Imagined Nation: England after Britain
The first three terms of a Blairist-Brownite Labour government have been constitutionally dominated by devolution. Whilst the English at the outset of this process mostly took a take-it-and-leave it attitude, the impact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been much more profound. So much so that in May 2007 nationalist parties became a central part of government in each of these parts of our once united Kingdom.
Thus Gordon Brown finally became Prime Minister just as Britain appeared to be entering an irreversible drift towards some kind of separation. Although the time scale remains uncertain, any idea that the moves towards devolved power will be reversed is an untenable position - whichever party wins the next Westminster General Election. Yet Brown seems to be seeking to reinvent himself as the 'Bard of Britishness' (in a wonderful phrase from Tom Nairn).
Thirty years ago Tom Nairn was a lonely voice on the left in his argument about the Break-Up of Britain, and the democratic potential in bringing an end to the Union. Now it is Brown and his party which appear the lonesome ones when they urge us all to run a Union Jack up the flag pole in the face of the much greater appeal of identities framed by our English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish belonging. 'British Jobs for British Workers', Brown demanded, in front of a huge Union Jack backdrop at his inaugural Labour Conference as prime minister in 2007. This was an appeal to the most backward, defensive and narrow version of national identity, wrapped in a flag that increasingly lacks the unifying appeal he is so obviously seeking. One wonders how often Brown has been out canvassing back home in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, urging voters to fly a Union Jack out of their window to celebrate their 'Britishness', or stuffing Labour Party leaflets adorned with the same flag through letterboxes. Just what kind of response would Gordon get if he tried?
Instead of retreating into a sour-faced jealousy of our Celtic neighbours who have achieved something denied to the English - a measure at least of independence and difference from the one-flag-fits-all politics of the Union - the English would do better trying to learn from our nearest, if not always dearest. It is time to embark on a process founded on engaging with what England might become, rather than what it once was. Not just a St George Cross to stick out the car window and a national dress of bri-nylon football jerseys, but the beginnings of shaping some kind of state of independence out of these summer tournament bursts of ninety-minute nationalism. This is what Imagined Nation sets out to do.
Mark Perryman argues, in the book's opening essay, that it is time to move on from a simple celebration of the enormous, friendly and increasingly multicultural flag-waving parties that take place at major football, rugby and cricket events, to consider the connections between these eruptions of Englishness and a broader cultural, social, and political emergence of Broken-Up Britain. This is in part a response to a critique by Beatrix Campbell. Speaking at a discussion of Billy Bragg's book The Progressive Patriot, Bea questioned the centrality that Mark and others award to football in re-imagining Englishness: 'By aligning football with national identity you are ignoring the fact that football has been connected with some of the worst things in English history. It's a mistake to think that national culture is defined by football. What is it about the insecurities of masculinity? Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?' England and football have certainly been responsible for some of the nastiest expressions of English patriotism, but they have also contributed to moments of a popular, inclusive, multicultural Englishness. Yet Bea's point is essentially correct: if football is all we've got, what kind of nation do we imagine England might become? Imagined Nation seeks to uncover other resources of hope for an England after Britain.
The contributors to this book take a variety of viewpoints on whether or not an independent England is a likely or likeable option. But all agree that some kind of break-up is underway. Andrew Gamble opens the first section of the book, 'A State of Independence', by cataloguing the current constitutional inconsistencies. He argues that it is this discontinuity between the current version of devolution and common-sense democracy that is most likely to create the momentum towards change. Also in this section Graham Macklin provides a vital insight into the BNP today, which is seeking to mobilise support around this momentum by defining national identity not only racially, but as the frontline against both immigration and Europe. This, of course, is an option not limited to the far right: such defence-mechanism politics is resorted to by a much broader constituency. And if we fail to engage with these arguments they will almost certainly come to define Englishness on their own terms - of insecurity in the face of difference. Rupa Huq finds something positive to sustain any challenge to a rightward-moving Englishness in the most surprising of places - suburbia. From behind the chintz curtains through which Terry and June and Margot and Jerry once peered there have also emerged the punk Bromley Contingent of The Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux, Bend it like Beckham and Zadie Smith's White Teeth. Spaces and places are sites of both resistance and change, and suburban England is now in the frontline. Stephen Brasher also detects many places where the picture is different from the stereotype - seaside seats which are rock-solid Labour, a tradition of rural tradeunionism, and an English Labour vote that sustained not only the 1945 landslide but also the 1997 result. It can't be assumed that English votes for English laws will always be Conservative votes.
