Imagined Nation: England After Britain

Arthur Aughey
16 June 2008

Arthur Aughey
reviews Imagined Nation: England After Britain by Mark Perryman.

(Perryman, Lawrence & Wishart, April 2008, 248pp)

This book, inspired by Billy Bragg’s The Progressive Patriot, is another contribution to the contemporary Condition of England Question. The editor has assembled a good company of contributors, some familiar, some celebrated, and some less well-known, whose essays, individually and collectively, are worthy of serious reflection. This review will concentrate mainly on the collective spirit albeit with reference to individual authors. Those who have been following the debate will be familiar with not only the arguments but with the tone. Nor will they be surprised that the energy comes from those on the left rather than the right.

First, there is the call for the English to re-imagine a strong national consciousness (to recover one would be too conservative). This left/liberal vision celebrates a civic, liberal, multi-ethnic, hybrid, mongrel, idea of Englishness (choose the appropriate label) but it is an idea that, in the past, it has struggled to reconcile with native populism. There has always been the suspicion, best expressed in the past by Paul Gilroy, of the ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’ beer-fuelled nativism lurking beneath the traditionally conceived civilities of Englishness. This is a suspicion which often makes the liberal-left vision more elitist and therapeutic in its approach to the nation than its conservative counterpart which, in its turn, is more ill at ease with England’s cultural diversity. The vision in Imagined Nation provides an alternative understanding of English patriotic sentiment: that putting out more flags of St George represents what may be called the ‘autonomy of populism’, an expression of patriotic attachment that falls outside the boundaries of party political debate. Its autonomy challenges the normal discourse of British politics and its populism presents an opportunity. Many of the contributors, Andy Newman and Stephen Brasher for example, try to identify the opportunity for the left.

Second, there is a related call to end the English cultural cringe that demeans its own patriotism. This is a reversal of the anxieties that were familiar in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom where the hegemony of England promoted two anxieties: the anxiety of parochialism, in which acknowledgement by England (the centre) was thought necessary to validate the local, and the corresponding anxiety of influence, in which such validation ran the risk of appropriation by English hegemony. The experience of devolution, however, has provoked a corresponding set of English anxieties about the Union which inverts those familiar ‘Celtic’ grievances. In short, the English have discovered the rest of us in the Union not as appendages to England but as assertive political communities. That has disordered the senses and some have come to believe that Britishness – certainly the Brown version - has appropriated Englishness rather than vice versa. The time has come, as Billy Bragg and Richard Weight have long argued, to assert a confident Englishness and to distinguish it from the old Britain.

Third, and in tune with the radicalism of this re-imagining, acknowledging national identity is now a good thing because in England's case the future will not be one of chauvinistic flag waving. English nationalism will not be a dangerous nationalism (it will be exceptional) and it might become the model for others to copy (it will be exemplary). It will be civic, liberal, multi-ethnic, hybrid, mongrel (continue and repeat). This is a noble aspiration and certainly the authors in this volume are concerned to articulate it as an alternative to less noble (that is, BNP) versions of Englishness. Those who find these values compelling will appreciate the arguments. Those who do not will have intelligent arguments to challenge and to debate. There are two general observations I would make because I think they go right to the heart of the ‘imagined nation’ and both of them have to do with the state we are in.

It is now conventional to think of the United Kingdom as a ‘project’ linked to some external objective and designed to serve a particular purpose or purposes. Think here of the work of David Marquand, Linda Colley and Krishan Kumar (to select just three eloquent examples). In his chapter, Andrew Gamble writes that ‘Britain was always a political project’ and that the end of Empire ‘meant the disappearance of the project’. Moreover, its substitute, the grand project of the American Special Relationship, now threatens to undermine support for the United Kingdom. Much of this may be true, but to understand the United Kingdom exclusively as a project, that is a polity united by a common purpose externally defined, is not only to exclude its civic character but also to subscribe to the lure of separatist logic - that the United Kingdom, like the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, is simply a machine for ill-considered external military adventures. But to hold this view is, I would argue, one-eyed and it does less than justice to the civic character of Britishness, found in those procedures and relationships which specify the conditions of belonging, ones which continue to secure the allegiance of the majority in all parts of the United Kingdom.

It has also become common to speak, as the subtitle of this book does, of contemporary politics already being ‘after Britain’. The usage may be traced to that inventive melodist of the United Kingdom’s break-up, Tom Nairn, whose After Britain (2000) appeals to a similar constituency as his original The Break-up of Britain (1977). The spirit of Nairn is explicit (he has a short contribution) and implicit (most of the authors have been influenced by the Chronicles of Nairnia) and it is obvious in the interesting chapter by Gerry Hassan and in contributions by the editor himself. ‘After Britain’ is an invitation to emancipate England from old identity-constraints and with some urgency because the old order, of course, is rapidly disintegrating. To argue that we are already ‘after Britain’, as these writers claim, suggests that the fate of Britishness has already been decided, if not yet at the polls, then at the bar of history. Despite these certainties, the United Kingdom is not fated to break up. It is certainly fated to change but that is an entirely different matter. Of course, the existence of the Union has always been contingent but it is probably wise for those interested in a new England to stop trying to jump over Rhodes.

Of course, I may be wrong on both counts. In which case, this book provides a decent intimation of things to come.

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