English Civic Nationalism

The following article was written over ten years ago in 2005, hence the webarchive links.

It was with Helen’s recent post on British values in mind that I sat on my flight back to England reading the CRE’s paper ‘Citizenship and Belonging: What is Britishness?‘ (pdf).

It has long been my view that the British identity politics preached by the British government are a hamper to successful integration in England. The CRE’s paper reinforced that view; following are some selected extracts:

In England, white English participants perceived themselves as English first and British second, while ethnic minority participants perceived themselves as British; none identified as English, which they saw as meaning exclusively white people. Thus, the participants who identified most strongly with Britishness were those from ethnic minority backgrounds resident in England.

There is a difference between being British and being English. English is being indigenous, being white and from this country. But being British, the primary thing that comes to mind is that you have a British passport. The second thing is that you live here and you function here, in this society […] I am British. I am not English (Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, London)

For many ethnic minority participants, in particular, maintaining the difference between the English and the British was crucial, because this provided them with some space to belong.

This seemed to be more important for ethnic minority participants who lived in England than for those who lived in Scotland or Wales, where they were happy to take on those national identities.

At the most basic level, all British passport holders know they are British citizens. However, not everyone attaches any value significance to being British. In Scotland and Wales – and this is true among both white and ethnic minority participants – there was a much stronger identification with each country than with Britain.

We therefore found that most black Caribbean participants identified as black British in England, as black Scottish in Scotland and as black Welsh in Wales.

…it may be that partial devolution in Scotland and Wales means that Scottish, Welsh or even European identies become more attractive than a British identity.

Those extracts seem to suggest that the British government is failing in its aim to integrate immigrants in England, whilst the Scottish and Welsh governments are having some success in fostering a civic, rather than ethnic, nationalism in those countries. Immigrants to England feel distanced from the indigenous population; they largely regard themselves solely as British, certainly in a legal sense; they rarely regard themselves as English, which they see as a ethnic or racial identity.

Why is England failing where Scotland and Wales are succeeding? Well, a quote from Helen’s article may help shed some light:

…the government has announced that “All secondary school pupils could be taught about “core British values” such as freedom, fairness and respect under new plans unveiled today.

That British government directive applies only in England; in Scotland and Wales it is the concern of the Scottish and Welsh governments. Why does the British government feel the need to foster a sense of Britishness in an English population that feels palpably more English (and increasingly so) than British, and, conversely, why reinforce a sense of Britishness in an immigrant population that feels palpably more British than English?

The main drive towards this New Britishness comes from Gordon Brown who has his own political reason for moving against the swelling tide of English self-awareness. It’s a mad, bad and dangerous policy – he is playing fast and loose with identity politics for political gain – and the net result may not be a happy one. I forewarned of this in my article English Civic Nationalism which was first published on the Campaign for an English Parliament website in November. I hope it will find an interested readership here.

English Civic Nationalism

Nationalists are people that claim that the nation is the only legitimate basis of the state and that each nation is entitled to its own state. It is a fundamental belief, and the axis around which the world’s politics revolve. Those that claim it is not a fundamental belief are usually people who have their own political agenda, and who wish to see supra- or multi-national states formed from pre-existing nations. In time these multi-national states either become nations themselves, or fail, as we have witnessed in the cases of Yugoslavia, USSR and India, to name a few.

But the issue is more complex than that. ‘Nation’ can mean one of two things: an ethnic nation, based on a common ethnicity, collective identity and culture; or a nation based on shared purpose, beliefs and common goals, usually founded on such principles as democracy and individualism. In most nations though, or at least for most people in most nations, nationalism is a mixture of both these forms.

Academics refer to nationalism based around these two alternative definitions of ‘nation’ as ‘Ethnic Nationalism’ and ‘Civic Nationalism’. In the West, especially in multicultural nations, it is the commonly held view that only civic nationalism is acceptable. The USA and France are often held up as examples of nations based on ‘civic nationalism’ as both nations were founded on constitutions expressing common rights and privileges, and the principle of citizenship. Although, from an ethical standpoint, civic nationalism is preferable to ethnic nationalism (in multicultural states at least) the Los Angeles and Paris riots show that neither ideology is without its faults.

