The Accidental Nationalist

I didn’t mean it to happen – but for a short period, around the age of 18, I think I was an English Nationalist. I liked to go shopping for bad clothes and bootleg tapes in Kensington Market, and one day chanced upon a stall piled with books, pamphlets and pictures that had a beguiling whiff of Albion about it. Albion looked cool, in a fuzzy sort of way. I was hopped up on Blake, enamoured of the martyrologies of Burford, Peterloo and Tolpuddle – I couldn’t get enough of books with titles like The English Revolution, The Making of the English Working Class, and A People’s History of England. Among the literature, the stall had a small stock of badges. I wasn’t sure about some of the symbols, but a neat little St George’s Cross lapel pin looked just the thing. To me, it said Jerusalem – radical promise, utopian affirmation, the memory and hope of a world turned upside down.

I stopped wearing it a couple of months later. Pausing at a table in a pub where an old friend sat chatting with some blokes I didn’t know, I said hello. To my surprise, one of them froze, then recoiled: he was staring at my badge. There was fear, anger, and confusion – it was all hugely embarrassing. If the badge spoke of England, it clearly wasn’t the millennial England I’d been carefully confecting for myself. (With hindsight, I suspect my crew cut, nine-hole docs and MA1 weren’t helping either.) The incident grew a moral or two – that words and symbols couldn’t just be made to mean what I wanted them to mean, damn them, and that the emblems of nationhood had a distinctly unnerving power. It wasn’t a power that could be innocently invoked. My utopian imaginings ought not to be knitted into a dream of England.

There’s nothing remotely unusual about these convictions, of course – only the extent of my initial naivety, and the awkward way I learned my lesson. For most English progressives of my generation, at least, the idea of the nation is all about its dangers, certainly as far as politics is concerned. We don’t mind a bit of ‘Three Lions’ every couple of years, but Englishness and politics must be prevented from mixing. Naturally enough, being consistent and rigorous in our views, we impose the same requirement on the other nations – the word should probably have scare quotes – that make up the UK. That there are nationalists now stalking the land unnerves us; that they claim to be progressive – to have done with the saltire what I couldn’t do with St George – really gets on our wick.

Such feelings have been often and loudly expressed in the last few years, as the SNP landslide of 2011 has sent its reverberations far and wide through the politics of the UK. The prominent Labour blogger Ian Smart says that the SNP are ‘fascist scum’ – others put it more politely. In a recent Guardian comment piece, Rafael Behr bemoans what he sees as the complementary nationalisms of the brutish Tories and UKIP, on St George’s side, and the wolfish SNP on the other. We are at risk from an atavistic, impermeable unreason. ‘It is as frustrating,’ he says, ‘for the non-nationalist to argue against such faith-based politics as it is for the atheist to take on the evangelical believer. Evidence cannot penetrate the seal of conviction.’

Behr remarks on how lucky he feels ‘to have grown up in a country where national identity is a private concern, a fluid mass of overlapping cultural attachments – some historical, some geographical – that have never needed disaggregation. Politics has not yet forced me to rank my allegiances or jettison any as a test of loyalty. I opposed Scottish independence for many reasons, but prominent among them was sympathy with Anglo-Scottish friends and family for whom that little hyphen is more than just a punctuation mark.’

There is a familiar picture here, an image of British exceptionalism – the UK as a pluralist, multinational polity, a country that is not quite a nation, and for precisely that reason a unique example of how the evils of nationalism can be kept in check. (Oddly enough, Behr claims elsewhere in his piece that a belief in such specialness is one of the familiar marks of standard, and standardly bad, nationalism.) Within that accommodating frame our identities are made through some kind of mix of accident and inclination. Their articulation, it appears, is a simple matter of hyphenation or aggregation.

