The Siamese Twins: the Lion and the Unicorn

Every day on my timeline and across the media the idiocy of the MAGA crowds is ridiculed, rightly. The Trump supporters are equally hilarious and terrifying as he stomps through Iowa toward a hideous victory. But there’s an unconscious sort of disdain for Trump’s dumbass supporters. I admit it. But the other thing it does is stop us from looking at the equivalents of the MAGA crowd right here.

It’s easy to become bored or inured to the casual racism, the systemic violence, and the disgusting narrative that spools out of the mouths of our politicians, but this week’s episode of the longest-running sitcom in British History – ‘Tory Civil War’ – takes a darker turn. Yesterday ’30p’ Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned as deputy chairs of the Conservative party after defying Rishi Sunak by backing right-wing challenges to harden up his Rwanda deportation bill (referred to today, quite correctly as ‘state sponsored people trafficking’). Other luminaries among the ‘rebels’ included Bill Cash, Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick, Liz Truss, and ‘Kemi Badenoch’s parliamentary private secretary, Jane Stevenson’. All of this was cheered on by the Tories ‘King across the Water’ Boris Johnston.

Cook’s Tikka Masala Speech

The degeneracy of the dialogue about immigration can’t go un-talked about. If we just pretend it’s not happening we allow it to be normalised. It’s not Trumpian, not everything is ‘Trumpian’, though it is part of the rise of far-right populism that is leeching into the air we breathe as capitalism cracks and burns under its own far-advanced meta-crises. This is a particularly English problem that’s imposed on the rest of us. The latest breakdown/rebellion reminded me of the time in 2001 when the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook got into a lot of trouble when he stated the simple fact that the British were not a race. This sent the Daily Mail, among many others, into a predictable meltdown. It’s worth looking back on because it shows us how far we have come, and it also shows some of the underlying stories behind the ongoing Tory immigration saga and the deeper problem of how deep-seated xenophobia is built into English nationalism and the concept of Britishness.

It was in a defence of multiculturalism that Cook dismissed the idea of an ethnically pure British race as “a fantasy”, while describing immigration as “necessary and desirable” for the UK’s economy and society. Cook was responding to William Hague’s dog-whistle threat that a second Labour term would “turn Britain into a foreign land” and blamed Hague for encouraging recent outbursts from members of his party such as Yorkshire East MP John Townend, who accused immigrants of undermining Britain’s “homogenous Anglo-Saxon society”.

In a speech in London, Mr. Cook said: “This narrow view of British identity, fed on myths about `our island race’, arises from a pitiful misreading of British history.”

“The British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands.”

He continued: “The idea that Britain was a `pure’ Anglo-Saxon society before the arrival of communities from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa is a fantasy” and he went on to argue that Britain’s multicultural identity was “an immense asset that contributes to the cultural and economic vitality of our nation.”

It became known as Cook’s Tikka Masala speech (you can read it here).

The response was hysterical.

The Daily Mail’s front page on 19 April screamed: ‘ASTONISHING DECLARATION; THERE IS NO SUCH RACE AS THE BRITISH … Robin Cook caused a major political row last night after declaring the British are not a race…’

The esteemed Roger Scruton got involved suggesting that the origins of the ‘British race’ was from “a long process of melding in which at least three races – English, Welsh and Scots have acquired common institutions, common customs, a common language and a common religion”. This new Super-Race was defined for Scruton by: “belief in liberty, democratic spirit, love of fair play and a genius for compromise, attachment to the countryside and tolerance of …those accepting its laws and customs.”

I mean it is a really weird form of exceptionalism but what strikes you reading it twenty-three years on are two things. First how it is this idea of British racial purity that lurks behind the ongoing Tory hysteria and the dog-whistle racism of post-(and pre) Brexit England. Second how none of the disgraceful ‘rebels’ such as Truss, Johnson, Jenrick, Braverman, Patel or Lee Anderson exhibit ANY of these supposed qualities it’s hilarious how much they are a checklist for what these people are not. They explicitly don’t believe in liberty, the democratic spirit, fair play, or tolerance, they are terrible at compromise and are casual about breaking the rule of law. The descent of the ‘party of law and order’ was witnessed throughout Boris Johnson’s time in office and only yesterday Robert Jenrick said, “The law is our servant, not our master.” The whole Rwanda debacle is an exercise in bending and breaking and escaping domestic and international laws and treaties.

