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Britain and England: A Case Of Split Identity

Britain, as has often been observed (including, of course, in many articles in OurKingdom), is a country in the grips of a profound identity crisis. This is so much the case that it is even unclear, I would say, what and who we are referring to by the ‘Britain' that is in crisis: who are the British, and what is Britain?

For me, the crux of the issue is the splitting up of the old Anglo-British national identity that was at the heart of imperial Great Britain: the way in which the English have tended informally and instinctively to regard England and Great Britain as indivisible, and as interchangeable names for a single, unitary ‘nation'. Of course, the reality of imperial and pre-devolution Great Britain was never that simple, as Scotland, for instance, always retained many of the institutional trappings and the cultural identity of a distinct nation. But for the English, the English-national and British-state identities merged, making Great Britain (and later, the United Kingdom) to all intents and purposes the proxy-English nation-state.

Devolution changed all of that, once and for all. It was a definitive refutation of the ‘absolute' character of the Union, in both senses: not only the unitary character of the British polity but the ‘union' (merger, (con)fusion) within the English national identity between England and Great Britain. It was this cultural and psychological union that had sustained the political Union throughout its history, as it secured the loyalty and ‘ownership' of the greater part of the UK, which viewed Great Britain as ‘our nation' and the UK as "one of the great creations of this country", to quote Vince Cable's words at this week's Liberal Democrats' conference (The unconscious irony in Vince Cable's statement is that the UK is supposed to be ‘this country' not something that ‘this country' (England) has created!).

But as a result of devolution, it became possible, indeed necessary, to see the UK no longer as the seamless extension of English parliamentary democracy, nationhood and power. And, more fundamentally still, the English could begin to separate their English and British national identities at a subjective and psychological level, precisely because those identities had also been split apart at the objective, political level - with ‘great(er) Britishness' no longer being defined as a continuation and extension of Englishness but as a set of different national identities from which the English identity, too, was differentiated and distinct.

Breaking-Up Britain

Introduction by Mark Perryman , editor of Breaking up Britain : Four Nations after a Union

Breaking up Britain is a book-length conversation between individuals, parties and social movements who with or without borders nevertheless rarely talk to one another. Each contributor presents their own national context for the collection's four themes; post-devolution national identity, models of civic nationalism, formations of exclusion and states of independence. Yet each account, whether based on an English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish perspective seeks to be universal too. In essence this is what a politics of the progressive nation would look like. A civic nationalist politics now exists in Scotland and Wales prepared to push the devolution settlement to it limits, its breaking point. In Northern Ireland Irish Republicanism is now the majority party representing the nationalist community. In England a growing body of opinion and ideas demands that England must find a part to play in this process too. Ten years ago Scots and Welsh voters went to the polls to elect a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Northern Irish votes have elected their Assembly too. Breaking Up Britain seeks to chart the past, present and future of this course . A direction towards states of independence in which we will surely witness a reformation of four nations after a Union that has run out of time.

Our Kingdom today features edited extracts from contributions to Breaking up Britain from Arthur Aughey, Mark Perryman and Charlotte Williams. Together with critical responses by Gerry Hassan and Paul Kingsnorth:

Breaking Up Britain

Breaking Up Britain is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available from lw books 

A FREE download of Mark Perryman's opening chapter ‘A Jigsaw State' in Breaking Up Britain is available here

Englishness is a cultural identity

Paul Kingsnorth responds to Mark Perryman's call in Breaking up Britain for a progressive English identity.

‘What is Englishness?' is a question I have always studiously avoided answering. I can't stand the kind of lists that are sometimes drawn up by people trying to define ‘our national character', which always seem to come down to either a list of things that an English person should feel an attachment to (real ale, the countryside, David Beckham) or a list of Brownite-style ‘values' (tolerance, democracy, love of queuing) to which all English people should apparently feel equally committed.

But having read Mark's chapter, ‘a Jigsaw state', I am left with the feeling that perhaps we need to start trying to answer the question after all. Whether or not Britain ‘breaks up' in the political sense - and I am less convinced that it will ‘inevitably' do so than Mark seems to be - it is clearly already breaking up in the cultural sense. Scotland and Wales today feel more Scottish and Welsh than they did ten years ago, and so it seems do their people. The English, meanwhile, still struggling out from under ‘greater England', as Mark correctly calls the modern British identity, are in something of a fix. Still confused about the difference between Britishness and Englishness, always reluctant in any case to explain and define themselves, changed by immigration and the resulting policy of ‘multiculturalism', the English seem confused.

