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Joe Bord © 2001

 

 
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While pottering about in Aberystwyth, doing some research in the Welsh National Library, I ran into an indignant demonstration prompted by the census. A group of Plaid activists were bearing a ballot box shaped like a coffin (the death of Welsh identity etc.), into which people cast their signatures, lamenting the absence of a Welsh "box" on the census form. At the same time, the rightwing press were harrumphing about the lack of a similar English space. The episode was rather trivial, but the assumption seemed to be that English and Welsh should count as ethnicities just as "White British"or "Black British" -- categories that did appear on the form. Such is the background to the posturing of Mr. John Townend, the outgoing Tory MP for Bridlington. Raising the ghost of Enoch is a favoured pastime among Conservatives in trouble, although the leadership prefers to do it nowadays through the subtler mode of attacking asylum seekers. When actually confronted with the nonsense of biological racism, most rightwingers begin talking about an inviolable, prescriptive culture, to which newcomers must defer. This is only a short step away from the notion that pure cultures can only exist separately from other cultures, which is the logic of apartheid. The calculating blurring between historical culture and so-called biology carries the prejudice of racism over to ethnicity, and resistance to multi-culturalism. Mr. Townend spoke of the danger of the British becoming a "mongrel race", but when his leader claimed that the first black prime minister would be a Conservative, the Yorkshire MP hoped that he would at least be a "brown Englishman". The composition of ethnicity, the fusion of culture and race, permits a flexible ambiguity in reactionary rhetoric. This is somewhat different in tenor to the battle for territory currently taking place in Oldham, from which the most sub-Powellite of Tory loudly dissociates himself.

What disturbs me is the surreptitious establishment of the idea that Englishness is a single ethnicity, and single culture. This is reinforced by referring to people from diverse backgrounds as members of the "ethnic minorities". The running has been made almost wholly by the right, while the left has concentrated -- through, for example, the Runnymede Trust -- on dissecting "Britishness". But we may have been barking up the wrong tree: a withered oak vulnerable to the gales of constitutional and national development. The gradual extrication of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the Union is not itself connected with questions of social diversity. But the attenuation of the United Kingdom will have consequences in other areas of identity politics. Seemingly disparate issues -- like the revision of the Barnett formula, the debate over the European single currency, and the alignment of our defence with the USA or Europ -- will gradually feed through into the way in which we -- whoever "we" are -- perceive our polity and society. A bout of English redefinition and reassertion is a very distinct possibility; and it need not wait upon a Scottish decision for independence. The mere fact of a referendum might be enough to set light to the tinder.

But are there really combustible materials? Those of us (ahem) who have been scribbling in green ink on this are routinely ignored, or rather, gently humoured. New Labour has been busy devolving New Britain into existence, a young country – yeah – full of dynamic compromises. The Third Way and the "radical centre" have given us constitutional reform without a new constitution, European engagement without full participation, and anti-racism without equal treatment for people from abroad. Tom Nairn may be a little unkind in suggesting that the Blairites are suffering from a touch of the Habsburgs -- frantic innovation in the sight of oblivion -- but the New Labourite polity is as yet untested. The decisive argument, as always, is the go-and-put-away-your-anorak thesis. No one cares much about the constitution: even Europe and asylum policy only appeal to certain limited groups. So long as Gordon Brown remains Mr. Prudence then Jobs'n'Schools'n'Hospitals will see us through. But what happens once unemployment begins to rise? Once a Labour government has to decide between raising taxes and cutting public spending? Deprived of the narcotic of affluence, things could get nasty very quickly. The fuel protests of September 2000, caused by a mini-recession in the agricultural and haulage industries, show that our contemporary knowledge economy is increasingly sensitive to downturn and disturbance. In the busts of 1973, 1980-82 and 1991, a fierce Tory Britannic nationalism was at hand to keep the ship sailing. Who governs Britain? You, Ted, said a plurality of the British electorate (although Labour narrowly gained more seats). Margaret Thatcher stuck it to the Argies, and John Major improbably did the same to the Iraqis. Wake up and save the Union, quavered John from his soapbox. Major was always unconvincing under the aggressive Thatcherite mantle, but in 1992 the Conservatives polled more votes than any party before or since. The Tories subsequently fell apart when it was felt that Major was betraying Thatcherite British nationalism to the Europeans.

The dangerous deadwood was first laid up by the Tory right in the 1990s. Eurosceptic Conservatism has actually been in opposition since the Maastricht Treaty, and has had plenty of time to formulate its myth, a kind of Dolchstoss, or legend of the stab in the back. About five years ago, it went something like this: Great Britain is under attack from both within and without; the Brussels bureaucrats want to siphon sovereignty away from Westminster while at the same time creating unreal satrapies, "Euro-regions", to break up the country. Allied to them are Celtic splittists, the bastard cousins of the Irish republicans, and unscrupulous Labour politicians who have lost their socialism and therefore need new rules to win power. Most horribly, the spiritual heirs of the Sir Humphries bested by Saint Margaret, the minions of Heath, the old notional Tory "wets", are cravenly appeasing the schemes of the banana-straightening apparatchiki. Much of this is still intact. But since New Labour came to office, and since devolution, the register has been modulated and elaborated. Because Blair and his cohorts are associated with a "metropolitan liberal elite", a countrified cultural politics has become prominent -- see foxhunting. Among the enemies within are now to be found the multiculturalists and the "diluters" who are soft on immigration. This is beginning to sound more similar to continental "blood and soil" reaction -- in strange alliance with neoliberal economics -- if not Jörg Haider, then perhaps Silvio Berlusconi. Let me take you to a foreign land, indeed. The decomposition of traditional British political culture -- patricians versus the working class --, assiduously fostered by decades of Thatcherism, has produced conservatism eminently compatible with the post-Christian Democratic, European right. Stoiber, Seguin, Berlusconi, Fini, Bossi, Hague.