How do you explain the chasm between Anglo-British nationalist’s self-description and the – how shall we put it? – slightly more disappointing reality?

For Tom Nairn, it’s a sort of mania. Writing in Pariah (Verso) he suggests: “An explanation is that when many English intellectuals and politicos are forced to think about ‘Britain’ and England together they do go ‘mad’. This is not because they are those ‘whom the gods wish to destroy’ as Enoch Powell once darkly hinted. Rather, it is as if the ‘one people/race’ dilemma triggers the equivalent of a fit, or spasm, from which they find themselves momentarily unable to escape. The low semantic barrier between ‘British’ (dead but Great) and ‘English (desirable yet intolerable) sets up something like a computer loop. A form of Automatic Writing takes over. Normal debates degenerate into séances, during which ancestral spirit-guides appear and fight it out in the respective craniums, relaying encrypted messages alternately from Beowulf (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Edmund Burke and the speeches of Churchill. These are usually mixed-up with protestations of antiracism, outreach affidavits and platitudinous conclusions like Scruton’s. Studying these we can see that for the subjects of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ have become like Siamese Twins. There can be no question of sacrificing the one to save the other. What the Union of Britannic watchdogs demands is that at all costs both must be kept alive.”

This tells us a lot about our predicament, where we are witnessing (again) the Tory party ripping itself apart as a handful of far-right politicians threaten to destabilise their own government for not being extreme enough in law-breaking and rights-destroying to create a policy that a few years ago would have been thought to belong exclusively to the manifestos of British fascist parties. A lot of this grotesque absurdity is driven by an extraordinary exceptionalism about Britain’s role in the world, a fantasy about ‘Britannia Unleashed’ and an underlying philosophy of unsullied racial purity. This Make Britain Great Again movement is a powerful force that can never own its own successes or stand-up to the reality of its own consequences.

In Nairn’s analysis only very occasionally can these movements be unambiguously English in their identity. The English sibling can only be resorted to “when peripheral nations are felt as obtrusive or demanding” when the “brute fact of Englishness is unveiled”.

As Anthony Barnett wrote for Bella way back in 2017 explaining the identity crisis and elite uprising that brought us to the brink of Brexit: “The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, ran a pained, ferocious editorial. It was headlined in huge, bold capital letters, across most of the paper’s front page: WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND? Its opening words (the italics are mine) went: ‘Today the Mail asks a question of profound significance to our destiny as a sovereign nation and the fate of our children and grandchildren. Who will speak for England?’ The editorial continued over on an inside page. There, buried in a parenthesis he wrote: ‘and, of course, by “England”… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’.

The Daily Mail prints a separate Scottish edition. Its editors replaced the front page.

‘By England… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’.

Nairn suggests Gorge Orwell’s strange essays The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941), which come in three parts: England Your England, Shopkeepers At War, The English Revolution are a rare example of England being England (and containing nostalgia for that previous nostalgia) hence John Major’s evocation of it.

The most famous passage which Major quoted goes: “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”

Looking back on this famous passage makes you wonder how it might be re-made in 2024:

“When you come back to England from any foreign country, after having waited for hours in airport queues you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. It might be the pollution after the Blade Runners opposed lower emissions. The pound in your pocket is worth less, the rivers are full of shit, the Queen is Dead, people are beating up Just Stop Oil protesters, we are bombing Yemen, and homeless peoples tents are being put in the bin. There are no queues outside the Labour Exchange because everyone’s been sanctioned. As you realise they’ve just spent £8million on a portrait of the king in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the vastness of England swallows you up. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”

Back to Scruton’s Super Race – which incidentally is mainstream thinking in 2024 while Robin Cook’s quiet, unremarkable speech would be political suicide today. If this racialised thinking is the soil (or blut und boden) that today’s awfulness has grown out of it’s interesting to think how exclusionary it is, and is supposed to be.

