Sunday, 15 March 2015


Identity and power 

A thoughtful article on English identity by Paul Kingsnorth, with this great quote:
Sometimes, when I look at history, I think that identity is the root of all evil. Sometimes, when I look at the present, I think that we will be lost without it.
He is perhaps too keen to dissociate Englishness from the bad old British empire:
A case could be made, in fact, that the English were the first victims of the British empire: without their conquest, that empire could not have been built.
Not really. And:
... listen to an English folk song. Listen to enough of them, and you begin to realise how many are laments.
This might be selection bias: folk singers since the sixties, like the great Fairport Convention, have sought out the songs of class conflict and injustice.

To me Britishness and Englishness are, how to put it, "essentially confused concepts" - that is, confused with each other. The English accepted Britishness in the 18th century only because they thought it was just an extension of Englishness - and indeed, the English were the dominant force in the Kingdom. In Whisky Galore, set in 1940s Scotland, a colonial baddie talks about "England... I mean, Britain". As a child I thought the same way - only recent experience has taught me to make the careful distinction. And many Europeans still use Angleterre, Inghilterra or whatever, as a shorthand for the UK.

I also think that English-British identity, like the identity of many European nations, is intrinsically bound up with the exercise of power. That is not surprising or in itself wrong. One good definition of a nation is an ethnic group that has got, is getting, or wants to get its own state apparatus. Political institutions from Magna Carta to the Houses of Parliament are part of English identity, and so are our kings and queens. Despite the bitterness of class conflict in our history, the English qua English have never been an oppressed minority. Here I think the author is sweetening the pill for Guardian readers: nationalism is OK, because we have grievances too!

But in general I am glad that people are thinking about this issue, even if the ideas are not very clearcut.


Another theme in the essay is the link between identity and place, especially the country. I feel this too and it is not easily explicable by most social scientific theories of identity. Perhaps humans naturally attach not just to other humans, but to the places they grew up. Even when they are not so beautiful:

George Shaw's picture of Tile Hill in Coventry

Which reminds me of this lovely song by Dominique A.

Nationalism and Europe

Having said all of that, let me push the argument forward. Identity is not just a consumer good. It is a tool that helps a group act coherently to further its ends. That is both why national identities must be flexible enough to accommodate new people, and why state action must foster - and spring from - a collective national identity: why a state that is forced to act as neutral arbiter between many identity groups will fail in the long run. Good institutions are not enough: under the pressure of history, institutions must constantly be renewed, and the renewers must act with the collective spirit and the collective support of a nation.

In this sense, I am very chary of "English identity", because in 2015 only Europe is the right size actor to defend the collective European interest. It is no coincidence that Putin has been sponsoring both European nationalists and Left-wing loons. I sympathize greatly with Mr Kingsnorth's dislike of globalized placelessness. But while I do not wish to live in a shopping mall, I also do not wish to live in a museum.

I would love to persuade our countrymen that England/Britain - the confusion is deliberate - must now be a player in the European team. But, on the evidence, for most people a renewed sense of Englishness goes along with anti-Europeanism. And they may be right, because it is not clear that in identity terms one can "serve two masters". Here, for example, is a syllogism which I fear is true.
  • You cannot have a strong Europe without an integrated economy.
  • You cannot have an integrated European economy without freedom of movement.
  • You cannot have freedom of movement without large scale gross migration into and out of Britain.
  • You cannot have large scale gross migration into and out of Britain without drastically weakening English identity.
The last point here is the most controversial one. After all, isn't there a strong Yorkshire identity despite many centuries of free movement through Yorkshire? But I do not think that Yorkshire identity is quite as strong, or the same, as Englishness. It is perhaps closer to English identity as Mr Kingsnorth pictures it: localized, powerless and a bit chippy, "little", in fact.

If the syllogism is true, then the Europe question truly is an existential choice, which cannot be fudged away (whatever Cameron says). And if so, then I think I would rather lose my Englishness and be part of a strong Europe. But I will not be surprised or angry if many people here disagree, and I am not optimistic about the strength of a Union whose individual parts have such a long history of going their own way.

Update: Gordon Brown chips in.