‘I’m not looking for a new England’: On the Limitations of Radical Nationalism

by Kojo Koram

9 October 2016

(Tamworth Council/Flickr)

“I’m not looking for a new England” – Billy Bragg, 1983

“…rather than bemoaning the lack of patriotism, let’s instead ask ourselves: why have we been unable to stop our national identity being hijacked by the far-right? Whither an English civic nationalism?” – Billy Bragg, 2010

It wasn’t that long ago that the nation was pronounced as dead; or if not yet perished, then at least sliding into irrelevancy. In the face of the rise of globalisation following the fall of the Berlin wall, the idea of the ‘end of nationalism’ gained credibility in academic and cultural circles.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered the most refined articulation of this idea in their theorisations on 21st century empire. Hardt and Negri foresaw the power of the sovereign, imperial nation-state as metamorphosing into the more invisible power of a transnational capitalist class, a decentered and deterritorialising apparatus of rule spanning across a global network. While the nation-state had been the determining vehicle of politics since the advent of modern Europe, Hardt and Negri foresaw the new millennium as bringing about its decline as a political force, heralding instead the emergence of a new formation: empire without nation. The emergence of this nationless empire would also see the emergence of potential new modes of resistance by transnational multitudes. However, it now appears that 2016 is going to treat the idea of ‘the death of the nation’ the same way 2008 did the idea of the ‘triumph of free market capitalism’, or 1914 did the ‘the civilised European community’.

Today nationalism is once again driving political engagement, as seen everywhere from the Philippines to France. The return of nationalism offers a particular challenge for Great Britain, where we are told that we don’t do nationalism. Gormlessly waving the union jack or knowing all the words to the national anthem: how vulgar, how American. However, the Brexit debate and subsequent result illustrated the potency a resentful nationalism continues to maintain beneath the veneer of British politeness.

That the question ‘what is the EU?’ was trending in UK Google searches after the Brexit vote does not reveal the inherent stupidity of Leave voters (as smug Remainers like to claim), but rather that the referendum had very little to do with the organisation and structure of the EU. It was a debate not about Europe, but about Britain and its own self-image; a long-delayed self-examination by Britain about kind of country it wanted to be. In this, the defining issue was who could and indeed should be a legitimate inhabitant of this rainy island, who should be included and who should be excluded from the British body politic. Brexit continued the conversation that the Scottish referendum had commenced about what form Britain would take in the 21st century – and the very different responses that emerged from England and Scotland illustrate extent of the crisis that faces British nationalism. If it is to succeed, it must encompass and eclipse several competing nationalisms within its own borders. Brexit also showed that anybody who wishes to engage in politics in this country can no longer ignore the question of nationalism, not even those on the left who tend to want to dismiss the topic. As writer and cultural theorist Stuart Hall made clear, when you’re fighting the far right, you have to know your enemy and to have thought seriously about the meaning of Britishness and Englishness as identity.

Britain as an imperial dream.

The current crisis of British nationalism is rooted in the fact that Great Britain has never really existed as a nation – it has only really functioned as an empire. It is common to say that Britain had an empire, but it would actually be more accurate to say the Empire had Britain. By that I mean Britain as a cohesive political entity was largely borne of, and sustained by, its imperial project. With the dissolution of that empire, Britain faces a void at its core, and it is this void which lies at the heart of the collective national-interrogation occurring currently.

The very concept of Britain has always been attached to imperial ambitions. The name derives from Britannia, which is what the Romans called the entirety of the British Isles, which they sought to include in their empire. Of course, as the Romans weren’t able to extend full control over Scotland or Ireland, Britannia would remain but an imperial dream. The mythic power of this dream persisted through the medieval and early modern periods, with English monarchs often referring to themselves as the king/queen of all Britons at times when they wished to arrogate their own authority. In practice though, most of these self-styled rulers of a united Britain struggled to maintain control even over all of England. It would not be until the 17th and 18th centuries that Britain would emerge as a lasting political union. Scottish political elites, seduced by the potential profits offered by the emerging English empire, finally embraced Westminster. Scotland, England and Wales would become bound together through the conquest of the world, the metropolitan centre of the largest empire in history.