The Melting Pot and the British Meltdown

In this extract from Breaking up Britain Charlotte Williams questions the degree to which post-devolution identities are any more inclusive or egalitarian.

We are often reminded that devolution is a process and not some event that happened back in 1999. A process in which we were assured of the development of more open and inclusive governance, a refreshed democracy and a reworking of the old nationalist politics that provoked such a guarded response to the referendum for self government, in Wales at least. The rather simplistic axiom that prevailed at the time implied that independence or even partial independence from what was seen by many to be the oppressive grip of British , or more accurately English, rule would somehow ensure a collective sense of unity in the constituent parts of this re-nationalised Britain. A sense that national solidarity might just produce more egalitarian relationships is perhaps a folly of all proto nationalists but nevertheless it held sway. However, from within the ranks of Britain's ethnic minorities the schism that characterised their relationship to Britishness, had taken on a new dimension. Now that erstwhile ambivalent positioning, being somehow both of the place but not quite allowed to belong, would have to be reassessed in the light of the reasserted identity claims being made by the four nations.  How would they sit within the spectre of a reclaimed Welshness, Scottishness, Irishness? Did this new separateness offer the potential for a reconciliation with or retreat from the notion of Britishness?

Back to Front and Popular England

Can Englishness be re-claimed from the populist right? In this extract from Breaking up Britain Mark Perryman suggests what the key features of a post-Union progressive English identity would be.

In disentangling our Englishness from a Britishness which has denied the Scots and Welsh their independence we have the opportunity to achieve a progressive national settlement for ourselves. George Monbiot describes both the process and the outcome. ‘ Three nations in the United Kingdom, as a result of one of this government's rare progressive policies, now possess a representative assembly. The fourth, and largest, England, does not. England, the great colonising nation, has become a colony.' A populist right defines the colonisation of England  in terms of a Scottish raj, they detest an ungrateful nation on our northern border and want nothing to do with the continent except cheap holidays and bottles of plonk while proposing to erect barriers to keep out asylum-seekers and migrant workers.

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes the context in which a response devoid of a progressively popular alternative is provided.  ‘ So far the answer has been completely inadequate because it has mainly consisted in moral condemnation. Of course, such a reaction fits perfectly with the dominant post-political perspective and it had to be expected. Given that politics had supposedly become "non-adversarial"  the frontier between us and them constitutive of politics can only be drawn in the moral register.' Chantal describes the likely consequences of such a failing, ‘ If a serious attempt is not made to address the democratic deficit that characterises the "post-political" age that neo-liberal hegemony has brought about, and to challenge the growing inequalities it has created, the diverse forms of resentment are bound to persist.

Kingsnorth responds to Ware

This is the second part of an exchange on national identity and belonging sparked by Paul Kingsnorth's review of Vron Ware's book. We will be publishing Vron's reply tomorrow.

Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author): My recent review of Vron Ware's book Who cares about Britishness? has evidently upset the author. I can't deny a twinge of guilt: as a fellow writer, I know the frustration of a bad review, and the things it can make you say. So I'm not surprised to read Vron's retaliation about me, my review and indeed my own book, Real England, on OurKingdom.

I don’t respond from pique, but because this is, at heart, a crucial debate about the future of England and Britain, and about two competing understandings of what constitutes 'belonging.' More than anything else, perhaps, it is about how that dread term 'multiculturalism' has, in my view, undermined a shared sense of community in both England and Britain, and continues to do so.

Kingsnorth's Englishness is "opportunistic and shallow"

This is a response by Vron Ware to Paul Kingsnorth's review of her book Who Cares About Britishness? in which she sets out the fundamental differences between her approach to national identity and that of Kingsnorth in Real England.

