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

Illuminating as it is, this analysis only partly explains why the
sense of British national identity has weakened so much. For it does
not take account of the fact that the inhabitants of the United
Kingdom today also feel less British because they have been
systematically persuaded that all of the more recognizable features
of Britishness--language, history, tradition, ethnic homogeneity--are
suspect. This is a long process with parallels in other modern
nation-states. But recently it has taken a new twist with the
election of Tony Blair's New Labour government, which has managed to
provide a fresh challenge to the concept of British nationhood by
making it seem at once rebarbative and ridiculous.

Mr. Blair and his colleagues have declared war on British history.
The prime minister confessed early on to feeling that "British
pageantry is great, but it does not define what Britain is today."
The process of "re-branding" Britain then proceeded apace. Initially,
four gray plastic "space-age pods", created by a well-known exhibitor
of erotic designs, were installed on Horse Guard's Parade--the
traditional site for Trooping the Colour, one of the more effective
bits of British pageantry--and were used to display "cool" British
products. Then a video was circulated among Commonwealth leaders
improbably depicting "Britain: The Young Country."

But most effort to design a new politically correct Britain has gone
into the £800 million Millennium Dome at Greenwich. The creative
director of the project has made it clear that he sees no place in
the Dome for the Union Jack (the British national flag), or for
"other nationalistic" features that would "give the wrong signals."
Apparently without intended irony, and in the absence of a
conventional Britannia with her lion and trident, it has been decided
that a sixty-foot high metal statue of a woman with a tiny head, long
legs, and muscular thighs will straddle the Greenwich meridian line
next to the Thames. This intimidating Amazon has been described by
government spokesmen as intended to represent the "New Britannia", or
alternatively to be "a universal figure which draws on the history of
all people."

A Kind of Nationalism

Both the complex historical and the crass contemporary reasons for a
decline in the sense of being British affect the English, as well as
the Scots, Welsh, and Irish, but necessarily in somewhat different
ways. This is because for most of our history as a politically united
island no clear distinction was drawn between Englishness and

In this matter, assumptions tell their own story. When Admiral Nelson
signaled before the Battle of Trafalgar that "England expects every
man will do his duty" he was not thereby excusing the fleet's
Scottish, Welsh, and Irish sailors from doing theirs. When John
Buchan wrote that "[British] Imperialism is . . . a sense of the
destiny of England", he was not thus implicitly excluding his fellow
Scots from the Imperial enterprise. In the era of British greatness
it was indeed quite difficult for foreigners to work out just who
among the powerful people they encountered was not English--like that
confused eighteenth-century Italian hotelier who remarked, "We have
ten inglese in tonight, four of them French, five German, and a

The identification of the British with the English was in fact quite
understandable. After all, the language spoken in the British Isles,
outside of a part of the (ethnically misnamed) Celtic fringe, was
quite definitely and properly described as English. And language then
as now was one of the principal accepted determinants of nationhood.
Norman French, Gascons, Welshmen, Scots, Dutch, and Germans--all have
over the centuries sat on the English/British throne. But from the
early fifteenth century on--when Henry V was the first English king
to write letters in English--the conduct of important affairs in
Britain has mainly been in the English language.

English economic, political, and cultural dominance of Britain is the
central fact of British history. Both opponents and defenders of the
Union often feel unhappy about accepting that--the former because it
puts into sober historical perspective the grandiose claims for
Scottish, Welsh, and Irish separateness, the latter because it
provides an all too brutal reminder of what the Union of the United
Kingdom in fact signifies.

It is rare for nations to challenge political structures that they
already dominate. But there are exceptions. It was the Russians, to
whom all other inmates of the "Prisonhouse of Nations" had to defer,
who finally overthrew the Soviet Union, and it was dominant but
paranoid Serbs who rendered Yugoslavia unviable. The English may, in
very different circumstances but with equal lack of reflection, be
starting to drift along the same route.

