Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Fitting Britishness with a nationalist straightjacket

Somebody called Patrick Murphy has adjudged the questionable quality of London’s Olympic presentation at Beijing’s closing ceremony, sufficient pretext for a diatribe propounding the supposed meaninglessness of Britishness and the alleged futility of unionism. It comprises the usual ‘you’re not a proper nation’, ‘the UK is about to break up’ sneering so beloved of nationalist columnists. Of course it is also underpinned by the notion that any ordering of states which does not submit to the assumptions of nationalism is unsustainable. The possibility that nationality, identity and statehood are subject to different interpretations and that nationalism’s reductionist narrative is not the only means available, by which to examine these issues, is not even considered.

Take Murphy’s disdainful opening gambit,

“It would appear that 800 years of fighting here have been reduced to whether or not we wish to ally ourselves with a red bus, David Beckham and some woman singing. These were the symbols which Britain chose to represent Britishness to the rest of the world in the transfer of the Olympic Games from China. They raise questions as to what Britishness means, what unionism stands for and, in the light of the answers, where unionists are headed in the current political impasse at Stormont.”


Although I appreciate the artifice implicit in establishing a launch-pad for his opinion piece, nevertheless this paragraph betrays a startling lack of subtlety as regards the columnist’s treatment of history and identity. ‘800 years of fighting’ is implicitly ascribed to an alien British presence in Ireland, upsetting the natural and indelible order whereby Ireland is a self-evident and inevitable nation state. Of course, in actuality, the interrelatedness of the peoples of these islands goes back far further than 800 years and the reasons for conflict in Ireland have been various and remain contested. The easy conflation which Murphy makes is that unionists in Northern Ireland are the outward manifestation of Britain’s continuing involvement in Ireland; ergo the implication is that Britishness and by extension unionism is responsible for all of the bloodshed in Ireland over the past 800 years. There is no acknowledgment, or investigation of, the possibility that unionism’s existence might reflect that relationships between the peoples of the British Isles necessarily became entwined because of proximity and shared history. That unionism might indeed be a natural and logical phenomenon given our shared common space.

To take Murphy’s central contention literally, it is ridiculous to aver that the essence of any identity or state can be distilled into an eight minute song and dance routine at a sports’ event’s closing ceremony. As his article develops he conveniently proposes ‘what defines Irishness is a discussion for another day’. But to occlude a more general discussion of identity and nationality is to render his points about Britishness irrelevant. Who or what defines any identity or nationality? Nationality is essentially a modern invention and each nation is defined by those who belong to it. To rubbish a nationality as meaningless because it cannot easily be reduced to a series of clichés is manifestly nonsense.

It is in the next passage however that confusion properly takes hold,

“The English are clearly a nation united by a common history, culture and language. So are the Scots and the Welsh, for the same reasons. But it is difficult to find a common bond which binds all of them, and unionists, into a British nation. They have some common characteristics, but these are a consequence of political union, not a cause for it. For example, many of them now share a common language, but that is because the English succeeded in suppressing languages other than their own.”


There is one thing in particular which will leap out at unionists of a similar mind to me. To prevent O’Neill and others bursting various blood vessels, I shall deal with it first. The constituents of the United Kingdom are, according to Murphy, England, Scotland, Wales and ‘unionists’. By which he presumably means Northern Irish unionists. But unionism is not confined to Northern Ireland. Unionism connotes anyone within the UK wishing to preserve that kingdom and maintain the unions which form it. Unionists can be, are, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. Unionism is not an ethnic label, nor is it an identity. Unionism is adherence to a political belief.

Murphy’s confusion is compounded as he indulges in a pastime which is a great favourite for nationalists, prescribing what comprises, and what does not comprise, a ‘genuine’ nation. By anyone’s standards this particular attempt is bewildering. By his formulation, England, Scotland and Wales are ‘clearly’ nations. There is even (not all nationalists extend to this effort) an attempt to define criteria which accords them this status, ‘common history, culture and language’. ‘But it is difficult to find a common bond which binds all of them, and unionists, into a British nation’. Except, of course, that all of them share to a greater or lesser extent, common history, culture and language! Apparently, however, we have to disregard these commonalities because they have developed, as “a consequence of political union [and are] not a cause for it”. This is a novel notion, albeit completely ahistorical and contradictory. Does political union not count as history? Does a common political culture not count as culture? Must a common language have been spoken from time immemorial by all their antecedents to qualify as something which binds people? Murphy’s formula makes no sense, other than to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the nationalist’s concept of nationhood. England, Scotland and Wales are ‘clearly’ nations, just because they are. Britain is not, just because it isn’t. He further expounds,

“Historically there were significant differences between the three nations in language, culture and society. But they were held together, with Ireland, in a political bloc, through the creation of the concept of Britishness.”


This could equally be said of various regions of Italy, Germany and a number of other ‘nations’ whose authenticity I don’t imagine Murphy would challenge. Historically differences in language, culture and society have been present in almost any antecedent of a state which you care to mention. Every state undergoes a period of conceptual ‘invention’; every nationality is forged in similar circumstances. The only distinction between Britishness and these other nationalities is that Britishness has retained a multilayered aspect. Its basis remains a civic sensibility, rather than cleavage to a specific, monolithic identity, with the clichéd determinants which Murphy seeks as indicators of authenticity.

His piece swiftly degenerates into an attack on Britain’s imperial past. There is little value in trawling through this hugely partial narrative, given that the central thesis is merely to define the sum total of Britishness as a common history of oppression. The paradox of defining Irish, Scottish and Welsh people who consider themselves British, both as coloniser and colonised is not explored. It is, however, worth picking up on one more blatantly nonsensical remark.

“So where does unionism find common ground with Britishness?”


Unionism finds common ground with Britishness by virtue of being a British doctrine. Unionists are British people. Unionism is a British creed and those who consider themselves at some level British are necessarily unionists. I believe we are back to unionists = Ulster unionists for Mr Murphy.

The conclusion to his piece reads as follows,


“Until unionism offers a more positive and coherent political philosophy by defining both itself and Britishness, it will be seen by many as emotional attachment to nothing more than a red bus, David Beckham and some woman singing.”



The problem is that Murphy and his ilk will only listen to definitions which are couched in their own assumptions. Unionism and Britishness coheres around common history, common institutions and common culture. However, it is not fixated on an easily distilled, monolithic conception of itself, nor is it focussed primarily on identity or a prescriptive reading of nationality and the nation state. Britishness invites a multiplicity of identities and it is stronger because of it. The very essence of the United Kingdom is that it cannot be represented by a series of easy clichés in an eight minute package. If nationalists require the nuances of statehood to be presented in such a fashion, that says more about limits of their ideology than anything problematic about Britishness.

7 comments:

Aidan said...

Chekov,
As usual a very well thought out post. You make some very valid points regarding the certainies of (Irish) nationalism as to what constitutes a nation.
In fact your statement "The only distinction between Britishness and these other nationalities is that Britishness has retained a multilayered aspect" is even off the mark since practically every European state is multilayered. For example, Holland has two main languages and countless mutually incomprehensible dialects. Each region has its own equivalent of UTV with programs in dialect which are not easily understandable. Germany is a federal state with multiple regional identities and Bavaria could easily claim as much nationhood as Scotland. We need not even go in to Spain, Belgium or France. Basically most states have tried to force a 'nation' on their inhabitants with greater or lesser success.
However, I think that your logic here is somewhat amiss:
"unionism’s existence might reflect that relationships between the peoples of the British Isles necessarily became entwined because of proximity and shared history."
The way you are portraying it is as if Irish people gradually became unionists because they thought Ireland was better off working together with Britain. Ireland was a colony of Britain and the Irish experience should be viewed in those terms. Colonization was a disaster for the Irish language and culture. I can only look at other islands like Iceland and wonder what might have been.
Britishness means little without the British Empire. Equally Irishness means less and less if people watch English television, follow English soccer and don't speak the language of their forefathers. At the same time there is a significant minority in Ireland and outside promoting Irish music, language and sport. I love the Ireland that is different from the rest of the world. Unionism wants to embrace the idea that the people of what you term the British Isles have more in common that what makes them distinct. Nationalism wants to reclaim some of what was lost and move on within the framework of the European Union.
You might say that Irish culture can be protected and nurtured within the UK. The evidence of history would contradict this idea.

DG said...

I have never before visited your page, and only happened upon it as a result of a post on Scottish Unionist's blog. I have to say, this is an absolutely excellent article.

Really, utterly top notch.

Chekov said...

‘"The only distinction between Britishness and these other nationalities is that Britishness has retained a multilayered aspect" is even off the mark since practically every European state is multilayered. For example, Holland has two main languages and countless mutually incomprehensible dialects. Each region has its own equivalent of UTV with programs in dialect which are not easily understandable.’

Interesting Aidan. I take your point. Although I suppose what I meant was that even in terms of perceived nationality Britishness offers an overarching framework rather than an absolute. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would assume that despite their regional variations people in Holland consider themselves primarily Dutch. Although I wouldn’t claim it as unique, Britishness offers access to a range of self-definitions, none of which are mutually exclusive.

“Basically most states have tried to force a 'nation' on their inhabitants with greater or lesser success.”

I wouldn’t dispute this.

