2007 - 2022

England, Hope and the Celtic Virus

It’s a rare moment when England is the subject of discussion. As my friend and contributor Gaf Young never tires of commenting, England often doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have it’s own parliament, it’s own First Minister and is rarely referred to by the state broadcaster. Of course it really does exist and it both utterly dominates Britain and hides behind it. Now, out of the blue, because of Boris Johnson’s backfired-and-failed culture war and the phenomenon of racist Ministers being called-out by talented young black players with HUGE social media reach, England is aware of itself and the very question: what kind of country do you want this to be? is being discussed all over the place.

There’s some hot takes, and some good takes and some really really dire takes. Over at The Times Kenny Farquharson piped up with the line that “A progressive England scares hell out of SNP”. It was chock full of Farquharson’s well-honed one-liners and expert click-bait hooks, though this is slightly redundant behind a paywall. Farquharson writes:  “Scottish nationalism only works if you draw a line on the map between Eyemouth and Annan and decide your sole political and moral focus is what happens north of that line. Any residual desire for shared political purpose with English people, any common endeavour in pursuit of progressive values, must be sloughed off.” That’s simply not true, but concern and focus for what happens in your own country in most places is called “democracy”.

He continues: “The English must be othered. It is as simple and as brutal as that. Because that is how we justify cutting ourselves off from them. We are not like them. They are weak in ways we are strong. Their morals are different to ours. We are better off without them.” Again, this is imply not true. If anything Scottish nationalism is defined by arguing “we are as good as anyone else”, not we are better than anyone else, and this is essentially what Farquharson  struggles with. If you are trying to suggest that one nation or other is suffering from a superiority complex it’s a fair stretch after the rhetoric and shambles of Brexit to say that that country is Scotland and not England.

The West Wing and the Right Wing

The reality is that there are many England’s and many Scotland’s (socially, culturally, geographically and on and on …) but each exists, has a right to exist and has discernible qualities, histories and differences. To say so is to outline a universal truth about nations, but it’s simply unacceptable for many unionist commentators. There must be no difference. None. In the old era we were told of a “family of nations” and a “partnership of equals”, but you don’t hear that any more. We are now one market, one nation, one people, indivisible.

This is extraordinary given that the very public debate ‘we’ are having is precisely because of a very real difference: England’s (relative) success in football and it’s internal debate about race. There’s good and bad in all of that but it’s certainly different from Scotland. To deny that is just stupid. The main line – “A progressive England scares hell out of SNP”  – is simply not true. A genuinely progressive England would be a far better neighbour and one that would be far more likely to negotiate a fair settlement for democracy in both countries. Farquharson continues: “If the true England is represented by Gareth Southgate and not Nigel Farage, Scottish nationalism is in trouble”.

The “true England”, it’s quite a concept.

Unfortunately (for all of us) Gareth Southgate is a nice man with a waistcoast. Nigel Farage was the head of a political movement that led Scotland out of Europe against our sovereign wishes. Not quite the same. Kenny is like those poor souls who, during the Dubya Bush years couldn’t quite cope with that reality so instead immersed themselves in the fictitional Democratic administration of Josiah Bartlet. We can pretend that Gareth Southgate is in charge all you like, the reality is that the Home Secretary is in the process of passing a law to criminalise the RNLI for saving migrant children from drowning.

If Farquharson’s article is derisory, over at the New Statesman Simon Jenkins is offensive. In an article dripping with contempt and riddled with ignorance (‘The return of the Celts’) Jenkins kicks off by comparing Scots, Irish and Welsh to a disease.

Othering anyone? (!)

He writes: “The Celtic virus is back in British politics and defying all efforts at immunity.”

He tells us: “The festering wound of Northern Ireland has gone septic” bypassing any context of, say, Brexit and it’s willful undermining of the peace process.

It’s writing full of slightly ridiculous over-boiled claims and gibberish. He trumpets: “A ghost now hovers over the British Isles, that of a new European nation in the offing, called simply England.”

“When the British empire disbanded over the course of the 20th century, the fate of the ancient English empire of the British Isles was left unresolved. The English assumed they had assimilated the Welsh and Scots while the Irish Question had been “parked” with partition. That a small group of islands, liberal, rich and with a long shared history, could fail to establish a harmonious union seemed preposterous.”

It gets worse.

Obscure Celts and the Not-English

It’s with some dread that you read that “Simon Jenkins is currently writing a history of Anglo-Celtic relations.”

The article is full of bizarre belters.

“Who these Celts were remains obscure” bellows Jenkins.

“There was no Celtic “race”. The only safe definition was of peoples settled on the fragmented western side of the islands who came to see themselves as not-English.”

