2007 - 2021

The Intransigence of British Nationalism

royalcake_2174491bSymbols of British cultural identity were constantly displayed during the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee and throughout 2012. Alongside the fluttering Union Jacks, the inconvenient signs of economic decline, recession and falling living standards were in clear view – or would have been if the television cameras had swung round from the Olympic Stadium and zoomed in on Tower Hamlets or any other centre of urban poverty.

This backdrop made it all the more necessary that an inclusive ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative of national unity was pushed by the media and received by the British public.

This wasn’t, however, just a vacuous nationalism promoted by a right-wing press. The social democratic left has embraced its own ‘story’ of Britain, based upon a kind of ‘people’s history’. Danny Boyle’s opening Olympic ceremony, which celebrated the NHS and key British social movements, beautifully elucidated this powerful, but increasingly distant, vision. The Labour party’s new ‘One Nation’ platform is a similar attempt at forming a new progressive account of Britishness.

There have long existed competing accounts of British identity, from the Tory narrative of a moderate and limited Burkean state to the national democratic socialism of Tony Benn.

As Benedict Anderson famously argued the nation is an ‘imagined community’. He asserts that the nation is always constructed subjectively. It is an idea that is socially produced and therefore always unstable. It is necessarily open to challenge. Different groups will attempt to mobilise their own accounts of national identity for their own political purposes.

Is one of the competing narratives of Britain ‘truer’ than any other? Is the ‘real’ Britain that of Clement Attlee or Enoch Powell? This is to look at the question in the wrong way. A thousand stories of Britain can be told. The proper question to ask is: how do these competing accounts of national identity reproduce structures of power and domination in today’s society?

Take the financial breakdown and the responses to it. The coalition defined its own raison d’être as governing in the ‘national interest’ during a time of economic crisis. This was intended to suggest that there is just one unified British interest which holds throughout the country.

But, as we know, the effects of austerity are not distributed evenly. In fact, London and the South-East, the two areas which benefited most from the neoliberal growth model that produced the crash, are the only two regions which have not seen an increase in unemployment since.

British nationalism has deep roots. The industrial revolution didn’t just produce steel and linen; it also produced the guiding ideology and the key intellectual contours of Britain as we know it today (a point, incidentally, not lost on Danny Boyle.) In its imperial form, the legitimacy of the British state rested on its capacity to maintain its influence over its internal territories while at the same time securing access to markets abroad – whether by military force or capitalist expansion.

This dialectic of internal incorporation and external expansion has left an entrenched institutional legacy that remains at the centre of British political culture. The heritage of empire – of Britain’s colonial past and its early capitalist development – still structures the context within which our politics unfolds today.

One example of this is the continuing dominance of the financial services sector in the British economy. In the mid-19th Century London was the focal point of international trade and finance. With a need to extend credit to foreign countries to create markets for British exports, the dominance of the City became a precondition of British power.

In more recent history the world has changed, but British nationalism hasn’t moved on with it. The Soviet Union collapsed years ago, and yet Britain retains its Cold-War nuclear weapons system. It continues to maintain the fourth largest military budget in the world as a proportion of GDP. It over-stretches itself in foreign military adventures and champions an arms industry that produces weapons of mass destruction for sale to corrupt Middle-Eastern dynasties.

Eroded from below by nascent sub-nationalism, from within by the cold logic of austerity, and from above by the institutions of the European Union and the global order, the outward confidence of the British political classes rests on their ability to maintain, legitimise and protect this unrepresentative model of crony capitalism.

Already in 2013, with the government’s questioning of Britain’s relationship with Europe, we see clearly the shadows of Britain’s past in the making of its future.

There can be no doubt that the EU is an institution in need of substantial reform. But the Euro-scepticism of the right-wing of the Conservative party – the constituency which forced David Cameron’s hand in the recent referendum announcement – is rooted in the nationalist desire to restore a lost greatness to Britain.

And what powers would these Tories seek to repatriate? Primarily, those associated with the European Social Chapter: policies designed in other words to protect workers’ rights. From this perspective, Britain should have the sovereign right to pay its workers less and employ them under worse conditions, while maintaining the same access to markets as any other EU state. Such logic may, however, not sit so well with other EU countries.

Today’s Tory nationalism might be wrapped up in the benign symbolism of a guffawing Boris Johnson or the polished PR technique of an Old Etonian. But don’t let anyone tell you that this isn’t a form of nationalism. It is in fact the dominant nationalism at work in Britain today.

Those who do not adapt to change tend to end up on the wrong side of history. Challenging the dominant construction of British nationalism in progressive ways is vital if we are to avoid this fate.


This article was first published on SPERI Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute.


Comments (15)

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  1. Most of the reasons to be independent and an excellent piece of work.Never noticed any reasons to stay with Westminster,because there are none.

  2. DougtheDug says:

    This is an interesting read but the concentration on the Tories and their British nationalism at the end of this article is perhaps not particularly appropriate for Scotland.

    The dominant British nationalist party in Scotland is the Labour party and its British nationalism is the driving force behind the Better Together campaign. British nationalism and the Labour party are synonymous in Scotland and in Scotland the British nationalism of Labour is quite overt. However the way they express it is different from the Tory party.

    The Tories’ view is external, they see weakening the UK’s links to Europe as a way of expressing their British nationalism but Labour concentrate on the internal nationalisms of the UK. Snuffing out any historical identities, Englishness as much as Scottishness, on the way to creating a single British culture, identity, nation and state is their way of expressing and reinforcing their British nationalism.

