In the electric summer of 2014, I took a clifftop heritage railway from Douglas to the top of Snaefell. In the café there, I had cream tea and Irn-Bru. On a clear day, which of course it wasn’t, I’d also have had vistas over Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was the most British thing I’ve ever done. But I wasn’t in the UK. I was on the Isle of Man.
A week later I stood under a sign on the Shankill Road in West Belfast, which said I was at the heart of the British empire. Yet a few hundred metres away, I definitely wasn’t in Britain at all.
The next day I got a boat home to the Scotland of those fizzing months, when we gathered in town halls and classrooms and Facebook groups and discussed who we were and who we could be, when we forced David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband to rush north and kneel in front of millions of ordinary people, and beg us to give Britishness one last chance.
Regrettably, most did.
There is a slipperiness to Britishness, isn’t there? The left increasingly has an understanding that the British state is a thing, with cephalopodan triplet hearts in the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, and the City of London.
You can either believe, in the Bennite tradition, that it is a wonderful thing, the aristocratic roots of which can somehow be trained to grow a socialist future. Or you can suspect, as I do, that such attempts are like trying to milk a colossal squid. Either way, if you’re on the left, you probably have a sense that there is such a thing as the British system of governance, with a history and a culture and institutions and norms.
But as with every government, the legitimacy of this web of institutions comes in part from its ability to convene a people. States can’t survive on violence alone for long. Like street performers, they must be able to captivate enough of the interweaving multitude to conjure up a sense of ‘we’ to ensure no one wanders off.
And so when we talk about breaking up Britain, we can’t just talk about the British state. We also need to understand what gives the state its social license to operate: that is, British nationalism.
To do that seriously, we need to establish a few basics. The first is that we live in an international system of nation states, which has emerged in relationship with capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.
Nationalisms and the differences between them don’t rise up from variations in the inherent quality of the human souls in particular places. They are products of this system: perhaps, as Tom Nairn argues, because of the inherently uneven nature of capitalist development, which constantly produces cores and peripheries and conflicts between them. Perhaps, as Nairn’s old comrade Benedict Anderson argued, because of what he called “print capitalism” and the way the printing press gathered linguistic audiences.
The second is that Britain and England not only exist within that system, but also played a key role in constructing it, both in the early modern period as European nation states copied ‘big brother’ England, with the first industrial revolution and (failed) political revolution; and then through decolonisation in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
The third is that within that system of nation states, every project which does work to ensure that the boundaries of a specific imagined community are coterminous with the borders of a particular government is a nationalist project.
Nationalism is often used as a ‘boo’ word, to describe a cluster of far right bigotries and nasty ideas, as a synonym for fascism or Nazism. But while fascism is usually a product of nationalism, they aren’t the same thing, and such dismissals are used to dull our thinking and to prevent us from seriously understanding a phenomenon which shapes almost all politics on the planet – to stop us considering how it secures our obedience and blocks us from plotting how to push against its boundaries and, maybe, one day, tear them down.
Nairn argues that each nationalism has a face like the Greek God of doorways, Janus, looking both forward and back at the same time, to future and past. When modern Britain was founded in the rubble of what was previously the British Empire, it looked back with yearning to its colonial glories, anointing Winston Churchill as founding father. And it looked forward to a social democratic future, electing Clement Attlee as its prime minister.
A million boring words have been written trying to draw some distinction between the forward and backward faces. A thousand dull journalists have cited George Orwell’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism. But few have grasped Nairn’s basic point: that they are both attached to the same head, both part of the same system.
Almost all of our political activities exist within and help perpetuate that system in one way or another. When Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas assert that ‘we’ ought to tax corporations more to fund ‘our’ NHS, they are promoting the legitimacy of the state as an expression of a national ‘us’. They are asserting that there is a ‘we’ which has the right to act collectively. They are joining in the street performance in an attempt to improve it, just as Boris Johnson is attempting to awe the crowd with some ancient myth.
Even when we argue that our society should be more multicultural, or less heteronormative, we are implicitly accepting and reinforcing the idea that this is a society which can be inclusive. And in Westminster politics, the ‘this’ is usually some tangled muddle of England and Britain.
I’m not trying to argue that both faces are the same. Of course a project to convene a crowd to talk about a better future is nicer than one which appeals to some imagined past to create excuses to dominate or oppress. And I’m not trying to say that South African, Scottish, British, Irish and Vietnamese nationalisms are all identical. Clearly, they are radically different beasts.
But I am saying that they are all creatures of the same ecosystem, and, like the species in a forest, they have emerged in relationship with each other. And that before we talk about one of these animals, we need to see the landscape it evolved in.
When I talk about nationalism, I’m not using it as shorthand for a trough of racist and xenophobic beliefs I don’t like. I’m talking about any project which tries to help a specific geographical community imagine itself into being, and which works to ensure that community is governed by the same state. I’m talking about a set of often unspoken premises and common senses on which such a collective ‘we’ is founded, a lens through which ‘we’ are taught to see the world.
When I talk about British nationalism, I’m not talking about the occasional protrusion of an ugly flag. I’m talking about a geological structure which lies deep beneath British society, ensuring our view of the world comes from a specific standpoint. And like Britain’s geology, British nationalism looks very different depending on where you are.
A rock in the Atlantic.
At the bottom of the Hebridean island of Mull on the west coast of Scotland is a long peninsula stretching out into the Atlantic. Walk to the end of it and you’re looking over a gulf of sea just a mile wide, before a small hill rises out of the water, with a large abbey perched on top – a final outpost before the foaming ocean. This is the island of Iona, at the edge of Britain, but also, in a sense, where Britishness was invented.
In 1503, James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret, creating one extended royal family across the archipelago in the north east Atlantic. In 1603, Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I of England died childless, and her cousin, James VI of Scotland, inherited her realm.
In 1609, James VI convened Highland chieftains on that tiny island, and made them sign a treaty, The Statutes of Iona, which required them to send their heirs to English speaking, Protestant schools, in an assault on the Gaelic speaking Catholicism which had dominated historically.
I’m Scottish. But one of the first things anyone who meets me realises is that my accent is more like those common in the south of England. The Anglicisation of posh Scotland that was written into James’ statutes continues to this day. At my former boarding school in Perthshire, people with Scottish accents were bullied for being working class.
Similar phenomena are found in posh Wales and among the Anglo-Irish, and tend to be associated with support for keeping the UK together and of the Conservative party. The term I use to describe this phenomenon is ‘Anglo-British nationalism’, though most people from within this subculture think of themselves as simply British.
Here in Scotland, Britishness as an explicit identity tends to be – with the exception of Orange Lodges – a ruling class phenomenon. A century after that gathering on Iona, Scotland’s aristocracy collectively invested a huge portion of the country’s wealth into an attempt to colonise the Isthmus of Panama. The Darien scheme, as it was known, failed, and they bankrupted themselves and the country, signing the Act of the Union of 1707 in exchange for a bailout.
Another century later, and Scotland’s gentry were at the heart of the empire. In 1793, Henry Dundas, MP for Edinburgh and the most powerful man in Scotland, was appointed president of the board of control, responsible for overseeing the British East India company. The work he did was summed up by a saying at the time: “Scotland and India Dundas ruled, and he fed the one with the other.”
The British government declared the first opium war against China at the urging of the Scottish businessman James Matheson, who wanted to force the Qing dynasty to lift its ban on the sale of the drug. Victory meant that the Highlander, along with his business partner William Jardine, became astoundingly wealthy and the second biggest landowner in the UK. Their investment house, Jardine Matheson, continues to this day.
When Britain won the second opium war in 1860, the kingpin narco-banker was Scotsman Thomas Sutherland, who founded the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation to finance the drug trafficking. HSBC is, by some measures, the biggest British company in the world to this day, an icon of Britishness across the planet.
For Scotland’s ruling class, being British meant a chance to become the billionaires of their day – and they waved their union flags enthusiastically.
The list of crimes committed under the red, white and blue triple cross would be long enough to fill a library, with cases of alphabetised books: c for castration, e for ecocide, g for genocide.
Every nation is born in blood – Scotland only formed on its current borders when the Western Isles were conquered by Alexander III in 1263, England united through the violent subjugation of the north by the south.
But every country has to convince itself it’s the good guy, and so as the empire plundered wealth from its edges to prop up its centre, it developed a new myth of missionaries and biblical zeal, ‘civilising’ the ‘natives’ and ‘that’s just not cricket’. If every country is founded on a lie, then the biggest empire in human history had to be built on a whopper. This idea, that ‘Britishness’ means fair play, was that lie. It’s a bit of nonsense that pervades to this day, shaping our society and economy in a swarm of ways.