Let’s pass quickly over the incongruity of Behr attempting to anglosplain the dangers of nationalism to a movement whose leading public voices include such intelligent progressives as Lesley Riddoch, Neal Ascherson, Pat Kane and Iain Macwhirter. Let’s overlook, too, his unwillingness to take notice of the explicit positions on immigration, Scottish citizenship and the franchise taken by the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and other ‘nationalist’ parties. More noteworthy is his arresting claim that Britain is ‘a country where national identity is a private concern’. Really? As the phrase has it – check your privilege. There’s one hell of an assumption showing here.

Why should Scottish political discourse have got so much further on in its thinking of the politics of the nation than Behr is able to acknowledge? Why do they go on so? Well, perhaps it’s because in this corner of the delightfully pluralistic UK the business of national identity is very far from ‘private’. If Behr spent less time trying to insist that Scottish nationalism wasn’t special, and more time reflecting on its particularity, he might have thought twice about making such an extraordinary claim.

Let’s put this in simple terms – fitting for what ought, after all, to be the bleeding obvious. Insofar as the UK is a multinational state, it depends upon and sustains the national differences that it contains. As such a container, too, it makes possible all that easy hyphenation, that fluidity, that overlapping. Who couldn’t warm to such an accommodating vision? Isn’t this what all progressive states should be?

Only there’s something missing. The UK may be multinational, but that doesn’t mean that its constituent nations stand in identical relation to it and to each other. As a multinational state, the UK is fundamentally – radically – asymmetrical. This isn’t a recent matter, the product of Labour’s timid devolution settlement – it goes back to the deep prehistory of the union cemented in 1707. Has Behr not noticed that while England and Britain are interchangeable terms for many, Scotland and Wales can never be treated that way? That the only people in this island to take England for Britain, and vice versa, are English? That this might, you know, mean something?

The crucial, and still rudimentary, point is this: within the cultural politics of the UK, some national identities are more public, more visible, more defining, than others. We have Jocks, and Taffs, and Micks – but we don’t have an equivalent word for the fourth nation in our happy family. Scottishness, Welshness and Irishness, in other words, are marked. This is a function of hierarchy, as opposed to hyphenation. The body politic of the UK, as Behr notes, would appear to be canine – but England is the whole dog, while Scotland is just its tail. It should be clear who is expecting to do the wagging, and who should put up with being wagged.

And such language, in turn, is a reflection of the asymmetrical history of union in these islands. For Scotland, as for Wales and Ireland, it involved – and was remembered as – dislocation and dispossession. After all, the union that was greeted with formal and informal celebrations in London was the focus for public disorder in Scottish towns and cities. It’s customary at this juncture to point out how Scots were enthusiastic participants in, and beneficiaries of, the new dispensation, all of which is of course true. None of that, however, is relevant to the asymmetrical politics of English and Scottish nationality that the union sustained. Westminster sailed calmly on – Edinburgh’s Parliament House had to find new occupants.

Marked in this way by a national question – the kind of question for which English political culture has never had to find an answer – the history of Scotland after the union has long been a history of the demand for home rule or independence, as the impeccably unionist Alex Massie has recently, and polemically, documented. This demand has perhaps paradoxically involved much more creative thinking about the state-form appropriate to multinational union than unionism has managed, as Behr’s vague and fluffy account of the non-politics of national identity reveals.

The current SNP is the chief inheritor of this demand; it is, therefore, not some alien invader, some lurking foreign peril, but the child of the UK’s own way of configuring and practising its national identities over several centuries. The Scottish electorate appears, at the time of writing, to be determined to undevolve the question of what a multinational state might be, and to counter a privileged vision of merely private national identity with a demand that it be brought back into public ownership. The unavowed partiality of Behr’s beatific view of his country – can I call it a nation? – is also symptomatic of the UK’s distinctive politics of national identity, a politics he won’t acknowledge. In his insistence on confining the Yes campaign and the SNP within a generic definition of nationalism, he is trying to change the subject. But it’s not the subject that needs to be changed.

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