England’s Dreaming

Alex Niven [author of New Model Island] has sparked some debate with his excellent extended essay on the nature of English identity and the prospects for the Union (‘Englishness’ was never enough to build a nation on).

While Boris Johnson postures as a fervent Unionist and regularly declares this “the most successful Union in three hundred years, and even coined the awful phrase the “Awesome Foursome”, Niven doesn’t believe his hearts in it:

“While Theresa May’s Brexit strategy faltered partly because she believed in the inviolability of the United Kingdom, Johnson seems relatively relaxed about the prospect of his party surrendering nearly all its seats in Scotland – and, in theory at least, about sacrificing some of Northern Ireland’s statutory Britishness if it will smooth the passage of a Brexit deal.

All of this suggests that Johnson’s vision for government, if it can be called that, is a specifically English one. There is underlying logic here. With Scottish independence and Irish reunification now looming somewhere in the middle distance, it makes sense for Johnson to view unionism as a hopeless cause, and to think about ways of governing England after the United Kingdom crumbles.”

This Tory dilemma is, Niven argues: “the natural byproduct of an anxiety that has haunted 21st-century culture and politics.”

He argues that: “Precisely because England is such an ill-defined entity, there have been increasing worries since the millennium about what will be left when imperial “Great Britain” finally gives up the ghost.”

I’m sure this anxiety is very real but I’m not so sure about his conclusion that:

” … the quest for an authentic national culture is in one sense a form of compensation for the elusiveness of the English nation state. For a host of historical and political reasons – largely the fact that the British empire was an amorphous entity based on transnational trade and government – England simply does not have a strong enough cultural imaginary to meaningfully define itself in the globalised, precarious 21st century. Having sacrificed its sense of self – first, to the surrounding nations of the British Isles, and then to the wider empire – England renounced its entitlement, perhaps once and for all, to a coherent national identity.”

For a start, England seems to be replete with “authentic national culture” whether of the popular, classical, literary, or state varieties.

Niven is more further confused when he argues that:

“… if the UK continues down the path to its own dissolution, we should have the courage to imagine far more radical ways of restructuring these islands than an automatic reboot of the four medieval nationalisms. While there are convincing arguments for greater Scottish, Irish and Welsh autonomy, the so-called problem of England is too complex to be solved by way of an “English assembly” resembling the devolved governments in the peripheral nations.”

This is a cool sort of disavowal at play here.

England is a nation. Nations exist.  They can be complex. It doesn’t make them not nations. Scotland Ireland and Wales exist too. They are also nations.

Scotland and Ireland aren’t “peripheral nation” because England isn’t the centre of the world.

Nor would England have an assembly, they would have, presumably, a parliament.

This tentative deliberate confusion then becomes a bit unhinged. Niven argues for a high seed rail link north of the border, a suggestion that could be filed under: why hasn’t this happened before? Next up we’ve to have “A revival of the post-millennium movement for regional devolution” a movement that died from complete disinterest. Finally, and this is where the ideas (and perhaps the root attitudes) are reminiscent of the Zeppelins over the Irish border, we’re to imagine:

“the wholesale relocation of London institutions and infrastructure northward, perhaps – to apply a dash of sci-fi idealism – to a wholly new “soft capital” on or near the Anglo-Scottish border, with a quick sea link to Ireland.”

It’s a sort of dizzying fantasy that relocates England as a confused and powerless political and cultural entity, evoking the victim status beloved of the Brexit Fantasy.

Other nations are “peripheral” and their right to self-determination are “medieval nationalisms”.

The novelist Ian McEwan has observed that poetry, like football, is only Scottish, Irish or English, not British.

Anthony Barnett has suggested that this is because they are essentially ‘interior activities’. But whatever the reason you cannot imagine a “British poetry” just as you can’t imagine a British football team. Or, if one was created, it would be essentially an English one, and would play at Wembley.

Niven’s ideas at first seem to tantalize with potential then dissolve into unconscious hubris and inevitable anglo-normative exceptionalism.


Comments (8)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I do not have much trouble imagining Great British football teams because there has been an Olympic men’s Team GB since apparently 1908 and a women’s since 2012, both which have indeed been primarily composed of English players but also Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish (in terms of eligibility; individuals can be eligible for multiple nations’ sides).

    If Niven’s view is that the British Empire was built on government and trade, those must be euphemisms I am unfamiliar with for looting, land theft, lethal force and forced labour, resource extraction, mass murder, piracy, gunboat diplomacy, terrorism, assassination, corruption, deceit, secret carve-ups, conspiracies, destabilizations, pacification and villagization, torture, child abuse, psychological warfare, colonial air policing, death squads, exploitation of religious division, inequitable treaty enforcement, treaty breaking, support of despots, institutional misogyny, racial hierarchies, imperial conflict, genocide, chattel slavery, missionary-led culturcide, debt extraction, extortion, illegal narcotics, kidnapping, propaganda, nepotism, corporal/capital punishment codes, police brutality, informer rings, environmental destruction, species extinctions, introduction of invasive species, spread of diseases, starvation/famine/malnutrition, administrative cruelty, viciously repressive censorship, tame historians, wiping out of democratic/collective/elder political systems and the imposition of often-psychotic puppet rulers. Although I probably have too rosy a view.