A kind of English nationalism is now astir in Britain. Those two
overused words, "kind of", are however required, for English
nationalism is as yet underdeveloped. It puts in a regular appearance
at middle-class English dinner tables, invoked by grumbles about the
Scots. It is speculated about by Tory politicians anxious for a
cause, and worried about by Labour strategists. It is the regular
stuff of journalists' gossip. Indeed, The Spectator has opened its
columns to continuing debate on the issue. (Hence the frequent
references here to contributions to that journal.)

Under the Cross of St. George

But the change is perhaps clearest at the bottom of the social
pile--and it is difficult to get much lower in any heap of humanity
than the English football hooligan. Though there is a precedent. As
in the public games of old Byzantium, where the rival teams of
"greens" and "blues" also formed the core of a primitive party
system, so in Mr. Blair's Britain, where any debate on national
identities is frowned upon as atavistic, it is reasonable to look to
sport to understand what the English feel about their political
identity. When in 1966 the English national football team played in
the final of the World Cup, London's Wembley stadium was a waving
forest of Union Jacks, symbols of the United Kingdom of England,
Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But in the summer of 1998 it
was all quite different. The Union Jacks were now replaced by the
red-on-white Cross of St. George, the national flag of England.
Streaming from giant banners, painted on thefaces of lager-louts in a
hundred English urban centers, finally worn by chanting mobs in the
back streets of Marseilles, the Cross of St. George was omnipresent.
In such circumstances the genie of a kind of English nationalism
finally burst from its bottle, which was then smashed in some
unfortunate Frenchman's face.

Hardly less significant was the reaction to the misbehavior of the
English fans. There were, of course, condemnations and apologies by
British ministers. But the immediate response of the fans themselves,
and indeed of the media commentators until their more politically
correct editors got to them, was quite different. As one sympathetic
television report had a whining hooligan explain: "Since the
afternoon, the Tunisians were provoking us, insulting us and making
obscene gestures. Some young English fell into the trap and couldn't
contain themselves."

It is, of course, tempting to consider the behavior of the "young
English" as an unfortunate but essentially insignificant reflection
of the wider problem of the underclass. But this would be mistaken.
There may be many reasons why the "young English" riot, not least
among them being that working-class English youths have always
traditionally had a proclivity for violence: when harnessed, it has
in the past been turned to formidable use in the armed forces. But
there is a special reason why the "young English" gathered for mayhem
under the Cross of St. George in such numbers this summer. They had
lost--or more accurately had been deprived of--a sufficiently
compelling British national identity, and they wanted to flaunt, in
the way they best knew how, a new identity that they had made their
own. In this, the English condition has something in common with the
next most frequent offenders among World Cup fans, the Germans, whom
English hooligans now apparently regard as their most worthy
opponents. The Germans are expected to channel their national
self-interest through the European Union, and the English through the
Union of the United Kingdom. And in neither case is it now enough.

Nor did the new flag disappear with the dismal termination of
England's participation, or even with the World Cup competition. For
a full two months the Cross of St. George flew from London taxis, was
draped outside pubs, and became the all-purpose motif for tee-shirts.
Indeed, only the implacable depression of a chilly, drizzly English
autumn proved sufficient to break the spell of English fervor: by
October the red-white bunting had at last been taken in. But by now
the middle classes and the chattering classes had woken up to the

Indeed a handful of intellectuals had already done so, betraying the
tell-tale signs of disillusionment with the traditional concept of
Britain and hankering after a more congenial English identity. The
novelist Peter Vansittart, author of In Memory of England (1998), is
not himself apparently interested in politics; he is concerned with
investigating the historic character of the English. For all that,
his reflections are a sign of the current national mood of
self-analysis. By contrast, Edwin Jones does have an implicit program
in The English Nation: The Great Myth (1998). His purpose is to
expose the myths, as he sees them, that have led the English to think
of themselves as UN-European, and his goal is to restore the nation's
true organic identity.

Essay Types: Essay