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The nation state is in rude health - solving the British puzzle

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Neither Britain nor its constituent countries show any sign of wanting to abandon the nation for "global citizenship". The task now is to recognise and accept the specialness rather than superiority that people associate with their home nation, and forge a broad yet cohesive national story.

David Goodhart
31 May 2013
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A British national identity that is confident in its own skin, supple enough to accommodate people from different ethnic backgrounds and also open to the world was famously captured by Danny Boyle's 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Boyle did what politicians had been unable to do: articulate a modern myth about ourselves that appealed to young and old, left and right (mainly), white and non-white.

The Boyle glow may have faded somewhat since last summer - even more so since the Woolwich murder - but it has established a new popular idiom in which to talk about the national collective that will last for decades. Boyle would have been unimaginable in the 1970s or 1980s, particularly in England. Simply put, the right did not think we needed a new national story and the young left in reaction against war, empire and Enoch Powell did not want a national story at all. As Britain shed the empire, partially turned to Europe and acquired a new minority population, the country was often said to be suffering an ‘identity crisis.’ It was exacerbated, additionally, by the inability of the English post-imperial elite to think clearly about what a modern, liberal nation state looks and feels like.

No one talks about an identity crisis any longer. The coming few years will certainly require big arguments over the national question: about Scotland, England and the future of the United Kingdom; about Britain’s relationship to Europe, including the real possibility of leaving the EU; and about a conflict between a middle England view of the country (represented by the Daily Mail and UKIP) and a London metropolitan view.

But hardly anyone will be arguing, even on the left, that national identity is irrelevant or undesirable. Indeed, as I argue in my new book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, there is a recognition that an attachment to a national story is more important in a more diverse and individualistic society.

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Image: Nick J Webb

Today British (and English) national identity is hardly ever an expression of superiority, though it is still marked - like any national identity has to be - by a sense of specialness: we in this place, with these traditions, have a special relationship with one another politically, economically, culturally and just through persistent inter-action and shared experience. We do not have this kind of relationship with people in Berlin or Burundi.

This does not help cut the deficit, reduce inequality or deal with the unhinged Islamic extremism of Woolwich. Nor does using the language of the national community make it any easier to work out what the national interest might actually be on any given subject – the 63m of us in the United Kingdom will continue to have conflicting interests on many issues and be divided by class, region, generation and much else.

But a widely shared attachment to symbols, stories and norms of behaviour can provide a sense of belonging to something bigger than one’s own network of family and friends and a meaningful sense of connection to a stranger on the other side of the country. This helps the wheels of social interaction to turn more smoothly.

Of course, what the national story is does not stand still. In the past fifty years the nation state has been more "feminised". Even in once militarily dominant countries like Britain the focus today is far more on child benefit than the size of the fleet. It has also been de-racialised; very few people think you have to be white to be British.

In the 1950s British people had extraordinarily chauvinistic views about themselves and their superiority to other "lesser breeds." This is one of the things that made post-colonial immigration, mainly to the working class districts of big English cities, so marked by violence and exclusion.

Other things have changed too. We live in a more economically inter-dependent world than 30 years ago: trade, capital, media and (in recent years) people flow across national borders in rich countries more than ever before. And there is more pooling of sovereignty than in the past.

The state no longer demands military national service from young men nor does it run large parts of industry as it did in many rich countries until quite recently. On the other hand it regulates and oversees more than ever and the welfare state is more entwined in peoples' lives - think tax credits, childcare/child benefit, housing benefit, disability and incapacity payments; most of these benefits either did not exist at all 30 years ago or at much lower levels. And the share of GDP taken by the state is as high as ever in most European countries, which is only partly thanks to the economic downturn.

Moreover, in the financial crisis too, in apparently the most globalised of all modern industries, it turned out to matter which set of national taxpayers stood behind your bank.

The historian Robert Colls argues that national identity has an “emergent” quality, “it is the process of inviting people to become more equal and alike over time”. This social democratic version of national identity was dominant in the first half of the 20th century in Britain. Since then we have been on a gradual journey to become less like one another.

This loosening of the "we" has been in many ways welcome. Britain in the 1950s was often a small-minded, hierarchical and class-ridden place. The weakening of shared norms was experienced by a lot of people in the 1950s and 1960s as a liberation, the freedom to escape a loveless marriage or a dreary small town. But just because some of the things that once animated Britishness - perhaps above all religion and warfare - have faded it does not mean that national feeling itself has gone.

Opinion polls on national identity show that there has been some decline in national feeling, especially among younger people. But, contrary to Ted Cantle’s pessimism, most surveys find that 80 to 85 per cent of British people are still quite or very proud to identify with their country.

What is happening is something perfectly healthy, more like the shedding of a skin. National identity has adapted to a more individualistic society, one with fewer big collective projects. As we move further away from the purposes and symbols of one national period – the British imperial and then post-imperial period – we gradually put on the clothes of another.