The Not-English, from, presumably North Britain.

Now in his stride – and jumping forward to the 20C Jenkins writes: “From the moment Ireland won its independence in 1921 – defeating a British army that grew to 57,000 troops – most English people thought they had lanced the Celtic boil, and good riddance. The new kingdom of Great Britain “and Northern Ireland” could be united and quiescent. The Tories asserted it, as did an emergent and strongly unionist Labour Party. For half a century that expectation proved sound.”

Seemingly baffled by his own ignorance Jenkins asks plaintively: “How England allowed a militant Celtic identity to re-emerge in the past two decades is a mystery of modern British politics.”

Well indeed. A mystery.

Now we race forward to the 1990s.

We’re told: “Devolution refused to go away. In 1997 Tony Blair duly committed himself to modestly devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland was graciously accorded the status of being called a parliament.”

How gracious.

He continues: “The concept of a Celtic independence was debated more vigorously in the 2000s than it had been since the 1880s. Scottish nationalists won control of the Edinburgh executive in 2007 under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and have held it ever since.”

[I think he means they were elected!]

Extreme Separatists

If this article is racked with bad-faith and contempt, it’s also full of bold and meaningless assertions:

“The SNP’s demand to “take back control” of Scotland’s sovereignty has been countered by London playing the security card. A recasting of Project Fear states that Scotland cannot possibly afford independence.”

It gets worse:

“In Scotland, outside the ranks of extreme separatists, most commentators see a necessity for London to conceive new steps towards ever greater home rule. The constitutional historian Linda Colley envisages a network of devolved parliaments beneath an umbrella assembly. Colin Kidd of St Andrews University likewise sees rigorous UK federalism as the only way forward. Even Gordon Brown, a devotee of the Union, accepts the need for a senate of regions and nations. To this Johnson’s implacable response is a “muscular negative”.

Much of this is nonsense, but it’s worthwhile to reflect back to the writers – and ourselves – what’s going on.

England’s discussion about itself and the assertion of a more positive progressive England, despite Farquharson’s claim, is to be warmly welcomed. A progressive England will help dismantle the structures and power dynamics of the British state, and for radical Scotland will be an ally in creating new futures and new democracies. Hope is good. I love it. God we need it.


Comments (26)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Hope Powell was the head coach of the England Women’s team back in Euro 2013. I don’t know anything about the background, but I did watch the games. She was sacked shortly after exiting the group stage with only a point. The odd thing is, I watched the matches, and my recollection was that England played pretty well overall and were extremely unlucky not to qualify from the group stage. On the basis that coaches can only be held accountable for performances not results, it did not strike me as a sackable reason. Now I see those games described as a ‘disastrous showing’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_Powell#England_Women
    Maybe my recollection is faulty, but footballing history can be rewritten as any other kind, even with the matches recorded on television. Anyway, I was reminded of this by the article’s title.

    The British Empire was not disbanded in the 20th century. Writers who assert this, and keep talking about the UK as only a small collection of islands without the rest, very likely see the existing Empire as a massive problem they wish not to enter into any current constitutional debate. Therefore it would be of great interest to scrutinise the existing British Empire and feature cultural content from its far-flung components in the pages of Bella. Maybe we should also look at the bold self-deterministic and anti-militaristic aspirations of, oh, say the Atlantic Charter and suchlike.

  2. Gavin says:

    England coming to full consciousness as “England”, is 100% a good thing for them and us. They have their pluses and minuses, as do we: regional disparities in wealth, attainment and opportunity on both sides of the border but for different reasons.
    England needs a broader democracy, and Scotland needs economic freedom.
    The London elite, whether political or media do not want either, no matter the “levelling up” and “more powers” bullshit.
    We should welcome the dispowered in England awakening to their potential. They will recognise our fight is not with them, but with those who hold them back.
    Farquhar and Jenkins are representative of the fantasy narratives that British nationalism tells itself.
    Whistling in the dark through fear of the Unknown.
    Scots/Scotland is that scary unknown they fear.

  3. Mouse says:

    Oh for fucks sake – someone trying to justify his nationalism as something that isn’t inbred ‘blood’n’soil’…

    – We all live in an independent country in the here and now.

    – We all have self-determination already, whether or not you like how other people self-determine – that’s not gonna change, ever.

    – There are a great bunch of people who’s contribution to improving things in the here and now amounts to nothing more that expounding upon their nationalism of preference and moaning based on that alone, at great length. That’s wank.