What relevance does this understanding of Britain having been borne of Empire have for contemporary questions of who can and who can’t be included within its social order? It becomes important because it explains why immigrants feel they have still been able to craft a legitimate identity within the idea of Great Britain, even in the face of oppression from the dominant populations. Identities such as Black British, or Asian British have become comfortable homes for minority communities in Britain, because from the forgotten ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ who defended Britain in her darkest hour to the Indian mutiny which sunk Britain’s richest company, the role of Black and Brown people in the story of the development of Britain is undeniable, even if their experiences often pointed to a part of Britain that it preferred to remain hidden.

Britishness has always – and necessarily – been multiple, aggregate, and dependent on a fractious relationship with those over whom it claims imperial power. It is the empire, not in fact the oh-so-generous benefits system, which continues to bring immigrants to these shores. People not only come from former colonies like Nigeria or Pakistan, but also countries affected by the British imperial legacy, which has stretched to form semi-colonial spheres of influence like Argentina and Iran, and has also turned Britain into the hegemonic culture of the world and English into the global lingua franca. This is why Britain remains a major destination for those who have leave their home to flee violence or economic catastrophe, from all areas.

However, with the disintegration of Great Britain seemingly a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when’, attention has shifted to a contest for what the meaning of Englishness in the 21st century will be. Some on the left have become enthused by the prospect of reclaiming a lost history of radical Englishness, one that can be placed in opposition to the imperial history of Britannia. Labour party figures have repeatedly called for a progressive patriotism that would allow the left to wrestle back the definition of Englishness from the xenophobes and the racists. Electoral wins, particularly in the north, are read as only being possible through an appeal to a radical ‘Labour Englishness’They seek to recover from the more distant past a true Englishness – something pre-imperial, even pre-industrial – tied to the land and the environment.

A return to a radical Englishness?

The project of reclaiming a radical Englishness can even be seen to underwrite Corbynmania. If New Labour heralded the rebirth of a ‘cool Britannia’, promising the return of global cultural hegemony through the world’s fashion and music, as well a regaining Britain’s status as the world’s policeman through military alliance with the USA, then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offers a parochial but noble Englishness, a disengagement from US-led oil wars, a return to being a nation that tends to its allotments and divides the produce equally amongst its citizens. An indication of the role that a particular conception of ‘radical Englishness’ plays in Corbyn’s appeal is the different reception that greeted Corbyn’s long-time ally Diane Abbott when she ran for the Labour leadership on a similar political platform in 2010. Of course there are many other reasons why Abbott failed to ignite the same excitement across the English left – differences in personality and historical circumstances for starters – however one factor that should be taken into consideration is the way their different identities played into a wider narrative of Englishness. As an unprepossessing white man, Corbyn seems better placed to leverage and transform retrograde ideas about what it is to be English.

It is understandable why those on the left, desperate to halt the slow drift into right-wing xenophobia would resort to trying to rehabilitate Englishness. The story of the 20th century illustrated how the emotions nationhood seems to provoke in people eclipse those which can be generated by class-based or political calls. It is difficult to identify a single example of a modern revolution having gained significant success without cultivating some sort of alliance with nationalism. However, the alliance of socialism and nationalism is too often a Faustian bargain, with nationalism engulfing the radical potential of a revolutionary moment before ultimately extinguishing it. Indicators of this dynamic can be seen within the present calls for a radical Englishness: progressive nationalists are usually more convincing as a way of reconciling leftist ideas to English patriotism than they are in terms of winning fervent English patriots to causes of the left.

To understand why this happens, it may help to appreciate how much Englishness has been saturated with a sense of exceptionalism through its submergence in the British imperial project. The founding fathers of Marxism were scathing about the potential radicalism they saw in the people of their adopted nation. In 1858, Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx: “The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.”

