In “The desire of nations” in 1974, R Tudur Jones wrote: “An Englishman never calls himself a nationalist. This is one of the characteristics of English nationalism.” In its essence, the very idea that ‘nationalism’ is something from which ‘our’ nation is uniquely exempt is a highly nationalistic statement, necessarily underpinned by a perception of uniqueness and specialness when compared to all those ‘others’.
It’s unfair, of course, to say that all English people share this sense of uniqueness in the world, but it often seems as though most politicians and ministers do, and we saw a classic example from Michael Gove last week, attempting to claim that Brexit was nothing at all to do with identity politics – that was something from which only Scots (and presumably, by extension, Welsh independentistas as well) suffered.
One of the other characteristics of most English nationalists is that they seem to suffer from a complete inability to recognise the difference between England and Britain. Monday’s tweet from Conservative HQ was an absolute classic:
.@BrandonLewis :The citizens of our country have created for themselves an inclusive & thoughtful English identity. One based on the values of freedom, fairness & justice. Principals that are not just shared in England under the St George’s Cross, but across our whole Union #PX
The stress on identity rather undermines what Gove said just a few days earlier, of course, but consistency is hardly one of the current government’s great strengths. It shows a complete confusion between ‘England’ and the ‘Union’ which can only encourage people to believe that the English consider themselves the superior driving force. But leaving aside both that (and the fact that the ‘principals’ which we apparently all share obviously don’t include a commitment to accurate spelling), only a died-in-the-wool nationalist could really believe that “freedom, fairness and justice” are values which uniquely underpin one particular national identity. Do they really believe – and expect the rest of us to believe – that these values are found nowhere else?
The mantra that the UK is a uniquely free, fair and just country is arrogant to say the least, but it’s also inaccurate, to a greater or lesser extent, on all three counts. The mantra is coming from people who are in the process of removing our freedom of movement across the continent of Europe, presiding over one of the most unequal and unfair economies in the developed world, and trying to find a way of opting out of international systems of justice such as the Human Rights Act. They are, in effect, claiming that an adherence to values which they are actively working to undermine is the defining aspect of ‘our’ nationality. And they’re largely being allowed to get away with it.
English/British nationalists implicitly believe that there is such a thing as English/British (they generally regard the two as the same thing) identity but are obviously having a great deal of difficulty in defining what it is and on what it is based. They feel a need to promote the idea of Englishness/Britishness in order to maintain the integrity of ‘this precious union’ (© Theresa May), but are struggling for a basis on which to do so. And I can understand why they are struggling: scratch the surface just a little and two key aspects of what makes for the identity with which they are grappling emerge – royalty and wars. But what sort of a nation is it which can only define itself, when pressed, in terms of the wars in which it has engaged and the idea of hereditary authority? Yet that is what they fall back on – they are the two consistent themes in the promotion of ‘national’ identity by the state over recent years, and especially since the Scottish referendum of 2014.
The values which they exclusively claim to themselves are, in reality, universal. They may not be universally applied in the world in which we live, but not being universally applied doesn’t mean that they’re not universally applicable. Universal values, by definition, cannot uniquely define any nation, and any nation which truly felt they were core to its being would be trying to work with others to spread those values, not to undermine them.
To return to the quote in the opening sentence: just because people say that they aren’t nationalists doesn’t mean that it’s true; it’s more likely to mean the exact opposite. Brexit didn’t open the particular can of worms which is English/British nationalism at its worst, but it certainly made it easier to express. And it should remind all of us that constraining precisely that sort of nationalism was, from the outset, one of the core aims of the whole European project. In that sense Brexit is very much an unpleasantly nationalist project.