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The racial myth of English nationhood

Isolation from Europe and an end to immigration are disastrous policies derived not from patriotism but from a racial myth whose most vociferous advocate was Enoch Powell. His pernicious legacy endures.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
21 November 2014
powell.jpg

Flickr/Walt Jabsco

This is the time of year the birds migrate. Seeking a more favourable clime is natural. It is something human beings have done for millennia. Adaptability is also natural. Even the most inhospitable regions have their settlements. The expansion of communities follows a pattern from the hunter gatherers of pre-history. What is the motive at heart for empire but the desire to make the world familiar? What is the motive for nationhood but the desire to establish the discovered territory as one’s own?  

The myth of nationhood is that the community is of one kind. A unity of culture, language, religion and racial characteristics is thought to constitute the nation, although this is a matter of feeling rather than fact. The reality is that a nation has its minorities even where a particular cultural type predominates. A nation is a symbolic idealisation of an actual community. It differs from the actuality in the self-image presented as real without being a lived reality. Community is a gathering of diverse experiences and perceptions so that the different becomes familiar. The outsider becomes part of the family. But nationalism tends to acknowledge only the familiar.

History suggests that diversity of experience is essential to a harmonious society, although necessity requires some unifying elements. A common language is perhaps the basic requirement. By implication this means there must be some common understandings. There have to be some shared values and customs for social exchange to function. But that is not at all the desired unity of nationalism.

Nationalism, however, can be a positive force. There is the benevolent nationalism of a culture seeking an identity of its own in contrast to the imposed will of an imperial power. But other nationalisms are morally problematic. They may seek to exclude and to narrow the definitions of the nation. Or they may seek to expand a national identity beyond its natural limits by crossing borders into the agreed sovereign territory of other nations. Making the world familiar is an essentially selfish desire, however benignly it is rationalised.

A more natural and beneficial migration is the exchange of people taking skills and services across borders. It is natural to cross frontiers in search of opportunities for work or trade. The kind of isolationist state that was Japan before Commodore Perry is unnatural. An isolated culture turns inward and fails to develop. Lacking communication with the world, an isolated society does not move as the world moves. We live to communicate. Conquest is the brutal aberration of that need. Isolation is the perverse denial of that need.

When a community identifies itself as a nation integration to a wider society may feel restrictive. A nation seeks to express itself. It is a right that must be respected with renegotiated constitutional arrangements. There are several possibilities available according to circumstance. Approached in a generous spirit, a sense of a homeland is a civilised instinct. The exile longs for return. A dispersed people seek communion of kind. A presiding spirit—Caithleen Ni Houlihan, Rachel, Slavia—guides the lost children through the wilderness.

By contrast, ‘Advance, Britannia!’ is a battle cry, defiant in defeat, triumphant in victory. When Joan of Arc was surrendered to the English it was with a plea for mercy that was not heard. We all like to think well of ourselves, and the Island Race does so by a myth of itself in which all invaders are repelled but expansion into other lands is both a benevolent duty and a source of pride. The contradiction of values is transparent.

The South Atlantic War of 1981 was the contradiction manifested in a text book case of history repeating itself as farce. The old imperial attitudes were taken from the museum to sail once more on the high seas of desperate nostalgia. But many conflicts later the imperial standard has been lowered for perhaps the last time. We are once more the small island that stands alone. We have our freedoms from Magna Carta onward. We shall repel all who seek to violate our sovereignty.

You would never guess from this that Magna Carta was imposed on an isolationist king by the ultramontane force of what was in Medieval Christendom the equivalent to international law. Far from being an assertion of national sovereignty, Magna Carta was Europe informing England of its responsibilities.

The nation state, as all sixth form historians will tell you, is a modern concept. It is not only that boundaries are regularly redrawn. The whole idea of an integral political state based on a common cultural identity is a child of the Enlightenment. It was an idea that liberated peoples from empire and domination. A homeland with secure borders was a liberal idea of that most optimistic of centuries, the age of  Garibaldi, of O’Connell, of Herzl.

But even then the signs of danger were becoming evident. The grotesque aberration that overtook romantic nationalism was the curse of the Twentieth Century, and we remain under its malign influence. The fragmentation of unions has proved to be so often geopolitical and moral disasters. (Look at what was the widely-admired Yugoslavia.) Nationalism in our times has to be treated with suspicion.

It need not be condemned out of hand, however. There is yet the progressive force of national identity. In terms of the United Kingdom, the Celtic nationalisms have proved to be a cohesive and energising force. English nationalism, with its legacy of imperial hegemony, must arouse our suspicions. It is guilty until proven innocent.

Whether or not the current rise of UKIP will prove lasting, the romantic idea of an island fortress against the world is a pernicious influence working its way trough society. The concessions are being made. The hints are being given. It will take two or three general elections to confirm whether UKIP will survive. There is a likelihood that its success may be ephemeral. But the influence is working its way into the bloodstream. Right-wing populism untempered by, and ignorant of, the mainstream of cultural and intellectual moderations, is not to be ignored. The crudities of the extreme may be avoided. The dangers, however, remain.