The idea of a ‘British race’ in which “the English, Welsh and Scots have acquired common institutions, common customs, a common language and a common religion” is of course nonsense, but it’s a construct that is a quiet underpinning of today’s rhetoric and has lineage from Tebbit’s Cricket Test, to the Salisbury Review, to ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, to ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?‘, to Farage’s Brexit poster, to the Home Office Hate Vans, to the mainstreaming of Nick Griffin to 30p Lee and the cesspit of today’s Tory party.

Comments (18)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I always find it interesting how Shakespeare’s Henry V (a play set in the middle of the Hundred Year’s War) is staged. I watched a recent production, which only slightly bottles the English war crimes, and dwells on the moral injury of committing them; includes Falstaff from the previous plays but not Henry IV’s injunction:
    “Therefore, my Harry, Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds With foreign quarrels;”
    The production emphasises what is present in the text (language barriers) by having the French speak French to each other. David Mitchell, pushing a new book, remarked on how ridiculous a project the English attempt to rule France was (despite close kin: the Dauphin calls the English lords ‘Norman bastards’). Scotland, Wales and Ireland are represented by captain-peers of an English captain, sort-of getting along (though the Scots are earlier identified as enemies).

    I think there is a kind of insanity proceeding from such double (really, multiple) standards which celebrate (downright evil) Anglo-British invasions of others, yet froth about people coming here for various peaceful reasons. But does this mental giddiness arise from the psychological strain, perhaps of karmaphobia, the fear that retribution for the past foul deeds (including crimes of ancestors you worship) may strike at any time? Or does it precede and allow in these irrational beliefs? Or is there a dynamic interaction, a positive feedback loop, reinforcing these stances like in-group, out-group polarisation? I think it must be the last.

    There are many ideologies which can be described as right-wing (essentially hierarchical, even ego-dominant) which, while conflicting with each other, rely on the Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History, even some which profess to be left-wing in character. These heroes that can be are burnished statue-fit, while rejected candidates are buried, or simply downranked in lists (like, who were the top three English monarchs?). I think the problem for this approach now is not a ‘free press’ but the Internet, where much of the foul evidence of Anglo-British atrocities, once thought buried, breaks to the surface and showers back over the polished monuments of Empire. And not all the water in the River Wye will wash that off.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Xenophobia and jingoism will be the main planks of Tory policy for the forthcoming General Election. The ‘War on the Houthis’ is to be their equivalent of Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands. By claiming ‘Labour are the real Conservatives’, appearing in interviews with two union flags in the background, vaguely following increasingly nasty Tory politics, Labour is aiming to occupy the same narrow nasty ground. If the Tories and their media loudspeakers succeed in rousing the latent Little Englandism that is not far below the surface of many, but not a majority, of England’s population, then this group will vote Tory because the Tories are ‘better’ xenophobes and jingoists. Labour is offering little to the increasing numbers of people drifting into poverty – if they are poor then they are not hardworking families and aspirational – and such people are just not voting. Labour’s main supporters are highly educated and sympathetic to a great degree (as is a majority of the population) to the kind of kinder, redistributive social policies that Corbyn articulated and which, at the time, Starmer argued for, but has since ‘ruthlessly(sic) jettisoned in the march rightwards. With his support for Israel and attacks on Yemen, many people who have voted Labour will decide not to vote because, in England, they have no alternative. However, people in the north of Ireland, Scotland and Wales do. The United Kingdom is falling apart under the increasingly overt corruption, the increasing inequality and the fact that for decades governments – Tory, Labour and Tory/LibDems – are increasingly diverged from the wishes of the majority of the people.

    1. florian albert says:

      ‘The United Kingdom is falling apart.’

      Is it really ? Unionists seem very relaxed about this possibility; that was not the case in 2014 and 2015. Opinion polls show a large shift from the SNP to (unionist) Labour. In the recent Hamilton West and Rutherglen by election, unionist candidates got 65% of the vote.