What does this next period look like? Britishness itself is less intensely felt than in the first half of the twentieth century, which leads naturally to a looser relationship between the constituent nations, possibly including independence for Scotland. It is also perhaps less focused on the formal symbols of Britishness – the royal family and so on – and more on the common life of citizens; more bottom up like Wootton Bassett than top down like Trooping the Colour.

There is also an acceptance that people can identify in many different ways. If you live in the countryside or a small town you may have a more historic-ethnic identification with the country, by contrast if you are a third generation British Pakistani you are more likely to identify through political values. But in both cases the national identification is likely to emerge in part from the common life of neighbourhood, town and so on. This connection was brilliantly illustrated by the journey of the Olympic flame through Britain in 2012, carried by local heroes surrounded by huge crowds waving the Union Jack.

How does England fit into this broader story? The opinion poll data tells us that the majority of English people have now joined the Scots and Welsh in identifying first with their ‘home’ nation rather than with Britain.

It has taken the English longer to find their way to a new language of Englishness because it was submerged into Britishness in a way that Scottishness never was. People are often puzzled by the claim that England has a weak or fuzzy sense of national identity compared with many equivalent countries. What about the accusation of arrogance – a sort of global sense of entitlement– that the English are supposed to exhibit?

And this is the paradox of English nationalism – it has been indistinctly expressed precisely because it has been so historically dominant.

Dominance is more efficiently achieved if it is less visible. This makes it sound like a trick. It is not that, rather it is about historic patterns of thought and behaviour which are handed down through institutions, cultural habits and character traits – consider Boris Johnson’s disarmingly bumbling manner as an effective front for a highly intelligent and ambitious man, and think how typically English it feels.

Tentativeness in the expression of a national identity is an invitation for others to join in. That was how a confident, expanding British empire worked: it was the ‘baggy and capacious’ political language that allowed others to see themselves reflected in it.

But as England becomes a more normal nation again it can speak about itself more openly and confidently, just as the Scots do. This alarms some liberals and multiculturalists but only because they under-estimate how liberal and "post-superior" the English have become.

Multiculturalists such as Varun Uberoi and Tariq Modood argue that the state reflects the norms, traditions, language and so on, of the dominant ethnic group. For that reason it cannot be neutral or liberal and must be fundamentally re-ordered to be fair to minorities who are said to suffer "demeaned identities."

This attack on the idea of a common national culture to which all can belong leads to some multiculturalists wanting to dilute the sense of ownership of the country that citizens from the majority community normally feel - instead of spreading that sense of ownership to minorities too.

This multicultural over-reach has thankfully been ignored by most minority Brits who have joined the majority in adopting quite strong British national attachments, though with their own distinct hybrid forms.

What about England and Scotland? Why has the 1998 Scottish devolution, which was meant to stop any further move towards independence, instead fanned it?

A more Scotland-focused political culture seems to have created a mini-national renaissance. This renaissance has evidently happened within the union, and it is hard to see how today’s looser political connection to England is an obstacle to Scotland’s freedom or success or wealth – with the possible exception of North Sea oil.

The SNP argues that in order to pursue an active ‘developmental’ economic programme Scotland needs full control of all relevant levers, including tax and investment incentives. Yet it is not clear that such a policy would differ radically from current policies and there are also strict EU-related limits to such tax and subsidy competition.

The SNP offer is really this: when membership of Nato and the European Union mean that we have no security worries and we can share an internal market with England, why not enjoy the warmth and excitement of a solo national journey? What is the risk? Even the banking crisis and the Euro crisis, which should have weakened the case for independence by reminding Scots that there is still a dangerous world out there, just provided another opportunity for SNP leader Alex Salmond to reassure people that nothing very much would change after independence.

By stressing the continuities that would accompany independence – monarch, British army and sterling – Scottish nationalism thus becomes a sort of game of identity politics at the end of history.

Most Scots, like most of the English, seem to feel that though the union has lost definition it is still probably worth preserving. And Alex Salmond has failed to make a convincing case that it is ‘broke’. Yet this feeling that nothing serious is really at stake means that the race will go to the political group with the most momentum and vested interest behind it.

Would a vote for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum be a cause of regret? Britain is a multinational democratic state inevitably dominated by the sheer weight of the English – much as the Swiss-Germans dominate the Swiss federation or the Anglo-Canadians the Canadian federation. And it has been a pretty successful one. It is one of the world’s best connected and richest countries, which, partly thanks to an illustrious past, still counts more than most countries of similar size. Uniquely it is a permanent member of the UN security council, the OECD, the G8, the EU, Nato, the Commonwealth and the Council of Europe.

