British nationalism and its future

Photograph by Chris Bethell.

In a previous article, "A non-xenophobic Brexit", I lament on the inevitability of a degree of autocracy in multi-national polities such as the European Union,

"Of course, if the President of the Commission were chosen fully by the European Parliament, or by the EU populace directly, smaller countries with smaller populations would have less of an influence. The European Council, I suppose, serves as a kind of electoral college, sacrificing democracy to balance out the interests of the different nation-states that compose the EU. This is the problem with multi-national superstates - they must be consociational rather than democratic."

Such was also the case in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, in communist Yugoslavia and any of the post-colonial African dictatorships. This is how feudal lords were able to reign over such disparate groups of people during the Middle Ages, and why in the Age of Enlightenment nationalism and democracy arrived hand in hand.

I define a nation as any people with enough similarity between them - cultural, linguistic, religious, geographic, ideological or otherwise - to form a stable political community. Such a community is called a nation-state. This definition is naturally subjective and changes with changing circumstances, hence the many fluctuations, dissolutions, and unifications among nations over the centuries. Supranational or multi-national political entities such as the United Nations or the European Union must sacrifice democracy in favour of international consociationalism (i.e. "1 vote per nation" rather than "1 vote per individual") as described above. This is why, unlike Austria-Hungary, most modern multi-national unions such as the UN aren't particularly powerful. The EU's trouble is that it is a powerful confederation; in future it will either dissolve, become more autocratic, or try to foster a pan-European nationalism by homogenising the continent to some extent.¹

"But what about the United Kingdom? Aren't the English, the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish different nations? How can you oppose European unionism but support British unionism?". These are questions that I would be asked in response to that previous article, if anyone actually read my blog.

Firstly, I'm not really a British unionist anymore. I am what may be called a historic British unionist, in that I recognise the Union as having been a generally good and inevitable thing while it lasted. Together the peoples of these British Isles advanced humanity artistically, scientifically, politically and ethically, and forged the greatest and kindest empire the world has ever known and likely ever will know. But, after a series of blunders, this once fruitful marriage is all but dead.

Under the panicked atmosphere of World War One, the British responded far too heavy-handedly against the German-sponsored Easter Rising of 1916, thus triggering the successful Irish War of Independence. In 1998 after years of IRA bombings the British Government justified this terrorist organisation's evil efforts by signing the Belfast Agreement, transforming Northern Ireland into a semi-British statelet pretty much guaranteed to join the Republic within the next few decades.

No doubt spurned on by EU "divide and rule" regional policy, Scotland and Wales were likewise granted devolved powers by the Government in the same year the Belfast Agreement came into effect. This has only spurned on rather than placated Scottish and Welsh nationalism. The resultant West Lothian question has been much discussed. The duty of Scottish MPs to represent their constituents and legislate for Scotland has been assumed by the MSPs; the consequence being that we now have a generation of useless SNP MPs in Westminster with no links to their constituents whose only purpose is to share Scottish leftism with the rest of the United Kingdom and encourage its dissolution. As Sir Roger Scruton put it, "the Scots have two votes: they can vote for their own parliament and vote to put their people into our parliament, who come to our parliament with no interest in Scotland but an interest in bullying us". And it seems devolved governments are constantly kicking up a fuss, exchanging continued loyalty to the Union for additional cash or powers from Westminster.

I believe unionist victory in the 2014 Scottish separation referendum was only secured by promises of greater devolution. This was a mistake. If I were Prime Minister I would offer the Scots a second referendum - but the choice would be between Scottish separation and abolishing devolution altogether. When the Scots would inevitably vote for full separation, I'd be happy to see them go. Devolution is so obviously untenable and unbeneficial for all involved, and it's beside the point. The Scots are either British first or Scottish first. And that's the issue I'd like to discuss in this article. Because the reason the United Kingdom succeeded as a multi-national union while others either failed or became autocratic, is because it superimposed a shared British national identity atop the pre-existing English, Scottish etc. nationalities.

This was only possible because our nations were already united to an extent. We had shared a monarchy for centuries; not only had this created a shared history, political unity, unity of purpose and freedom of movement, but the intermittent state of warfare that had once existed between us had been by and large forgotten. We were also mostly Protestant countries, and indeed British nationalism in its early years was shaped by fierce anti-papism (as it is still in Northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland). Even Ireland, though majority Catholic, was then governed by a Protestant Ascendancy when it joined the Union. Thirdly, English was the majority language in both England and Scotland, and was spoken by many in Wales and Ireland (where it would be in the majority by the 19th century). And finally, the constituent nations of the United Kingdom were always relatively well balanced; while England was the largest and most populous country, it was more or less balanced out by Scotland, Wales and Ireland collectively. This enabled us to have one Parliament for one Kingdom, which, rather than representing the different nations separately as the devolved assemblies do, represented the British as one people - totally democratically and without a whiff of consociationalism.