It could be said that Britain is an example of a state based on civic nationalism. After-all, we are a multi-ethnic and multi-national state, and, for all intents and purposes, a unitary nation with a shared purpose and equal constitutional rights for all. Or at least we were prior to 1998.

In 1998 Scotland became a nation apart, able to influence English and Welsh legislation, but spared from political interference from Wales, and, more importantly, from England and the English. Scottish nationalism was, and still is, a hybrid of civic and ethnic nationalism, but the path to independence – temporarily stalled by devolution – was driven mostly by ethnic nationalism and a hard-wired oppositional attitude towards the English. The Scots define themselves not as what they are, but as what they are not, and what they are not is Sassenachs.

When Scotland ring-fenced its legislation to prevent English interference, and when UK politicians started speaking of Scotland as ‘a proud historic nation’ (Tony Blair) and stating that ‘Scotland is a nation in its own right’ (Nick Raynsford – Labour Regions spokesman) without making similar claims on behalf of England, any sense of a shared collective purpose, for me at least, disappeared. Since that time politicians – most notably Gordon Brown – have invested a great deal of energy in trying to redefine Britain in terms of ideals that unite us and a shared collective purpose.

At the same time there has been an assault on English nationalism, with the Labour Party appealing to the Conservative Party to make devolution to Scotland work by not fanning the flames of English nationalism. Ostensibly Scottish nationalism is a civic nationalism, and Welsh nationalism too, otherwise the UK Government would have had trouble justifying it; and to their credit the SNP and Plaid Cymru are signed up to the European Free Alliance, a nationalist alliance that promotes civic, as opposed to ethnic, nationalism, and which supports all nations in their quest for self-determination. But the UK Government did not allow England the same right to self-determination as it offered Wales and Scotland in their 1997 referendums.

Last month Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in anticipation of an English Ashes triumph in her Independent column, complained that ‘If the cricket is won, many more white Britons will give up on Britain and take refuge in England’. The implication being that English nationalism is purely an ethnic nationalism based on skin colour (see The England Project).

Alibhai-Brown was followed by Vince Cable MP, in his Demos pamphlet on multiple identities, who compared English nationalists to Islamic fundamentalists and white supremacists by stating that ‘The threat to harmonious social relations in Britain comes from those who insist that multiple identity is not possible: white supremacists, English nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists’.

It should be remembered that both Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Vince Cable are nationalists themselves: civic British nationalists.

Vince Cable went on to say ‘This is the opposition and they have to be confronted. An important element in that confrontation is the assertion of a sense of Britishness’.

As someone that counts himself as an English nationalist – a civic nationalist – I was offended by these remarks and responded to Alibhai-Brown and Cable (see The Green Ribbon) in the same knee-jerk way that they no doubt made their remarks. Having had time to cool down and reflect I am still offended by their remarks, and see them as politically motivated, but I concede that they are at least partly correct.

Where they are correct is in the fact that, at the moment, English nationalism is mostly an ethnic nationalism. Immigrants that come to England are informed that they are now British, and they are. ‘British’ is not an ethnicity, Britain is a political construct that incorporates the different nations and ethnicities, and in that sense it can be argued that Britain was multi-cultural before the waves of immigration that began with the Empire Windrush.

The problem for English nationalists like myself is that for all our best intentions – arguing for an English parliament that represents all English people regardless of ethnicity – there is no civic nationalism in England, not for immigrants, not for anybody. We English have no collective political representation that allows for an expression of our collective political will, and many or most of our cultural and civic institutions have been appropriated for Britain. Scotland has a Scottish parliament to which all Scots, regardless of ethnicity, elect their Scottish representatives. The Scots also have a National Library of Scotland, a National Portrait Gallery and a National Gallery, and much else besides. Taken apart these things mean little, but taken together an immigrant to Scotland – and I lived there myself for five years – is left in little doubt as to what nation they are in. Minority ethnicities in Scotland are much more likely to prefix their ethnicity with ‘Scottish’ than ethnic minorities in England are inclined to prefix their ethnicity with ‘English’. In fact ethnic minorities in England almost always refer to themselves as ‘British-[insert ethnicity here]’. It makes sense as that is how the Government defines them. This fact annoys me greatly, and I think it is divisive and damaging to race relations in England, but that said I don’t blame the immigrants I blame the political establishment and the race-relations industry.