  3. Satan says:

    Hysteria about racist Tories sounds a bit mad when they have a Punjabi PM. Perhaps because Scotland is so undiverse such views develop due to a lack of melonin.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Satan, when a society encodes multiple hierarchies, sometimes scoring highly on one will allow you reach high office. Kind of like a points system. In the British Empire, and England itself, it is sometimes said that Class trumps Race. At least, if you are the Maharajah of Somewhere-rich, certain doors open. The UK does not, for example, have a working-class female Punjabi Prime Minister. It’s a kind of intersectionality for the elite. And simply being rich is especially appealing to our Conservative government, regardless of other qualities:
      Although they don’t always get their own way. James Cleverly had to row back on the high minimum-income requirement for the skilled workers scheme.

      And if you are at the top of Anglo-British imperial society, like Charles Windsor, currently experiencing the effects of an enlarged estate, you can be snooty about pretty much everyone.

  4. Edward Chang says:

    “The response was hysterical.”

    Careful-that term is currently problematic.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Edward Chang, surely the term has been problematic for a very long time?

    2. Really? That’s your takeaway from the whole article?

  5. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I think that Mike’s analysis of England/ Britain problem is interesting and on the way somewhere useful. But it must be seen in a more global context even though I’d support his caution over Trumpism. Just look across the channel at France or the Netherlands or the rightward/populist shift in Scandinavia. There is a broader current taking place and we must understand it to combat it.

  6. John Learmonth says:

    I think if the author chooses to look, the rest of western Europe is becoming far more ‘right wing’ (whatever is meant by this term) than the UK.
    The cause?
    Immigration. A subject on which the left has nothing to say for fear of been branded ‘rascist/islamaphobic.
    If the ‘left’ dare not express an opinion then don’t be surprised when the ‘right’
    takes over the agenda.
    Just out of interest what would be the ideal level of immigration be into the UK?
    Should it be limited or should we have an open border policy and anybody who wants to come and live here should be free to do so?
    Again the left has nothing to say but condemn people as ‘fascists’ (a totally meaningless term) who dare to broach this subject.

    1. ‘Fascism’ is far from a meaningless term. ‘The left’ is a broad church but has very much to say about immigration, in standing up for human rights and against the exploitation of these issues by some of the people mentioned in this article, the disgraceful cabal that have risen to the top of the Tory party.

    2. John says:

      John – there are limits applied on immigration in virtually all countries, there always have been and there always will be. There are also many reasons for immigration but that is a wider and different discussion.
      The problem for UK is that due primarily to demographics and austerity immigration is a classic Catch 22 situation:-
      1. Immigration is required to provide workers in healthcare, social care and other areas where demand is rising due to increasing numbers of older people needing to be cared for. There are insufficient people of working age available, willing and trained to fill these roles so either we do not care for the sick and elderly or we encourage people to come here to fill the shortfall. (there is a genuine question about whether we can train up sufficient people from UK to fill these roles and the morality of taking people trained in other countries with arguably a greater need than our own.) We also require a wider tax base (ie more people working and paying tax) to pay for the increased demand on our public services due to demographics. The only way to increase the number of working people short of increasing retirement age dramatically is to encourage more people to come and work in UK. In short legal immigration is overall economically beneficial to country and most academic studies back this up.
      2.The flip side is that we have insufficient public infrastructure in places to support the immigrants that come to this country. This can partly be put down to 15 years of austerity and lack of planning by central government. Immigration then puts further pressure on public services, housing etc in areas where these services are already stretched. This requires additional investment but how this can be achieved without an increased tax take and additional workers is difficult to envisage which brings us back to the need for immigration. In addition many asylum seekers (minority of immigrants) are placed in poor areas of country where public services are already stretched. This is something that government could resolve by quicker processing etc (see my comments on illegal immigration below) and (God forbid) placing asylum seekers in more affluent areas with less impact on public services though I can imagine the outcry from the well heeled middle classes to this suggestion.
      Lastly there is the issue of a large number of immigrants living in a concentrated area and this can feeling uncomfortable and threatening to local population. History is littered with examples of this (Irish & Italians in USA, Windrush generation, asians in UK))and though tensions arise there is usually an equilibrium of sorts reached after a period of time. This process could be helped by greater government support for local communities and better planning of immigration.
      In short what is required is a grown up conversation on immigration, not the complete denial to discuss by some on left or the dog whistle politics of populists on right. Both of these approaches just raise the heat without shedding any light on the subject.

