When Oxford is more 'English' than Hull, what's the point of nationalism?

Notions of 'England' have traditionally elevated certain citizens, from certain areas - London, the Home Counties, university towns. So why should 'the regions' invest in an English national identity?
Michael Calderbank
19 October 2011

“Are we citizens of nowhere or citizens of England?” asks Gareth Young in his provocative introduction to this series. If we’re not prepared to become citizens of England, we’re asked to believe, we leave ourselves without any grounds for political belonging.

Well, national identity is only one way in which people can be bound together in terms of common meanings, in which sense can be made of shared experiences and histories. To be sure nationalisms can be rich and resonant, particularly where they help to give shape to complex narratives of struggle and emancipation. But a national identity is not a natural endowment but rather a construction, a way of privileging certain meanings and understanding over others.

So what forces have governed the emergence and development of “England”?  We should be wary of accepting a romantic model of a community gradually and organically evolving a conception of itself and its history as the product of centuries of common endeavour.  In response to recent appeals to English nationalism from the Blue Labour stable, we must assert that nationhood has never been a common treasury, but rather has been forged around loci of economic and political power.

It is undoubtedly problematic for us to disambiguate the historical genesis of Englishness from the origins and development of the British polity. Beyond doubt, the British state has been geographically and culturally centred around London and the South East, but its roots are entangled with those of earlier English institutions.  Whether it be the ‘ancient’ seats of learning in Oxford and Cambridge; the emergence of the City of London; the Home Circuit of the assizes (the original derivation of “Home Counties”) or the establishment of the Church of England following the secession from Rome and in the teeth of opposition from the Catholic north; the institutional centring of Englishness has privileged the interests and attitudes of some inhabitants of these islands over others.

We are governed from Westminster and if polity is “centred” in the metropolitan elite around London and its environs, then by the same token other communities become marginal or peripheral to the real locus of power. The economic disparities that characterise Britain’s North-South divide so accentuated under Thatcherism have their historical roots at least partly in political inequalities that are structural to the constitution of the British state.

Of course this point was not totally ignored by the architects of devolution, but the attempt to devolve power to the English regions ran - perhaps fatally? – into the ground. But even the terminology of the “English regions” is already suggestive of an imbalance at the core of the notion of Englishness itself.  As Raymond Williams once wrote;

…the steady discrimination of certain regions as in this limited sense “regional”…can only hold if certain other regions are not seen in this way.  This is in its turn a function of cultural centralization.  Yet this is no longer a distinction between areas and kinds of life; it is what is politely called a value judgement but more accurately an expression of centralized cultural dominance…the description is plainly ideological.  The life and people of certain favoured regions are seen as essentially general, even perhaps normal, while the life and people of certain other regions, however interestingly and affectionately presented, are, well, regional.

The very term “English regions” lays bare the assumption that some places and some people are more intrinsically, more quintessentially “English” than others.  Some areas in England (the North in general, perhaps, but not exclusively so – the “Celtic periphery” of Cornwall would be another instance as evinced in the growth of Mebyon Kernow) are seen as more distant outcrops of an Englishness that resides more fully or more adequately elsewhere.

It would be perfectly possible for an English nationalist to grant this point and argue that the rejection of devolution to regional assemblies was in part because of the deformation of British settlement and the resulting deficit of English patriotism at the heart of the project. Perhaps the good people of the North East resented being cast as semi-distant cousins who deserved to be treated as a quasi-separate grouping? Perhaps the founding of an English Parliament, precisely on an alternative basis to the London-centric model of the British state, would be a more appropriate way of affirming that an authentic and equal entitlement to Englishness exists from Land’s End to Berwick and everywhere in between? What would be wrong with such a solution?

The merit of this account is that it frankly admits that an English polity based on democratic citizenship has never in fact existed. But as a contemporary project it offers little more than a utopian blueprint based on a conception of “Englishness” as a unifying factor that elides the direct conflict of interests between communities on a social, economic and geographic basis in our contemporary society. It assumes that to be fully English is an unequivocal desideratum. But for many of the people who happen to reside here, Englishness is already freighted with a culturally and ideologically loaded set of associations towards which we feel at best ambivalent where not downright hostile. Or as Johnny Rotten (himself of second generation Irish immigrant descent) once put it, “there ain’t no future in England’s dreaming!”

It also puts the cart before the horse. Outcomes – be they economic or cultural – do not follow on consequentially from political citizenship, as though equality of formal democratic entitlements was a sufficient basis to unify and “bind together” a view of its common interests irrespective of inequalities in other regards. Representative institutions do not facilitate the emergence of a people with a common interest. Rather, they are the product of a particular social settlement which requires legitimation.

To my mind, meaningful democratic entitlements (and any notion of citizenship in which they are grounded) will only ever follow from a struggle for equality in more than just formal political rights. Surely the contemporary realities of globalization and international economic crises make it necessary for such a struggle to transcend a purely national frame?

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