Transcript of my speech to the Convention on Modern Liberty, 28 February 2009
“I think almost every question that we have to deal with about the future of Britain revolves around what we mean by Britishness, whether it is asylum or immigration, the future of the constitution, our relationship with Europe or terrorism. Who we are, what we stand for, what we are fighting for, is crucial to any nation’s future in the modern world.”
Those are not my words, they are the words of Gordon Brown, speaking in 2005. But how true are they?
I certainly don’t view almost every political question through the prism of Britishness, I tend to view these questions on many levels, and one of those levels is as an Englishman. The Scottish Government, led by Alex Salmond, have their own ideas about immigration, the economy, their relationship with Europe and the constitution (which includes civil liberties). In Scotland they have thought about these issues as Scots and as they pertain to Scotland. It is perhaps because of this that Privacy International can praise Scotland for its civil liberties record while condemning the British Government for turning England and Wales into “endemic surveillance societies”. In England we are unlike Scotland because we allow the British state to retain the DNA profiles of innocent children, we have a national database of children and English kids are fingerprinted at school without their parents’ knowledge. This is not the England I want, these things are being done to England by a political class for whom the word England means absolutely nothing.
Gordon Brown continues:
“I want to have this debate…about whether Scotland has a different view of tolerance to England, or whether Scotland has a different view of the stiff upper lip and so on—I want to debate these things in far more detail.”
What has happened to that debate? We cannot have a debate on the ideological and political differences between England and Scotland because we are denied a debate about England and what it means to be English. The Government presses ahead with its Governance of Britain project, to define our values, and in Scotland there is a National Conversation (and Calman Commission), in Wales there’s a public debate called the All Wales Convention and in Northern Ireland a Human Rights Commission and an Assembly Road Show. For England there is nothing but denial. A point blank refusal by our politicians to mention the elephant in the room.
Gordon Brown tells us that Britain is based on a covenant that binds England, Wales and Scotland together and that there is no distinction between being proud to be British and being proud to be Scottish or Welsh because devolution acknowledges dual identity.
Well, if you’re Scottish or Welsh devolution does more than just acknowledge ‘dual identity’. Devolution is an act of national liberation, it is recognition of political and cultural difference, it’s a hiving off of political and moral authority, and it’s a division of those things that has occurred along national boundaries.
I would like to try a small experiment. I’d like everyone in the room to ask themselves three questions. Ask yourself:
1.What is my ethnic identity?
2.What is my national identity?
3.What is my state identity, my citizenship?
I’m ethnically English, my national identity is English (it’s England that has my allegiance, I feel that I belong to England and England belongs to me), and my state identity is British. My wife, on the other hand, is a Canadian citizen and her national identity is Canadian, so there is a marriage between her national identity and her citizenship – her national identity is formally recognised.
Now. This is not a test, national identity is a personal thing, and subjective, so don’t worry you’re not going to be judged on this. But can I have a show of hands to see who in the room considers their national identity to be British? (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown puts up her hand). And who considers their national identity to be Scottish? (Gerry Hassan puts up his hand)
The question that we should ask ourselves is why Yasmin and Gerry’s national identities should have constitutional recognition and political expression, but not mine?
In a speech to Guy’s IPPR in March 2008 Michael Wills went to great length to elaborate on why Britishness, and articulating our idea of Britishness, was so important, and he made great play on Britain’s tolerant and plural nature. British identity, he said, was different from English identity because it was “inherently inclusive”.
He then went on to reveal some IPSOS Mori polling (commissioned by the Ministry of Justice) that demonstrated that both whites and visible ethnic minorities have a greater sense of belonging to England than they do Britain.
To feel a sense of belonging to England is different to feeling comfortable describing yourself as English. Asians in Scotland, for instance, are much more likely to describe themselves as Scottish than English Asians are to describe themselves as English. The thought that I would like you to take away from this session is whether, in concentrating on building up Britishness, are we ignoring to our detriment the case for building an inclusive civic English national identity.
Before I came here I looked up liberty in the dictionary. There were a few definitions but the two that seemed most apt for this session on the national question were “the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges” and “the power of choice”.
I choose England.
I republish this speech because it asks a fundamental question about why some national identities should have formal recognition while others do not, but also because I want to make a point about nationalism and separatism. I call myself an English nationalist (despite the dirt that gets thrown at me for doing so) because I would like England to enjoy a discrete political identity and for English identity to form the basis of citizenship. We should celebrate an English national day, sing an English anthem, and elect an English government. I think there are benefits to be had from constitutional and cultural recognition of our society as a collective English demos. Does this mean that I am a separatist who wants to see an independent England? Not necessarily. The fact that my English identity goes unrecognised does not mean that I desire to put those who feel British-only or primarily British in my shoes – lacking political representation. I would much rather that the English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish AND British were represented. The fact that this wish seems unfathomable, unachievable or undesirable to the British political class (and to many Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English nationalists) does not dissuade me from the belief that a reformed union of nations would be the most desirable outcome.