A mild awakening, England's Turn?

David Goodhart
26 June 2008

The British left has never been comfortable with nationalism, yet in an age of globalisation it is more important than ever to achieve the social solidarity and redistribution the left wants. New post-ethnic forms of national identity are needed to resist global pressures towards a minimalist market state. Speaking to a Rowntree seminar, David Goodhart editor of Prospect, argued that the possibility of the break up of Britain in the near future should prompt the English to think seriously about who they are - and who they would like to become.



For reasons of history and national temperament the British (especially the English) have worn their national citizenship lightly. Such insouciance is now positively embraced by leftists, post-nationalists and even some free-marketeers, but it did not derive from a generous or progressive sentiment. If anything, on the contrary, it was the result of a missionary-imperial idea of Britain in which it was not necessary to draw clear lines around the political community. As Krishan Kumar has explained in his The Making of English National Identity such fuzziness also helped to veil the overwhelming dominance of the English within the British state.

This fuzziness is now an obstacle to the good society. At a time of mass immigration, European integration, the rise of identity politics and so on, we need clearer markers for a post-ethnic national citizenship that is also open to the world. We need, in other words, a post post-nationalism. The shape of the nation state is constantly evolving but it is still central to most of the things that liberals want, from democratic accountability to redistribution of wealth and generous welfare. But it needs help, especially from the left, which after all wants the state to make more, not fewer, demands of citizens—whether paying higher taxes or being more active citizens. I do not, of course, advocate a return to Edwardian jingoism, but with the erosion of so many other collective identities a minimum national sense of “being in this together” is still necessary to avoid long-term ethnic balkanisation and a small, low-tax state.

I do not think self-interest, even of the enlightened kind, is sufficient to generate the solidarity required for a thriving public realm. The political battle is now on between the citizenship state and a market state in which citizens have a purely instrumental relationship to both the state and each other.

Unfortunately, from the 1960s onwards, Britain did not develop a modern, postimperial language of national citizenship and identity that was comfortable with the idea of equal citizenship—regardless of race or background. The right did not fully embrace equality (and after Enoch Powell, the liberal right just wanted to avoid the subject). The left did embrace equality, but thought it meant burying the nation state; it did not accept that even if all people on the planet are in some sense morally equal, we still have a far greater political and social commitment to our fellow citizens, of all classes and ethnicities.

Moreover, a “rights” culture does not make the nation superfluous. The rights that we claim are also demands that we make on each other—especially if those rights have a price tag attached—and that presupposes a political community, and invariably therefore a nation of some kind.

Modern democratic politics is based on the idea of fellow citizen favouritism—that is why we spend 25 times more on the NHS each year than on development aid. This does not mean we have no moral obligations to citizens of other countries, (in Britain’s case especially our fellow EU members and the countries that were once part of the empire). But such obligations have to co-exist with the primary reality of national citizenship. Without fellow-citizen favouritism there would be no point to the nation state, and without it we would lose most of the great achievements of modern liberalism. There is a “middle way” between universalism and ethnic nationalism, and other traditions such as the French and the Canadian often express it more comfortably than we do.

National citizenship needs modernisation and clarification in at least three ways. First, spelling out what Lord Goldsmith in his much derided report on citizenship calls “the package of rights and responsibilities which demonstrate the tie between a person and a country.” Most of these already exist, but they are not written down in one place anywhere—and we can no longer assume that everyone intuitively understands them.

Second, we need to clarify the dividing line between citizens and non-citizens. At its most basic, this means controlling our borders and who crosses them (and counting them properly). It also means making new citizens more aware of what it is they are joining—“we” are not just a random collection of individuals. This is where the current Labour government has made most progress with its citizenship ceremonies and tests, and its idea of staged, “earned” citizenship.

Third, in an era of greater mobility we need a more overt assumption that the interests of British citizens, of all colours and creeds, must come first. Of course citizens often have different or conflicting interests — sorting out those conflicts peacefully is one of the things that politics is about. And these days we grant, as we should, many rights to non-citizens, including, of course, other EU citizens. But why on earth in the NHS doctors recruitment fiasco did we give no preference to British citizens, or even to people coming out of British medical schools?

One cannot, of course, legislate for a sense of belonging. And it takes time for new citizens to absorb a country’s norms and unspoken codes. State-sponsored patriotic rituals are not always the answer, for either new or old citizens, especially in a country as individualist and sceptical as Britain. But the ceremonies for new citizens, derided when introduced in 2002, have proved popular. If they go with the grain, top-down ideas can have popular appeal.

People ask, reasonably enough, what difference is a national day going to make to those disaffected young Muslims whose primary commitment is to the umma, or to east Europeans who have a purely financial motive for being here? A national day will make little difference on its own. But if in the 1960s and 1970s Britain had projected a clearer and more confident idea of itself, and if it had made a clearer “offer” to new citizens about what rights they could expect from their new country and what it expected from them, perhaps minority identity politics would have had less of a pull.

As it was a kind of laissez-faire multi-culturalism became the norm.

People can feel or express national commitments in many different ways. And if people on the left find the idea of the nation distasteful, then the simple answer is for them to give it another name: society, or just plain citizenship. To dismiss Lord Goldsmith’s belated attempt to modernise national citizenship as “ a parochial side-show,” as David Beetham did in his paper last month, is complacent.


