Is England the ultimate British colony?
Opinion: Westminster seems ill-prepared for a Scottish vote for independence
‘The late Tony Benn believed that some of the defining characteristics of old England had been sacrificed to the British scheme of things.’ Photograph: AP Photo
Could England be the last and most fully penetrated of all Britain’s possessions?
The late Tony Benn thought so. He believed some of the defining characteristics of old England had been sacrificed to the British scheme of things. Many English traditions – from roast beef to the frock coat – had been adopted as British, with the consequence that the English no longer knew exactly who they were. Even as it puffed Englanders up, the British scheme defrauded them of their heritage.
HG Wells and George Orwell believed this too. That tradition of radical thought goes back to the Romantic poet William Blake, who warned the strain of running an empire was corrupting the national personality. His dream (still repeated by full-throated accountants and computer programmers at Twickenham rugby stadium) was to build Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land”.
Since the collapse of the communist empire, nationalism has been on the rise, sometimes in conservative, sometimes in radical forms. England is no exception. Some anti-EU nationalist candidates in its elections speak of themselves as an underground movement in an occupied country and preach dodgy doctrines of racial purity. But others are radicals and republicans who dream of a more democratic society.
In the current version of the European Union, Germany relentlessly pursues its own material success and this has led to stagnation in the economies of peripheral nations. But Germany is eroding its own major markets and may pay dearly for immiserating surrounding peoples .
Likewise with the British scheme. England prospered materially within it for a long time, but the cost in cultural terms may have been too high. The English want their country back and are again watching their Celtic neighbours to see how the trick is done.
Bernard Shaw said all Englishmen should be sent for a spell in Ireland, “where they could learn flexibility of mind”. He meant the project of inventing Ireland presupposed the linked task of reinventing England.
In its heyday, the British Council across the world was as likely to promote the writings of Shaw as of any true-born English author.
Its director here in Ireland in the late 1990s used to joke that the reason for the extreme popularity of Irish plays with London audiences was that they often allowed them to explore their own unresolved national question. These days, that debate is more frontal. Billy Bragg recently urged Scots to show solidarity with those English who feel trapped in a centralised state: “Vote yes to independence and set us all free.”
Why do the English feel themselves such late-comers to the fashion parade of nations? One explanation may be that so much of their history happened overseas they have no clear idea what it means. But that foreign adventure was in the name of Pax Britannica, not old England.
Tony Benn spoke of his longing for a proper people’s charter which would displace the unsatisfactory British constitution, an abstract entity which far from defining freedom seemed to restrict it.
Englishness vs Britishness
The loose use of the word “British” sometimes causes offence to Irish people – as when people speak of “the British isles” or when a writer on a London newspaper casually (and innocently) assumes that James Joyce and Flann O’Brien were “British authors”. We are right to say that most of us Irish never asked for inclusion in this leaky federation. But how many English people want to be called British rather than English? A survey last year found 60 per cent felt Englishness was more important to them than Britishness.
Like the EU, the British scheme of 1707 was a rather improvised economic arrangement – one whose philosophical basis was never fully worked out. Historian Linda Colley has argued it is based less on any internal dynamic than on military campaigns.
The upcoming referendum on devolution has prompted two very different Davids (Cameron and Bowie) to plead with the Scottish to stay in the union; but the rulers at Westminster seem ill-prepared for the fallout from a refusal of that request next September. Few lawyers or legislators have considered the long-term consequences of such a decision for the United Kingdom.
In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Colin Kidd says this fretful underlying hum implies a question: “Is the British political system sustainable in its current form, with devolution for all and sundry except the English nation itself, the exploited milch-cow of the union?”
Declan Kiberd teaches Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame