Doubting a stable, federal Britain

Huw Williams says the British state as a whole is being overlooked.

Given the magnitude of the Scottish Referendum it is inevitable that some of its more significant consequences have been somewhat overlooked in the ensuing debates. It was predictable that the focus soon adjusted to the issue of English power, yet it is more surprising that little attention has been paid to the apparent demise of Britishness.

This turn of events could not have been signalled more clearly than by a Tory Prime Minister – of all people – declaring that we are now a family of four nations. Gone, it seems, in one fell swoop, is the idea of one nation – a British national identity to buttress the British state.

Reflecting on the situation raises at least two distinct questions. Firstly, in what way has the British nation ever existed in a coherent and persuasive sense? Secondly, what does the future hold for Britishness?

If the British nation has existed, it has always been in tension with the enduring coherence and reality of its constituent nations. There is no more a straightforward proof of this than the calls for ‘Home Rule all round’ a century ago, when Great Britain was still in its pomp.

This enduring relationship between Britain and its constituent nations is perhaps suggestive of a coexistence between a British, “civic” nation (defined by its commitment to its governmental institutions and the individual rights it guarantees) alongside English,(Northern) Irish, Scottish and Welsh nations defined by their cultural and historical identities.

An expression of such a British, civic nation, is given by our own Richard Price of Llangeinor, the famous Enlightenment philosopher. He reflects on the question of patriotism in his famous sermon, A Discourse on the Love of our Country. Delivered in support of the French Revolution, and circulated widely during its beginnings in 1789, it provides us with a seminal statement of the tradition of civic nationalism:

‘[B]y our country is meant … that community of which we are members, or that body of companions and friends and kindred who are associated with us under the same constitution of government, protected by the same laws, and bound together by the same civil polity.’

Price the radical and dissenter held no truck with historical and romantic notions of a nation-state tied to tradition, culture, language and ethnicity. When Price talks of our country, he is in contemporary parlance referring to the British state, and one which is grounded in the idea of shared political institutions that guarantee people’s freedom.

However, Price’s civic vision of Britain was never properly realized. JCD Clark implies it was English tradition, culture, language and ethnicity that came to define the British nation-state instead:

‘[S]urvival and final victory in the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France meant that England never had Price’s version of its national identity dictated to it by its government. Englishmen were not compelled to disavow identity or continuity by the demands of any ahistorical or anti-historical ideology.’

The ensuing reality was that of an asymmetrical relationship: rather than a supposedly British, civic nationality overlaying the pre-existing national identities, there was a deepening of the process of Anglicization, as an English or – at a stretch – Anglo-Scottish identity was developed and imposed in the name of Britain. There is no need to rehearse this history of cultural assimilation, especially here in Wales where the lines have been draw starkly, in particular around the question of language.

What is revealing is that the theory behind this process is captured most vividly in the words of John Stuart Mill, who is assumed by many to be a paragon of this apparent British civic nation. This misconception is all the more stark if we contrast one of his more infamous passages with the type of tolerant individualism envisaged by Richard Price:

‘Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial to a Breton, or a Basque of French Navarre, to be brought into the current of the ideas and feelings of a highly civilised and cultivated people… than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world. The same remark applies to the Welshman or the Scottish Highlander as members of the British nation.’

Mill was putting forward the necessity of such assimilation not primarily for the good of the half-savage Welshman, but because he saw the absolute necessity of developing a coherent national identity to underpin the democratic government of a state such as Britain.

In this view, even a nominally civic state that prides itself on the principle of freedom requires coherence of identity in the people it serves. Better, therefore, to sacrifice the cultural independence, or rather ignorance, of the Welshman or Highlander on the altar of British ‘progress’, than cleave to some ill-conceived notion of the integrity and value of the peripheral cultures.

Of course, this process was never entirely successful, in that the British nation has never truly subsumed the identities of the other nations. It may be suggested, nevertheless, that a strong sense of Britishness was at its zenith in the post WWII years. Here the pride of the victors combined with the creation of a welfare state and shared institutions to buttress the civic polity in a way that Price could never have imagined – underscored, of course, by a largely Anglicized sense of British nationality.

However, over time this underlying Britishness has faded, a process captured most obviously in the process of devolution that has now undermined many pretentions to a British nation, and which has simultaneously created new civic polities attached to these new forms of government, itself undermining British civic identity.

Where does this leave us in terms of the future?

No doubt Cameron was correct in describing us as four nations, and it seems we are set fair on the course to federalism. However, he, nor many others, it seems, have addressed where this leaves the idea of Britishness and how this identity may or may not be recalibrated.

Such a federal state will require what Mill describes as a ‘feeling of identity of political interest’ and our now common language and political institutions might be seen to provide a strong basis for the necessary, underlying common sympathies. Yet this identity of political interest will continue to be tested and no doubt undermined by the same force that has pushed along the process of devolution, namely the preponderance of English power.

As Mill himself warns, this is likely to be an even more destabilizing factor in a Federal state, where the ‘essential is, that there should not be any one State so much more powerful than the rest as to be capable of vying in strength with many of them combined. If there be such a one, and only one, it will insist on being master of the joint deliberations.’

Such an imbalance of power emphasizes the need for a concept of Britishness that acknowledges the constituent parts and provides the ideological basis for a fair and balanced Federation. If we look to both Price and Mill we find perhaps the most cogent response to such a challenge.

Despite their stark differences, both foreground the importance of a ‘National History’ – Price only implicitly is his millenarian account of national progress, whilst Mill regards it as the single most significant factor in securing a coherent sense of nationality:

‘[A] community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.’

Such accounts can be highly effective, but also tellingly disputed – as evidenced by Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony. In trying to rearticulate such a history, and maintain the ties of Britishness, we face a stiff challenge in settling upon a balanced narrative. Yet if we are unable to furnish ourselves with an inclusive history, we may well share Mill’s doubts, with regard to an inclusive and stable Federal Britain.

Huw Williams is a lecturer in in Philosophy at Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and Cardiff University.

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