Britain and England: A Case Of Split Identity

English identification with Britain is crumbling, despite official efforts to revive ‘Britishness'
29 September 2009

Britain, as has often been observed (including, of course, in many articles in OurKingdom), is a country in the grips of a profound identity crisis. This is so much the case that it is even unclear, I would say, what and who we are referring to by the ‘Britain' that is in crisis: who are the British, and what is Britain?

For me, the crux of the issue is the splitting up of the old Anglo-British national identity that was at the heart of imperial Great Britain: the way in which the English have tended informally and instinctively to regard England and Great Britain as indivisible, and as interchangeable names for a single, unitary ‘nation'. Of course, the reality of imperial and pre-devolution Great Britain was never that simple, as Scotland, for instance, always retained many of the institutional trappings and the cultural identity of a distinct nation. But for the English, the English-national and British-state identities merged, making Great Britain (and later, the United Kingdom) to all intents and purposes the proxy-English nation-state.

Devolution changed all of that, once and for all. It was a definitive refutation of the ‘absolute' character of the Union, in both senses: not only the unitary character of the British polity but the ‘union' (merger, (con)fusion) within the English national identity between England and Great Britain. It was this cultural and psychological union that had sustained the political Union throughout its history, as it secured the loyalty and ‘ownership' of the greater part of the UK, which viewed Great Britain as ‘our nation' and the UK as "one of the great creations of this country", to quote Vince Cable's words at this week's Liberal Democrats' conference (The unconscious irony in Vince Cable's statement is that the UK is supposed to be ‘this country' not something that ‘this country' (England) has created!).

But as a result of devolution, it became possible, indeed necessary, to see the UK no longer as the seamless extension of English parliamentary democracy, nationhood and power. And, more fundamentally still, the English could begin to separate their English and British national identities at a subjective and psychological level, precisely because those identities had also been split apart at the objective, political level - with ‘great(er) Britishness' no longer being defined as a continuation and extension of Englishness but as a set of different national identities from which the English identity, too, was differentiated and distinct.

In some respects, this breaking up of (English) Great Britain, and break-down of the Anglo-British mentality, was highly desirable and long overdue, and commanded the support of most ‘progressive' political opinion at the time when devolution went through. The old Great Britain had been the fundamental vector - driving force and instrument - of British (and, by definition, English) imperial power: the drive to incorporate multiple different nations within a single polity ‘owned' by the English and identified with by the English.

However, this splitting of the English and British identities presented, and continues to present, a huge problem for the British state - again, in two key respects: political and national-cultural. In the former area, as is now widely recognised, asymmetric devolution as implemented by New Labour has resulted in the British government's and parliament's competency in many policy areas being limited to England. Notwithstanding this, all of the members of the UK parliament, including those from the devolved countries, have retained the power to introduce and vote on legislation affecting England only (the West Lothian Question). Understandably, this has led to many questioning the legitimacy of the UK parliament to serve as the legislative body for England, based on the fundamental democratic principle that no MP should make laws affecting citizens that have not voted for that MP and cannot vote them out.

Even more fundamentally, at the psychological and cultural level, as English people have started to identify as English rather than, or as much as, British, they have increasingly lost their faith in and commitment to the old British institutions that previously relied on their identification with Great Britain. In short, they start thinking of their ‘nation' as England and not Great Britain, and start to demand national-English civic institutions to express and represent that English national identity. (Indeed, polls consistently now show majority support for some sort of separate national-English tier of governance, ranging from ‘English votes on English matters' to full independence.) So there is a dual basis for the demand for an English parliament, which bloggers such as Gareth Young http://toque.co.uk/blog/ aka Toque and other sympathisers with that cause have elaborated: 1) democratic fairness within the overall British context; and 2) the need for civic institutions to speak for, represent and defend England as a distinct national community, its traditions and its culture.

All of this is well documented, as has been the British establishment's response, which has been a systematic attempt to thwart and suppress the development of any sort of distinct English-national consciousness. Nationalists often stand accused of playing ‘identity politics' of a kind that dangerously threatens to undermine the sacrosanct ‘Union'. But in reality, it's the New Labour government, and the whole political and media establishment, that has played identity politics of the most insidious and egregious kind: in so many different ways, too numerous to list here, trying to wipe out English national identity and nationhood, and replace it with a monolithic, de-anglicised Britain and Britishness (I have charted the establishment's efforts to erase England in favour of Britain and Britishness extensively in my Britology Watch blog).

In short, while the establishment's own actions, through devolution, catalysed a splitting of the previously united English and British identities, it has subsequently sought to deny the emerging Englishness that threatens the foundations of British power by a retreat into a new ‘Britain' (no longer the English Great Britain) that effectively aspires to completely supersede England as the national and political centre and foundation of the Union state. This Britain looks remarkably similar to the old Anglo-Britain in that what is referred to as Britain, both in the political and broader cultural spheres, is very often in fact only England. But in contrast to the old Anglo-Britain, it has become no longer politically correct to refer to ‘this country' as England - even when it is England that is being talked about - because the very identity and name of England has been suborned and replaced by that of ‘Britain'.