Later, Marxists would somewhat mollify this rather dismissive analysis of English radicalism. The great historian E.P. Thompson advised that we centre the “peculiarities of the English” (and especially the peculiarities of English socialism) when advocating and organising for revolution on this island. Thompson critiqued the internationalist orientation of socialists who were his contemporaries for their ruthless dismissal of the English experience and instead sought to reconcile the English sensibility with the prospect of revolution. George Orwell had also embarked upon a similar project with his argument in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. In this epic essay, drafted under Luftwaffe bombs in the midst of London blitz, Orwell sought to argue that being a socialist and being an English patriot were not antithetical to each other, but rather complementary. Orwell suggested: “The gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic.” Again, with an implicit contrast against British imperialism, Orwell’s essay tries to recover an alternative national identity for the English and then extend this self-ascribed, intrinsic gentle egalitarianism into functioning as the ethical core of a new radical socialism.

It is in the footsteps of Thompson and Orwell that those trying to effect a radical Englishness are following today. This project isn’t based on complete fallacy. Does there exist a rich tradition of English radical dissent? Absolutely. Is it a preferable national heritage to that of celebrating 400 years of pillaging, murder and theft? Without question. However, should it be the foundation upon which to ground a progressive politics for the 21st century? I would argue it shouldn’t.

The limitations of a radical Englishness.

The main limitation is that Englishness, even in its radical articulations, has always implied an ethnic identity – a bloodline tied to the soil and the land which implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) excludes the near 10m ethnic minority people living in the UK now. Even if radicals were able to redefine Englishness to encapsulate a more expansive conception of identity, the position of Black and Brown people within this project would always be suspect. This is because the trajectory which has brought most Black and Brown people to these shores means their familial, cultural and political allegiances always exceed national boundaries, rendering their commitment to any politics defined by those boundaries somewhat qualified.

To shoehorn Black radicals into a political project that claims John Ball, Thomas Paine and Gerard Winstanley as its antecedents conflicts with the ways in which Black radicalism understands Jamaican Marcus Garvey, Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah, American Anna Julia Copper and British Bernie Grant as part of the same, singular political project. Paul Gilroy famously credited the communal experience of racialised trauma as having forged a transatlantic Black culture that exceeded nationalistic or ethnocentric culture. To seek fix this tradition within a radical English nationalism would inevitably raise at best a tension and at worse an outright conflict between the national and transnational political objectives. The persistent fear of any immigrants of engaging in nationally-centred politics is that they will be suspected of maintaining loyalties beyond national boundaries.

A recovered internationalism.

So what is the alternative for a left currently paralysed by the spectre of a resurgent right-wing nationalism? A recommitment to internationalism as an alternative mode of globalisation offers greater promise than attempting to craft a radical nationalism. The neoliberal model of the global community, with capital freed to exploit a borderless world while human life is sacrificed at its whim, is what has fuelled the re-embrace of nationalism by working people across the world. As a distraction from and bulwark against internationalist organisation, this nationalism is a desperate last line of defence against the voracious greed of the market.

However the internationalism of the wealthy, cosmopolitan frequent-flyer is not the only mode of internationalism that can be imagined. The radical tradition cherished another internationalism, one based on transcontinental solidarity which brought soldiers of different tongues to Catalonia in 1936 and caused anti-colonialists of different hues to march against apartheid in the 1980s. The legacy of internationalism must be recovered and placed in conflict with globalisation, as two modes of imagining ethical and political obligations across borders. Black and Brown people have continued to practice this form of transnational solidarity, as witnessed by the way in which the call of Black Lives Matter has been taken up from the brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. This is not because of some innate ethical superiority carried by Black people, but rather because the construction of race forces a refined appreciation of the ongoing interplay between the global and local.

Rather than seek to respond to a fragmenting United Kingdom and a renaissance of xenophobia by trying to squeeze Black and Brown people into a reimagined progressive Englishness, the tradition of transatlantic solidarity, often realised in anti-racist political struggle, should provide the model for political organisation for the 21st century. Questions of race and identity are going to form the defining battle lines of politics in the West over the coming decades – so the progressive response to these issues must exceed nationality just as these questions did not emerge through a nationally-bound process. In short, the soundtrack to the coming struggle should be more Skepta, less Billy Bragg. Sounds better already.

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