    – The argument for Scottish nationalism during the referendum upon the subject was based on greed. We’ll be richer, but you’ll be poorer – that’s the bullshit ‘civic nationalism’ apparently. Not much heartfelt civil nationalism.

    – None of that has changed for seven years. That’s stagnation. It doesn’t look like it will change for another seven / seventeen / seventy years….

    – Meanwhile the world does what it always does.

    – There are far important things than that egotistical wank.

    1. LOLs. Somebody’s very triggered.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      ” We all have self-determination already, whether or not you like how other people self-determine – that’s not gonna change, ever.”

      I take it you’re a Tory Mouse?

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        I took it more as a statement of Sartrean existentialism: that we are each autonomous beings, ‘condemned’ to be free in and by a godless universe, and that to believe oneself otherwise is bad faith.

        But perhaps I’m reading too much into Mouse’s squeak.

  4. RH says:

    Excellent piece. I’d read both the Kenny Farquharson and Simon Jenkins pieces with mounting exasperation. As an Anglo-Scot and, until recently, committed Unionist, your last perfectly articulates how I now feel and dare to hope.

  5. Colin Robinson says:

    Your pal, Gaf, is almost right. England does exist, but only as an imagined community. Like any imagined community, England resists identification; this is because it is imagined from many different perspectives in many different ways. ‘Culture wars’ arise when two or more of these imaginings come into conflict with one another. It is through such culture wars that England’s identity evolves but never quite coalesces into any one thing. England is an antisyzygy, the forcefield of which oppositions is continuously readjusting itself; a praxis; a kaleidoscopic process-without-outcome of deconstruction and reformation. And this is a good thing, a healthy state for a nation to be in.

  6. Tom Ultuous says:

    Why don’t these big mouth b******* call for an English independence referendum?

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Many did. The subsequent UK-wide referendum led to Brexit, with England becoming independent of the EU. Which, for many of those who called for it, was what the referendum was all about.

  7. Robbie says:

    “A Family of Nations A. Partnership of Equals “ Aye right and if my granny had balls
    she,d have been my granda.

  8. MBC says:

    What a despicable individual Farquarson is. Just what is the appeal of the union for him? Subjugation? If he’s not a Tory, why support it?

  9. Niemand says:

    Good article. Jenkins understanding of history is ridiculous. The Celts may not be a single group but the Romano-Britons as historians call them were the main populace of this island for a long period and the English didn’t even exist until the Anglo-Saxons arrived and even then, England took hundreds of years to form. ‘Non-English’ is historical garbage. Meanwhile ‘the Celts’ moved west but also remained and became part of the genetic make up. ‘Us and them; us and them’. No, I and I.

    Final paragraph is great Mike.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Curiously, ‘Celt’ derives from Herodotus’ word for the barbarians who lived in the non-Mediterranean world to the north and west of the Peloponnesian penisula. The Romans used it to designate the northern mainland tribes, but not those who lived on the archipelago, whom the Roman’s called ‘Brittonem’. It was revived by the Romantics in the 1830s as a racial term to distinguish us as a kind from whom they termed the ‘Teutons’. Before that, ‘Celtic’ was just an archaeological classification, about a class of utensils (including languages) found across large parts of Iron Age Europe and Anatolia.

      It would be good if it could lose the racialist/nationalist connotations it has acquired in modern times and reclaim its purely scientific denotation. But that’s not just going to happen. A lot of history is going to have to pass under the bridge first.

      1. Niemand says:

        Interesting, thanks for the info.

        One of the oddities for me is that historians of the era use the term ‘British’ for the inhabitants at the time of the Romans and the period after (but before the Angles arrived). Then once the Anglo-Saxons became established the word takes on a distinguishing role between them and the ‘English’ as they fought out dominance over a hundred years or more. I assume this is related to the idea of the ancient Britons (including Brittany in France). ‘British’ later became more of a political idea obviously, but with all the railing against Britain as personified most by the dominant English, I always think it ironic that in fact, the British, or Britons, are the peoples who pre-date the English and are pretty much synonymous with what people now call the Celts.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          Yes, ‘Bryttisc’ is what the Angles called the inhabitants of the archipelago to which they migrated between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. The term was revived after James VI succeeded to the English crown and the Lordship of Ireland, as part of his self-styling as imperial ruler of the whole of the peoples of the islands, and thus acquired its first political use. It was the Scottish party in the King’s Privy Council, when drafting the proclamation of the new king, Charles I, that insisted on the phrase ‘King of Great Britain, which James had preferred, rather than ‘King of Scotland and England’ (and vice versa in England). The Romano-British personification of the whole archipelago, as a goddess armed with a spear and shield, wearing a Corinthian helmet, and often commanding a lion, was also revived at this time as an imperial icon of the Stuart dynasty and, of course, became an emblem of the UK’s maritime power and unity during the following century in the wars against the French.