The establishment's aim has been to leverage the age-old identification of the English with Great Britain in order to get them to identify with the new Britain. This new homogeneous British-national identity is therefore predicated on the denial of a distinct England at the same time as it requires the English people to identify with it by transferring all the characteristics, history, traditions and culture of England into ‘Britain'. But this is a denial of the realities, which are that English politics are now distinct from both Britain-wide matters and the affairs of the devolved British administrations; and that the English-national identity is disengaging itself from the old Great Britain into which it previously poured itself - and it is not about to reinvest itself into a homogeneous Britain that, put quite simply, does not in fact exist.

It may seem outrageous to assert that ‘Britain does not exist'; but this takes me back to my opening question: ‘what is Britain, and who are the British?'. What I mean is that the modern idea of Britain as a homogeneous national entity - both political and cultural - does not correspond to any reality other than that of the UK state itself: the United Kingdom, then, not ‘Britain' as such. The use of the name ‘Britain' is designed to evoke and conjure the idea of a single, unified nation (the re-casting of the English Great Britain as the de-anglicised Britain), as opposed to a merely political conjoining of four distinct nations in a single kingdom. But, at best, this Britain could be described as a project or work in progress rather than a reality.

In fact, it doesn't (at least, not yet) even merit the term ‘project', which would imply the existence of a definite nation-building plan and coherent vision. It's more a projection, in the psychological sense: a fantasy driven by wish fulfilment projected on to the actual reality, which enables those that indulge in it to deny and fail to see that reality for what it is. ‘Britain', on this view, is the name and form of a typically English alienation - indeed, ‘alien nation' - which is the principal symptom of the UK's identity crisis. This alienation manifests itself in the way in which formal public discourse, whether that of politics or mainstream media, attempts to obscure and obfuscate the UK's fractured national identity (-ies, particularly, the division between English-specific and UK-wide relevance in so-called ‘national' policy areas) by referencing a spurious unified British sphere of public life. This is done either by explicitly describing the policies and aspects of national life in question as ‘British', or by merely implying that they relate to ‘Britain as a whole' by omitting any explicit reference to the nation concerned - often by recourse to the nebulous ‘this country': a term that very often really refers to England only but always implies ‘Britain'.

The examples of this syndrome are, as they say, legion: far too numerous to document here. Indeed, the syndrome is endemic within the ‘national' media, i.e. the media that pretend to be national-British but are in fact English. This contributes to a quality of unreality (or, as I say, alienation) and national non-specificity in discussions and media coverage on crucial areas of social policy for England, where politicians and press appear to connive in creating the impression or even deliberately state that the matters involved are ‘British': quite falsely so in many instances. I've previously discussed one such example on Our Kingdom: this summer's argument about the parties' commitment to a supposedly ‘national-British' NHS, which in reality could only mean the NHS in England.

Without going into the effects of this sort of misleading ‘Britification' of England-specific policy debates - which can in fact contribute to completely falsifying the terms and context of those debates - my main concern here is to focus on one key observation. ‘Britain' is in fact a fractured and divided ‘nation', not the cohesive and homogeneous nation it makes itself out to be. ‘Britain' has at least three main meanings with respect to the way the term or its implicit evocation (as ‘this country') is used in practice: the UK as a whole, for genuinely UK-wide matters; the devolved ‘British nations', including Northern Ireland in loose usage; and England in all other aspects of public life and policy.

I have frequently criticised the failure of the media to adequately report on ‘English matters' by continuing to describe them as ‘British' or implying that they do concern ‘Britain as a whole'. Indeed, recently, I have written an open letter to the BBC urging the corporation to make a concerted, proactive effort to make a clear distinction, in its reporting of the general election, between policy proposals that affect mainly or only England, and those that are genuinely relevant to the whole of the UK. This election is in fact another manifestation of the fractured nature of British public life: a ‘national', supposedly UK-wide, event; but one that doubles up as the English-national election - or, alternatively, is split into two elections in one - as over half of the policy debates will be of absolutely no relevance to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but concern England alone. My fear, indeed my expectation, is that this reality of Britain's divided national politics and identities will once again be ignored and glossed over in coverage of the election, not only by the BBC but by all of the in-fact-English-but-would-be-British national media. This would have serious consequences in that it would make an already highly flawed democratic process even more illegitimate. This is because non-English residents will effectively be deciding how to vote based very often on the mistaken assumption that the parties' policies in areas such as education and health will affect them, whereas they relate only to English residents; and inaccurate media reporting on the English-specific nature of those policies will have contributed directly to such misconceptions.

The same could obviously also be said about the misinformation of English voters, who will often be under the mistaken assumption that the parties' policies will all be implemented across ‘Britain as a whole', whereas many apply only to England. This means that people will not scrutinise those policies as critically as they otherwise might, based on comparing, say, plans for the English NHS with the way the NHS is run and funded in the other nations of the UK.

