National identities after globalisation

Tom Nairn reviews Harold Carter’s Against the Odds

Against the Odds: The survival of Welsh identity
Harold Carter
IWA, £9.99

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead, the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

T.S.Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets,1944

The Great-British General Election took place, on 6 May, 2010. And On 7 May the voters woke up in Alice’s Wonderland: “Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth.” She worries about arriving among the ‘Antipathies’ on the other side, but the White Rabbit keeps reappearing and, in between nervous glances at his watch, reassures her things will soon be sorted out.

Today the White Rabbit is Nick Clegg, Leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, summoned by ‘the Duchess’ (the Conservative Party’s David Cameron) for grotesquely unlikely talks about common policy over staging the Mad Tea Party. Dealing with Britain’s gigantic deficit without turning the Pound Sterling into funny-money, being simultaneously for and against the European Union, and so on. Though uncomfortably like an accord between Albert Schweitzer and Gengis Khan, the deal does appear inevitable for the moment. The Conservative Party won most votes, and the Lib Dems have advanced sufficiently to claim a place at the power-table — or at least, for as long as Labourism continues to sink in the choppy wake of the departing Gordon Brown. Most recent reports indicate water-level rising near deck-level, and threatening the Bridge. However, what choice have the living but to seek an exit from zombiedom, however difficult?

In most countries, another election would be the answer. But this is Wonderland. A second contest might push everything still closer to the centre of the earth. Isn’t the ancestor of democracy succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and capable of results even worse than 7 May? Hence, the urgent task (‘national interest’ etc) boils down to getting rid of a millenary tradition in a few days, time to at least consider disposing of the Mother of Parliaments and ‘first-past-the-post’. Reared to worship such timeless icons, today’s Royal Subjects find themselves placed under brisk orders to bin the lot, and re-equip themselves in record time for boring modernity.

Two-partyism seems to have joined the Dodo and the ‘caucus race’ in Dodgson’s famous portrait of Englishness. As Iain Macwhirter concluded his ‘State of the Nation’ survey in Scotland’s Sunday Herald (9 May):

“This election was a kind of punishment for the UK political leadership, for the expenses scandal and the banking crisis. The people wanted a change — well, now they have it. The political system is broken, but we don’t yet know if anyone has the tools to fix it.”

That’s the job of the incoming coalition government, and we’re still finding out day by day just what the tools are, and how likely or unlikely will be the restoration of the historic United Kingdom.

So far one thing has to be taken for granted, the absence of an English polity capable of asserting itself democratically, on behalf of its eighty-five per cent UK majority. No non-democratic or dictatorial alternative is yet presenting itself. Yet it should be more clearly recognised that what’s happening is an odd sort of dictatorial solution, a power-system imposed by absence. Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and other peripheral opinion (for example, the Isle of Man) are bound to react, but with no real option except one or other version of actual nationalism. In that sense, the latter turns out to be founded less on swelling separatist tides than on the hopeless breakdown of the centre, Old-Westminster Britishness.

Straightforward political reform, like proportional representation and federalism, has been put off too long. And today no time is left. That is, no time for anything but panic and hasty makeshifts, as manifested in this notion of a gambling-table deal between Deep-South Toryism and ‘civic’ Liberal Democracy, meant to stave off catastrophe. This is break-up, nor are ye out of it. New Labour, 1997-2010, was the last chance saloon, and towards the end of it six-gun Brown couldn’t even draw his shooter. Today we find him retired, but still leaning on the old bar without so much as a decent wise-crack to amuse the remaining soaks and newshounds. Out on Main Street, the contest is on for a British equivalent to Australian Labor’s Kevin Rudd, or his successor Julia Gillard.

Couldn’t Labourism vote in another less Party-bound leader, and set up a different bar-room deal with Lib-Dems and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists on all-round constitutional change — in effect, move towards some kind of confederal replacement for the United Kingdom? Possibly, but how many years could that take? The Britannic ancien regime is founded on the unthinkability of such stuff. So it will have to emerge in fits and starts, spasms like the one we are in — over the wreckage of Gordon Brown’s Britishness and David Cameron’s smart PR to keep old Union on its feet.

Open Democracy and like-minded organs have been arguing in that general direction for decades already, preaching to the largely unconverted. Now suddenly everybody has experienced a five-minute conversion, forced on them by the simple failure and incapacity of the traditional regime. The question has turned from whether or not to be ‘radical’, into just which version of radicalism will best fit the new times. Against the grain of Britishness and most of the secular odds it imposed, a stalled evolutionism has ended by setting the stage for political revolution.