But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? Because any identity held by millions of people means thousands of different things. Ideas are contested and feelings are complex.
People of South Asian descent who live in England are far more likely to identify as ‘British-Asian’ than as ‘English-Asian’. Many people from former colonies feel that ‘British’ is a more inclusive identity than ‘English’, as do many white progressives, following their lead.
This isn’t surprising. Until 1948, people from anywhere in the British empire, whether this archipelago or not, were all British subjects. You could be an English British subject or a Jamaican British subject or a Singaporean British subject or an Indian British subject – there wasn’t a clear legal distinction.
In 1946, Canada ended this system by passing the Canadian Citizenship Act, which created a separate class within the broader category of British subjects – Canadian citizens, and was followed by various other Commonwealth countries creating their own citizenship rules. In response, Attlee’s government passed the British Nationality Act of 1948, which said that anyone born or naturalised in the UK or one of its colonies was a “citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”, including citizens of those countries which had by then created their own citizenship laws – listed by the Act as “Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Newfoundland, India, Pakistan, Southern Rhodesia and Ceylon”.
By definition, therefore, a citizen of Newfoundland or New Zealand or Pakistan was a British subject just like someone from Scotland or England or Wales. Britishness was, indeed, a global concept, inclusive in the sense that few people on earth had been excluded from the murderous hand of the empire. But for some, it was also what they got in exchange for being plundered.
This system was eroded through the 1960s and 1970s as racist laws created hierarchies of Britishness, and removed from some British subjects the right to live in the UK. In 1980, the Conservative party published a report titled ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, and in 1983, the 1948 Act was essentially abolished, with the Queen’s subjects divided into the three categories proposed by the report: British citizens, British dependent territory citizens and British overseas citizens.
How TV birthed a nation.
As Westminster’s politicians were wracked with panic over Irish independence, John Reith took action. In 1922, the Unionist engineer from Stonehaven got the job running the British Broadcasting Company, turning it into what’s now the BBC. It was vital, he would later put it, that “the clock which beats the time over the Houses of Parliament, in the centre of the Empire” could be “heard echoing in the loneliest cottage in the land”.
But if the BBC was conceived in response to Irish independence, it came of age when George VI died and his daughter was crowned Queen. If Britain had been an empire before the second world war, then what emerged in 1945 was a sort-of country, united by the grief of war, by social democratic purpose after the slaughter, and as a family of nations expressed through the royal family.
The BBC brought this idea to life in people’s homes in a way that was impossible in any previous era. Throughout the war, Churchill’s radio addresses summoned this new, archipelagic nation into being. And the broadcast of the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor on 2 June 1953 enchanted the nation, and made TV the medium of an era.
Look at the list of the most-watched broadcasts in British TV history, and they are almost all either sporting or regal, football finals or royal ceremonies, the 1966 World Cup and the 2020/21 Euros, the funeral of Princess Diana and the 1969 royal family documentary. These are the moments in which children are taught their nationality, when they learn which flock they are in and which metaphor they are part of, which side they are on and which broader family they are members of; who to cheer for and who to cry for.
We are a collective species, yearning for association with others. These events are how our otherwise atomising system fulfils this need within us.
But the two are different, though, aren’t they? Margaret Thatcher tried to destroy football fandoms and vilify as ‘hooligans’ everyone associated with this icon of working class culture. And the national team watched at those two finals, bookmarking the neoliberal era, was not Britain, but England, in its working class, multi-racial and progressive glory.
The royal family on the other hand, is British, pretending to trace its roots back and back, to that marriage in 1503 and beyond, securing its legitimacy from a right to reign that has been pumped through a long line of arteries and ejaculated into successive ovaries for a millennium.
In fact for many, not only is the royal family British, but their bodily fluids are the essential oil of Britishness, their DNA is the nucleic acid which vivifies British nationalism.
And there is a sense in which that’s true. Just as American nationalism is defined by the country’s two foundational genocides and the racial hierarchies they produced, much of British national identity is shaped by the failure of the bourgeois revolution in 1660, by the fact that the aristocracy goes on and on and on and on.
The common sense produced by this class system, the lens it grinds in our minds, is the idea that posh boys are prime ministerial, that old Etonians like Cameron and Johnson ought to be in charge, despite being devoid of any kind of merit, and that the landed gentry and their younger sons in the City are economically competent, despite the reality that most people in the UK don’t agree with their party’s economic policies.
