Ed Miliband: British nationalist.

Posted on June 12, 2012 by | 3 Comments

By Lallands Peat Worrier – this post first appeared on his blog

The name may not be familiar, but most of you are likely to have come across some permutation of the “Moreno scale” in your time.  An attempt to measure national identities where dual loyalties may obtain, the Moreno measure sets the two potential identities against one another, obliging respondents to reject or give priority to one over the other, or in the alternative, hold the pair in balanced equilibrium.  In Scottish surveys, the focus has been Scottishness and Britishness, and the options usually take the following form:

Scottish not British
More Scottish than British
Equally Scottish and British
More British than Scottish
British not Scottish

For my part, I’m decidedly of the leftmost extreme.  I do not and have never felt British.  It is a concept which seems to address other people: I can’t find myself in it. Although I’ve lived and lived happily in England since the autumn of 2009, this resolution has not wavered, and is unaltered.  For me, concepts of Britishness generate only antipathy, and I find that I rub along quite cheerfully with my English neighbours as a Scot, without any need for an interceding British identity common to us both to form warm and meaningful ties.  Like my friends and colleagues who hail from Ireland – or Canada, or America, or linguistically adept folk from anywhere elsewhere in the world – shared language and common interests mediate the possibility of conviviality and social comity far more tellingly than any supervening national identity.

In his “Defending the Union in England” speech this week, Ed Miliband applied himself to these sort of concerns. “What does this summer say about the United Kingdom? What does it say about our identity as a people in 2012?”, the Labour Leader asks, continuing on that in Scotland “the debate about who we are is in full force: “To stay in the United Kingdom or to leave? To be Scottish or British or both?” Note the framing. In a terse couple of sentences, Milliband has identified the independence referendum primarily as a test of popular feeling of identity.   On the logic he is propounding, if you are Scottish not British, you’ll vote yes in the referendum – anything else, and you’ll be opposed.

What is interesting and curious about this account of the referendum is that it relies on an argument Miliband explicitly denigrates elsewhere. “The nationalist case, wherever we find it, is based on the fallacy that one identity necessarily erodes another”, he claims.  While this might be true for the black-white nationalist, if Miliband rejects this sort of logic, how can the independence referendum be a choice between being Scottish and British? On his own terms, rather than those of the straw man he duffs up, how can this characterisation of the referendum make any sort of sense?

He quotes no nationalist who has framed the referendum as a moment of choice between being British vs Scottish, so he isn’t rebutting a specific contention made by a political rival.  I’m happy to concede that the Britishness vs Scottish model he discussed is one hypothetical argument amongst other arguments which a “Scottish not British” nationalist might make in the referendum, but Miliband doesn’t present this either/or choice as one nationalist articulation among others which might dissent from it, but instead, as an incorrigible, inevitable feature of nationalistic thinking “wherever we find it”. But if this sort of nationalism is a false choice – and incidentally, I agree, it is – then the independence referendum cannot really be about being British or Scottish, as Miliband suggests, can it? You can’t posit a false choice, and then insist people stick to its dicky logic.

