Wednesday, March 16, 2005
At last someone has said something sensible on the topic of British identity and nationalism. Julian Baggini, writing in today's Guardian, argues for a minimal 'civic nationalism' as the only practical way to maintain a realistic sense of belonging without excluding people unnecessarily.
This topic is back on the agenda because of Labour's latest manoeuverings. Both David Blunkett (on Sunday's Breakfast with Frost, then Monday's Today (listen here; fast forward to 12:47) and Newsnight) and Gordon Brown (also on Monday's Newsnight) have argued for a revival of some sort of traditional patriotism. This is clearly yet another attempt to shut down any distinctive strand of policy that the Tories may come up with, but it carries numerous risks. You'd think the party that, only a few years ago, attempted to foist 'Cool Britannia' on us would have learnt its lesson by now.
That is not to say there is not a real problem lurking here. Madeleine Bunting examined the issue in Monday's Guardian and reported how many English people feel a sense of insecurity and loss. If this territory is captured by the right, it will be moulded to suit a racist and introverted agenda. But a revival of traditional nationalism is not the answer.
For a start, 'Britishness' is not really an option when it is being consciously rejected by the Scots and the Welsh. That leaves us with 'Englishness', a concept so elusive that no-one can agree what it is.
In any case, British identity is not as 'traditional' as most people imagine. The nation state is a relatively modern concept, which did not come into being until the French and American revolutions of the late eighteenth century. It would take another 100 years, culminating in the unification of both Germany and Italy in 1870, before nationalism was firmly established in Europe.
Before this era, the 'state', such as it existed, was simply an expression of royal power. It did little apart from fight wars and keep the aristocracy in the style to which it was accustomed.
Industrialisation provided the logic for the creation of the nation state. National identities were then moulded by the romantic nationalist movements prevalent in the nineteenth century. But the need to draw lines on maps through intermingled communities has been a never-ending source of strife and cannot resolve problems in ambiguous territories such as the Basque country, Northern Ireland or Bosnia.
In retrospect, it is possible to see that European nationalism reached its high-water mark between 1870 and 1945. Since then, globalisation has gradually removed the economic logic behind the nation state, and the other forms of social glue (such as religion and class) have also come unstuck, so that all we are left with is a set of redundant symbols. No wonder there has been a spontaneous revival of local and regional identities throughout Europe.
A sense of belonging and a shared sense of values are legitimate needs. But they cannot be recreated or sustained through an attempt to revive the symbols and loyalties of the VE-Day street party.
We need a more progressive sense of identity, but this not something anyone (not even David Blunkett or Gordon Brown) can confect artificially from the centre.
A Liberal solution, or rather the framework for a possible solution, is a serious devolution of power. Give people control of their communities and they are likely to develop an authentic identity of their own, without any help from the Labour Party.