The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

Mini Teaser: What if not just the institutions but the allegiances and even the identity of Britain were fundamentally to alter? Until quite recently such a hypothesis would have seemed risible. But suddenly it is not.

by Author(s): Robin Harris

The continued existence of Britain as a medium-sized power with a
more than medium-sized role has long been one of the given
assumptions of international affairs. It is also a strategically
crucial American assumption. Enthusiasts for the "special
relationship" extol alleged Anglo-Saxon commonalities of culture,
values, and understanding. For their part, the more realpolitik-ally
minded emphasize instead Britain's unique status as a UN Security
Council member with a first-rate professional army, and at the same
time a country with no psychological inhibitions about accepting the
realities of American world leadership.

But what if all that were to change? What if not just the
institutions but the allegiances and even the identity of Britain
were fundamentally to alter? Until quite recently such a hypothesis
would have seemed risible. But suddenly it is not. For, though most
of the rest of the world has not yet grasped it, Britain is now
Balkanizing and, as elsewhere, the dynamic imperative in the process
is changing national awareness.

The British, and especially the English, have traditionally
considered themselves above nationalism. The Right has understood
that as well as the Left. For example, in his Dictionary of Political
Thought, Roger Scruton, Britain's leading conservative political
philosopher, notes: "In the United Kingdom nationalism is confined to
the celtic fringes, where it has been associated with movements for
home rule in Ireland, Scotland and--to some extent--Wales. English
nationalism is virtually unknown, at least under that description."

Professor Scruton's judgment has an array of disparate evidence to
support it. But one of the more revealing testimonies is provided by
music. Here the uneasiness of the nation with reflective
self-definition is quite apparent. The British national anthem is,
for instance, an expression of loyalty not to the nation but to the
sovereign--even though he is slightly ominously urged to "defend our
laws and ever give us cause" to continue to sing "God Save the King."
"Rule Britannia", composed in 1740, is a somewhat strange affair. It
refers specifically to Britain's naval prowess ("rule the waves") and
to its political freedom ("Britons never will be slaves"), but not to
its cultural identity or geographical characteristics, or even its
people. "Land of Hope and Glory", though evocative of patriotic pride
for the wartime generation, is in essence just a celebration of
imperialism: "Wider and still wider shall thy bounds be set; / God
who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet." It is, observably, the
expansion that is celebrated, not the characteristics of the national
identity expanding.

As for English nationalism, it has generally been a subject for
ribaldry. This was so in Victorian times when Gilbert and Sullivan's
"H.M.S. Pinafore" ironically extolled the First Lord of the Admiralty
who, "in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations,
remain[ed] an Englishman." And it was still the case in the 1960s,
when in their comic "Song of the English" Michael Flanders and Donald
Swan sought to remedy the lack of a suitable national song with a
composition whose chorus line runs: "The English, the English, the
English are best: I couldn't give tuppence for all of the rest"--a
refrain that even the most enthusiastic anglophobe would admit to be

None of which, of course, is to suggest that the British in general,
or the English in particular, have altogether lacked self-awareness.
The apparent absence of introspection has often been a pose. But it
began as a reflection of the reality that the British in their heyday
did not need to assert their national identity because it was already
so pervasive. And not just good manners but common prudence required
that such power be cloaked in a degree of self-effacement.

When Britain's Empire bestrode the globe and the schoolroom maps were
largely colored red, London was a vantage point for overseas advance,
not a refuge for a threatened society in retreat. The mentality this
induced still affects the outlook of the older generation of British
politicians. In her memoirs, The Path to Power, Margaret Thatcher
describes her first visit as a young girl from a provincial town to
the metropolis:

"For the first time in my life I saw people from foreign countries,
some in the traditional native dress of India and Africa. The sheer
volume of traffic and of pedestrians was exhilarating; they seemed to
generate a sort of electricity. London's buildings were impressive
for another reason; begrimed with soot, they had a dark imposing
magnificence which constantly reminded me that I was at the centre of
the world."

The notion of London being "at the centre of the world" may already
have been wishful thinking by the 1930s. But it was a pretty accurate
description of geopolitical realities over much of the previous two
centuries. In such circumstances, it was only natural that the
constituent components of the British state--English, Scots, Welsh,
and even on occasion Irish--were generally prepared to ignore their
national differences. Britain thus became that very rare entity--a
multinational nation-state.

