2007 - 2020

Non-Identity?

This extract from The English Postman, by Tom Nairn on the past and emergent future identity of the Anglo-British identity published inthe latest issue of  Scottish Left Review:

…Identity is of course a collective metaphor; but metaphors are malleable, and re-usable (part of their point) and in this case they have awarded a strangely rural dimension to the past of the first industrial nation-state — as Greenfeld says, the principal parent of urban capitalism and commerce.

The odd story is best recounted by Chapter 7, ‘The Moment of Englishness’, in the best book on the subject, Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge U.P. 2003). This ‘moment’ was in the last third of the 19th century, when the British state found itself in need of what one might call internal reinforcement. Its economic foundation was moving away from industry towards international finance-capital; and it had to compete in a ‘world of nations’ — the nationality-politics provoked by its own earlier impact, and now generalized as the nation-state order. Strangely enough, it had to become more of a nation-state itself, with credentials less tied down to the primitive accumulation of capital and the industrial revolution. The dilemma was resolved by what one might call a second-stage imagined community: the rurality once marginalized by manufacturing returned as a confected ‘soul’ or source. The identity-change was brought about by popular romantic culture, broadcast via a new intelligentsia and the developing educational system. A partly fake ‘civil society’ was dreamed up to support an over-extended state.

Of course ‘Englishness’ was indispensable to that shift: the non-English periphery had no option but to follow the overwhelming majority— absurd as it seemed in Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff. Here, the culture factor — literature, and now to a noticeable extent music as well — was important. Its resources enabled the mutation, and thus saved the ‘bigger than’ identification mode imperialism and finance-capital required.  So the Westminster ‘postman’ could carry on his daily rounds, into the age of world wars. The minority nationalities stayed within his reinforced and more capacious bag, albeit less happily and amid mounting resentment. Unfortunately, Kumar’s ‘moment’ still lingers with us
Surprising as such persistence seems, there is still another factor that helps explain it. We need to bring in something that figures prominently in academic international relations, and diplomatic histories, but comparatively rarely in culture theories. That is, the ‘deep-structure’ special relationship of Great Britain to the United States. Mentioned (and criticized) often enough in specific policy agendas, like the Cold War, and recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also deserves a broader framework.

The end of the United Kingdom would surely be a disturbance penetrating even these blinkers, and rendering practical steps necessary — changes outwith the mystique of Westminster and the unwritten constitution. These would in turn affect the temper of the national-popular majority, and reanimate a ‘littler England’ at last. Where ‘the present’ has disintegrated, the future can no longer be empirically regulated through it. English institution-worship has already suffered grievous harm from the parliamentary scandals of 2007-2009,  which forced on ‘new and disturbing’ notions of reform. Anderson’s general verdict was that the British State ‘has proved impotent to redress economic decline…The nightwatchman acquired traits of the welfare officer, but never of the engineer…’  But isn’t ‘engineering’ just what would be forced upon the reluctant nightwatchman/postman, in conditions now perfectly conceivable, or even imminent?

The best guide to how this might come about is probably Patrick Hannan’s A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy (Seren, 2009). He ends up reminding readers that England has already produced an ideal Postman-Anglo-nationalist in the form  of John Enoch Powell — ‘He was about as British as you could get and Enoch was wrong’, is his conclusion (p.200). What is so plainly indicated by realities will not only impose itself, but (in a short time) be welcomed as necessity: facts of the matter that just have to be accepted, and made the best of.

Whatever the problems ‘Englishness’ poses, it would surely be surprising if they could not find answers, in an archipelago already remarkably reconfigured. Last century the question of Northern Ireland seemed insolvable by anything short of military victory by one side or the other.  Today, the success and endurance of the Belfast Peace Agreement has come to be almost taken for granted. Another multi-cultural country looks like contributing to the new settlement, alongside reborn Scotland and Wales. As for post-postman England, the historic first of nationalism’s world can’t help being last in the transition to post-nationalism (or more exactly post old-nationalism) but surely that also will be a challenge, and a new kind of emancipation.

Read the full article here.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.