      2. Gashty McGonnard says:

        Not solely an ‘archaeological’ classification, Colin. All ethnographic terms are fuzzy and their applicability varies with time. That doesn’t make them useless.

        Nobody disputes the use of ‘German’ to describe modern people who have no obvious similarity with the tribes named by Tacitus. Nor ‘European’, though nobody claims descent from a Phoenician consort of Zeus.

        The dense web of historical, cultural, linguistic and sociopolitical connections among the extant ‘Celtic’ peoples, which doesn’t extend much beyond them, makes it useful to have a single term. ‘Celt’ is still the best available, because it is well understood and reflects a genuine historical continuum. Of course everyone is free to identify a lot, a little or not at all with that exonym, and clearly no person or community is ‘purely’ Celtic.

        The idea doing the rounds that the word ‘Celtic’ must now be restricted to Iron Age crockery is daft. It’s an artefact of political discomfort among British Nationalist academics who should know better.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          To what purpose is it useful to have a single term to identify ‘a people’ from the dense web of extant historical, cultural, linguistic and sociopolitical connections? What was the historiographical agenda of those late 18th/early 19th century historians who sought to forge distinct ethnic identities from that web of human diversity? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the will to power and the colonisation of others, would it?

          As an historical artefact, the very concept of ethnicity should indeed cause academics political and intellectual discomfort.

          1. Gashty McGonnard says:

            Sometimes these labeling activities are indeed about the will to power and colonisation of others. Other times they are about the will to freedom from external power, and the decolonisation of self.

            Yes, the old paradigm of distinct ‘peoples’, each with a national essence or persistent spirit, was bunk. Even in its heyday, though, it served both imperialist and anti-imperialist ends. The Poles resisted the generic Slavic identity the Russians wished to apply, by emphasising the special cultural traits shared by Poles (and downplaying their internal diversity). The Latin Americans did the same in opposition to the Spanish imperial identity. Ditto India, Ireland, et al. That’s how humans form group bonds sufficient to solidarity (rail against it as we might). In all those cases, the underlying material reality was – someone from elsewhere was expropriating the lifeblood out of those places.

            Your tactic of refusing to recognise differences among persons, or the common bonds of a community, has a certain naive appeal. Yes, on one level we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. Ultimately, we’re just fleeting perturbations of a single, unified quantum field. All very smug, new-agey and oceanic sounding.

            The problem is that in political/cultural contexts, such tactics are used by those with material hegemony to pre-empt collective resistance by subaltern groups. That seems to me to be exactly what’s happening with the ongoing drive to derogate the use of ‘Celtic’ outside of archaeology.

            Sentient beings subsist by defining their own (porous) boundaries, and not being absorbed in another’s. Groups of sentient beings do exactly the same. All else is blancmange.

          2. Colin Robinson says:

            No, my tactic here is to assist the deconstruction of totalising concepts of ethnicity as part of the ongoing struggle against the commodification of life.

            Identarianism is the last stand, in a democratic world, of a predemocratic dirigisme that’s unwilling to let us go our own variant ways into a social and cultural diversification that affiliates each not to some imagined ‘brand’ or ‘identity’, but only to such kindred spirits as material circumstances might offer us from time to time.

            In contrast to the sanctification of ‘identity’, pluralism emphasises:

            1. legitimate diversity – the idea that the varying experiential situation of different individuals (as opposed to our imagined shared character as a race, nation, class, or culture) makes it normal for us to proceed differently in cognitive, evaluative, and practical matters;

            2. restrained dissonance – the idea that, in an ethos of democracy, the political task is to develop institutions through which a general harmony of constructive interaction action can prevail among us without subsuming our natural diversity, dissensus, and dissonance to some sort of artificial identity; that is, that we develop media through which our social interactions can be accommodated short of conflict;

            3. acquiescence in difference – the idea that the moral task is to accept and come to terms with the fact that we have no ‘identity’, that one’s neighbours will differ from oneself in opinion, evaluation, and modes of behaviour;

            4. respect for the autonomy of others – the idea that we not only passively ‘tolerate’ deviance within the framework of identity, but also actively concede their right to go their own variant ways within the framework of law; that is, within such limits as must be imposed in everyone’s interest of maintaining a peaceful and productive communal order.

            The identity-downgrading position of civic nationalism opposes a utopianism that looks to establish a perfect social order based on unity. The fact is that we live in an imperfect world. We need to accept the fact that identity among people is unobtainable, a predemocratic pipedream.