    1. Peter Hurrell says:

      Aye but what about the railways?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Peter Hurrell, there is one simple question I would like people (especially those considering voting for a unionist party) to think about:
        Why is there no definitive history of forced labour in the British Empire? That is, why cannot you or I hold in our hands a one-volume work in English, written for a general audience, summarising the published research of many historians on the topic of the many kinds of forced labour (including but not limited to various forms of slavery) that existed in the formal and informal British Empire? If people cannot answer that question to their satisfaction, could they please ask someone who might know, such as their MP or history department/teacher?

        Yes, what about those railways…?

        1. Josef Ó Luain says:

          Mmmm? Might that not be for the same reasons that there’s no “definitive history” of the Highland Clearances?

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Josef Ó Luain, at least the Highland Clearances are mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Forced labour in the British Empire is achingly absent from this anonymous entry:

            I suppose one revision is to include the Borders and write a history of the Scottish Clearances:

  2. Derek Henry says:

    At this very moment so is Scotland with their heart of Europe nonsense. The EU is no longer the “Treaty of Rome” you would have to have been living in a cave to have missed it. Yet, left wing voters in Scotland think it is our saviour.

    The union and fiscal unions are all about power and moving the profits to the hands of the few. By convincing a bunch of dumb countries into a monetary union so that the English, French, Germans and the Dutch could export their unemployment to the smaller countries on the periphery of those unions.

    Thomas Fazi Nails it and is what is happening right on the end of our faces and highlights the points of this piece Mike and why they have happened.


    Never mind “free trade” that has destroyed everything North of the Watford gap and how that some think “free trade” will solve the UK problems. Even though the reason everyone is voting for right wing parties in the North of England is because of free trade and free movement of people and free movement of Capital. 3 of the four freedoms that is what the EU is all about. Has hollowed out these communities in the North and destroyed them leaving bookies, pound shops and charity shops along their high streets.

    Lets take a look at the single market that Nicola screams like a parrot everytime she is on TV. The “Single market, Single market, Single market.”

    The single market is a theory built on “the law of comparative advantage” which is of course complete and utter nonsense. Which as per usual when tested on the real world fails just like any right wing theory. It is a myth.


    Yet, here we are today talking as if the law of comparative advantage is a fact instead of a myth. Only fools would treat it as fact.

    ” To sum up, the law of comparative adavantage is invalid, inapplicable, and irrelevant in the real world of trade imbalances; global movement of capital, technology, research, and management skills; worker specialisation; persistent large-scale unemployment; huge wage-level gaps between countries; “sticky” prices, wages, and currency rates; technological progress; “learning curves”; production overcapacity; geopolitical and economic instability; and unprecedented uncertainty. This list of forbidden by the theory but unavoidable conditions of the 21st century can be prolonged further. The “unfair-trade” conditions that maybe — just maybe — can be removed, such as predatory trading and currency manipulation.

    Among the best sayings of George Orwell, “There are some things only intellectuals are crazy enough to believe” takes a place of honor. LCA is one of these things.

    Well, let us give the “mainstream” economists the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they do not really believe LCA — just pretend to believe it. For some noble purposes, like getting a tenure or a new buliding at a university with theor name on it. Intellect restored, but scientific integrity a little under par.

    Today’s “free trade” is not only the last remnant of laissez-faire — it is its least deserving remnant, full of wholesale foul play, deception, currency manipulation, predatory techniques, and other violations of its rules, with the perps not even trying to conceal those violations. To call the existing international trade “free,” and to use LCA to justify it, is the top of unscrupulous audacity. I do not understand how people of integrity can do it and then call themselves “scientists.” ”

    We have to be at the heart of Europe because of the single market. Yeah right, dream on a sentence of complete and utter fantasy and ignorance.

    The single market is a myth, a trap, a prison.

    To trap countries into neoliberal fiscal rules, free markets, free movement of capital, free movement of people, competition rules and all the other neoliberal crap that goes with it. That only ever serves the city of London in this country.

    The SNP have cornered themselves in a swamp of horse shit. Like walking down Blackpool promenade on a red hot day in August.

  3. Graeme Purves says:

    Niven’s vision is of a brave new Northumbrian Empire with Scotland, Wales and Ireland as autonomous peripheral satellites benefitting from high speed rail links to Newcastle (or perhaps Bamburgh?). It’s New Left Plantagenetism, or ‘Bring Back the Percies!”

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Unfortunately, I had read this article before I read the actual essay in the Guardian and that coloured my perception of it.

    However, having taken time to read the original a couple of time, I agree with your criticisms. Essentially, Mr Niven’s piece is a vague Gordon Brown piece of flummery, like the regular run-outs given to varieties of ‘federalism’, such as ‘The Vow’, whenever support for independence looks like exceeding that for the union.

    What the piece reminded me of was an experience I had more than 25 years ago when I became Head Teacher of a secondary school. The school had a ‘unit’ attached to it, which, although a ‘central’ unit was deemed to fall under the responsibility of the Head Teacher. It had had quite a controversial history (despite the fact that it had had significant achievements), which had become a political battleground. All schools have a document, produced annually which sets out the budget allocation for the year and the rules for operating it, including any specific to the particular institution. Although deemed to be ‘part’ of the school, the ‘unit’ had a separate budget document. When I picked it up and opened it, it contained nothing but blank pages! When I made enquiries about whether there had been an error, I was told, rather reluctantly (with a ‘don’t quote me’ condition) that I had the proper document in its entirety.

    Mr Niven’s essay couldhave been the content of that document.

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