“The way you are portraying it is as if Irish people gradually became unionists because they thought Ireland was better off working together with Britain. Ireland was a colony of Britain and the Irish experience should be viewed in those terms.”

Firstly some people did gradually become unionists for precisely that reason. Secondly I think that although certainly there were colonial aspects to Ireland’s experience, it was far from conforming to the classic colonial model. If you read the best Irish historians, RF Foster to take an obvious example, you will find an acceptance of this fact. There is a much more complicated and interrelated history between these islands than the narrative of English invasion would suggest. For a trite, but nevertheless illustrative example, take St Patrick, a British man enslaved in Ireland after an Irish invasion of the British mainland. Our proximity meant that our history was always going to be intertwined, imperial ambitions not withstanding.

“Colonization was a disaster for the Irish language and culture. I can only look at other islands like Iceland and wonder what might have been.”

Ireland was within the locality of a language and culture which became dominant. There are similar models all over the world. There is a mix of reasons why this happens and military dominance is only one of them.

“Britishness means little without the British Empire.”

I can appreciate that many Irish people bear a grievance against the British Empire, but I would not accept this contention, for many of the reasons which I have outlined on this blog countless times.

“Equally Irishness means less and less if people watch English television, follow English soccer and don't speak the language of their forefathers. At the same time there is a significant minority in Ireland and outside promoting Irish music, language and sport.”

This might be true, although again I see this as a natural consequence of a dominant culture rather than any great insidious force being brought to bear. It is desirable of course to keep minority cultures alive, but people should have the freedom to live their lives as they wish.

“I love the Ireland that is different from the rest of the world. Unionism wants to embrace the idea that the people of what you term the British Isles have more in common that what makes them distinct. Nationalism wants to reclaim some of what was lost and move on within the framework of the European Union.”

I think that is a fair summary Aidan. There are arguments for both positions, and as a liberal unionist I would argue that the two instincts are not mutually exclusive. It is the conceptual straightjacket whereby nationalism attempts to understand unionism exclusively on its own terms which I have difficulty with. I’m heartened to hear a nationalist encapsulate the unionist position in a way which I would recognise.

“You might say that Irish culture can be protected and nurtured within the UK. The evidence of history would contradict this idea.”

Well of course THAT should be the nub of the argument.

DG – many thanks!

Aidan said...

"Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would assume that despite their regional variations people in Holland consider themselves primarily Dutch. Although I wouldn’t claim it as unique, Britishness offers access to a range of self-definitions, none of which are mutually exclusive."
In Friesland there is definitely a large part of the population that is Frisian first and Dutch second. In the rest of the country the further you go from the Randstad the stronger the regional identity. Limburg and Twente have soap operas in their dialect. They are all Dutch but sport and the royal family are the big uniting factors. The big difference between the UK and other countries is that Friesland, Bavaria and Catalonia don't have their own football team like Scotland does.

"Firstly some people did gradually become unionists for precisely that reason. Secondly I think that although certainly there were colonial aspects to Ireland’s experience, it was far from conforming to the classic colonial model."
I know that your brand of unionism is secular but most Irish unionists are and were Protestants for the very good reason that Catholics were structurally excluded from so many aspects of Irish life until the 19th century. There were always a number of Irish people doing well out of the union but nobody can argue that the native Irish population and culture was not marginalized culminating in the Great Famine. Ireland's population in 1841 was over 8 million while England's was 15 million or so. By 1901 England had over 30 million people while Ireland had just over 4 million. If Ireland were a normal part of the United Kingdom that would not have happened. Ireland was a colony whose worth was measured in agricultural exports, you must have seen the Punch cartoons which give a fair idea of how the Irish were seen in 19th century England.

"Ireland was within the locality of a language and culture which became dominant. There are similar models all over the world. There is a mix of reasons why this happens and military dominance is only one of them."
Of course many countries and regions have similar tales to tell. Poland did not exist at various points in history subsumed as it was in various empires. The certainty of the modern Pole about their state boundaries can be quite bewildering but that is school history for you. The core question here is whether Irish people should accept where we are and not attempt to reverse the anglicization it has undergone. My view is that Ireland must do its best to move forward while still mining elements from its history. There is a shared history with Britain and some of the shared experiences are to be cherished.

"It is desirable of course to keep minority cultures alive, but people should have the freedom to live their lives as they wish."
I wouldn't say that Irish culture was a minority culture in Ireland just yet:-) The GAA is the largest sports organization on the island. Hurling especially is a game of beauty and it is a fantastic achievement that young men choose Irish sports above soccer which is such a popular sport.
Irish medium education is growing in both parts of Ireland. Irish speakers are more likely to excel at third and subsequent languages so you have the fascinating situation whereby the best speakers of the native language are often the most in tune with other cultures. Irish music and dancing are stronger than ever both inside and outside Ireland. British culture is very strong in Ireland and it saddens me to see Irish people buying the 'Irish' Sun but it is not the whole story.
In my own case I would move back to Ireland if the Irish language were stronger. I left Ireland because I was sick of the anglicization of the country but I have to say that Irish things are now much cooler than when I left so maybe I was a bit hasty.