Of course, it was never entirely harmonious. Not just Scots but even
some die-hard English objected to subordinating their primary
national identity in the wake of the 1707 Act of Union between
England and Scotland. But the economic benefits arising from the
removal of internal trade barriers reconciled all those actively
prepared to exploit the new opportunities. Even the irreconcilables,
alienated by religion and culture from the new dispensation, were
less united than they have sometimes been portrayed. Nowadays
historians recognize that the 1745 Jacobite rebellion--the last
rising by the supporters of the Stuart cause--was about religion and
the distinctive problems of the Scottish highlanders, not essentially
about the fate of an as yet largely unformed "Scottish nation." As
many Scots--perhaps even as many highlanders--fought on the "English"
as on the "Scottish" side at the subsequent Battle of Culloden. It
took the romantic genius of Sir Walter Scott to turn the highlanders
into a quaint epitome of Scottishness--though arguably he and his
later, more clod-hopping successors thereby did the Scots no favors
by encouraging them to cultivate a mythic reality that a recent
Scottish writer has described as "the Bogus State of Brigadoon."

The Welsh, having been formally united with England since Henry
VIII's reign, are accordingly even better integrated into the British
framework. In fact, over the years most of Wales has been
economically, socially, and culturally anglicized, sharing fully in
the ups and downs of Britain's industrial economy and absorbing a
large English immigration. Admittedly, the western part of Wales has
retained use of its own distinct language. But the four-fifths of the
Welsh population who only speak English regard the resolve of the
Principality's dogmatically multiculturalist political elite to
impose bilingualism as a tiresome and inconvenient obsession.
Language is thus tangential to the question of whether Welsh
nationalism can properly be said to exist. Certainly, anyone who
witnesses the reaction of the Welsh spectators at Cardiff Arms Park
when Wales plays England at rugby will be conscious of pride and
passion. And there is a distinctive religious, cultural, and
political atmosphere which strikes the Englishman who ventures far
beyond Offa's Dyke. But then something similar is true of Yorkshire,
Cornwall, and other English outlying provinces too.

The Irish were always, of course, in a different category. To a
greater extent than either Scotland or Wales, Ireland was subdued and
colonized through the brutal assertion of English power. Moreover,
the Irish question after the Henrician Reformation was both affected
by and has itself constantly exacerbated the anti-Catholicism of the
British state. Yet even so, today's Irish nationalists are wrong to
portray the relationship between the Irish and English as exclusively
one of struggle and repression. In truth, Ireland can as little shake
off itsEnglish connection as the English can disentangle themselves
from the fate of Ireland. One commentator, arguing the case (albeit
tongue in cheek) for re-unification of the Irish North and South, but
within the United Kingdom, has pointed out:

"A man from Mars would find it difficult to understand why there are
two states in the British Isles in the first place. None of the usual
ethnic or linguistic criteria for nationhood seems to apply in this
[Irish] case. A glance at the current Irish cabinet reveals nine
Irish surnames, six English or Scottish and one [de Valera] Spanish."

There was moreover another, oddly perverse, effect of the tangled and
treacherous Anglo-Irish relationship. This was that the perceived
danger from Catholic Ireland long provided an element of ideological
solidarity for Britain as a whole. During most of the days of
Empire--until, in fact, the Catholic Emancipation Act of
1829--Britain was a self-consciously Protestant state in which
predominantly Protestant Welsh, Scots, and Ulstermen were its
especially representative citizens. Of course, the later decline of
Empire and the processes of secularization and liberalization would
weaken those bonds. This is Linda Colley's influential thesis:

"As an invented nation heavily dependent for its raison d'être on a
broadly Protestant culture, on the threat and tonic of recurrent war,
particularly war with France, and on the triumphs, profits and
Otherness represented by a massive overseas empire, Britain is bound
now to be under immense pressure. . . . [T]he re-emergence of Welsh,
Scottish and indeed English nationalism . . . can be seen not just as
the natural outcome of cultural diversity, but as a response to a
broader loss of national, in the sense of British, identity."

Essay Types: Essay