It’s this lens which means so much of Anglo-Britain sees the world from a Tory perspective. It’s this lens which has ensured that the Conservative party, founded by Robert Peel in 1834, is arguably the most electorally successful political party in the world.
A labourist Britishness.
As the empire brought plunder back to Britain, it churned the wheels of vast factories, which forged another kind of Britishness. People forced from their commons through enclosure and clearance entered the dark, satanic mills of the industrial revolution and emerged as waged labourers.
In response to the horrifying conditions they found themselves in, they organised into trade unions, socialist societies and the Labour party, which organised this new, industrial and urban working class across the UK into a different kind of national unit. Capital, after all, was British, rather than English or Scottish, Irish or Welsh. And so, therefore, was the working class. Sort of.
Labour has always had a complex relationship with Britishness. Ahead of the 1900 general election, the Fabian Society published a manifesto edited by George Bernard Shaw entitled ‘Fabianism and the Empire’, which represented one major strand of thinking in the party – essentially, making an intellectual case for ongoing autocratic control of most colonies.
The party similarly split over the first world war, with its first leader, Keir Hardie, spending his final year campaigning for a general strike to stop it (as a German strike ultimately did).
And in 1918, the party’s (Scottish) general secretary Arthur Henderson wrote an article titled ‘Home Rule All Round’ in which he argued:
“It is impossible to name a community where the conditions are more ripe than they are in Wales for a bold experiment in the direction of complete political and industrial democracy. Given self-government Wales might establish itself as a modern Utopia, and to develop its own institutions, its own arts, its own national culture, its own ideal of democracy in politics, industry and social life, as an example and an inspiration to the rest of the world.”
In the next month’s general election, ‘home rule all round’ was adopted as a slogan in the Labour party’s manifesto. But in 1945, it was Labour which built modern Britain from the ashes of the empire and of World War Two. It wasn’t until 1999 that a version of ‘home rule all round’ became reality, and in that electric summer of 2014, the party’s choice to plug itself into a socket marked ‘British’ led to what remained of its Scottish roots being fried. That’s not how Labour’s traditional voters in Scotland saw themselves.
Tearing it down.
If nations are imagined communities convened by the printing press, then social media is transforming them. My parents watch TV and their cultural capital is London. My partner and I watch Netflix, and ours are New York and LA. Friends in Italy stream Spanish soap operas.
Meanwhile, the myths about Britishness have become a marketised commodity, a representation of what was already a lie. The old public schools which produce that oh-so-competent ruling class as pupiled by the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian billionaires. The Britain of the Victorian seaside town with which I opened is a kitsch memory of an imagined past, a representation of a representation, a simulacrum. That nonsense about British fair play is used to cover up criminally acquired money from across the planet, turning Britain and its vestigial empire of overseas territories and crown dependencies into the world’s most important money laundry, while the UK’s cultural institutions get in on the act as washing machines for sullied reputations and oily filth.
The labourist idea of Britain which was soldered together in the heat of the second world war has rusted as offshoring, automation and the loss of the empire have crumbled the UK’s industrial base. And the multicultural idea of Britain has allowed a racist version of Englishness to survive the reality of a wonderfully diverse country.
Of course, Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Cornishness and all the other identities found across the archipelago were formed in the context of Britishness. Each has its own racially infused national myths and all identities tied to a geographical administrative unit come with their own problems. Ultimately, we probably need to think and fight our way out of the international system of nation states to some kind of democratic confederalist future. But the experience of devolution has been that not being quite so British is good for the national soul. Wales with its parliament isn’t the utopia that Henderson envisaged, but its political culture is certainly a lot more sensible than Britain’s – and there is little reason a new England’s couldn’t be too, were it to rid itself of some of the bling and bollocks of Britishness.
It’s easy to envisage what breaking up the British state might mean. It is, after all, a solid thing. And as someone else once said, all that is solid melts into air. But Britishness is a structure of feeling and a cultural phenomenon. And emancipating ourselves from it will be a more pedagogical process. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be important.
Britishness is an idea brought to life by the double helix of the monarchy and its attached class system, and the glory of the empire and its attached racism. As long as ideas in these islands are refracted through it, people will be focused on Tory ways of thinking and feeling. But it is weak, particularly among younger generations. And the left shouldn’t grimace and kneel before it. We should tear it down, and throw it in the harbour.
Adam Ramsay is an editor at openDemocracy.
Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).