            In a world of pervasive and irreducible difference, the most we can aspire to is damage control. Civic nationalism exchanges a ‘will to power’ that, to prevail, needs our commodification in standardised identities for a pragmatism that requires only what Jürgen Habermas called ‘frameworks of social inclination’ that make collaboration possible despite our diversity and facilitate cooperation despite our disagreement and dissensus; constitutional arrangements or ‘law’ which will never be fixed or perfect, but which we can all live with and adapt as necessary for the sake of constructive interaction.

          3. Niemand says:

            The issue I have with the idea that civic nationalism is ‘identity downgrading’, is that this only addresses ethnic identity and even then, ethnic identity is very much alive and well, especially in minority ethnic groups who may well support nationalism. It is just that a single ethnic identity is not seen as having any bearing on the nationalist aim for an inclusive independent Scotland. Also, what tends to go along with those who embrace civic nationalism is in fact, a big emphasis on identity when it comes to honouring various ethnic group identities and those based on numerous other criteria like, gender, sexuality, language use etc, but interestingly, generally not class. So there are contradictions here which people do notice and see it as hypocritical, and so tend to be justifiably suspicious of the just how civic and truly inclusive it all is. How can you seriously play down ‘native Scot’ identity as a thing whilst embracing so many other so-called identities?

            Personally I am somewhat sick of hearing about people’s identity full stop, no matter what their basis. We seem to have become obsessed with it, as if it is some kind of core attribute to all humans and that finding ones ‘true identity’ is not only possible but really important. I reject that as I believe identity to be a chimera that is ever changing and a lot of the time it actually becomes a restrictive strait jacket. Oppressed peoples tend to focus and hold on to identities for obvious and understandable reasons but one of the markers of that oppression being reduced is less of a need to be bothered about identity.

          4. Colin Robinson says:

            I agree, Niemand, that the focus tends to fall on ethnic identities in discussions of civic nationalism.

            Personally, I try to widen it to encompass other kinds of identity too, such as those of gender, sex, and sexuality, etc., as well as those associated with so-called mental illness, disability, etc. One of the fundamental assumptions of civic nationalism is that, when it comes to our participation in res publica or public affairs, we are NOTHING BUT equal citizens; how we self-identify or qualify ourselves biologically or culturally, cognitively, emotionally, practically, socially, or whatever is an entirely private affair, which has no proper bearing on our political status in a just society.

            My reading of Adorno, Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida also makes me wonder about the ‘subterranean’ links between the metaphysics of identity and structures of domination, and whether identarianism – the branding of identity politics – might not be part of the bourgeois hegemony that reproduces and confirms the power relations that emanate from capitalism and, in particular, the commodification of life.

          5. Niemand says:

            It might be argued that we increasingly commodify ourselves due to the pervasiveness of social media. We ‘sell’ ourselves online; sometimes for actual monetary gain, sometimes as a kind of brand, more broad brush marketing. We have always done this, but I think it happens much more in the virtual environment where we can easily manipulate our presentation, an environment that has a reciprocal, circular relationship with real life. (And the virtual world is ‘real’ now anyway – virtual and non-virtual blur. It can go unmentioned that the meeting you ‘went’ to was online, the conversation you had was actually in written form). In selling ourselves, self identity and what we identify with plays a huge part as we seek out our market of followers, and this is exploited to a high degree by the companies who run the online platforms we use and make zillions doing so: the commodification of identity.

          6. Tom Ultuous says:

            As someone on the internet said “What Orwell failed to predict was we would buy the cameras ourselves and our biggest fear would be that no one was watching”.

          7. Colin Robinson says:

            The idea that we’re innocent victims of our commodification as identities in capitalist society is certainly a naive one. Rather, it’s something we do to ourselves as self-creative beings, as we live and work together in order to produce our means of subsistence.

            Identities – black/white, male/female, Scots/English, gay/straight, trans/cis, Catholic/Protestant, radical/conservative, nationalist/unionist, good/evil etc. – are hardly absolute natural/god-given phenomena, imposed on us from the outside; they’re differential social constructs. As Tom says, we even police our commodified ‘selves’ through the silent monitor/panopticon/public opinion of social media.

            Such is the totalitarian nature of our self-imposed, self-regulating solidarity as kinds, of our so-called ‘herd mentality’ or ‘collective unconscious’. It’s an insidious subterranean, structural thing that evolves as we evolve our relations of production; what Žižek call an ‘ideology’.

            Historical materialism again! Marx! It all goes back to Marx.

          8. Niemand says:

            Great quotation Tom

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