In this post, Dan Taylor explores the historical trajectory of the concept of a British ‘nation’. He argues that, amidst resurgent nationalisms within the United Kingdom, we must stop ignoring the topic and work collectively to establish a collective identity fit for the British Islands in the 21st century.
We are witnessing the ‘slow death of Britain’, warns former BBC journalist Gavin Esler in a new book out next month. The cause? At root, a simmering, resentful yet still-repressed English nationalism that threatens to poison the union and blight British politics for decades to come. And Esler is not alone in reaching this prognosis. While the Prime Minister has often vaulted his government’s ‘world-beating’ and patriotic achievements, it has become increasingly common among the Labour opposition to hear talk of ‘progressive patriotism’, the ‘England problem’, Starmer’s ‘greatest challenge’ and the need for a vision of national renewal to return to power after over a decade of opposition.
For some observers of nationalism and internationalism, this may seem like an unexpected destination to have landed.
As the year 2000 approached and globalised capitalism seemed victorious some began to even prophesise the end of the nation-state. Two decades on, while globalisation has continued apace so have nationalist movements and popular support for the sovereignty of the nation-state. This paradox invites us to consider why nations and nationalisms still matter so much, and what exactly is meant by these contentious terms whose political or cultural reality is sometimes taken for granted. This is particularly pertinent in a year marked by the continued fallout of Brexit, the Scottish Parliament elections and a controversial anniversary that threatens to unravel the union.
What is the nation?
As we begin to encounter the resurgence of these images of Scottish, English, Welsh or Irish Nationalism(s), it is worth reflecting on what we mean by nations and the nation-state, and to think about the ways in which the nation has been conceived. When we think of the nation are we dealing with something peculiar to the modern industrial period that will in turn disappear into autonomous city-states, federated socialist regions or globalised capitalism, or does the nation reflect a basic, universal feature of human life – the need to form and identify as part of specific, place-bounded communities (natio, birth)?
On a basic level, the United Kingdom as a political entity incorporates some of the devolved or independent nations on the British Islands, each with their own specific political, cultural and societal features. This reflects a political and historical fact: these nations were and mostly remain under the same UK Parliament in Westminster, although in some cases they have devolved powers and separate legal/education systems. Yet it either reflects long-running English domination of the British national project, or a significant area of democratic neglect, that there is no devolved government for an English nation within the UK (though some might say that centrally, like the Westminster government, it represents England most of all).
History and Violence
We also speak of the nations of the British Islands as territorially bounded, and sometimes of the people and institutions within that territory as sharing a certain identifiable culture – an ‘imagined community’ to use the oft-quoted line of the historian Benedict Anderson.
As an historical entity, the present United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) was established in 1922 following the secession of the Irish Free State. Yet historically we tend to take the year 1707 as marking the formation of the UK, with the Acts of Union between the kingdoms of Scotland and England and a further Act of Union with Ireland in 1801 (Wales having been annexed to the Kingdom of England by 1542). In the case of Wales and Ireland, annexation was in response to rebellion. Underpinning each, we might suppose, is another definition: Max Weber’s conceptualisation of the nation-state as successfully claiming the ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. Historically then, the distinctive, territorially-bounded nations emerge out of military conquest and subjugation by ambitious and anxious kings, or factions of the aristocracy.
However, we should take care not to wholly attribute a culturally English nationalism to the British nation-state. The 1707 union was compelled in part by Scottish economic collapse following the Darien Scheme, a catastrophic attempt at colonialism in Panama. Meanwhile, leading English political factions elected a Scottish monarch in 1603 with the coronation of James VI of Scotland and I of England who tried but failed to unite both kingdoms into one state. The virtue of James Stuart was not nationality but his Protestant religion. Similarly, the Dutch and British military overthrow of his Catholic grandson, James II, in 1685, was on the same grounds of religious opposition as the British parliament supported the Protestant ruler of the Netherlands, William II of Orange, to become monarch. James II’s abortive rebellion in the north of Ireland, suppressed in part by local militia under the flag of Orange, indelibly shapes the walls, streets and borders of the modern Irish republic and United Kingdom. This event is foundational to the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty in England (the ‘Glorious Revolution’) yet is draped in sectarianism.
Language and culture
Historians of the medieval and early modern period have therefore noted that it was often county affiliation or Christian denominational identity which bounded shared identities. Linda Colley’s Britons argues that a popular British nationalism was only mobilised from the 18th century as something specifically Protestant and military opposed to powerful Catholic (particularly French) neighbours. What then of language, whose reclamation and institutionalisation has been an early strategic aim of separatist nationalist movements on the British Islands? Late 19th century Irish nationalism revived the near-lost Gaelic language alongside Irish sports. Similar linguistic efforts have been pursued more recently in Wales and Scotland in public media outlets, bilingual signs and school education. But the process is less smooth. North and South Walian are very different dialects. Legislative pressure for the proliferation of Scots Gaelic in the south, where it has not been spoken for many centuries, has been criticised.
