British National Identity: The Roots of the Crisis

By | September 6, 2006

‘Western values’ have officially remained more or less the same since the liberal revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas society has since been transformed — first by industrial capitalism and the nation-state, now by corporations running amok in an increasingly integrated world economy. For at least a century western societies have been based on impersonal principles (the state, capitalist markets, science) which placed an intolerable strain on the idea of personal agency that underpins what we are told is our way of life. The result is considerable confusion, a mixture of passivity in the face of anonymous forces and craving for recognition as a unique personality. This existential crisis sometimes takes the form of questioning national identity.

There is no such crisis in India, China, Brazil or South Africa. America’s brand of business-driven government linked to an aggressive nationalism resembles the fascist regimes of the 1930s. Everyone in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, from peasant parties to the former communists and even the KGB wants to wrap himself in the flag. Emigrants from African countries, for all their ethnic pluralism at home, invariably assume a national identity abroad, just as Europeans did in the nineteenth century. No, if there is a crisis of national identity, it is in Western Europe and especially in Britain, where the United Kingdom shows every sign of being on its last legs after only three centuries of its existence.

The revolutions of the decades around 1800 unleashed a new universalism which found its counterpart in the international movement to abolish slavery. Society was on the move everywhere, propelled by Napoleon’s armies and British industry. But this also provoked a reactionary backlash: nationalism and reinforcement of the security state. The idea of being a nation represented an escape from modern history, from the realities of urban industrial life, into the timeless past of the Volk, of the people conceived of as a homogeneous peasantry, living in villages near to nature, unspoiled by social division, the very archetype of a community united by kinship.

Before nationalism, western intellectuals compared their societies with the city-states of the ancient world. Now they fabricated myths of their own illiterate ethnic origins in primeval forests. Traditional society was conceived of as being outside the social forces making the modern world, both in time and space. Romantics drew on rural imagery to invent a national culture capable of resisting these forces by slowing them down. Their slogan could have been “Stop the world, I want to get off”. This is why western farmers, and agriculture generally, carry a political weight far beyond their economic importance today.

Modern states have appropriated the rhetoric of democracy while reserving real power to remote bureaucracies. We are all equally free and are committed to democratic principles on a universal basis. Yet we must justify granting some people inferior rights; otherwise functional economic inequalities would be threatened. This double-think is enshrined at the heart of the modern nation-state. Nationalism is racism without the pretension to being as systematic or global. Nations link cultural difference to birth and define citizens’ rights in opposition to all-comers. The resulting identity, built on regulation of movement across borders, justifies unfair treatment of non-citizens and blinds people to humanity’s common interests. So, apart from the state as a social form, one problem to overcome is its culture.

State, society and community have been merged in the nation to create a master concept of the means of association that is extraordinarily tenacious. There are at least four types of community, all of them incorporated into the idea of the nation-state. It is a political community monopolizing relations with the outside world and providing money and the law at home; a community of place, a nested hierarchy of territories; an imagined community, constructing cultural identity through symbolic abstractions of a high order; and finally a community of interest, uniting people in trade and war for a shared purpose. In the twentieth century most people experienced society at every level through the lens of national identity.

The world economy has been turned upside down since the watershed of the 1970s. Manufactures have been relocated to Asia, especially China, and now information services are finding their way to India. The Third World has been through an urban explosion to match its population growth and, in the form of debt repayments, has transferred unprecedented sums to the rich countries, notably the USA, where the digital phase of the machine revolution is concentrated. World society has been formed as a single interactive network through a combination of neo-liberal economics and the internet. The rise of transnational corporations, with their slogan “you can’t buck the markets”, has been accompanied by the dismantling of welfare states. There is plenty for thinking people of all nations to worry about.

If some now find their own brand of nationalism less convincing than before, we must account for its erosion. This new world market has revealed itself to be an engine of stark inequality. The egalitarian premises of nation-states, seeking to curb capitalism’s polarizing tendencies, have given way to a world in which “the rich get richer” is now taken to be axiomatic. This may be a transitional stage on the way to a new world order capable of curbing the excesses of corporations and the market. But for now winner-takes-all is king. We could regard this as humanity being temporarily caught between national and world forms of society. Or it may be that we have reverted to an imbalance between market and state typical of the 19th century, before national regulation aspired to curb domestic capitalism.

If capitalism is out of control today, what political units and strategies are adequate to making it more democratically accountable in the manner of the New Deal and after the war? There are three main places to stand: we can put our faith in reinforcing the powers of the nation-state against globalization; in developing regional federations, such as the EU, NAFTA and ASEAN; or in strengthened global institutions and networks. The problem is that each of these options makes bedfellows of interests that have been traditionally opposed as right and left. Thus nationalism throws together greens, the unions and racist anti-immigration groups. In regional federations the voices of popular interest groups are drowned by those of the member-states and big money. A global strategy juxtaposes the transnational corporations, the IMF and the strongest states with democratic associations, such as the World Social Forum. ‘Civil society’ is thus split between all three levels and in ways that defy traditional classification, thereby adding to the general political confusion.

These developments can be seen everywhere, but they are most true of Western Europe, where the political experiment of the European Union has provoked a crisis of national sovereignty, especially for the peoples of the Northern fringe. Countries with ageing populations and no experience of colonial empire are responding to intensified Third World immigration with hysterical concern for their recently forged national identities. But the prime example of neurotic preoccupation with all these issues is Britain. To the above general analysis, we can add Britain’s creeping constitutional crisis – a crisis with so many dimensions as to be almost invisible, because it is all-pervasive. I offer only a bare list here.

The European Union and national sovereignty
The pound sterling versus the euro
Scottish independence
The two Irelands
The concentration of power and wealth in London
Regional devolution in England and Wales
The monarchy and growth of republican sentiment
The absolutist powers of parliament
The Lords: parliament, the law and feudal property
The merger between church and state
Loss of empire and of global influence
Racist paranoia over immigration
The ‘special relationship’ or bag-carrier for the American empire
Corporate dominance and the collapse of the public sector
The rise of the internet using English as its lingua franca

It boggles the mind to acknowledge it, but the United Kingdom is falling apart. It is not surprising that the threat of all this unraveling would provoke a conservative backlash, fueled by governments of both right and left as well as by the media. Yet, contrary to Victorian imperial propaganda, the British are a revolutionary people with a pronounced taste for violence and a disciplined passion for fairness. If any three or four of the dimensions listed above became critical at once, the balloon really could go up. The idea of the U.K. as the most unstable major polity in the world today is counter-intuitive. Even so, it is reasonable to speculate how it all might end.

I once had a dream in which I answered a knock on my door in Cambridge. It was a large middle-class woman in a caftan. She said, “We have occupied St. Luke’s nursery to keep it open. We have put up barriers on Hertford Street to slow down the traffic. And we have started a tax strike for decent public education, health and transport. Are you with us?” “Yes”, I replied, “I will help organize the e-mail campaign.” You can be in my dream, if I can be in yours – and Bob Dylan said that.

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