Without any form of civic nationalism the English seem only to be able to express themselves through sporting tribalism and xenophobia. That is a sweeping statement, but it seems to be the widely held opinion of what Orwell referred to as English intellectuals, particularly those on the left. The Government’s steadfast refusal to allow or build any form of English civic nationalism has created a situation where English pride is exhibited in moments of pure tribalism; St George’s Day and sporting victories are the only times that England’s flag can be waved without accusations of racism. This is wrong, the English flag should fly above the English National Library, the English National Museum, the English Portrait Gallery and, YES, the English Parliament and Executive. Only in that way can we build a civic nationalism for England in which all can take pride. The Government are culpable in making ‘English’ a synonym for ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and in being so they have played into the hands of what Vince Cable refers to as ‘white supremacists’, which – by the way Vince – is not a synonym for ‘English nationalist’.

‘English’ cannot any longer be permitted to be solely an ethnic description, it must embody more than that. The absurdity of Tebbit’s cricket test is plain for all to see:

A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?

Immigrants to England cannot be informed they are British and then implored to support the English cricket team. Why should they when they are British not English? Why should they take any note of England’s history or achievements prior to the Act of Union when Britain and their adopted ‘Britishness’ came into being? The sense of Englishness is growing, it has been well documented, and a divide is opening up in England between that part of society that define themselves as English and those that don’t. It is noticeable that those that don’t are overwhelmingly from non-white sections of the population, although it is also noticeable, and encouraging, that some blacks do refer to themselves as English. I think that this black-led revelation has come about through inclusion in English sport; it certainly hasn’t come about thanks to the race-relations industry or Government; both of whom constantly seek to define them as Black-British, and whose very policies exclude them from Englishness.

The ‘Death of Britain’ has also been widely documented – Hitchens, 1999; Heffer, 1999; Redwood, 1999; Marr, 2000; Nairn, 2000 – but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all be British citizens with equal political and constitutional rights within Britain, and with a democratic say in the way our own nations are run. That is the only way that it can work, the British onion cannot be put back together. Welsh, Scottish and English nationalism are all out of their own halves and running towards the opposition’s unguarded goal. The only guard against a certain goal is in creating an inclusive civic nationalism not just for Britain, but for England, Scotland and Wales. And that’s the task that faces British nationalists like Vince Cable and Alibhai-Brown if they want a civic and civil Britain. Trying to keep the English from asserting their Englishness all the while talking down English nationalism as if it were any less valid or worthy than Scottish, Welsh or British nationalism is simply no longer an option.

The freedoms bequeathed by England to the United Kingdom, guaranteed by law, represented an exceptional method of social integration, ‘the most civilized and the most effective method ever invented by mankind’ (1948: 476; 489-90). This method of social integration translated a specific aspect of the English political tradition – parliamentary sovereignty – into a British one in order to secure the unity of the United Kingdom (Crick 1991). This made the development of a specifically English nationalism not only counter-productive but also irrelevant (Crick 1995). This has been usually interpreted as an expression of English arrogance. The opposite reading can also be made and it is possible to interpret it as an expression of English modesty, for what is often ignored is the attraction of English civilisation as a method of social integration. In the mid-nineteenth century even one of the stalwarts of the proud Edinburgh Review was prepared to declare that ‘the nearer we (the Scots) can propose to make ourselves to England the better’ (cited in Massie 2002: 13). Moreover, its method of social integration was also here a method of multi-national integration. England, while remaining England, ‘a concrete reference’ for poets, in a real sense also became Britain, as its economy drew in the Irish, Scots and Welsh. As an ‘absorptive patria’, there was no need to base Englishness on blood or soil or even a flag and ‘flying the Cross of St George was a protest or a foible, usually Socialist or Anglican’ (Grainger 1986: 53-5). The good fortune of this social and national integration relied in large measure upon the relatively stable identity that England gave to England/Britain (Stapleton 1999). The United Kingdom was a nationality not a nation, one that had taught ‘its citizens at one and the same time to glory both in the name of Scotsmen or Welshmen or Englishmen and in the name of Britons.’ (Barker 1928: 17). — Arthur Aughey