The Tory party has insufficient irony to appreciate the realignment. But there is another change: a shift of emphasis in some quarters from Britain at bay to England on the threshold of extinction. The slightly ramshackle edifice of the United Kingdom -- a multinational monarchy, premodern in basic structure -- was always a bit difficult to slot into purist monoculturalism. It is still true that the best way to deflate a national rightist is to mimic his goose-step walk. So long as Dad’s Army remained in the back of everybody’s mind, then folkish nationalism was itself foreign and silly. Don’t panic: we don’t do that sort of thing here you know. But the Second World War is stock with a falling rate of return, and the idea of Britain has failed to renew itself, despite the best efforts of Blair and co. England, on the other hand, is undeveloped terrain, hitherto obscured under Britishness, and ripe territory for the jackboots to stomp all over. Cue Teuton Townend, and his "Anglo-Saxon" identity march. About a year ago the journalist Simon Heffer produced a blueprint for another transformation, entitled Nor Shall my Sword. Rid of the Labourist Scots, and European bureaucracy, the Kingdom of England shall rise once again, pressing forwards the Thatcherite attack on welfare (Oh we mercantile buccaneers!) and abolishing the devolved pretensions of the Welsh. A strong DeValerist department of culture -- the parallel is Heffer’s own -- would enforce a single conception of Englishness across the arts and education, along the lines of the old policy of Eire. If it’s good enough for the Gaeltacht, then it’s good enough for Berkhamstead. This is far in advance of current Tory party policy. But even Conservatives too deeply wedded to Great Britain ever to think of giving her up are shrewd enough to see that Englishry offers a tempting way of denting the New Labour supremacy. English votes for English laws, grievance against Scottish ministers, a tax cut financed by reducing redistribution across the UK: this is all feasible politics, especially in the context of the myth of a Britain betrayed.

As usual, the Left is pissing around, worrying about the wrong thing. Last year the Runnymede commission gravely informed us that Britishness was racially coded. But it neglected to mention that this was underpinned by tacit assumptions about the ethnic identity of eighty percent of Britons, the inhabitants of England. Some of us are just hoping that it might all go away, and is more likely to if we all keep quiet about it. The republican and Euro-integrationist Professor Stephen Haseler flatly denies that England exists in any meaningful sense. A more moderate version of this belief is held by the advocates of regional democracy. I have some sympathy with the aspirations of regionalism, but it is an illusion to think that it offers some sort of panacea. Indeed, the one issue that provides regionalists with some scope for popularising their negligible cause is Barnett revision, a change in the geographical formula for distributing public money. This is likely to set the north-east, north-west, etc., against the Scots, and could end up by fuelling defensive nationalism.

What is missing from all of this is a positive conception of England, comfortable with a decentralised Britain and with European unity. The acute problem for the Left is that our genealogy is almost entirely British: the Rhondda and Red Clydeside are our family heirlooms. Our practical point of origin is the radicalism spread across the isles by the French Revolution. Inherited from the nineteenth-century Liberal party, the electoral geography of progressive politics still very roughly pits south Wales, mid-Scotland, the northern industrial areas and London against the English south and south-east. In this context, "New Labour New Britain" is an absolutely authentic successor to old Labour and old Liberalism. Even Orwell slips easily between Englishness and Britishness in his famous essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn": and the Left has usually taken this elision for granted. Unlike the Scots, the people of England do not have many civic structures to re-invent. There is the Church of England, the common law, and that’s about it. The dissenting memory is forced to push further back, to revolting peasants and stern roundheads. But while a small number of greens and anarchists might be happy to dig up St. George’s Hill, or to dress up like Ronald Hutton, cry "Ho for Merrie England!" and follow the ritual calendar, the fragments of an agrarian age are insufficient to the purpose.

There is one idea, though, or set of ideas that have authentic resonance and some contemporary familiarity. This is the idea of a Commonwealth, a community of rights and freedoms, with deep implications of equality and solidarity. In recent times, the term has been domesticated by the monarchy, but paradoxically this is its strength. When most people today hear the word "Commonwealth", they think of a cooperative club, sharing the English language alongside other means of expression, composed of many different racial and cultural groups. A Commonwealth is not defined by ethnicity. It suggests republicanism, but does not demand it. Socialists used to talk about the establishment of the cooperative commonwealth, and think how much more convincing the timid advocates of "stakeholding" would be, if they only were able to speak of the common right of all to power, wealth and to opportunity! The aridity of constitutional debate is generally attributed to the lack of connection it has with the type of society reformers want to create. So what if noughts and crosses are played slightly differently on ballot papers? How does that improve my wellbeing and fellowship with others? The advantage of a Commonwealth is that it suggests a type of egalitarian society, as well as a democratic civil order.

Some readers might feel uncomfortable with the limited nature of the Commonwealth of England. Just as the Commonwealth can admit differentiation within itself (for example, in devolution to counties, cities and regions) because it is an assemblage of concrete liberties, so it can be extended by mutual agreement to other parts of the British isles and of Europe. As Comrade Dominic Sandbrook, Stakhanovite, has remarked to me, there is no reason why there should not be a United Commonwealth of Europe, composed of commonwealths federated and allied. The claim is not that the idea of a Commonwealth is peculiarly and solely English, but that it offers a way of imagining England, rooted partly in English experience that is open and diverse in its very structure. If we are to avoid the hellish creep of ethnic exclusivism into the ideological vacuum of Britannic politics, then it is important that we begin to think along these or similar lines.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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