The Emerging Nation of England

The 6 May 2011 election – the serious one in Scotland, not the pretendy AV one managed by the British state – has led to serious gnashing of teeth in the larger part of this island. This moment of historical crisis has threatened the constitutional settlement which has kept both main state-capitalist parties in place, and brought home the reality that nothing has been gained from the apparent boom years. The key term, the nation housing 85 per cent of the United Kingdom’s population, has been increasingly revealed as eclipsed by a history running from eighteenth-century empire to twenty-first century centre of ‘empty’ finance. But what happened to England – not Anglo-Britain, not the England still imagined to have a foreign office, but England as a lived place? Is it to be left, as state media often strongly implied during the early phase of devolution, to a kind of ‘nationalist extremism’ identified, illogically, with the British National Party and the English Defence League? But the urgency of the negotiated, post-British environment means that this ideology-pressed confusion has had its day. Like any other emerging nation, England now has to take on the hard work of creating and articulating values to allow it to take its place in an international environment.

This moment can be placed in a line with at least three English attempts to pull away from British Empire. Firstly, after World War One there was a contestation between nostalgic attempts to reclaim the state-national values of the Pax Britannica, and an anti-enclosures exploration of England as place which also often skirted some of the restless energy of modernism. The second, in many ways related, moment, saw a rise in critical social realism and anti-establishment critique after the waning of British consensus in the mid-1950s, triggered by Suez and Hungary, and represented in the universities and Left Review and New Left Review, where the nation was often seen as a whole way of life, and the myth of social mobility was debunked as less common but more visible (a critique somewhat in the tone of SLR Issue 66 editorial’s critique of the Blair era). Thirdly, a identification of a democratic deficit was identified throughout the United Kingdom from the turn of the 1980s when, despite much concentration on a paradigm shift to neoliberalism, the state retained its old shape but became stronger and less interested in local, personally meaningful relationships – galvanising a state-sceptical left joined along lines of constitutionalism, resistance to non-productive economics, and direct action, typified by anti-nuclear activism and a ‘DIY culture’.

If this escalation led to an irresistible demand for devolution – which the Labour Party still often believed could be controlled by regionalism or ‘joined-up government’, it also ushered in an age when England would ultimately be forced to redefine itself. Initial overtures took the form of an unconvincing ‘defence’ of unreflective Anglo-British values (Scruton, Paxman, Heffer, Peter Hitchens, Redwood), setting the tone for what I have called, because of its reliance on the idea of a ‘silent’ or ‘secret’ people, ‘neo-secrecy’: the claim that England is being put-upon (by immigrants, by the EU, by Scottish benefit junkies), while suggesting no steps towards English self-determination – and so leaving a background British nationalism intact. The ‘soft’ British nationalism working through everyday practices and cultures (in Michael Billig’s terms a ‘banal nationalism’) is nevertheless unusually ideologically strong since it is not accountable to any national form or any constitutional participation. Since the turn of the millennium England has been marked by a neo-secrecy which took on the scale of the kind of grievance industry it often itself decried in multiculturalism, while acting within the wider safety zone of a surveillance state.

In fact, it takes a journey quite far towards the Powellite right to get any serious purchase on English institutionality, as Tom Nairn long since realised. The rank and file of the Daily Telegraph will not touch this kind of English self-determination: what will be found in its comments columns is, to this day, a neo-secrecy which seems to have much to say about English ways, but which supports banal British nationalism not only by refusing to suggest English institutionality, but more seriously even ways in which England might become a participant in any future negotiation of post-British sovereignty. The implication is that England will simply wait for Scots to show their grievances by leaving the UK (an illogical construction, of course, since Scotland is not separate) – and this stance itself constitutes a form of grievance, leaving England with only the most reactive characteristics on the British union. At the other end of the unionist pantomime The Guardian has consistently made sure that ‘nationalism’ has been demonised as extremism – the BNP, the EDL, and so on – even as an increasingly extreme British nationalism was itself being built up.

Like any other emerging nation, England now has to take on the hard work of creating and articulating values to allow it to take its place in an international environment

The question of why English and banal-British nationalism can have been so casually equated for so long has attracted various explanations, including Ian Baucom’s description of England’s displacement in empire, Michael Keating’s account of the managerial rehashings of regionalism since the 1970s, and Ben Wellings’s identification of a blurry response to an apparent invasion by the EU (and the spectre of invasion into Britain has been part of the state’s cohesive makeup from the French Revolution to the War on Terror). In any case, because the journalistic portrayals of Anglo-Britishness have been so reactive, since May 2011 unionist commentators and think tanks have had a torrid time with the spectre of a separate England – Blue Labour was a particularly noxious example of where this led, trying to claim that Burkean conservatism was somehow socialist, and making no attempt to distinguish between lived Englishness and the British state. The desperation which arose was sometimes of the Guardian emotionally-wounded type, ably dealt with by Gerry Hassan and others, and some was more overtly party-political bent which believed that the Labour Party would be finished after secession –without any serious evidence, since all measurements are by definition British, and the suppression of the possibilities of the national are its very raison d’état. Whether the Labour Party should be finished after the 2000s is another question, but the connection between a self-determining England would be made up of low-Tory Eurosceptics is not proven. Indeed both main British parties, which have long occupied right-authoritarian stances, realise that national Englishness is one of the most terrifying prospects for the British political classes, and this sense of terror helps explain why national England gets so little serious consideration in the mainstream media.

From both sides, either the centre-right neo-secrecists or the bluey-purple Labourites, a quietism is in effect a solidly Burkean-conservative admission that Englishness cannot be proactive, local, egalitarian, and that it will revert to a received form which is beholden to heritage and a particularly ahistorical understanding of ‘tradition’ – and moreover that this process will take place with reference to the body which has caused the eclipse of England. But a self-determining England would almost definitely be faced with a new set of voting and participatory choices – the current Parliamentary system is tailored to union, and is not in fact ‘a thousand years old’ – and it is quite possible that England will seize a chance for a more participatory democracy (and, as I have argued elsewhere, the 2000 GLA elections were a serious marker of this). What is essential is to allow England to participate in negotiations over sovereignty during the terminal phase of devolution. This is not to argue that England should force itself on the world as a great power (no such neo-imperial action will work), nor even that there should be an English nation-state. But there does need to be a moment where England passes through the national as an articulation of action and away from its displaced imperial image – and this can seriously be described as a postcolonial moment, freeing the empire’s last and most embroiled territory.

The cosy moment of crypto-unionist quietism I have described as neo-secrecy was always likely to be shattered, but its destruction has been accelerated by the financial crisis which began in 2007-08 which shows that the UK could not go on indefinitely on an ‘empty’ economy run for the short-term benefits of the political classes, then by minority and majority victories of the SNP in 2011 which ruined the regional-managerial dream of joined-up government, and then by the English riots of summer 2011, which showed the pressures of disenfranchisement forced up against over-consumption. The SNP may have been unjustifiably smug in pointing to a sense of social democracy which suggested that it could never happen here – but the fact remains that England is the only one of the UK’s members which has no national participation in the political, and so has another level of alienation built in. English national movements should pull away from neo-secrecy towards not just stating the taboo of the ‘English national’ – still something that takes a bit of daring in the mainstream media – but putting some action behind it.

An England which is local but cohered by shared, post-British values based on lived experience, should have nothing to do with the politics of grievance encouraged by the unionist media. The problem is not that England has been put-upon or attacked, or betrayed by Scots (and there is an odd logic to the way the Barnett Formula or block grants are almost always bemoaned by British unionists). England needs ground-up alternatives to the reproduced and displaced cultural image of itself which delivered power in empire. To an extent the reinvention of England will be forced by concrete constitutional issues surrounding the Scottish independence referendum and the uncontrollable results of of devolution (which will not go away, even if a referendum returns a negative result). Also though, the financial crisis should be seen as representing the final failure of the export of British empire, revealing an empty global neocolonial economy with nothing to back it, whose indebtedness has been forced inwards to consume its own working-class (a process sometimes known as ‘endocolonisation’). This situation may look dark because the Anglo-British constitution, based on precedent and so untouchable by any person or organisation in present tense, and liable to manipulation as it was under Blairism, obscures the possibilities for action. Nevertheless pressed by the real challenges to the constitution forced by both the Scottish Government and the way the decimation of the British economy is falling disproportionately on the already disadvantaged, this moment represents the first opportunity in centuries for England to assert a set of values which opposes the vested interests of the imperial British political class. And while August’s riots represent a poor articulation of this disenfranchisement, nor will England’s emergence be articulated by the voices of the banal-British-nationalist journalistic right. These commentators may seem to like England so much that they will protect it from all invaders, but they don’t like the place so much that they have the courage to go there.