This week’s blog comes from Dr Innes Kennedy, one of the Programme Team for the MLitt British Studies at UHI. He’ll be leading the module ‘Philosophy and Britishness: Adam Smith and the virtues of modernity’, which starts at the end of January 2016.
The view dies hard that Babel was the occasion of a curse being laid upon mankind from which it is the business of the philosopher to deliver us, and a disposition remains to impose a single character upon significant human speech. (Michael Oakshott, The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind)
What good is British identity? Putting it differently, what goods do British identities express, and how are they symbolically valorised?
Elsewhere on the blog, Dr Christie Margrave suggests that (if I may paraphrase) one of them at least is interstitial and apolitical, and expresses the moral quality of friendship. The symbolic valorisation of the Union flag, namely, identifies this moral good.
This argument is interesting for various reasons. Some of them are presented by Dr Margrave herself where she notes the ludic postmodern representations of the flag around the world.
But (of course) other things might be said. This relationship between national identity and moral quality echoes another question altogether, and that is the possibility of an expedient conceptual vagueness latent in the term British Identities itself (the task to reflect on which is for the historian to address – and not only the philosopher, as Oakshott hints in the quotation at the top of the page).
It’s only latent because the plural intention of the term seems plain enough: identities, plural ; British, whether cultural, political, historical, or all of these, or some other.
So, where’s the problem? Well, firstly, let’s be clear this is not some ponderous quibble about terminologies used in blogs. It is a point about a much wider conceptual confusion, wider than Britain itself, and on a number of levels.
So, let’s have a look at what these might be.
Firstly, the familiar question of why must the name of the country we actually live in have to be absent here? Evidently this is not such a problem for countries which are also a unitary state. Yet you will often hear in Parliament and in the media that the UK is a unitary state, bound by the tradition of parliamentary supremacy (and indeed that tradition is expressly written into the devolution statutes). Stung by the argument that parliamentary supremacy is merely an English tradition, some British commentators can be found to insist that the notion of parliamentary supremacy can be discerned in Scottish documents prior to 1707, and that the political tradition of the Sovereignty of the Scottish People, found separately in documents as far apart as 1320, 1579, and 1989 is a classic ‘invented tradition’. The same voices will go further to claim that the positive merit of political union was precisely to transcend ethno-nationalisms, and to be in the global avant-garde of tolerance and liberalism thereafter. This view, too, can be heard in the universities, in the media, and in parliament. The State which may not mention its name is not itself nationalist in the usual sense – from 1707 it was in fact the postnationalist state avant la lettre.
One hesitates to invoke Tom Nairn in these kinds of discussions but it is quite a long time ago that he observed the disquiet when it dawned that this pleasing self-image might be a little frail. And he also articulated the question of why we are not Ukanians, rather than ‘British’. Why are we not talking of Ukanian identities? Well, to pose that question merely takes us right back around in the same circle that says that Britain was not and is not nationalist, to which one response (originally from James Mitchell) is to point out that ‘Unionism is the form of UK State nationalism’.
What kind of nationalist then? Well, as a form of ideal identity, British Liberalism, from Locke to Mill, and beyond, brought civilisation to the uncivilised. It brought the rule of law, bureaucratic infrastructure, and the unsurpassable wisdom of Shakespeare to every land it touched. So, British nationalism was and remains Liberal Nationalism, which we now understand as postnationalism. We can see this identity formalised in the Principles of the Henry Jackson Society, whose lobbyists were arguing for aggressive intervention in Syria, just a few days ago. Scottish nationalists also call themselves liberal or civic nationalists, and sometimes postnationalists.
Well, it is not credible that the violence of British Imperialism can be called postnationalist but what of the present? Manifestly the UK is culturally nationalist (‘Team GB’) and politically nationalist too, even wildly so, and such nationalisms have been deployed quite deliberately against domestic threats as well as more generally. So, that being the case, where does this idea of Liberal nationalism come from anyway, and if it is nonsense what is all this about?