Britain has been an extremely successful multinational state. Personally, I would be sad to see it go. Moreover, if it ain’t broke…Surely the English are big enough to live with some small representational and public spending biases in favour of the small nations of the United Kindgdom. What exactly are English interests? And how are they being suppressed? (And one could ask the same of Scotland.)

The paradox of Britain is that although it was substantially made by the English they did not – unlike the other British nations – define their own role in it. England dissolved itself into Britain, and so to this day has only minimal political/institutional identity. There is indeed no formal English political community, one of the reasons why sport has become such a rallying point for expressions of English identity.

If one accepts the case for a continuing need for overarching national identities and some minimum sense of “being in this together” as a defence against the market state then one must take the symbols and institutions of nationhood seriously. The danger for the English is that they will be left holding on to the symbols and institutions of Britain long after it has been cleared out of any emotional or political meaning. And if the Scots (and possibly the Welsh too) abandon the union, leaving the English holding a hollowed out shell, it is more likely that a new English nationalism will be born in a resentful mood.

So, if we are to follow this thought experiment, England should prepare itself for the abandonment of Britain and give some thought to its own political future. Of course the break-up of Britain is still not inevitable. We are all familiar with the argument that many of the things which inspired the creation of Britain and then held it together – empire, Protestantism, the labour movement, a single economic space – are either no longer relevant or would continue happily even without the existence of Britain. That is not a decisive argument for ending the union, but if the main non-English party to the union no longer sees the point of it – or rather if it thinks it can continue to enjoy the perceived benefits without the perceived disbenefits - then the union has no future.

And it is now all too easy to imagine how the end could come. A referendum in 2010 or 2011 after a successful period of SNP government, and soon after the Tories have returned with a big majority to Westminster (having increased their representation in Scotland by only a couple of seats) – could create the political atmosphere in which a vote for independence becomes not just possible but likely. Scots will be told that nothing much will change—same queen, same currency, no physical border—and their self-governing powers will merely seamlessly extend to foreign policy, tax and macro-economics. (Although as Robert Hazell points out in the latest Prospect (subscription only), it is probable that the Scots would have to vote twice – once on the principle of independence and then again on the deal that is secured.)

There is a problem here for people like me who do not want the union dissolved but on the other hand have no fear of an “England alone” and think it would be sensible to prepare for that eventuality. The problem is this: any preparation that seeks more political representation for England within Britain as it is today is bound to hasten the Scots to the exit. I am no expert on the various constitutional arguments but English votes for English laws (which is still Tory policy) would require an English parliament or its equivalent – which in turn would make the UK parliament increasingly residual and thus erode the political bond between England and Scotland.

The cleanest way of dealing with the representational imbalance at Westminster is the method applied in Northern Ireland—simply cutting the number of Scottish MPs. But what could be more inflammatory to the Scots – they would in effect be told because you now run your own health service you will have less say over declaring war. There might be some way through this constitutional thicket – perhaps it’s a suitable subject for a Royal Commission – but it doesn’t look promising.

So let us assume that Scotland is off –look on the bright side. England can at last re-unite its cultural and political identities. All that nonsense about Britain being a civic concept and England an ethnic one is swept away – as soon as England becomes a political community it is by definition civic as well as ethnic. And England is, of course, far more multi-ethnic than Scotland or Wales, and would remain one of the most diverse countries in Europe even if it lost those two countries. There is no obvious economic disadvantage to England from a break-up of the union— indeed even taking account of losing what is left of the oil there would be probably be a small independence dividend. In the past 50 years England has steamed ahead of Scotland in terms of population growth and economic weight, and there is no reason to think that independence for Scotland would stop that.

Independence would be a severe shock to one organization—the Labour Party, which has come to rely on “Celtic Britain” as a social democratic bulwark against Anglo-Thatcherism. And there is no doubt that the English middle class – broadly defined – is culturally quite distinct from its Scottish equivalent – it is more individualistic, more private sector, perhaps more enterprising – indeed it is this cultural divide which seems to be one of the factors driving the independence movement. But Labour in England would just have to try harder to persuade this economically dynamic group to see its interests tied to a thriving public realm – it has more or less succeeded in doing that for the past three elections.

There might be broader, albeit rather intangible, benefits for the left too. Perhaps the final dismantling of the British imperial state would release the hubris that causes British politicians to try to punch so far above their weight on the international stage. Of course there can be good left-wing reasons for punching above one’s weight in the field of development and so on. But with the Iraq war still so fresh in people’s minds we know that punching above one’s weight has its destructive side too.

And with Scotland gone – and perhaps Wales not far behind – the north-south divide within England might finally get the attention it deserves. The north east and the north west ought to benefit substantially. (As a new state would be emerging it might also be an excuse to establish the new capital outside the old imperial capital of London.)

Because of the huge scale differences between England and Scotland—separation is likely to cause more trauma and disruption north of the border than south (there are only one or two institutions that would be significantly affected south of the border– the BBC and the British army to name two). Indeed some people argue that most English people expressed their English national identity through British symbols, basically seeing these as continuous with the English past. Hence the seamless sliding between the two, at least until recently—much to the chagrin of the Scots and Welsh. So Englishness might just reorient itself without much dislocation – and the small historical jolt that it would receive from the departing Scots could even turn out to be a benign one.

This article appears on the Prospect website.

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