Billy Bragg is a vocal supporter of all that good Englishness might represent. He's written songs about it, and will turn his concerts into a communal think-piece on the subject given half a chance and his mug of tea. And instead of cluttering up the bookshelves with a ghost-written biography, he took the trouble to write a book on the subject, The Progressive Patriot. Billy opens the second section, 'Little England', with a constructive response to the flak he has had to take since writing his book. He argues that England will be a new nation, though of course with an ancient history; tradition is important but so is the process in which those traditions are identified, dusted down, or put to one side to be refashioned and reinterpreted for today and tomorrow. Billy provides an insight into how this process might help us emerge as something more than a quaint theme-park for tourists and hotel chains. Richard Weight and Julia Bell develop this theme in their essays in this section. Our history and language isn't simply constructed out of an imperial and martial legacy, though it is pulled into different shapes by these past episodes, and migration and colonialism add layer upon layer to the story. The full English isn't to be found by trying to locate a pure, deep English - a task which is thankless and futile. It is the mix, the impurity, that is so distinctive. Ben Carrington contributes a keynote chapter to this section, drawing on his work on the sociology of sport. He reflects on the events of 2005, when within 24 hours of London being successfully voted an Olympic host city, the capital was devastated by the 7/7 bombings. The celebratory flag-waving in Trafalgar Square was replaced by anxieties of cohesion and an enemy within. Can the integration that sport supposedly fosters help us to understand the motivations of suicide bombers? Ben's chapter is a powerfully argued exploration of the contours of race, examining how our innocent pastimes and guilty pleasures are criss-crossed by definitions and experiences defined by practices of integration, assimilation and separation.
The book's next section, 'Home Truths from Here, There and Everywhere', looks at England from a variety of geographical perspectives. Gerry Hassan details not just Scottish nationalism and devolution, but their likely contribution to influencing England's own independence campaign. His scenarios for possible future developments make compelling reading for those still unconvinced that the changes of the last decade will lead inexorably to a different future. David Conn considers what a resurgent Englishness might mean for a North that has always been suspicious of a metropolitan London and southeast. Will one disunited Kingdom be simply replaced by another? Anne Coddington reviews the Folk Archive of artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane to provide some possible answers to this question. Folk Archive is a cultural practice founded on giving voice and visibility for all that makes us different through foregrounding the contribution of people actively engaged in producing contemporary 'folk art'. Their archive is an effective challenge to representations of England as just the politics of another brand value. The final contribution to this section is from German journalist Markus Hesselmann, who has an eye for what is that makes us different - and appealing!
The closing section of the book aims to think about England's future, dreaming or otherwise. Paul Gilroy records a journey from the hate-filled Rivers of Blood speech made by Enoch Powell in 1968 to the hope Paul sees all around him in modern England. Hopes not yet fulfilled, but with a presence that makes them increasingly hard to ignore. The chapter by Daniel Burdsey is similarly circumspect with its optimism. Englishness remains immersed in definitions of nation and culture out of whiteness. Waves of migration have impacted upon this, sometimes provoking a response that opens up what we imagine England might become; but this conversation is too often closed down before it has begun. This is a debate whose outcome is not yet determined, but its importance remains crucial. Nicola Baird locates Englishness in a different, though related, political space. The rubric of Green politics is basing our preservation of the local in our commitment to the global. Does this offer us a different way of settling national and international loyalties, to their mutual benefit? A green and pleasant England - a patchwork of particularities - is one route to Jerusalem; and perhaps it has the potential to merge the progressive and the patriotic. Andy Newman argues that broken-up Britain must be accompanied by a new imaginary for an English left. In considering the processes of devolution and their eventual outcome on England, he revisits some of the debates that have deterred or encouraged the left in England when it comes to considering its own version of a nationalpopular democratic politics.
More than thirty years ago, Tom Nairn argued in his magisterial The Break-Up of Britain that the left should take seriously the democratic inconsistencies of our United Kingdom. Twenty years after the book's publication Scotland and Wales voted yes in devolution referendums; the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly followed, and shortly afterwards self-government for Northern Ireland was restored. But England was left out of this constitutional settlement. Tom's short postscript to this book invokes one of the great cultural icons of Englishness, Shakespeare's Henry V, to remind us of some of the resources we can depend upon, as well as some that we should ditch, in the process of becoming England after Britain.
Imagined Nation is a much-needed start on making a wide variety of
political connections between a popular affiliation with Englishness and a
political expression for the emotional investment that so many share. The
authors don't underestimate the difficulties in such a process, but most recognise
its crucial importance. The collection offers a series of starting-points
for a soft patriotism - one that is open and inclusive, and hard to take for
those who favour hate and prejudice. Its aim is an England which will be for
all, after a Britain that was always for some.
All rights L&W 256 pages April 2008