Chekov said...

“I know that your brand of unionism is secular but most Irish unionists are and were Protestants for the very good reason that Catholics were structurally excluded from so many aspects of Irish life until the 19th century.”

I wouldn’t dispute that Aidan. Certainly it wasn’t exceptional for religious minorities to be subject to some oppression up to the 19th century. The UK indeed was relatively advanced in terms of allowing participation irrespective of religion. However religious differences did form nuclei around which different allegiances developed. Interestingly Northern Ireland’s Catholic middle class is judged to be relatively pro-Union in inclination, if not necessarily by votes, so time and self-interest do heal wounds. The important point remaining that unionism does not preclude people from defining themselves as Irish.

“The core question here is whether Irish people should accept where we are and not attempt to reverse the anglicization it has undergone. My view is that Ireland must do its best to move forward while still mining elements from its history. There is a shared history with Britain and some of the shared experiences are to be cherished.”

Through a series of processes, some of which were enforced and some of which were perfectly organic, Ireland as an island contains a variety of cultures, none of which command a monopoly on the description ‘Irish’. I’m interested in protecting all of those cultures, specifically within Northern Ireland where the intersection and intermingling of perceptions of Britishness and Irishness is most obvious. I am in support of efforts to promote what you see as a native culture or language, as long as that process does not involve attacks on other cultures and languages which you view as alien.

“I wouldn't say that Irish culture was a minority culture in Ireland just yet:-) The GAA is the largest sports organization on the island. Hurling especially is a game of beauty and it is a fantastic achievement that young men choose Irish sports above soccer which is such a popular sport.
Irish medium education is growing in both parts of Ireland. Irish speakers are more likely to excel at third and subsequent languages so you have the fascinating situation whereby the best speakers of the native language are often the most in tune with other cultures. Irish music and dancing are stronger than ever both inside and outside Ireland. British culture is very strong in Ireland and it saddens me to see Irish people buying the 'Irish' Sun but it is not the whole story.
In my own case I would move back to Ireland if the Irish language were stronger. I left Ireland because I was sick of the anglicization of the country but I have to say that Irish things are now much cooler than when I left so maybe I was a bit hasty.”

It depends what you define as ‘Irish culture’ Aidan. You take the view that Gaelic games, the Irish language, Irish dancing etc. define ‘Irishness’. I take a wider view of what comprises Irishness. I don’t see Britishness and Irishness as two distinct concepts, each with a sealed package of culture which sits in opposition to the other. I see no contradiction in someone speaking Irish and at the same time watching Liverpool or reading a British newspaper.

Aidan said...

"Interestingly Northern Ireland’s Catholic middle class is judged to be relatively pro-Union in inclination, if not necessarily by votes, so time and self-interest do heal wounds. The important point remaining that unionism does not preclude people from defining themselves as Irish."

Agreed but there support for the Union is largely based on economic factors so I don't think that they are unionists per se. Your brand of unionism could certainly appeal to a proportion of this Alliance-type group.

"It depends what you define as ‘Irish culture’ Aidan. You take the view that Gaelic games, the Irish language, Irish dancing etc. define ‘Irishness’. I take a wider view of what comprises Irishness. I don’t see Britishness and Irishness as two distinct concepts, each with a sealed package of culture which sits in opposition to the other. I see no contradiction in someone speaking Irish and at the same time watching Liverpool or reading a British newspaper."

Of course it's not a contradiction. Almost every male Irish speaker supports a British soccer team just like Scandinavians do but you can hardly call watching English soccer teams and reading English newspapers Irish culture. Ultimately it is not Irish culture versus English culture (British culture as a whole is basically English from a ROI vantage point). It is Irish culture surviving against English and American culture. The movement to preserve Ulster Scots traditions is just the same.
Of course Irish people might decide that the language is dead, that they should only play soccer and rugby and forget GAA, that rock and pop music make sean nós singing oh so passé. But what would be the difference between Irish culture and English culture then? Irish culture is more than just speaking English with a different accent but basically living the same life as somebody in Wolverhampton.

Chekov said...

I wouldn't disagree with much you say there Aidan. I simply believe that culture is a slippery concept and that its not possible to define what does and what does not comprise a particular nation's culture. Nor do I believe that the various strands of culture are best protected by political nationalism. I'm prepared to accept that some people do, but my central point remains that nationalism tends to attempt to understand unionism purely in nationalist terms.