Accordingly, Miliband appears to be suggesting that the question – British or Scottish – is inevitably central to the independence discussion, whether or not nationalists actually base their arguments on the clash of identities he proposes. As Iain MacWhirter neatly summarises this morning, this is a familiar misreading of much of contemporary Scottish nationalism.  However, let’s follow where Miliband leads.  Where does his theorisation of the link between nationalism and independence for nation-states lead us? Miliband seems to be claiming that nationalisms are inherently totalising.  But if Britishness is characterised as an identity constituted by its diversity, woven from various non-totalising national strands, for Miliband, Britishness surely cannot be a nationalism. But if not a form of nationalism, then what? He refers to the Jubilee’s exhibitions of Britain’s “gentle patriotism”, but at no point did he try to cavil out a workable distinction between British patriotism and Scottish nationalism, as Michael Forsyth did on BBC Question Time this week.  So we’re stuck with the confusion.
I think it is safe to say that Miliband does conceive of Britishness as a nationalism, albeit different in kind from Scottish nationalism insofar as it is consciously constructed from other national identities which exist concurrently and compatibly with it. Which makes perfect sense, as his speech makes an essentially emotive nationalistic argument in defence of the current constitutional set up, shot through with premises he shares with many Scottish nationalists on the alternative side of the argument.  In many ways, Miliband’s speech exemplifies some of the British nationalist ironies I’ve discussed before.  Rather than using the Labour leader’s words, consider this pared down version of the argument.  Let’s take it through in stages.
I feel Xish
X is a nation.
Nations ought to be independent states.
Ergo, X should be an independent state.
For Scottish nationalists of some persuasions, the argument takes this form:
I feel Scottish
Scotland is a nation
The United Kingdom is a state, but not a nation
Nations ought to be independent states
Ergo, Scotland should be an independent state and the UK Should break up.
What strikes me as interesting, and paradoxical, is that Miliband’s British national logic simultaneously adopts and rejects these premises.  Unlike the more typical Labour Unionist fare, Miliband’s defence of the United Kingdom isn’t premised on claims about shared social, economic and political projects.  While he makes a passing reference to impoverished grannies, his isn’t really an instrumental image of Union, bent on delivering social justice in a cross-national coalition of British workers.  His thesis isn’t stick together for a left-of-centre Britain, stay in the UK to help secure decent welfare provision for London’s vulnerable, but instead is explicitly concerned with a British identity, and implicitly, a British nationalism.  Despite his argument that either/or Scottish nationalism is folly and confusion, he puts British identity at the heart of his defence of the Union.  Indeed, one can summarise his argument in essentially the same form as the hypothetical Scottish nationalist case we were imagining:

I feel Scottish and British
Both Britain and Scotland are nations
Some nations ought to be independent states, others not.
Ergo, Britain should be an independent state, and Scotland shouldn’t.

If you accept these premises, the obvious question is: why should some nations become independent states and not others? I’ve argued before that this is one of the most curious aspects of British nationalist theory, coupling identity with the political project of sustaining the United Kingdom. For Miliband, nationalism seems both to entail and not to entail the demand that national identity find representation in political institutions, in parliaments and bodies and tribunals and so on. But for the Union to make any sort of sense, we have precisely to reject the idea that all nations ought to be independent states. Scots may be nationalists – think of themselves in national terms, share national identifiers – but the Unionist has to break the intellectual link between nations and the imperative to acquire separate sovereignty for those nations.  Critically, this sort of Unionism doesn’t reject the idea that Scotland is a nation, but rejects the proposition that this must needs lead to distinct states and political institutions.

Ironically enough, this argument is precisely mirrored by various nationalists who’ve recently been (unlike yours truly) elaborating on their own sense of Britishness.  In response to Miliband’s speech, folk like Pete Wishart contend that his argument simply conflates Britishness and the United Kingdom state. Just as the Unionist Scot must insist that his Scottish identity need not entail independence, so Wishart simply inverts the argument.  Even if you feel British, and identify as British, you may support Scottish independence. A shared national sensibility need not equate to belonging to the same state. On this, ironically enough, both Wishart and the most inveterate Scottish Unionist surely agree. Rhetorically, theoretically, both the Scottish nationalist and the British unionist have to find ways to isolate the institutional and political consequences of admitted national identities.  It’s a queer sort of mirroring.

I was also struck by the terms in which Ed characterised his “dark English nationalism”.  A “mirror image of the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism”, the conception of Englishness which Miliband denigrates is envisaged as “anti-Scottish, hostile to outsiders, England somehow cut off from the rest of Britain, cut off from the outside world, fearful what is beyond our borders. Convinced that our best days behind us”. Ed circumlocutes around the real-world points of reference he intends to refer to, but it seems fairly obvious to me that the mordant, melancholy defensiveness he describes refers not to England, but to the primarily English spokesmen and women of contemporary mordant, melancholy and defensive Britain and Britishness.  Think about it.  England’s better days behind it? England doesn’t want all these immigrants? When was the last time you heard anyone say either of these things?
If, by contrast, you replace English with British, the sentences start sounding much more familiar.  And here’s the rub.  If you listen to contemporary political debate in these islands, you’ll soon find that the narrow nationalism, xenophobia, anti-European sentiments and melancholy for lost imperial mission which Miliband alludes to are primarily articulated in terms of Britishness, rather than Englishness.  As Michael Gardiner has so neatly put it, at present, we have a British politics in England as opposed to an English politics in England. That the key voices articulating this sort of British politics are English shouldn’t prompt us to make Miliband’s mistake of attributing to a “dark English nationalism” the vices of a very British nationalism.
That he makes the mistake is explicable when we remember that it isn’t exactly unusual to see England/Britain conceived as the twin good-and-bad Janus faces of England’s patriotism. While Britishness is seen to be inclusive, civic, porous, available to all pigmentations in the human spectrum, Englishness has often been imagined in ethnic and racial terms, the property of white men and women.  The stuff of racist soccer hooligans and the EDL.  For those who see English nationalism as incorrigibly reactionary, Britishness offers the inclusive alternative national story. Madeleine Bunting’s piece after the 2011 Holyrood election typifies this sort of anxiety: “If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise”.

In Scotland, by way of contrast, we have a nationalist discourse in which Scottish identity uncomfortably incorporates both of these elements, the racialising and the non-racialising.  There is evidence, for instance, that Scottishness is currently perceived as an civic identity available to our ethnic minorities in a way that Englishness is not. And a grand thing that is too. However, that isn’t the whole story, and there are certainly Scottish nationalists out there who would reject this understanding, couching their nationalism in suspect theories of race, envisaging their wan-faced compatriots as the privileged bearers of Scottishness.  A given Scottish nationalist may be a racist, or strongly opposed to racism, and must struggle between themselves to promote their understanding of their nationality, civic or ethnic, racialising or non-racialising. While Scots must contend with the Janus faces of their nationalism, for many folk in England thinking about Englishness and Britishness, Jekyll and Hyde are simply seen as two different men, the one brutish and unattractive, the other fond, open and fair-minded.  England all vice, Britain all uprightness.  Neither proposition seems to me remotely convincing.

While Miliband’s distinction between a good and bad Englishness shows some awareness of this sort of analysis of nationalisms, his speech effects an altogether different sleight of hand, devolving British vices onto English nationalism, while glossing over the extent to which lapsed imperial and Britannic stories are palpably much more strongly implicated in contemporary Britain’s xenophobic, anti-European and nostalgic politics.  The exclusions demanded by our political discourses on immigration, for example, are conducted in British – not English – terms.  While the Janus-faced logic of nationalism is thus recognised in Englishness, it is conspicuously absent in Ed’s candyfloss account of Britishness, all inclusion, emancipation and generosity.  Humbug and moonshine.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

3 Responses to “Ed Miliband: British nationalist.”

  1. GilbertNo Gravatar
    June 12th, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    This is a really, really interesting piece. Thank you. I think that one of the truly fascinating things about the narratives of nationhood is that arguably Scottish nationalism provides the only way of conceiving of the nation which could, potentially, save and make sense of what a British nationalism could and should mean. Arguably the problem we have is that we have, at the moment, is that the British identity tends to be done using the same underlying notions of how nationalism should work as underpin English national consciousness. What I think is so enduring fascinating about Scotland is that even though it is one of the oldest nations with a claim to some sense of being a nation in Europe (it’s amazing how scholars of nationalism who claim that ‘freedom’ was simply not a meaningful political concept until modern times are often wholly unaware of the Declaration of Arbroath) has by and large never made any very serious claims about ethnic homogeneity. I would suggest that Scotland has always been (I would push this back as far as Pictland) a political community based around institutions and shared political practices rather than common language, notions of blood or whatever. This means that Scots actually have a vocabulary for thinking about Britishness. But English national identity (and I would push this right back to Anglo-Saxon times) has tended to be about an imagined common ethne (the early medieval historian Patrick Wormald argued, for example, that there was a deliberate attempt to use the ‘Angle’ rather than ‘Saxon’ identity in order to take advantage of Pope Gregory’s famous ‘non Angli, sed angeli’ comment and so give a religious basis to supposedly homogeneous ethnic belonging. So the problem with Britishness is that most British people happen to be English, and therefore can’t get their heads around the idea of an inherently multicultural nation, which means that they also close off Britishness as a meaningful, possible identity to Scots as well.

  2. AcanthiumNo Gravatar
    June 14th, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    Thanks for a very thoughtful article. Very insightful.

  3. BradNo Gravatar
    October 24th, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    The only nationalism we need is white nationalism because it’s whites who suffer from living in a diverse multicultural society. It’s whites who are the most victim of interracial violence, yet these crimes go ignored by the media who are more focused on politically incorrect name calling. Africa for Africans (they’re ethnic cleansing whites from south africa), Asia for Asians why are whites denied their right of identity and self determination?

Leave a Reply