This is the context into which IWA’s book Against the Odds appears. Harold Carter looks back on the history of Welsh national identity, over the long period from the 1536 Act of Union down to the present. The former ordained that “the said country or dominion of Wales shall stand and continue for ever from henceforth incorporated united and annexed to and with the King’s realm of England” (p.50); but the present situation is one where the ‘shattered cultural core’ of Wales is being reintegrated through a “sense of coherence which would give so much more strength to the people’s future”.

Carter’s emphasis is on the story of the language, but his solution is “a truly bilingual Wales… a country where people can choose to live their lives through the medium of either or both Welsh or English and where the presence of the language is a source of pride” (p.145). This is because ‘the “institutional’ basis of identity seems to be exhibiting increased tenacity” following devolution and the creation of the Welsh Assembly (p.143).

A sense of coherence has been forced on the periphery by its downfall at the centre. The English needed ‘Britain’ and had become too used to it — the appropriate ‘bigger than’, extending identity bequeathed by the odd history so well recounted in Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1993) and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983, Kindle edition, Amazon Whispernet, 1010). The English figure there as the prime movers of nation-state modernity: it was threat and promise from the archipelago that forced France towards its Revolution, and then the rest of Europe into a staged adoption of nationalism.

But of course, the motor of that change could never itself become just another example. It moved on into overreach: the ceaseless extension of colonialism and empire, bringing, as Carter puts it: “vital myths and memories of the English people predominantly related to its imperial past” (p.23), rather than to a national past in the usual 19th and 20th Century sense. Hence, he goes on, “the problem of being ‘English’ and of being at the same time politically correct and ‘liberal’ ”. The first could never become either typical or even last in the global process. As we can see now, the Welsh dilemma (especially) emphasizes a sui generis nature to which neither European Union nor globality provide a ready answer.

England can’t be forced backwards to the 16th Century, to undo ‘incorporation’. However, it can (and now very probably will) be forced back to the early-modern moment of its Treaty of Union with the Scots. Queen Anne’s 1707 was a profoundly different kind of deal from that of Henry VIIIth. It was an ambiguous arrangement between states, rather than a conquest and core-shattering repression. The ‘end of the UK’ will then be a matter-of-fact reconstitution, posing unfamiliar but quite resolvable questions of external relations, both within the European Union and at United Nations (and Security Council) levels.

At the time of writing this, the Flemish part of the Belgian multi-national state is moving towards an analogous reconstitution, one whose basis was laid down in 1713, just six years after the parliamentary merger of 1707 Union. These are ‘re-modernizations’, and their slogan should be something like the old French one, reculer pour mieux sauter — returns to a perfectly accessible period, in order to adapt to newer circumstances.

Carter recognises the possibilities here: “It is an over-simplification to argue that Scotland retained its institutions but lost its language while Wales lost its institutions but retained its language.” However, the simplification meant there was no centre of power in Wales, so that “one thing, and one only, affirmed and sustained Welsh identity and that was the language” (p.55). Today, a power element has been returned by devolution and the Assembly. Against The Odds argues that the false antagonism between ethno-linguistic identification and ‘mere politics’ is now in course of resolution.

Earlier on the book declares that “globalisation has undermined what once could be called ‘ethnic’ ”(p.26), rendering a culture-alone growth more difficult. I doubt both the assertion and (still more) its supposed implications. There is an alternative position: ‘globalisation’ is having the effect of reinforcing ethno-linguistic identities, and making these turn to ‘culture-plus’ answers. After all, the most basic trait of globalisation is surely its finality. The ‘industrialisation’ of the globe has been a once-off (if still unconcluded) process — and so is its terminus, the elements of uniformity entailed by actual globality and the sense of one homo sapiens ‘tribe’, or nation. This is it: the Welsh (like thousands of others) have to be, or not be, for all time foreseeable. The alternatives are a global mode forged via the house of many colours, not blighting or dimming the inheritance. Transcendence through what we have and are or else, loss beyond words, the possible erosion of too much ‘human nature’.

The nationalisms of 20th Century modernity have not constituted this world in order to fade away. Of course they have to change, and develop farther. The emergent new horizon of globalisation discloses new vistas. The value of Against The Odds is its acknowledgement of this, and of how late-comers in nation-formation (or re-formation) like the Welsh, the Flemings and Walloons, the Scots, the Northern Irish, the West Papuans, the Catalans (and so many others) may enjoy novel opportunities. It is an age of efflorescence rather than of mere resurrection, a globalisation of human geography and, in the longer run, of human nature itself.

Tom Nairn is author of The Break-Up of Britain (1977). Until earlier this year he was Research Professor in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Globalism Institute, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

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