The English and the others

May 2, 1997

Bernard Crick argues that we already have a quasi-federal state - it's called Britain. The current angry chauvinism springs only from English, not British, angst.

Whenever I read a report of a politician pretending to be a statesman going on about the dangers of a "federal superstate'' I reach for my red pencil and scrawl in the margin, "contradiction in terms''. This is more than a verbal matter for it carries the implication that federalism is completely alien to British experience and that it threatens our British identity. But is it and does it, or rather what is this "British identity"? It plainly means something different to Scots, Welsh and unionist Northern Irish than it does to the English, even if the English can get very confused between the connotations of "English'' and "British''.

Conservative leaders have a reasonable grasp of the formal vocabulary of economics, but distinctions commonly drawn by political theorists and modern historians seem to escape them. To say "superstate'' must surely imply a very strong state, usually in the modern world a highly centralised state claiming to be sovereign. But "federal'' implies an organisation of government where states have come together to create a negotiated distribution of power in a legal framework. The centre may be relatively strong, or relatively weak, but if it is federal, then it is negotiated and cannot be a superstate.

New Conservatives, however, plainly see all the dangers of a federal Europe as pointing to a framework too strong rather than a framework too weak to ensure the needs of its inhabitants - security of life, prosperity or welfare and personal liberty. Old Tories took a rather different view of federalism, of which the only working model was the United States: that it was inherently unstable and would, one day, collapse. There was a collective cry of "I told you so'' when the American civil war broke out. Only a sovereign state could be stable, a state where there was some final and singular law-making authority.

There were always some obvious practical exceptions to this trinity of Britishness, sovereignty and political stability - the federal regimes that emerged in Canada, Australia, South Africa, after the second world war, in India, Nigeria and for a while in East Africa. Somehow these exceptions "out there'', like in Northern Ireland today, bore no relationship whatever to the theory of government pursued in the homeland, believed, at least, by all Conservatives and most writers of text books of British history or British government. Gladstone's ill-fated Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 did, in fact, seek to create a federal structure, and after its defeat he raised the stakes and made official Liberal policy from that day to this "Home Rule all around'', a commitment to constitutional reform and federalism. But until this last decade, most British histories were in fact English histories, and most textbooks in politics were actually called "English government'', or even if "British'', only made cursory references to the "peculiar institutions'' of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Since the 1970s, however, one "incomer'', as the Scots say, the American political scientist Richard Rose, began to refer to the British system as "quasi-federal'', as in his Understanding the United Kingdom of 1982. How else to explain these "peculiar institutions"? And a New Zealand intellectual historian, John Pocock, wrote in 1975 in the Journal of Modern History a truly seminal article, "British history: a plea for a new subject''. It was an attack on an Anglocentric history, and a demonstration that even the history of England before the union of the crowns in 1603 and the union of the parliaments with Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1801 cannot be understood except in terms of interaction with Scottish and Irish politics. In 1989 Hugh Kearney wrote The British Isles: a History of Four Nations, a brilliant attempt to pull it all together. Much influenced by these ideas, I edited a book, National Identities and the Constitution, in 1991 for the Political Quarterly. All so recent, all surely contingent on national uncertainties.

Then in 1994 an event of almost comic grandeur occurred. For the first time the famous annual Anglo-American conference of historians at the Institute of Historical Research in London, instead of disaggregating into their time-honoured special period or subject closets and cocoons, stayed together in massive plenary session, listening attentively and seriously to unfamiliar, or at best semi-familiar matter. What kept them together was the very matter of Britain, the formation of the United Kingdom. A book from the conference papers soon followed, but so did three other similar symposia in a pioneer's wagon race to stake out choice claims in print to the new historiographical territory. British history as considered by historians is now very far from what Neal Ascherson has perceptively called "the blue-haze national heritage'' espoused by politicians beating Drake's drum.

The UK is not only a multinational state practising, contrary to what was in the old textbooks, a kind of quasi-federalism, but a state in which many people have a real sense of dual nationality. Most Scots see themselves, clearly enough, as Scottish and British. Similarly most Welsh, and so do a majority in Northern Ireland (not just Protestants, but also, a growing number - about 20 per cent - of Catholics). The conceptual difficulty among the majority in Northern Ireland is not in having a dual sense of identity and calling themselves British, but in agreeing what to call, how to conceptualise, their other provincial half.