On this multilayered basis, and spurned on by anti-papism² and imperial pride, a rudimentary pan-British national identity was able to form, which later developed and grew to include all sorts of things. Tea, Trafalgar, telephone boxes, fish and chips, shopkeeping, sportsmanship. I say rudimentary because the pre-existing identities of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish were not replaced, but supplemented, and this, perhaps, is why the Union was never destined to last forever - although after three hundred years it is surely the most successful multi-national country in history.

The first Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans commented that "Britishness is a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, Welsh, and the Irish". And I think he was more or less right. England was to the United Kingdom what Prussia was to Germany or Castille was to Spain. That is the reason our Parliament meets in London and not Edinburgh. But this is not so bad as Evans and other Celtic nationalists spin it. It was England that was the growing world power at the time of the Acts of Union; it was our pre-existing empire that formed the basis of the British imperial project, which the Scots were eager to share in after their independent colonial efforts had ended in financial disaster.³ Likewise the British liberal spirit is fundamentally English, rooted in Glorious Revolution, Magna Carta, and ancient deep-rooted Saxon groanings against a Norman yoke. If Scotland did make any liberal progress throughout history, it was only through being dragged along by its influential Southern neighbour.

Despite being farther from the continent, Scotland has always been closer to it in spirit, from the days of the Auld Alliance to present. Before the Union of the Crowns Scotland had been an autocracy with a weak parliament; but the Stuart kings found themselves beheaded or overthrown when they tried to export this to their new English realm. The Scots sided with the Royalists in the Second and Third English Civil Wars, and although they accepted the Glorious Revolution at first, this was succeeded by the bloody Jacobite Risings in later years, in which Scots fought to establish a continental-style Catholic absolute monarchy. Scots have also never fully accepted the English system of common law, which is the foundation of English liberty. Scots law is hybrid between this and the top-down civil law system of the continent. In the modern world traditional Scottish autocracy manifests in europhilia and left-wing collectivism - a good example would be the SNP's tyrannical Named Person scheme which the Supreme Court ruled against for being contrary to human rights.

So you see, the anglicisation of the Celtic countries was mostly a good thing. We brought them Freedom and Empire. On the grand scheme of things this was far more important than the decline of the Welsh and Gaelic languages, which nonetheless is regrettable.⁴

But I suppose the Empire has long since fallen, and not even Englishmen care about Freedom as much as they used to. The Scots and perhaps the Welsh are merely fleeing a sunken ship. However, it may be the breakup of the United Kingdom will finally allow us to move on from the shame of losing an empire, which has been the psychological source of much of our social decay over these past sixty years. Just as the Rhomaioi moved on from the shame of Constantinople by rediscovering their ancient Hellenic roots, so too can we in England shed the name of Briton with the great losses it represents, and embrace that humble agrarian English nationalism - a far more achievable mantle for ourselves in our nation's present state. Perhaps we would be able to feel patriotic again. With hope the long-forgotten warmth of national pride will warm England's cold bones and stir her back to life - the sweet, innocent Merry England of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Purcell, Blake, and Tolkien; unburdened by great power and international responsibility. We would be a new, healthy nation, like a phoenix arisen from ashes, free at last of the bloated corpse of Empire that is Britain.

Patriotism is a very important thing. It is the emotion that glues the nation (and therefore its relevant political community, the nation-state) together, whatever that shared nationhood happens to be based upon. As I put it in a previous article from 2018,

"Humans, being the advanced apes that we are, naturally become tribalistic about shared identities, and being tribalistic about a shared country is more inclusive than being tribalistic about a football team, ethnic minority, or village. What patriotism does is generate a shared sense of identity in a sovereign state to overcome these lesser loyalties so that inter-tribal conflict can be avoided, allowing the state to run more smoothly and far less violently. If the various tribes and peoples of South Africa, for instance, valued their South African identity over their tribal identity, much violence would be prevented and that country would be happier, friendlier, and more prosperous."