  7. florian albert says:

    What is so disheartening about the article above is that it concentrates entirely on the comments of a handful of individuals, rather than the problem of immigration.*
    It gives an overwhelmingly negative picture of England’s political culture.
    Ordinary people can see that reality is much, much more nuanced.
    At present, thousands of people each year are risking their life and spending a fortune to get to England, where the Tories have won the last four general elections. Once in England, very few show any inclination to move north to Scotland. The place they are so keen to leave is not some war-torn and impoverished country; it is France, a wealthy country at the heart of the EU.

    * Immigration is a political problem. If you doubt that look at election campaigns and results over the past decade in Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Finland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary and the USA. It is set to be a major issue in the next Irish election, though ‘progressive Ireland’ – until a few weeks ago – kidded itself on that a the voters were relaxed about 20% of the country’s population being born out with the country.
    What stands out is that the success of political opponents of mass immigration has come via the ballot box.

    1. “It gives an overwhelmingly negative picture of England’s political culture …each year are risking their life and spending a fortune to get to England, where the Tories have won the last four general elections.”

      : )

    2. John says:

      FA – like so many you appear to be focussing on illegal immigration which I am sure you know forms a very small percentage of overall immigration to UK and the numbers of illegal immigrants attempting to gain entry to UK is much smaller than the other countries you have referenced. This is not surprising as UK is an island and further away from where most immigrants come from. I should also add that more than half of asylum seekers are found to have valid claims when they are eventually processed.
      The finger of blame for not effectively dealing with the ‘boat people’ lies firmly with successive Tory governments. By leaving EU and the various institutions which has reduced cooperation in dealing with immigrants prior to crossing channel less likely and effective. In addition by cutting funding for dealing with asylum applications they have allowed an enormous backlog to develop. Putting aside the human misery that this causes it is a false economy as more immigrants need to be housed at taxpayers expense. The Rwanda repatriation scheme will only deal with <1% of illegal immigrants so it will be virtually no deterrent to people already willing to risk life and limb to come to UK. In addition it will cost a great deal of money which could be spent more effectively in other areas to speed up processing and improving cross border cooperation to stop the people traffickers. It is in short a mouth wateringly expensive inept and cynical political excercise of performative cruelty which will not solve the problem.
      Re your point that most immigrants who land in SE England stay in England there are two reasons for this:-
      1.It is blindingly obvious if you land in SE England 400 miles from Scotland you are far more likely to settle in England.
      2.Internationally England is often referred to as UK and London is sold as the place to be. Many immigrants will be barely aware of Scotland and therefore unlikely to want to come here.
      If I can add personal experience from hosting a Ukranian family over last 18 months – they openly stated they originally wanted to go to England but having spent 12 months in Scotland and having met fellow Ukranians who had settled elsewhere they have since moved into their own accommodation in Scotland as they think living in Scotland is preferrable for them and their children even though the company the dad, who works from home, is employed by offices are based in Manchester.

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘You appear to be focussing on illegal immigration’

        Only if you ignore the first four and last five lines of my (12 line) piece.

        1. John says:

          FA – your comment contains 5 paragraphs and an addendum.
          Paragraph 4 talks about people risking their lives to get to England – this is can only be interpreted as referring to illegal immigration.
          Paragraph 5 also refers to people not leaving war torn countries but France which again can only be interpreted as a reference to illegal immigration.
          In other words a significant part of your comment was a direct reference to illegal immigration hence my reply discussing this aspect of immigration and your comment about immigrants not coming to Scotland where I did not disagree with your analysis but tried to give you some actual background experience.
          I have also discussed the Catch 22 situation UK finds itself in with legal immigration in a reply to John Learnmonth’s comment.
          Please try and engage with the actual issues being discussed.

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