Who is the original author of this tragi-comedy of a faith resistant to reason and history? Or, to rephrase the question, ‘Who is this madman?’ That was the note scribbled in Churchill’s hand at the foot of a paper advocating the retention of the Indian Empire, drafted on the eve of independence.

The author had served in India and had learned Urdu not so much out of respect for the civilisation under British dominion but out of an openly stated ambition to become Viceroy. He well understood the conqueror’s way of asserting greater dominion over the subject peoples.

The initial hostility of Churchill did not prevent Enoch Powell from rising in the Conservative Party. He moved from Central Office into Parliament. He never served in cabinet, although he was Minister of Health. He initiated a scheme for recruiting colonial staff to care for the sick of the ‘mother country’. He was said to be capable. As a parliamentarian his gifts of oratory were effective. But however striking the rhetoric employed, it was no more than device, an appeal to the heart rather than the mind. Powell cut a strange figure, a tense, humourless and earnest figure, the scholarship swot among the languid and assured patricians.

When Powell resigned, Macmillan, with typical insouciance, made his lack of regret very clear. Readmitted to the front bench in opposition, Powell (who had stood for the leadership) was dismissed by Heath as ‘uncharitable and unchristian’ after his extraordinary diatribe against immigration and racial minorities. The respect Powell had felt in India had become a (calculated and opportunistic) fear in Wolverhampton.

Inflammatory language and bogus statistics were Powell’s regular methods in his widely-reported speeches. His extreme and unprecedented views on immigration caught public attention, ensuring that his thoughts on a wider range of subjects would be heard with care and respect. At a time when even Richard Nixon declared himself a Keynesian, Powell forcefully and repeatedly advocated a return to laissez-faire economics and a withdrawal of the social and welfare policies embedded in the modern world. Powell did not stand alone in this, however. There was Pinochet for example.

With the anxious gravity and lacklustre obsession of a demagogue Powell went beyond the cultural mainstream in his appeal to the emotions of the confused and ill-informed. He could have offered reassurance that the new minorities would integrate as surely as the previous generations had. He could have spoken of the enrichment that incomers may give to a community. He could have evoked the names of Chaplin and Churchill as a reminder of the contribution made by those of immigrant stock. But, no, he continued to advocate discredited ideas and illiberal policies in the name of some ill-defined freedom of an illusory nation.

Powell was not the pariah he might have been, and might have hoped to be in his perverse way. And this is very significant. For many years print and broadcast media hedged their bets by their regular invitations to Powell as a commentator on public affairs. He had abandoned any wish for advancement in conventional politics. But his influence was sustained by an acknowledgment that great waves of reaction were heading for the shore.

Powell died a rather pathetic figure. ‘I wish I had died in the War,’ he said with a candour that chills the blood. ‘If I cannot be king then make me a martyr,’ is what he might have said. There was no humility in him, only a desperate belief in his prophetic mastery.

He had begun life as a Classical scholar of some merit. But Powell had none of the flair of Richard Crossman whose Plato Today was a learned polemic of some stature (and a great influence on Karl Popper, for example). Powell could never have matched that partly because he was at odds with his times. Of a generation that was inclined to Marx or to Freud, Powell turned to Nietzsche. Where other contemporaries accepted the confession of the universal church, Powell ‘thanked God every day for the Church of England.’ He set himself apart, and seemed to derive both solace and strength from his self-imposed role as the prophet outcast. He did not seek a way back into the mainstream of political life. He made no accommodation with a more congenial and reactionary Conservative government after 1979. His glassy eyes were on the distance of an England woken from the nightmare of alien creeds and barbarous tongues.

The most obvious resemblance is to Salazar. There is the same blend of intellect and unreason, the same arrogance disguised as sincerity, the same fear of modernity, and the same nostalgia for a time that never was.

The telling phrase in Powell’s armoury was the talk of ‘areas that are already undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history.’ If you care to study English life you will find an interplay of continuity and transformation that is the necessary dynamic of social history. The myth is of many generations of stout yeoman and proud artisans all of ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, dwelling in settled communities whose focal points are the medieval church, the Tudor manor house, the Restoration grammar school, the Victorian library. So it may seem at a glance. But a closer look reveals the Flemish weavers, the Irish journeymen, the Scots engineers, the Sephardic tailors, the prisoners of war who remained. If there is a crisis of English identity it is in the prolonged refusal to accept that the world is not flat.

Pandering to a self-centred, limited myth has proved to be a political as well as a moral betrayal. An isolated Britain [or England] would be diminished in more ways than the economic. But its meretricious allure many find overwhelmingly persuasive. We cannot reduce to accountancy what is clearly a powerful sub-cultural force. We need moral arguments, reasoned arguments, rather than a barrage of statistics. The legitimate concern is that this racial myth is becoming [or has become] acceptable in public discourse. Ethnic purity is a pernicious idea. National isolation is impossible in the modern world. A fortress England repelling all alien notions of life could not be achieved without conflict. And who will be blamed? Not the Daily Excess, not the armchair Falangists, not the craven political fashionistas of all parties. It will be the fault of the minorities: ‘We should never have let them in.’ Makes you proud to be British.


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