    That is not to say that Labour and the Tories do not have any overlap between their views on Europe and the internal nationalisms in the UK but they do differ and because of this and because of Labour’s much bigger profile in Scotland, Labour present a much bigger threat to Scottish identity and nationhood than the Tories do.

  3. Macart says:

    First class dissection of the real face of narrow minded and divisive nationalism on these isles.

    Good piece also to be found here:


  4. picpac67 says:

    Colonialism, empire, Church of England, Bank of England, the City, hereditary peerages, public schools, Oxbridge … symbols of that Britishness that seems to lie predominantly south of the Midlands. Both Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony and “Skyfall” (including that incestuous interlinking of the two through the BBC-commissioned “Happy and Glorious”, Daniel Craig and HM Queen (not forgetting the royal corgis), insert into the ceremony. “Happy and Glorious”, not just relating to the Queen’s Jubilee, but reflecting the fantasy of a ‘happy and (globally) glorious’ UK, continuing to punch above its weight economically – and militarily (no reference to its illegal wars, of course, the blood of millions on its hands, the war crimes of its leaders) – as it did athletically in the Olympics.

    All too easy to pinpoint and lament. But what of Scottish nationalism? Isn’t Scotland just as implicated as ‘Tory England’ in British wrongdoing? Just as linked to the selfish pursuit of profit (isn’t Edinburgh the fourth largest financial centre in the world?), its land unequally divided (7:84 – or is it even worse?). Just as – or even more – involved in NATO-led neo-colonialism?

    How would Scotland fare under this kind of analysis?

  5. Indeed, how does Scottish nationalism—past, present and future—fare under this kind of analysis? Scots were instrumental in the military/economic establishment and the administration of the British Empire; the alleged “people’s choice” of Flower of Scotland as a sporting “national anthem” is incredibly backward-looking to supposed military glories; and, as a nation, we’re far less socialist at heart than we like to think—and yes, I’m sure the top 7% own more than 84% now. Here’s to the future, though; can the Scottish people invent a new, positive form of nationalism?

    1. Barontorc says:

      To Paul – what point are you making? Is it that we need to define Scottish national cultivation, post independence, or are we concerned with persuading ‘don’t knows’ to go YES?

      From where I stand, it would be very unlikely that Scotland would become embroiled in wars – without very good and proven reason. To say no more about Tony Blair/Iraq, it is simply inconceivable in a free Scotland.

      Likewise, casino banking shenanigans.

      Do I really need to go into the extremely positive case for ‘separating’ from the out-of-mind-sabre-rattling, ‘bigger-dick UK’ attitude?

      Of course, there are terrorists – but who’s likely to pinpoint Scotland – apart from UK Gov. and that in itself tells a tale – if it’s thought through – even half-kidding!

    2. Peter A Bell says:

      Iain MacWhirter said it best, “Scottish nationalism isn’t a chauvinist movement based on notions of ethnic supremacy or racial exclusivity. It is a constitutional, not an emotional, nationalism – with civic objectives not cultural ones.”

    3. Tony says:

      Flower of Scotland:

      “Those days are passed now
      And in the past they must remain
      But we can still rise now
      And be the nation again”

      In other words it recognises the past glories of Scotland and aims for a future nation to rise up. It consigns history to history, but evokes what was done as a message of hope – not as a return to it.

      The whole Independence movement today is ALL ABOUT civil nationalism. have you been asleep all this time?

  6. Alan Bothwell says:

    I don’t consider myself a nationalist, whether that’s the British, Scottish or English variety, but it does seem to me that the vision put forward by the Scottish nationalists is essentially about self-determination for the Scottish people, the creation of a society that chimes with our values and outlook, and the contribution we can make to the international community.

    Scots may have played a full part in the past misdeeds of empire, but that was done in the name of British, not Scottish, nationalism. And, try as I might, I do struggle to find any strand of Scottish nationalism that wants to maintain weapons of mass destruction on its soil, ‘project’ military power, and scapegoat the poor, the sick and the foreign.

    And, unlike Labour’s ‘One (British) Nationalism’ version, neither do Scottish nationalists seek to deny the national identities within these islands.

  7. Alan Bothwell says:

    That said, I could really do with a large chunk of that BritCake!

  8. , @paulfcockburn –
    ‘…as a nation, we’re far less socialist at heart than we like to think’
    If you have time, would you mind expanding upon that?

  9. thejourneyman says:

    The real problem stems from the ruling elite in the UK Government who in the modern world are very far removed form being anything like representative of the majority of people on these islands.
    The article makes this very clear and I applaud it for that. Comparisons of what Scottish and/or British nationalism actually means is futile because it is so subjective. However, it is self evident that the people of this country want something more representative of the people and while the Scottish Nationalists have brought us the referendum, after a YES vote the people can really start to define the kind of country we want to live in! VOTE YES!

  10. andyshall says:

    London is more than just the City of London and it has not escaped the effects of austerity: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/davehillblog/2011/dec/14/london-2011-unemployment-still-rising

  11. John Souter says:

    Two, or any number of wrongs do not make a right only a habit.

    If Scotland chooses to break the shackles of habit it could be the catalyst that drives the agenda for change and destroys the dystopian citadels shielding the Establishments hubris throughout this dysfunctional island..

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