We English can be most confused about our national identity. My passport calls me "citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'', but I notice that when hotel registers demand "nationality?'' (a nationalist assumption, for the bureaucrat plainly means "citizenship?") most fellow citizens write "English'' rather than "British''. Now most of them/us are English, but I suspect that they plainly think "English'' is the adjectival form of "citizen of the United Kingdom...'' This angers me personally because my children are half-Welsh, I live in Edinburgh and study and frequently visit Ireland. This angers me intellectually because I believe that the UK is a multinational state, a union of different nations with significantly different cultures and different, if interrelated and constantly interactive histories.

The old Tories knew this well. For them the main business of English politics was holding the UK together. But New Conservatives have lost this sense of real history. Paradoxically, the least explicit of the national identities in the UK is that of the English. There is a large literature on what it means to be Irish, Welsh and Scottish, almost as large and obsessional as the "what is an American?'' literature. But very little serious writing, until this decade of uncertainty, about what is Englishness. Perhaps because we English are facing a crisis of identity, we are just beginning to discuss it. The Scots, the Welsh and the Catholic Irish in Northern Ireland have real political grievances, but they have little uncertainty about their identity. The English, confusing "English'' with "British'', do. And this has left many English confused, obviously angry, somewhat xenophobic ("Euro-scepticism'' is an English understatement) in reaction to four obvious changes in our perceptions of character and identity.

First, our postwar inevitable diminishment in power and international prestige (made worse by the obfuscating delusion that "we'' won the war). Second, the postwar Commonwealth immigration - the problem of community relations, revealingly misnamed "race relations". Third, the dramatic change of the Conservative party from one of traditional values and conventions into one almost wholly of competitive, market-formed values, and its accompanying unexpected move from a belief that as much government as possible should be local towards more aggressive centralism than Labour ever espoused. Fourth, the partly consequent growth of a nationalistic politics in Scotland and Wales. Perhaps one should add a fifth disturbing factor: a declining belief that our constitutional arrangements help rather than hinder good government.

I have a strange view of all this. That the tensions arise not from English nationalism as such, but from its long suppression. Look back. When the main business of government in the UK was holding the realm together, the development of a state cult of English nationalism, such as happened everywhere else among dominant nations in Europe, would not have been helpful. The old English governing class, on the contrary, practised a kind of cultural politics: Irish, Scottish and Welsh culture was patronised. Contrary to nationalist rhetoric in those lands, there was no English version of the French mission civilatrice. The English were more tolerant, so long as central power and commerce were not threatened. But after that big mistake around 1776, our rulers realised that half the art of possessing sovereign power is in knowing when not to use it, certainly not to use it unnecessarily. Instead of an English nationalism as the ideology of the state, there was something once quite as potent, a common property of the four nations but now gone for ever: imperialism.

A Scot can be nationalist and devolutionist quite easily (oh, and a good European too - only ultra-nationalism demands an exclusive identity). There is nationalism and Nationalism. Scottishness has not depended on having a parliament, whether sovereign or quasi-federal. After nearly three centuries of the union, Scottish national feeling is alive, indeed lively and ever-changing. (The case for devolution is not that otherwise their identity is threatened, but is quite simply a proposition in democracy and good government.) They can be Scottish and British precisely because British is not construed as a whole culture but more narrowly as crown, parliament and the laws - a political culture, the symbols and institutions that hold the nations together. The new immigrant sees it more clearly than most English. Immigrants never, or very rarely, call themselves Asian English or whatever, rather Asian British, etc. Most do not want to be fully English, but offer allegiance to the crown, parliament and the laws and expect in return the protection of British law.

The English need to explore Englishness more and not to confuse it with Britishness, indeed to take some pride in how there is a positive interrelation between all four nations still. Then a proper patriotism could replace an angry chauvinism. One can be as proud of being English as a Welshman is of being Welsh, without banging on at them with "British'' as if that meant they should be English. Even the violent contingencies of Irish separation and two sovereignties, even two sovereignties that once disputed a common territory, until they came to see it as a common problem, did not close the door to continuing close interrelations: the dominance of the English language and the accessibility of its national variants has seen to that.

No one is upset at separate studies of the English novel nor at those of Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Even Kingsley Amis, for example, would not have wanted (I hope) to call and claim them all as British novels. But they would be bad studies if they did not acknowledge the influence of the others, as sometimes they do. Political and historical studies are beginning to take that line. But it will be a long time before such wisdom reaches the platforms and the leader writers.

Bernard Crick is emeritus professor, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments