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.

6 thoughts on “Doubting a stable, federal Britain

  1. This article is exceptional among recent contributions on the subject in that it is sensible, thoughtful, grown-up, and evidently based on actual reading and reflection on what has been read. One hopes that this will not harm the author’s career at a Welsh university.

  2. Excellent article. Most of us are British nationalists, and therefore identify with Britain as our primary identity. (and vote Labour or Tory to back up our nationalism). Some are Welsh nationalists, and see Wales as nation rather than a region of the UK. Fascinating thought this is, it makes it difficult to see federalism developing. Ultimately, Scotland will become autonomous, and England and Wales will have to evolve into their new British union, with its new British identity.

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

    May I suggest that the subtitle of this article (presumably worded by the editors) misses the point of the article entirely?

    May I (secondly) suggest that that is why the author feels the article needs to be written in the first place?

    May I (thirdly) suggest that the central thesis of the author is only strengthened by the (editor’s) wording of the subtitle?

  4. I appreciate the article and in particular the historic sources cited. However I believe that there is no merit in trying to recreate the idea of Britishness, any more than there is in redesigning the Union Flag to take account of the existence of Wales. Scotland is moving towards independence, as the age profile of Yes voters in the September 2014 Referendum clearly showed. Wales will have to decide whether it wishes to disappear into a Greater England or opt for a future as a modern, self-respecting nation.

  5. This is a constructive and thoughtful article but, in my view, puts too much faith in an “inclusive history”. In fairness, British history and British culture have always tried to be inclusive but British politics has tended to undermine those efforts. The decisive break came in 1979 when Thatcher was elected. She was determined to break the social democratic consensus upon which Britain as a political entity had been maintained. Her imperious attitude meant that she did not see how different her own country was from the other members of the Union. The current break-up of Britain is in part the result of her politics, especially in Wales. Had it not been for Thatcher, we would still be without a National Assembly.

    So if your question is how do we put the shared history back together, then I’m afraid the boat has sailed on that one. This doesn’t mean that the social and cultural Union will disappear, quite the opposite. Families often have relatives across the UK and long may that continue. They will, if the example of Ireland is anything to go by, still be watching Coronation Street and various other programmes in 20 years time.

    I reject the term ‘inevitable’ in political discourse because I simply don’t think it’s true. But it is difficult to see how else Scotland is moving forward other than towards another referendum which the Yes camp is likely to win. England is retreating from Europe while Scotland moves towards it. These are not reconcilable narratives.

    In the spirit of accord however, I agree with the closing sentiments of the piece in that an inclusive and stable federal Britain will not be forthcoming for the very reasons that the author outlines.

  6. “Scotland is moving towards independence, as the age profile of Yes voters in the September 2014 Referendum clearly showed”

    There is a huge confounding factor which you have overlooked. Younger voters have more radical left wing views which then move to the centre and even the right as they age. There is a wealth of research to back that up… to the point that I’m shaking my head in disbelief that I should even have to point that out to someone on a politics blog. It is ‘common knowledge’ as they say! Based on political research, the age profile of yes voters would likely be similar in 10 years time… to assume that the mean would shift to the right up through the age groups is being incredibly simplistic.

    The SNP know it… that’s why they lowered the voting age and similarly it is the reason why the Conservatives are the only party that don’t want to lower the voting age in Wales and the rest of the UK.

    Wales is not on the cusp of being a socialist, Welsh speaking republic I’m afraid to tell you. If anything it has already overstretched itself in that direction on the coat tails of Scotland and the Welsh electorate may well reign it in.

    To give yourself a reality check now and again, just remember that there are more Conservative voters in Wales than there are Plaid voters… and that in a country which the Conservatives darn near destroyed.

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