim to inflect European perspectives in its own historical direction. Certainly, 'Euroscepticism is the most organised political expression of nationalism in England', contrasting markedly with attitudes in the U.K. periphery. Yet it is unlikely to secede. English Nationalism and Euroscepticism is the best thing to appear so far on emergent Anglo-nationalism, and likely to influence furious arguments over 2013 and '14. Though not composed mainly with the Scottish referendum in mind, it ought to figure prominently in such debates, and have some effect on the eventual vote. Wellings in Canberra and his publisher Peter Lang of Bern, Berlin and elsewhere deserve congratulations, for both readability and timing.

This piece is part of the OurKingdom series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens' 

About the author

Tom Nairn is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at Austrailia's RMIT 2002 - 2010