Firstly, it does not come from Macaulay, even though it might sound as if it does (and although it may be retrospectively linked to J.S.Mill). In fact, it is the fairly recent invention of Yael Tamir and the issue of its validity was formidably debated by Andrew Vincent and Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, with the former explicitly rejecting the possibility of any positive moral connection (but not any pragmatic one – hence my use of bricolage in the title above).
But perhaps a better question than validity is why it exists (if it does) and also who might rightly or wrongly claim it as a moral and political identity, and a public good. Clearly if nationalism and national identities can be wholly rehabilitated from their customary association with evil, then they may have a normative public function. But that on its own is not sufficient. The question is why, if the point of liberalism is to bring history to an end, it should need support from the most poisonous creed known…to history. What is it about Liberalism (British or otherwise) that is lacking? Philosophically this brings us back to the longish debate between Liberals and Communitarians, but historically it can be stated by example.
If we accept the general imagined-community of Ukanians after 1945 as the unitary people of a liberal unitary state, whose identity was expressed in institutions such as the NHS, or the nationalised industries, or the UDHR, (or even ration-books) then it is possible to argue that liberalism itself destroyed this unity. Indeed that is the main criticism targeted at Liberalism: it destroys communities. It was falling apart before 1983 but it is in that year, somewhat ironically, that Robin Cook and former PM Gordon Brown published their acknowledgement that arguments about social justice were being devastated from the right, just as the Conservatives were on the point of dismantling as much of the State apparatus as would be permitted, and opening up the floodgates of personal borrowing: “I am an English nationalist and don’t you forget it”, said the Prime Minister…
In short, British Corporatism foundered at the hands of the left and neo-liberalism took its place, eviscerating its nationalism as it did so, and leaving many people to question the legitimacy of the residual State.
Shrill neo-nationalism is one tried and tested way to hold together a fragmenting State (and it probably helps in that regard if you have a State broadcaster, such as is present in the UK but not the USA). So, the UK has become more conspicuously a neoliberal and neo-nationalist state, and, symptomatically, if ironically, it may sometimes feel as though the comfort-zone of recent British identity, i.e. WW2, is being re-enacted every day, whether in parliament or elsewhere. But even if all that is true – so what? The UK remains tolerant, democratic, and free, protects human rights, and forms public policy according to perceived utility. Nationalism may not be acceptable, per se, and liberalism may be self-destructive, but together a kind of neo-nationalist bricolage appears to work for the UK thus far in the form of a functional vagueness that only may amount to a dim expedient; and unless something unexpected happens it will continue to work (even if a name for Ukanians never appears). Yet, by the same fickle ideological token, Scottish or Welsh civic nationalism is scarcely less legitimate, and so there has occurred a significant change in the foundations of the State, as well as in its mythological identities.
The same expediency is also apparent, indeed, in the term identities, a term supplied to the historian’s toolbox in the 1950s from political science without much questioning of its applicability and where it has proliferated with mixed success ever since. What was evident in the recent Scottish referendum, and will be evident again soon in the EU one, is a visible and painful struggle among voters to answer the question of their political and cultural identities without making themselves look foolish, intolerant, inarticulate, or all three together.
But you don’t need to be what politicians call an ordinary person in order to find the term paradoxical. Those of us who make a living specialising in abstractions use it as a term implying uniformity, stability, being, and continuity over time. Yet what we always find in our labours is that an identity is actually a ‘site’, a metaphorical space of struggle, of symbolic contestation, and indeed of multiplicity, mutation, instability, and difference.
So, there we have it. British is an opportune term for one that, like Voldemort, may not be spoken – indeed does not yet have a name; and the word identities is the opposite of what it appears.
This brings me back to the fancy French word in the title. Does it matter that nothing adds up? What would an adding-up that wasn’t simply pragmatic look like anyway? The problem for the notion of ultimate goods is time. We don’t know the future, so pragmatic bricolage is the task of those who need to create it, and they’re born before we are.