Thus far, a response from the BBC to the open letter has been unforthcoming, despite a number of emails. And if Nick Clegg's keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday is anything to go by, then the political parties, too, are not about to abandon their practice of dressing everything up as British, notwithstanding my own modest exhortations that they should do so (here and here). I counted no fewer than 44 references to ‘Britain' or ‘British' in Clegg's speech, and only one to ‘English' (a reference to the ‘English-speaking world'), even though large parts of the speech addressed England-specific policy areas, such as education and training, health, communities and local government, housing, much of transport policy, the environment, and justice and policing (an area that also includes Wales, of course).

Any politically uninformed person listening to the Liberal Democrat leader could be forgiven for thinking that this country called ‘Britain' was an entirely unitary nation state, and that a hypothetical Liberal Democrat government would have responsibility for running ‘the nation's' affairs in all of the above policy areas as well in the genuinely UK-wide areas of government that Clegg's speech also discussed, such as the economy, public-sector pay, defence and foreign affairs. This mixing up of England-specific and UK-wide matters under this false concept of a unitary Britain mediates the appeal to all the voters of the UK to choose the Liberal Democrats, because then at least it can be claimed, for example, that the party has attempted to win the support of Scottish voters based on things like defence policy (scrapping Trident) and support for a strong, caring public sector, rather than by directly urging Scots to vote for the Lib Dem policies on primary-school class sizes, or community and patient involvement in running the NHS, which apply only to England. But there will be many Scottish voters who will think a Lib Dem Westminster government could deliver these things for Scotland (which they can't); and there'll be proportionally even more English voters who'll be lulled into thinking that the ‘progressive austerity' (spending cuts) being applied to "the schools department" (correction, the English Schools Department),  and being achieved by "devolving . . . power to local communities", will be implemented UK-wide, rather than the truth, which is that they're exclusive to England.

And that's saying nothing - because Clegg said nothing - about devolution max and the need to address the English democratic deficit (despite the fact that these issues were intensely discussed at the conference's fringe meetings), which were not even alluded to in Clegg's comments about parliamentary and electoral reform. But can a radical reform programme including measures such as PR, an elected House of Lords and a reduction by 150 in the number of MPs be enacted without addressing the West Lothian and English Question in any form? All that can be said is that Nick Clegg didn't address it, because, to all intents and purposes, England does not even exist in his monolithic Britain. But the truth of the matter is the reverse: it's ‘Britain' that is the illusion, and a vehicle for denying the fact that a separate English-national layer and identity exists, and is entitled to representation.

However, notwithstanding its importance in terms of helping people to be better informed about the national specificity of their vote in different areas - whereas they might otherwise be misled into thinking that all manifesto policies related to an entity called ‘Britain' - it is perhaps somewhat contrived to insist that media and politicians should be more honest in calling English spades (i.e. policies) English spades. It's like insisting that someone with a clinical psychological illness - let's call it a delusion of grandeur - should just ‘pull themselves together' and face up to reality. Clearly, it's important that the sick person in question should adjust their life and language to the real facts; but they're not going to do so until they can overcome the trauma that has led to the syndrome in the first place.

That trauma, for the British state and the Anglo-British consciousness, has been devolution. It's quite unmistakably the case that the political and media establishment have not accepted the realities of devolution and continue to be wilfully blind to them. But the truth of the matter is that there is no more unified Anglo-British nation (Great Britain): that ambiguous merger of the British state and the English nation. In any case, such a Pan-British nation was only ever really an English notion: an infusion and confusion of English-national identity into a merely political union. Now that even that political union has broken down, in practice if not in constitutional statute, the national unity of Great Britain has been shown up as the delusion it always was. But the British establishment will not accept that it rests on such shaky national foundations and so has taken refuge in a new united Nation of Britain that merely covers up and denies the fracturing of the Union into its constituent parts, and the splitting of the English and British identities.

Maybe it will take the definitive breaking up of the political and constitutional Union of Great Britain through Scottish independence for the Westminster political class to rediscover and ‘own' its true national foundations in England. The British establishment formerly affirmed England as inseparable from the Union of Great Britain but has latterly repudiated it in the attempt to preserve (its identity as / the illusion of) a unitary ‘Britain' that flies in the face of the facts.

Once restored to a healthy perception of reality, it is to be hoped that the renewed England-based establishment will also be a much more democratic government and parliament of and for the people of England, rather than merely a means of rule over England - whether this is part of a broader multi-national ‘British federation' / ‘united kingdom' or not. But if the present establishment does wish to keep Scotland and England together in some sort of union, it must shake off the delusion that this can ever again be a national Union, whether the old Great Britain or the new Britain.

The Kingdom of Great Britain is dead; long live a Britain of nations - kingdom(s) or republic(s). Including England, this time, though.

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