We need to glory again in the name of Scotsmen or Welshmen or Englishmen and in the name of Britons, but in a multi-racial society we can only do this through fostering a sense of civic nationalism and pride in our collective and separate identities.

Blaming the English

Over the past few years numerous constitutional experts and political observers have been warning that the English feel disenfranchised and alienated from Westminster. English identity has risen and become politicised, perhaps as a badge of resistance against the British state, the European Union, globalisation and immigration; and British identity has decreased, to the point where only the denizens of London feel more British than English. Campaigners such as myself have argued strongly that England requires the same sort of democratic recognition of nationhood and national identity as is enjoyed by Scotland, namely its own parliament and government. Our argument is that an English parliament gives legitimate expression to English national identity, making English identity more inclusive and constructive instead of a badge of resentment. The British political elite were frightened of normalising English national identity in case they ‘fanned the flames of English nationalism’ and instead offered fig leaves in the shape of regional assemblies, regional ministers, elected mayors, English votes on English laws, city regions and police commissioners – anything other than recognition of England as a discrete nation and source of political identity and citizenship.

The result is an England that feels it has no voice and no one who will speak for it.  And so here we are.  The English have given the British a damn good hiding in a referendum on the EU, and in doing so have delivered an existential crisis to both unions of which they are a part.  No one can claim that the British Establishment weren’t warned.  IPPR, Arthur Aughey, John Denham, Michael Kenny, Simon Lee, Frank Field, Anthony Barnett , myself and many others have all repeatedly warned that there needs to be recognition of the growing English demos.

Scandalously the English, and in particular the English working class, are now getting the blame for voting against the wishes of the British and European political establishments that not only failed to recognise their nationhood but actively tried to suppress it.

There are many factors that that played into how people voted in the EU referendum: economic vibrancy, immigration, democracy and sovereignty. One issue that hasn’t been explored (or at least I haven’t seen it) is the issue of civic identity. The two parts of the UK that voted overwhelmingly to remain are Scotland and London, both of which have a very strong and inclusive sense of citizenship/civic identity. In England there is no civic nationalism, evidenced by the fact that we have no parliament; and Wales, although it has an assembly, has always had more of a cultural – linguistic – nationalism.

So I would like to float the idea – admittedly only a hypothesis – that the British Government may have lost the EU referendum because successive British Governments denied England a parliament and denied the English the chance to feel secure in, and positive about, their national identity.

Rising from the Ashes

Toque started off life in 2005 as a blog to document my life as an immigrant in Canada. Predictably it rapidly evolved into a political blog and within months incorporated ‘The Witanagemot Club‘ for bloggers in support of an English parliament.

The original blog was in Movable Type and looked like this. I migrated to WordPress when MT became overrun with spam, and later moved to Drupal just for the challenge. Over the past five years, since I became a father, the time available for blogging has been severely limited. Not only do kids take up your free time, they also exhaust you and wake you up early, so blogging into the wee small hours as I used to became a liability.

It is now over two years since I posted anything on Toque but the present political climate has tempted me out of retirement. I feel the need to add my small voice to the cacophony of political and constitutional noise without boring my Facebook friends to death. So a WordPress version of Toque is reborn, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of my falling-apart Drupal installation. I couldn’t be bothered to port the old content across but I have kept an off-line back-up of the content for reference. So I’m starting afresh. A brand new blog. I won’t hit the heights of my old web traffic (see below) because I still have kids, but I will once again have a place to vent my occasional frustration.