The question of authenticity is crucial for nations storyboarding. A hundred-thousand undergraduate essays must have quoted Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” (by the way in Anderson’s case an “imagined community” doesn’t mean that a national community is “fake”, but that any community so large that its members don’t know each another on a face-to-face basis must be “imagined” to some extent.) Facing the very real fear of self-induced economic carnage Anglo-Britain is now in convulsions over its identity and daily spouting huge hilarious whopping lies in a desperate effort to justify and re-invent itself. It’s Panic History, but it’s very difficult indeed to retrofit the past to the grand vision of Paul Nuttal and (Dr) Liam Fox.
Colonialism isn’t backwards compatible.
We’ve been immersed on this for some time: from Walter Scott’s George IV, to Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places, from blocking minimum-pricing to our ‘other national drink’, from Gregg’s pies to Greig’s plays, from We Hate Jimmy Hill to See You Jimmy Hats. We haven’t been very good at history (our own or other peoples) until quite recently, either being ignorant of our own past, denying it’s less creditable bits, or pitching ourselves as one-dimensional glorious losers and romantic failures. But we’ve got better at it and recent serious scholarly work has combined with curriculum improvements to smarten us all up (a bit).
It’s in this context – and the day after the comical Empire 2.0 announcement – that in steps Melanie Phillips, occasional writer for the Times, ex-Daily Mail columnist, climate change denier, defender of ‘family values’, saviour of ‘the West’ and permanent part of the far-right panel that inhabit the BBC’s (highly-suspicious) Moral Maze.
Her ramblings should be normally ignored but are interesting not for the wild inaccuracies, almost complete historical ignorance, but what they say about the shifting mind of English Nationalism. Her prose is dripping with contempt, for those not saved by the Times paywall, here are the ‘best bits’. It’s worth looking at the language used, line-by-toe-curling-line. Her pearls of wisdom are in bold:
“The most troublesome bits of the United Kingdom are once again showing signs of disuniting. In Scotland, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is demanding a second independence referendum on the grounds that, contrary to the English, the Scots voted to remain in the EU by 62 per cent to 38 per cent.”
Democracy is ‘troublesome’ we’re told.
“In Northern Ireland, a surge by Sinn Fein to within one seat of the Democratic Unionists after a divisive assembly election has revived the spectre of a united Ireland, now given further rhetorical push by the jubilant nationalists on the grounds that the province also voted to remain.”
A united Ireland, a move that is being motivated by the British Government’s own extraordinary intransigence against all the odds, is we’re told ‘a spectre’.
“It is a curiosity that the SNP and Sinn Fein want to leave the UK in order to remain in Europe. In other words, they want to reclaim powers from Westminster in order to surrender them to Brussels. Of course they don’t see it like that. The EU, which concentrates power in Brussels while reducing nations to the status of provinces, is conversely regarded by weak nations and provinces as a way of boosting their status and income.”
Ireland and Scotland are ‘weak nations’ suffering from status anxiety. Someone call Dr Freud!
It gets better.
“Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants. Nevertheless, the genie of national identity is now out of the bottle. Trans-nationalism, or the drive to erode the autonomy of nations, has been stopped in its tracks by British voters. This raises some complicated questions.”
Oh dear. Oh god, it’s back to all of this shit isn’t it? This is like Sadiq Khan on steroids.
“If national aspirations are now validated for the UK, what about the national aspirations of its constituent parts? Do all national identities have equal status? What happens when one is in direct competition with another? Scotland says it is a nation. Republicans in Northern Ireland say Britain dismembered their nation which they want to unify again. Are these claims to national identity valid? If so, where does that leave the UK?”
Where indeed Melanie?
As we’d feared she plunders into ‘imagined community’ territory with neither map or compass, sans Scoobie .
“The historians Linda Colley and Benedict Anderson famously declared the nation to be no more than an artificial construct or “imagined community.” In this post-modern formulation, the nation could therefore arbitrarily be either declared or dissolved. The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.”
Are you following this so far? Irish and Scottish nationalists are bad and false (fake news?). Not real nations. Britain is a real nation, NOT imagined. Presumably by her definition Ireland and Scotland don’t have geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, or culture?
It gets worse, far worse.
“The UK is an extraordinarily complex web of identities: civic, ethnic, cultural, national. As the historian Jonathan Clark wrote in his book Our Shadowed Present: “Britain was not invented; it developed.” The pattern of this development has been “the resilience of a diverse and plural system of identities”. Englishness, however, came to stand proxy for all the communities of the British Isles. Even Edmund Burke, although a loyal Irishman, wrote of himself as an Englishman rather than describing himself as British.”
Got it? Scotland and Ireland don’t really exist, but Britain does, but it’s really England. This is like thirty years of Tom Nairn regurgitated as if it was written in the medium of a Trump twitter stream.
“The Scots developed over time the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on. The UK was formed in 1707 by the union of two distinct kingdoms, England and Scotland.”
What about Wales, she forget about Wales I hear you splutter? Here you go:
“Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation. Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.”
Ah, okay, sorry Wales, you were a ‘tribe’ now you’re nothing because, er, Henry VIII or something.
But how will this constitutional giant deal with Northern Ireland you ask?
Oh dear, that’s not going to go down very well.
“Does that mean Westminster should tear up the Good Friday agreement and bid farewell to Northern Ireland? No, because it has an obligation to the Unionists; and because the claim to unite Ireland is tenuous since Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922.
Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.”
“Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct, the imagined community that falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation. The EU therefore has no prior claim on its constituent nations which are under no obligation to remain. By contrast, the United Kingdom is a nation which is governed in accordance with its name. Scotland has no right to rip it asunder if it wants to secede from the Union (which in any event is highly doubtful). Faced with the contemporary resurgence of regional or tribal uprisings, it’s the ancient British Isles that must hold itself together to take its place once again as a sovereign nation in the wider world.”
In summary: you don’t really exist, but to the extent to which you do, we have consigned you to the status of a tribe and you have been captured. Any attempt to seek self-determination will be treated as an ‘uprising’.
There is nothing that can be said in response to this remarkable diatribe other than: God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia, break out the Pith helmets and let’s re-boot the Empire.
It is however remarkable that an actual newspaper published this, and for those reflecting on their status as ‘British’ or the ongoing assault on those seeking independence it might be worth thinking if you want to be associated with such blood and soil nationalism. Melanie Phillips is an outlier, a kind of posh Katie Hopkins, and maybe it’s a mistake to respond at all. But there is no way (thankfully) that a newspaper publishing from Scotland Wales or Ireland could publish anything remotely like this without being treated with complete contempt. The problem isn’t poor Melanie on her own, it’s the role of Anglo-Britain that is being conjured out of the smoke of Brexit, that’s explicitly a nation that has imperial conquest in its DNA, and they aren’t just thinking about a fantasy trading relation with “the Commonwealth” but a relationship with the rest of the UK’s ‘family of nations’ that is utterly toxic.