Henry V conjured up a vision of the noble English leading the emotional, talkative, foolhardy and stupid Scots, Welsh and Irish into battle against the Perfidious French in an attempt to keep the French English. It's a great play but it's politics are, shall we say, slightly troubling.
Not, however, as troubling as the fact that a woman with both a Radio Four gig and a column in what used to be the paper of record thinks that Britain is a stable and discrete nation whereas certain others, well, aren't. Many of my leftwing friends are vehemently anti-nationalist, for very good reasons. They feel that nationalism is an ethnocentric trick designed to divide and distract the global working class. I have a lot of sympathy for this view, but I also think that colonised, invaded and appropriated nations have the right to self-determination. A blanket ban on nationalism means that Ireland, for instance, shouldn't have freed itself from Britain, and that the Welsh should have accepted their language being banned by the British state. I think it's perfectly possible to mourn the reactionary nature of post-1922 Ireland and support independence, while accepting the argument in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities that nationalism is the product of advanced industrial imperialist conditions.
Which brings me to Mel. Mel, Mel, Mel.
The most troublesome bits of the United Kingdom are once again showing signs of disuniting.I'm not sure 'bits' can internally disunite. Unless she means 'from England', which a) instantiates a hierarchy I'm not sure I like and b) implies that England is both untroublesome and united. But no matter: let's carry on.
Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants.English nationalism, by inference, isn't rooted in romanticism and myth AT ALL. It's just a fact that the people who happen to live in one chunk of the biggest island have sound good sense while their neighbours have invented their identities from fantasies about porridge, harps and hating the English (for no good reason, obviously). The English don't hate anyone.
Weirdly, Mel is one of the few people capable of holding three contradictory opinions at once:
Nevertheless, the genie of national identity is now out of the bottle. Trans-nationalism, or the drive to erode the autonomy of nations, has been stopped in its tracks by British voters.OK… Scotland and Ireland aren't real nations (Wales doesn't get a look-in). Britain is a nation. Europe is trans-national. Britain isn't. National autonomy is good. Except when Ireland and Scotland want it. Carry on, Mel!
Brexit expresses the desire for independent self-government by a sovereign state based on the history, institutions and cultural ties that constitute a nation. Great Britain, though, is a confederation of three ancient nations: England, Wales and Scotland. The UK is a super-confederation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.Obviously this bit is a farrago (a Farago?) of nonsense. Nowhere is there a rule-book which determines what make a state. 'History' covers everything from hugs all round to generations of fratricidal warfare. Does she think that every African state carved up by the British for their own convenience is or isn't a state? What are 'cultural ties'? Does the 1536 proscription on the Welsh language count as a cultural tie? Or Offa's Dyke? Where do the Reformation, the very different Scottish Reformation and Anglicanism come in to this? Why is she so keen on one 'super-confederation', the UK, but not a rather less invadey-happy one, the EU?
Mel's not stupid. She's read – or read about – Anderson and co:
The historians Linda Colley and Benedict Anderson famously declared the nation to be no more than an artificial construct or “imagined community.” In this post-modern formulation, the nation could therefore arbitrarily be either declared or dissolved. The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.Not sure what she's objecting to, really. Isn't the United States of America a state which was 'declared'? Haven't states been dissolved multiple times? Think of when Poland stretched to Lithuania, Burgundy was a state and the Netherlands were a Spanish possession. Was Rhodesia a state 'solidly rooted in a group of people united by…ethnicity, history, institutions, culture'? It very much depends on whom you ask and whom you don't.
Englishness, however, came to stand proxy for all the communities of the British Isles. Even Edmund Burke, although a loyal Irishman, wrote of himself as an Englishman rather than describing himself as British.Did it? I know an awful lot of English people say 'England' when they mean Britain, but if Mel would care to visit Limerick, Aberdeen or Llandrindod Wells, she might find herself in a minority. Citing Burke is little more than an anecdote. I find it hard to be amazed or persuaded by the fact that an Establishment figure descended from a colonialism nation's overlords, who moved to London at 21, adopted the definitions handed to him by centuries of imperialist rhetoric.
The Scots developed over time the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on.In actual fact, these islands had multiple languages, overlapping and feeding into each other. Norse, Danish, variants of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and the version that became Gaelic, Pictish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Romani, Norman French (spoken by the toffs in England and by their cousins in the Scottish aristocracy) and probably more that I've forgotten. Mel appears to forget too that there have been changing and co-existing religious beliefs in Scotland, and that Scotland was multiple states too.
At this point Mel's piece degenerates into a series of micro-points with little logic.
Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation.Take that, Switzerland!
Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.Never mind that Wales was in fact a number of polities occasionally and briefly unified; that its languages are rather more than 'residual' – millions people speaking Welsh at work, at play, on TV and in bed = 'residual'? – and that for many Welsh people there's more to being a nation than a legal system.