And the British dimension has existed for long enough for it to have created its own loyalties and institutions – the armed forces, the monarchy and the BBC among other things – as well as an extensive mixing of families and people. Contrary to the myth of Scotland as a more Scandinavian/social democratic country, the political values of the two countries appear to be remarkably similar, especially if you compare Scotland with northern England. It is not clear what would be achieved by separation, except for those members of the Scottish political class who would benefit in prestige and power, and it would mean a decade or more of introverted wrangling between the two countries.

On the other hand independence could release creative political energies on both sides of the border as new institutions and identities are swiftly formed. Indeed, perhaps the most desirable outcome from the current political dance over the United Kingdom would be a further stage of devolution for Scotland within a looser union that would still allow the emergence of England as a political community. England released from Britain, at least partially, could find a new post-post-imperial resting place and finally end the residual sense of being a great power that is compelled by history to play a world role – one reason for our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might also force England to focus more on its North–South divide and its long tail of ‘underclass’ social failure.

The English have been semi-literate in the language of modern national identity but the Scots, by rearranging the union, present an opportunity for the English to learn to speak it normally, like the Scots do themselves. And the English appear to be warming to the idea. Britishness could in future become a more formal identity for state occasions and facing the outside world, with the four nations coming together more consciously – in the monarchy, the BBC, the armed forces, foreign affairs and, of course, Team GB – where it is in their interests to do so.

National identities ebb and flow in mysterious ways. Countries and the way their citizens think about them cannot be changed by political fiat, and no two individuals’ national identities are exactly alike. But governments make decisions on lots of matters that have a bearing on identity – from public holidays to what is taught in schools – and telling stories about the country and where it is going is one of the main jobs of political leaders.

Big events, such as the 2012 Olympics, offer a chance to question old habits of thought and rearrange the mental furniture. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympics did just that. There have been other changes in the last decade or so which have helped to nudge the story in a new direction: the unselfconscious use of the language of citizenship rather than ‘subjecthood’, and, in the early 2000s, partly in response to Islamic extremism and the fear that multiculturalism had gone too far, the introduction by Labour ministers of citizenship tests and ceremonies. In stable, homogeneous countries national understandings are often implicit, in more fluid, diverse ones they need to be spelt out more.

Labour’s use of the “one nation” slogan is a further recognition that it makes no sense for the political right to ‘own’ the nation – as it did for much of the post-war period – and that the left’s universalism must make its peace with the moral particularism of the national club.

But some sharp questions remain. British national identity may now be “post-superior” but what does national specialness mean, and is there still such a thing as “fellow citizen favouritism” that can and should be given force in law and institutions?

Even the most internationally minded people tend to accept that we have a hierarchy of obligations, and that it is perfectly proper that we spend 25 times more every year on the NHS than we do on development aid. And yet the specialness of citizenship is challenged by at least two developments in the modern world – both of which come in part from the left.

First is the drift in legal thinking, and especially human rights law, towards minimising the distinction between citizens and non-citizens. All people should have some rights by virtue of their humanity but British citizenship brings with it a range of extra legal and social rights that should not be granted to people simply by virtue of their being physically in this country. The psychology (and economics) of citizenship requires borders and boundaries to reinforce our political specialness towards one another, and we should not grant citizenship too lightly.

The second argument is over free movement within the EU. The opening to eastern Europe in 2004 – after which about 1.5m people came in the next 6 years – had some benefits but it was deeply unpopular among Labour’s blue collar vote and seemed to represent the breaking of a social contract with the poorest and least well educated.

People do not understand why we have to treat people from countries that we have no particular historical connection to, such as Slovakia or Estonia, as if they are British citizens in the labour market, the welfare system and even social housing. Where does that leave national specialness?

The belief that political elites do not really value the protections of citizenship, because they do not need them, is one factor behind the UKIP surge. There is also a class dimension to this, as with most immigration stories. Those British citizens who can take advantage of free movement tend to be highly educated and mobile and are not the lower skilled people who face competition from new arrivals (this is not a trivial issue, 20% of low skilled jobs in Britain are taken by people born outside the country).

These threats to a reasonable measure of fellow citizen favouritism are rooted partly in free market economics and partly in a universalist post-national creed - social democrats should be wary of both.

I do not advocate rolling back EU free movement. But it must be possible for governments to incentivise employers to give preference to their own national citizens in, say, youth unemployment hot-spots. Labour should be talking about this to its European sister parties. Protecting your own weakest citizens cannot be against the European spirit! 

So, ahead of us in the next few years are the outlines of big arguments about the meaning and limits of the nation. I hope and expect to see a further post-imperial ‘normalisation’ of national identity, especially for the English. And also a blurring of the sometimes rather artificial distinction between civic/political identities and ethnic/historic ones to produce a ‘common life’ identity; a national identity that feels meaningful, that is open to newcomers, and is completely ordinary – the British dream in practice.

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