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By Jason Michael
The bell has knelled for the United Kingdom not because of Irish, Scottish, or Welsh nationalism, but because of English nationalism. The moment England realised it was a nation it was to “repatriate” foreigners. England won’t share its Britain.
Britain and invented Britishness predate the rise of nationalism in Europe perhaps by as much as a century. Like the Russian and Austrian empires, Britain was first conceived as a monarchic state polity which sought to impose itself over and against inner state differences such as language, religion, or national, regional, or tribal identity. Britain’s architects have therefore sought, especially considering the fate of many European monarchies, to keep the British state above popular nationalism. Patriotism – as love of the state and its imperial achievements – has been Britain’s answer to the nationalist tendencies it has always feared might pull it apart. But even with all its attempts to stem the tide, the rise of nationalism has toppled Britain.
Over the course of the past three hundred years Britishness was all about the imposition of the language, culture, traditions, and religion of Great Britain – qua Greater England – on smaller nations. It has been about killing off smaller cultures and national identities and the signifiers of such identities. Where it has been unable to destroy these it has simply co-opted them, thus – by making them British – subjugating and controlling them.
Essentially Britain succeeded in extending the Westphalian concept of England’s sovereignty over its nearest neighbour’s – Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – and ultimately constructed a state identity which aimed to subsume everything else into itself. As ideas of republicanism and nationalism developed and spread across the continent it was thought that this British state construct would protect Britain from these movements, and for two hundred years it has appeared to have done exactly that.
This British idea of the state and state rather than national identity had a shelf life and it has run out of time. By 1949, with the British Nationality Act (1948), the colonial-imperialist state was forced to begin making concessions to the by then universally accepted ideas of the nation and national identity. On New Year’s Day 1949 British subjects were transformed into British citizens; essentially a legal fiction allowing the UK to pretend to be a modern country. Yet this gift of citizenship to the Crown’s subjects – in what amounts to the invention of a nation – inadvertently gave birth to a particular kind of English nationalism.
England realised it was a nation the moment black people started getting off boats wielding British passports. English nationalism was from the moment of its birth a reaction to people it considered racially inferior claiming some sort of national equality with thoroughbred Anglo-Saxons. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalism were never a real threat to the political unity of Britain and the power of the Crown establishment. What rocked it to its core and what has proven to be the real threat to that power has been the realisation in England by the English – including many in the establishment – that nation, as a collective identity, trumps imperial subjection.
Since 1949, through the creation of a more multicultural Britain, we have seen English nationalism (absolutely synonymous with British nationalism) go from strength to strength. It was behind the symbols of British nationalism that Margaret Thatcher rallied the public during her personal war with the IRA and Irish republicanism. It was the same during the re-invasion of the Argentinian Islas Malvinas. No longer was Britishness about King and country. It was about the nation – the English nation and everything under its foot.
Brexit is merely the latest development of this ugly racist British nationalism. In the past two decades ethno-nationalism and racism have played a growing part in British politics, forcing both the Conservatives and Labour to lurch to the right to win support from an entire section of the British public that has had its mind and soul poisoned by a really horrible and bitter angry nationalism. We might even be correct in seeing in Brexit a completion of what was begun in 1982 with the limiting of British citizenship to those “born here.”
However much we may recoil from Britain’s outdated and undemocratic monarchy, at the heart of monarchism there is the idea that the monarch is the father or mother of the people – all the people. Given the exceptionalism and exclusivity of the thinking behind Brexit, it is quite clear that this has not come from a monarchic or imperial mode of thinking. This is British nationalism – British exceptionalism – in action.
This fracture in British identity has no doubt contributed to the rise in support for independence in Scotland. Socialism in the United Kingdom – both north and south of the border – has always been a defeated socialism, utterly servile and neutered by its loyalty to the Crown. It would not have been tolerated otherwise. In the face of the collapse of that monarchic-imperial hegemon and faced with the choice of two opposing nationalisms, Scottish socialists have opted for the one that is not drenched in the filth of racism. Of course this goes some way to explaining the problem Labour in Scotland has with antisemitism, Islamophobia, and every other kind of racism. Only the British nationalists have remained in its ranks.
We are only 70 years into the transition of Greater England into a nation with a distinct national identity. Its very existence is the “crisis in British identity” because not everyone who is British can accept it. This nation is closed to the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish. It has never been comfortable admitting black people and dogs either. Now it has latched onto the idea that it is engaged in a fight-to-the-death with the forces of Islam, excluding from this idea of Britain Muslim communities which have been in the UK for decades. Where this is leading we can’t know, but its existence makes the United Kingdom impossible. A compromised Britishness is inconsistent with English nationalism.
British Nationalism – English Racism