The Unionists hate this being said but they are not British. They’re the bit that got tacked on to Great Britain to make the UK.Coming from the nationalist tradition I'm tempted to cheer Mel on at this point, but my better nature prevails: there's more to the unionist and presbyterian cultures than this, for good or ill, and all I can say is: with friends like this… This is all the thanks those unionists get for waving Israeli flags at Northern Ireland football matches. I suppose what Mel actually means is that the Northern Ireland unionists aren't English, which is what matters.
Does that mean Westminster should tear up the Good Friday agreement and bid farewell to Northern Ireland? No, because it has an obligation to the Unionists; and because the claim to unite Ireland is tenuous since Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922.Ah! There's a time limit. A state has to be hallowed by centuries. It's a shame Mel hasn't stopped to think that the Israel she defends so doughtily is rather younger, nor that as Ireland seceded (to some extent) in 1922, the current British state is exactly the same age. Surely she should at this point accept that Deheubarth, Bernicia, Armorica and Gaul have greater claims to their territories because, well, age.
However, this is all in the manner of an amuse-bouche compared to the next paragraph, which is a humdinger.
Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.Seriously? All that education and it comes to this? She's abandoned all the guff about culture and language and institutions and invented the claim that there was an island nation. When? Let's just review a few of the polities that existed on these islands:
plus of course the multiple realms of Ireland. And of course they spoke a number of languages (often multilingually) and practised a range of religions and within those religions, a number of denominations. But still, 'Britain' is a 'unitary nation', and not only that, it's 'authentic', the meaning of which entirely defeats me. As to secession: from what? What was this authentic original state from which 'tribes' tried to secede? As far as I can see, people speaking Celtic languages were pushed from what's now England into Wales by various Germanic types, Pictish people were assimilated by incoming Irish and Scandinavians, while 'England' gradually formed through the assimilation of the inhabitants into the dominant new culture. The Norse, Danes and Normans turned up at various points and languages, cultures and concepts of belonging changed and changed about.
What's interesting about Mel's piece is her total inability to address the the resurgence of English nationalism, despite her piece being a manifestation of the old and familiar English supremacy. England is so obviously equivalent to Britain that it apparently needs no interrogation: it's only when the fringe natives start bleating in the rain that she gets worried.
And so we conclude:
Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct, the imagined community that falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation. The EU therefore has no prior claim on its constituent nations which are under no obligation to remain. By contrast, the United Kingdom is a nation which is governed in accordance with its name. Scotland has no right to rip it asunder if it wants to secede from the Union (which in any event is highly doubtful).Mel's the Goldilocks of Nationalism. She tasted a spoonful of Europe but it was Too Big. Then she tried a spoonful of Scotland, but that was Too Small. But the British bowl was Just Right. It's like a form of magic. Some states are 'real' and others aren't. It's hard to tell what the determining factor is because Mel provides a list which she then won't look carefully at. As far as I can see, contemporary Britain is a multicultural-cultural state with a rich, varied and not altogether cuddly history. It has multiple origins and survives by adapting to the political climate. Bits have been welded on and bits have been detached. People have moved around and people have been moved around. Languages have been introduced and languages have been killed. Religions have evolved, split, merged and adapted. Borders have moved, states have appeared and disappeared. Blood has been shed. None of this is inevitable, destined, immanent, justified, divinely sanctioned or – per se – Right. There are reasons for all of this but explanations aren't definitions.
Faced with the contemporary resurgence of regional or tribal uprisings, it’s the ancient British Isles that must hold itself together to take its place once again as a sovereign nation in the wider world.
To my eyes, all polities are temporary coalescences of interests. Some of them are economic, some geographical, some racial, some religious, some political. There are probably other bases for forming a nation. Some of these horrify me, particularly the concept of a nation based on perceived racial coherence. But none of them are any more or less arbitrary than the announcement that Britain is special while Europe, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are – somehow – unreal.
Update: those wonderful Sheffield University historians have blogged about Mel's article in a much more considered way than me. Mel has replied in a way that makes it clear (to her) that she is the winner. To the rest of us, it looks very much like a hole construction has been restarted when activity should perhaps have ceased. I particularly like this bit:
Your assertion that no political nation of Britain existed before the union of England and Scotland is absurd, and your claim that ancient Britain was not a “nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas” is itself inaccurate and ridiculous.Wasn't it lucky for the Romans that they happened to conquer a ready-made country which already bore a Latin name? How very convenient!*
The Romans conquered a discrete country called Britannia.
a) perhaps historical accounts are partial and inflected by the authors' experiences and perspectives? You don't ask a Labour Party member or a snooker player what defines socialism or long-pot strategy and leave it at that. Seriously, I shouldn't have to make such a basic point to someone so prominent.
b) maybe the Romans conquered a geographical area which was occupied by several competing polities which may have shared languages and beliefs but didn't operate as a 'country', and then constructed a form of state which they called Britannia, but whose borders changed fairly frequently, and whose inhabitants were not entirely on board with the re-branding. The British state tried to rename Scotland 'North Britain' and Ireland 'West Britain'. You won't find many Scots or Irish using those terms.