Vron Ware (author): I bought Paul Kingsnorth's book Real England a few weeks ago after reading a positive review of it. I was enthusiastic about his project of bringing an anti-globalisation perspective to the destruction of England's distinctive environments as I also feel passionately about this. I have been writing about a particular English locality for ten years now, tracking the impact of global forces on every area of life. I've also been working on and against racism and nationalism, attentive to the past and future relationships between Britain and England. When I read him I realised that there are differences between us. Now, Kingsnorth's mean-spirited and inaccurate review of my book commissioned by the British Council, Who Cares About Britishness? A global view of the national identity debate (Arcadia, 2007) suggests that there is little common ground between us. Rather than just respond to his attack I'd like to assess his whole approach.

Kingsnorth employs the well-worn method of identifying the 'Real England' by travelling around the country to document a tale of damage, decline and neglect. The portrait of Englishness that he paints conveys a lament for better times, coupled with a reluctance to protest effectively at the destruction of 'ways of life' and institutions that once developed out of local, English culture. I thought the book would also bring an added dimension, especially since George Monbiot's recommendation on the front cover announces that the book 'helps to shape our view of who we are and who we want to be'.

In particular, given his knowledge of the movement inspired by the World Social Forum I hoped he would combine an environmentalist rage with a critique of the racially coded nationalism which is often implicit in this genre of writing about England. Instead, he does not really address the question of who counts as English, and who the 'we' are, talking vaguely of people 'of all backgrounds'. The fact that he is prepared to define himself as a nationalist indicates that he is not interested in connecting his position to a discussion about the future of England as a postcolonial country at ease with itself and alive to the value of a cosmopolitan future.

English nationalism and progressive politics

David (aka Britology Watch): There have been several recent threads in OurKingdom that have touched on the questions of whether, and to what extent, ‘progressives’ should espouse the ‘cause’ of English nationalism – whether that cause is defined merely as the goal of an English parliament or is part of a more long-ranging vision for England after what many, including myself, see as the inevitable demise of the present UK (see eg Mark Perryman, Arthur Aughey and Paul Kingsnorth). Hitherto, the left has assumed it had the monopoly on progressive politics.

In addition, it has been de rigueur for nationalism-averse, centre-left progressives and liberals, and not just Britain-obsessed New Labour, to articulate their vision as if it were a vision for Britain as a whole and not what it can only really be, post-devolution, which is an agenda for England.

Now David Cameron is trying to muscle in on the progressive act, defining the Conservative Party as the “champion of progressive ideals in Britain today” in an Independent article earlier this month. But on closer analysis, his prescription emerges as just a new version of the same old Blairite ‘market economics with a social face’: positioning the Tories effectively as the party that will actually realise the market-driven social and economic reforms that New Labour promised but did not deliver. In addition, Cameron’s remedies are similarly articulated as being intended for Britain – whereas, in reality, the policies discussed in the Independent article would all form part of his government’s England-only remit in education, the environment and local communities.

There is little chance that a supposedly progressive agenda for ‘the country’ would gather momentum and carry the assent of a broad cross-society majority of all the people – which is what it would have to do if it were to be a genuine movement of progressive change for that society – unless we can be honest and unashamed about which society and people are the objects of that progressive programme: the society and people of England, not those of Britain ‘as a whole’. The two things are fundamentally interlinked: social reform and national-political re-engagement – politicians have to demonstrate they actually care about England, and seek to be genuinely accountable to the people of England, in order for the people to care about politics and believe once more that it can effect beneficial change in their lives, individually and in their communities. And this suggests the outline of a genuinely radical, progressive agenda for England.

The English Chicken or the English Egg

Gareth Young (Lewes, CEP): What comes first, nationalism or the nation?

For Mark Perryman it seems that an English Parliament is inevitable; England is the human flotsam that will emerge as the good ship Britannia sinks after offloading its Celtic jetsam. And our task - as inheritors of the new state - is to begin preparations for how we want that nation to be: A pluralist England founded on space not race, Englishness, an inclusive nationality for all. In 10-20 years, says Mark, we will arrive at "England after Britain". It's a timescale based on three assumptions:

  • Scotland will vote for independence;
  • Ireland, due to a Catholic hegemony, will be reunited, and;
  • Wales will have a Parliament.

No need, then, for a Campaign for an English Parliament? Except, that of the three assumptions, the only one that I think is inevitable is Wales gaining a parliament. Northern Ireland is becoming greener but a Catholic majority is still a long way off, and since the Belfast Agreement gives the Republic a veto on reunification no outcome should be assumed. And for Scots the romantic dream of "Freedom!" is not yet matched by an overwhelming desire for complete political independence from the rest of the UK.

Why we need English nationalism: a reply to Peter Facey

Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author Real England): Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy has posed an interesting personal question. He feels the issues of identity but draws back for fear of having to embrace the bad with the good and asks isn't nationalism always going to be about airing grievances? An interesting question. I have only recently begun to refer to myself as an 'English nationalist', and not without some reservations. When I see idiots like the English Democrats doing their anti-Scottish thing, or engage in blog arguments with bigots from both England and Scotland who seem to think that the purpose of their nationalism is to allow them to each blame the other for their political plights, or engage in personal attacks, it makes me want to give up and go home.

Asking Cameron if he is English

David (Cambridge, Britology Watch): One of a number of themes that came out in the comments on Anthony Barnett’s First thoughts after Labour’s Debacle, was whether the leader of the opposition is, and whether he himself regards himself as, English or British.

A sceptic speaks on English nationalism

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Should the left embrace English nationalism? This question is now being asked with an urgency and seriousness that was previously unthinkable (see recent posts by Gareth Young, Mark Perryman and Arthur Aughey for a sample). The collapse of the Labour Party in local elections across the UK and Wendy Alexander's decision to back a referendum on independence will surely play into the hands of those that think it should.

Declining Britishness in England and Scotland?

OurKingdom: The National Centre for Social Research has just issued its new British Social Attitudes Report. This is taken from its 13 page pdf summary press release.

Only 13% of people born and living in England, and 3% of people born and living in Scotland, describe themselves as ‘only’ or ‘mainly’ British. Meanwhile, nearly half of those born and living in England say that they are ‘equally English and British’, and only one in five born and living in Scotland describe themselves as ‘equally Scottish and British’.

English fascist


Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The future of Britain as it enters a period of constitutional upheaval is the subject of a number of overlapping conversations in OurKingdom. Inevitably, Scotland is a magnetic reference point. Twenty years ago the convention that led to its new parliament was explicitly based on principles that subverted the English form of sovereignty. As a result one can see the whole of the UK as being caught up in the slow collision of the opposing forces embodied by Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. When al Jazeera TV ran a report on this, my colleague Jon Bright linked to it and queried how Scotland could be genuinely nationalist or independent. Some of us responded by pointing to the difference between its "civic nationalism" which is open and embraces sharing sovereignty within the EU and an exclusive "ethnic nationalism".

It took a kilt to liberate a Minister to embrace England

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The ever alert Gareth Young has a couple of his 'mosts' of the year in our post below (please add your's). One led me to a Daily Mail story yesterday about Shad Malik MP the International Development Minister coming out for being English. Here is a very funny and telling quote:

Marr on the Englizzzz

Christine Berberich (Derby, lecturer): ‘Fantastic. A four-part series about what it means to be English.’ That was my reaction when I first heard about Andrew Marr’s project on Radio 2. I thought that it was about time to have a study of Englishness on the radio – where it is possibly a bit more accessible than all the academic books that have been published on the subject in recent years.

Tory MP Mark Field redraws the Union

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Its been hard - so far - to get Conservatives to write for OurKingdom about how they see the future of the Union. Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster was asked for his views in a question session on ConservativeHome. The question was: "What should the Party do to minimise the effect of a surge in English nationalism as the next general election approaches? Is a policy of English votes for English Bills enough, or should we at the same time pro-actively seek to give the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments more powers over their economies?" The answer is remarkable, it deserves to be read in full:

Future of the UK will be shaped by identities

Peter Facey (London, Unlock Democracy): Identity and politics can be an explosive mix. Defining what we are and what we are not seems to be as essential to humans as breathing. In Britain today, the debate about identity cannot be separated from politics. The future of the United Kingdom will be shaped not just by institutions and policies, but also by how its inhabitants feel about their identify.Let me put my cards on the table. I feel English, British and European and am proud of the county my family comes from and of the county I now live in. I get annoyed when the post office tells me I live in Hertfordshire when in fact I live in Cambridgeshire. For many reasons a sense of place and identity matter to me.

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