Moreover, we can look further back than the 18th century to locate attempts to project a cultural national identity – be it Shakespeare’s Henry IV or appeal to ‘this scepter’d isle’ in Richard II, or even King Alfred’s efforts to culturally and politically unite the English region-states in his 9th century campaign against Norse occupation. This older historical account of the nation-state reflects that of Anthony Smith and Azar Gat, two theorists who differently argue that concepts of ethnicity and nationhood are embedded in human nature and evident across cultures and epochs. They reflect the ways in which we as human beings tend to organise into communities and adopt customs and identifiable cultures. For them, the idea that the nation-state has had its day would be absurd. As Anatol Lieven has contended in relation to climate change, the nation-state is the only vehicle sufficient to mobilise collective self-sacrifice.
This historical long view would be rejected by Benedict Anderson. Shared British nationhood only became imaginable with the emergence of modern industrial capitalism, which brought about processes of secularisation, standardisation of language and increased speeds of print communication that could make this imagining viable. Classically, while Ernest Gellner would accept that historically there have been ideas of nationhood, only the modern period with its standardisation of language, cultural homogenisation through education and national bureaucracy allowed the imposition of a national identity. Thus, if we consider the nation-state as a consequence of industrial capitalism then it is not so difficult to predict its demise with its sovereignty ceded to vast multinational monopolies and offshore finance. Conversely, the end of capitalism might usher in an international socialist federalism.
We might also consider the view of the Scottish intellectual Tom Nairn that nationalism arises in response to capitalism’s ‘grossly uneven development’, and can act as a substitute for organised working-class movements. However, and as Nairn also understood, left-wing mobilisations of devolved national or regional self-government have historically not always been popular – consider the failure of Scottish devolution in 1979, the narrowest support for Welsh devolution in 1997, or the rejection of a North-East Regional Assembly in 2004. Within every nation there are multiple and conflicting classes, communities, economic forces and identities.
Thus a number of theoretical approaches to the nation emerge, each with different implications for how we imagine the identity and purpose of our own sense of nation, and for the wider future of the nation-state more broadly. It therefore matters whether we conceive the nations as a political entity with a monopoly on enforcing security, or as a shared identity in history, language, religion or territory; whether the nation-state reflects a certain capture of political power by industrialists, finance and the landed aristocracy, or something fundamentally rooted in a universal human need to belong to a place.
It matters in terms of the story we implicitly tell about the nations, particularly over the coming decade. The challenge presented by Scottish Independence is well-known. Brexit, with its disproportionate support in England, has also been considered a frustrated desire for English independence and sovereignty, with other knock-on effects like the economic push towards reunifying Ireland. 2021 will be an important year in Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast, with the centenary of effective Irish partition (not to mention 2022), and the Scottish parliamentary elections.
But we should also consider other factors that place strain on the nation-state and a sense of shared civic obligation. On a societal level, that of widening inequalities, increasing poverty and widening differences of cultural values across generations and economic opportunities across regions. To crudely map a ‘North’ and ‘South’ divide across the complex politics of the wider British Islands is incorrect; a distinction of economic-cultural metropoles and peripheries, while abstract, may be steadier. Then there are emerging issues like climate change, rising sea levels and the increased uninhabitability of the tropics (with consequent global refugee crises), as well as now-familiar pandemics. Or, from an economic perspective, the onset of automation and the disappearance of many working class and lower middle class jobs. Such problems do not respect borders, though they necessitate a collective response that traditionally national governments have provided. Indeed, recent dissident voices on the British left have envisioned the reclamation of a post-Brexit nation-state as a basis for post-capitalist democracy.
Intellectuals on the left and right have predicted the demise of the nation-state for many decades. Popular “British” nationalism has certainly changed hues in the last 300 years, from Napoleonic-era hostility to Catholicism; from late Victorian popular imperialism during the “Scramble for Africa” to what David Edgerton has called a post-WW2, social democratic nationalism. In an increasingly liberal and secular society, appeals to ‘Faith, flag and family’ seem anachronous, yet other symbols of this ‘imagined community’ like the Royal Family, BBC, NHS, “Team GB” athletes and commemoration of the World Wars are more popular than ever. Both nationalisms and interest in the political opportunities of the nation-state are growing, not declining.
Whether the UK breaks up in the coming decade or not, there is no sign that interest will abate in the nations of the British Islands, their shared histories, conflicts and common borders, and what it means to be of a nation. Two roads stand before us. One in which we continue to avoid the topic of nationalism, particularly English nationalism, leaving the debate of its identity to be dominated by hackneyed cultural or even ethnic notions. Or one where we take seriously and discuss, together, what a truly civic, pluralistic collective identity for the British Islands and its constituent nations might look like in the 21st century.
Dan Taylor is a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University. He has previously taught History and Philosophy at Goldsmiths, University of London, Lawrence University, and the University of Roehampton. He is the author of Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, published with Edinburgh University Press in 2021. His previous book, Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2017. His research focuses on political theory and the history of political thought, and he has published or presented in fora like New Statesman, The Conversation and BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze and Making History.