The invention of the world wide web has allowed for an international exchange of information and culture unprecedented since the innovation of the printing press. This is bound to disarray and reshape the foundation of our societies - as the printing press did in the 16th century, when it resulted in the mass international dissemination of Protestant literature: after a thousand years of relative Catholic homogeneity, suddenly any literate man or woman in any country in Europe could secretly read a translated Bible or the writings of John Calvin. The powers that be simply didn't know how to respond - until they did and started burning people at the stake. Thus all the civil strife and upheaval of the Reformation was born. The solution to this came in the Peace of Westphalia, which established that shared religion was no longer necessary for men to hold social bonds; men would be united by shared country instead⁵. While not quite yet patriotism or nationalism, this Westphalian principle would allow in later centuries for the development of freedom of thought and therefore the Enlightenment.

So you see, there needs to be something deeper that unites us, beyond the bonds of religion, ideology or even culture, in this age more than any other. What is the use of a shared religion when a little girl in India, for example, can search up Christianity on Google and be converted to the Gospel? What is the use of "British values" when a Briton is convinced in an online argument with an overseas communist that they are all bunk? And what even is the use of shared culture when young people can pick and choose their culture from the internet? Encouraging this social disintegration with mass migration will only worsen the matter. We desperately need to rediscover the lesson of the Peace of Westphalia. When all else fails, the only thing that will still link us is shared country. Europe long ago learnt from the memory of the intense Wars of Religion, and erected in religious faith's place the inclusive, secular religion of national patriotism - with its own national hymns, prayers and symbols. It is a religion without dogma; it infringes on no one's freedom of thought, and only asks for loyalty and cooperation within the territory in which you have chosen to live. In the 20th century it was misused by jingoists and warmongers; we thereby learnt that we must always prioritise reason ahead of it. But I believe it is a fundamentally useful thing that we must recall before we fall into another hundred years of civil strife and war.

I'm playing devil's advocate somewhat to more strongly get across my point. I do believe shared country will fast become a more important means of social cohesion in a more pluralistic future, but a country with inhabitants that bare no resemblance to one another might as well not be a country at all. I don't believe the internet has completely made redundant all the community identifiers of the past. Culture will become more diverse but is ultimately artificial unless it is linked to a shared geography and ancestry. Times are fast becoming more disruptive as Westerners are no longer bound by shared religion to hold certain presuppositions - nevertheless, religion today, as opposed to the Reformation, is usually an emotional matter, like patriotism, rather than an intellectual one. Nations with religious majorities will survive so long as their mothers and fathers do a good job of instilling it in their children through art, kindness and beauty. A religious majority will go a long way to ensuring national cohesion and should be promoted while guaranteeing freedom of religion and thought. England has always been good in this regard, with our broad, non-compulsory, non-dogmatic established Church.

But back to the European issue. It was a rich multilayered basis which allowed the four nations of the British Isles to become one, and it came at a price. Celtic cultures have suffered serious decline - Irish and Scottish Gaelic are almost extinct, Welsh has retreated West and Scots has largely merged into Scottish English. I have argued this was a price worth paying. The question is, is European unity worth an even greater price? In my previous article I argued the autocratic political culture of the continent was as nothing compared to the deep-rooted freedoms of the English (and, by extension, the British). Yet the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru would be all too eager to give these up, and our own Union which secures them - exchanging them for continued membership of that other Union based around Germany and bureaucracy rather than England and liberty. Not only would this be an ideological mistake, but I am doubtful for the future of that other Union.

Ever closer unity is its undoubted aim, but it seems to me to have a natural limit in this regard, a limit it is unwilling to heed. If the eurocrats desire a federal Europe, as they appear to do, then, as described previously, the only options open to them would be that old Austro-Hungarian consociational autocracy, or the homogenisation of Europe (or perhaps a degree of both). European nations have far fewer similarities than those of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland at the time of the Acts of Union. What use is shared Christian heritage in a secularised, multicultural Europe? Enlightenment values, perhaps? But those are no longer distinctly European; they are considered universal in our modern age. A shared history? That's certainly there, but the past is only the past (and most of it was spent warring with one another anyway). After this, the europhile is left grappling. High culture? But high culture cannot exist without the low. Classical music? Race?!

It is for this reason I doubt the creation of a pan-European nationalism is possible; therefore the EU must either go the way of consociationalism and autocracy, or devolution if not outright dissolution. One must question whether it is desirable either. The erosion of the Celtic languages for the benefits of Empire and Freedom is one thing, but the homogenisation of an entire continent made great by its unique cultural diversity is quite another. That said, I don't think the existence of the EU is entirely without purpose. Since the creation of the German nation-state in the 19th century that country has been destined to dominate the European continent. We attempted in two World Wars to avert this. German reunification in 1990 allowed Germany to once again fully spread its legs. It hijacked the European project, which has become a peaceful modern version of German empirebuilding. Most people know this, if not in their heads then in their hearts. Better this way then a militaristic Fourth Reich, I suppose - I only wish England did not have to be a part of it. So the future of the European Union is a great mystery to me. On one hand it is too paradoxical to exist - the nations of Europe, especially of North and South, and East and West, are far too dissimilar to be united democratically. On the other, German imperialism is an unavoidability. The German army's "Strategic Perspective 2040" reveals the Germans know EU disintegration is a real possibility and are making military plans should this be so. I do hope the future is not a choice between the EU and autocracy or Germany and war.

Hopefully we do not stick around to find out. The wonderful English Channel, and our transatlantic links, give us the option of freedom from Berlin. I only wish we would finally, fully and irreversibly take it.

¹The People's Republic of China and the Republic of India likewise are not really nation-states but vast multi-ethnic empires doomed to autocracy or dissolution.

²Though this was tuned down during Catholic Emancipation, it is impossible to understate the benefit our shared Northern European Protestant nature had on maintaining the Union. It is the root of all our meekness, humility, and frugality. Even after the decline of religion in this country it can still be found in the British stiff upper lip and the phrase "No [insert pleasure here] please, we're British". This surely can be applied equally to the most northerly Scot and the most southerly Englishman.

³This is not to devalue the hard work of the Celtic nations in expanding the Empire. The SNP would have you believe Scotland was England's first colony, when as the historian David Starkey has pointed out the Scots were very enthusiastic on Empire; in fact it was the Scots who carried out some of its most unreasonable brutalities.

⁴I speak here mainly of Scotland and Wales. Ireland is even more continental than Scotland owing to its Catholic heritage. That said, the oppression and neglect we showed to it hardly made our Union, either of Crowns or Parliaments, worthwhile for that party. Southern Irish self-rule was inevitable in some form or other; I'm only sorry it happened in the violent and divisive way it did.

⁵The English version of the Peace of Westphalia which predated it by about a hundred years was, of course, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Note on Welsh separatism: This article, when discussing devolution and separatism (I use the terms "separatism", "secession" and "separation" instead of "independence" because the SNP and Plaid Cymru do not want total independence, but merely membership of a different quasi-federal Union), is mainly directed at the Scots. It's clear to me the Union between England and Scotland, in its present devolved state, cannot continue. Either devolution must go or Scotland must go. I'm yet optimistic that SNP rule would be such a disaster the Scots may return within the century, and I'm not sure they've thought using Brexit as an excuse through (Scottish secession after Brexit would result in another troublesome hard border alongside that of Ireland, stretching across Great Britain itself). But the Welsh are quite another matter.

Wales voted Leave, swung to the Conservatives in this most recent election, and generally is closer to England in political culture, friendship and general interlinkage. I don't think there was much demand for Welsh devolution back in the 1990s; it was offered merely because the Northern Irish and the Scots were already getting it. Even then the Welsh devolution referendum passed by a relatively slim margin, and I doubt it would have passed at all if people knew what they know now - that it would be a means to further Welsh secession by small and gradual gains.

Nevertheless, I doubt there will be much demand for Wales to rejoin the EU or seek secession post-Brexit, but post-Scottish separation (if it, in the end, happens - we may be kept in this awful deadlock forever) who can say? I don't know how British nationalism would continue in a United Kingdom without Scotland, and, at some point, Northern Ireland - or what form it would take. Would the country be renamed? The United Kingdom of South Britain and Northern Ireland? Later still, the United Kingdom of England and Wales (I doubt the name "Kingdom of England" would serve to fit both countries as it did in a less democratic age)? So, despite the abundant loyalty of most Welshmen, I do have my worries. I foresee a rump state akin to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was what that union was called when the only constituent countries that remained in it were Serbia and Montenegro (before they too split apart).

Presuming Scotland were already a separate country in the EU, Wales simply could not be permitted to follow it. England's territorial integrity has to be preserved. There was a reason we thought it beneficial to conquer Wales and unite with Scotland in the first place, and that was before the continent was united under a single German-powered empire. We would be a powerless EU enclave if both our Northern and Western neighbours went down this course. As I said, Wales voted Leave, so this is unlikely, but as an example it shines a light on the hidden complexities behind these idealistic Celtic nationalisms whose primary focus is language preservation and not geopolitical pragmatism.