Friday, July 17, 2015

The English Never Were a Nation

Nationalism has been a key force for political change during modern times, in Western civilization as elsewhere. It is, however, an assuredly modern ideology, unknown in the ancient or medieval worlds.

The historian Benedict Anderson defined the nation as an “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” 

Anderson went on, “The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it is possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet. It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. ... Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity which makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Books edition, 1983, pages 15-16). 

In nationalist ideology, the political state grows “organically” from the nation. But in fact, the modern state preceded historically even the concept of nationhood. 

The flag of the modern state was originally raised under royal colours. It was a product of the dissolution of feudalism, the adoption of the gunpowder weaponry, and the opening of the oceans to long-distance trade. 

Absolute-monarchists such as Henry VII of Britain, Louis XIV of France, and Charles XI of Sweden, centralized formerly diffused political power in their own houses, or even in the person of the king himself: thus the statement attributed to King Louis: `L’etat, c’est moi’, often translated as “I am the state.”   

Nationalism arose partly in reaction to this centralization of power by modern royal-states. Modernization (of the state, economy and society) has always served to alienate people from kin and community. The idea of nation arose as a kind of substitute form of belonging for the deracinated. 

It was, as Benedict Anderson described it, an abstract and imaginary collective. Nevertheless, potent origin-mythologies evolved for each national group. Closely linked to this myth-making, was nationalists’ claim to political sovereignty in opposition to the divine-right of kings or nobles to rule society. Not coincidentally, too, nationalism was the ideology of the middle class: those who suffered social estrangement the most through the pursuit of commercial wealth, and who were moreover estranged from institutional power under absolutist regimes. 

Nationalism thus from early on has been a philosophy of challenge and defiance. Gaining intellectual force during the Enlightenment, nationalism had its first great political success with the French Revolution in 1789, when non-titled, mostly bourgeois members of the Third Estate met on a tennis court to form the first AssemblĂ©e nationale. 

The French Revolutionary Wars were intended to liberate all the other nations of Europe from arbitrary and absolutist rule. But nationalism in Europe really took flight because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to enslave all of Europe under his new-model empire. 

Nineteenth-century Germans especially became embroiled in nationalist fever – though the bourgeoisie there were unable to dislodge the ancien regime from power in the 1848 pan-European Revolution. Instead the Junker aristocracy more or less co-opted German nationalism for its own purposes, in fighting the 1870 war with France, and subsequently forming the German Empire.

In the United Kingdom, nationalism has been strong amongst the people of the Celtic Fringe – the Irish, Welsh and Scots. Their common grievance has been, not unreasonably, against English domination. But realistically, the United Kingdom has served to blunt English nationalism, as well, even a sense of nationhood among the English. 

During the four-century union of the four realms (de facto or de jure), the English have been by far the largest group, demographically and geographically. But a literal United Kingdom, meant that the institutions characteristic of other modern states’ nation-building, were lacking for the English. Parliament, though dominated by members elected in English districts, was nevertheless at the head of a central government, a body which, moreover, was not until well into the nineteenth century anything resembling a representative legislature. 

If the masses in Scotland, Wales and Ireland (which remained part of the United Kingdom until 1922) were disenfranchised by the aristocratic dominance of Westminster Castle (in the Commons and Lords both), so were the English working-classes and bourgeoisie. 

After the extension of the franchise through the Reform Bills of 1832 and ‘67, the Celtic nations were over-represented in Parliament, given the number of seats they possessed in comparison with their proportion of the general population. Since Scotland and Wales, at least, voted overwhelmingly for one party that would support their interests as national minorities, they were important voting blocs for the creation of parliamentary majorities (the Irish population didn’t posses the same electoral ballast, because the Catholic majority was legally or practically disenfranchised until shortly before the establishment of the Free State in ‘22). 

The Whig, and the successor Liberal party, dominated British politics for much of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, based in large part upon control of the votes of the Scots and Welsh. David Lloyd George, who spoke Welsh as his native tongue, became a highly influential British Liberal politician, laying the foundation for the welfare state during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, then as Prime Minister leading Britain to victory in the Great War. 

As it happened, Lloyd George was the last Liberal prime minister (leaving office in 1922). Labour, which emerged as a major party with the 1924 election, assumed the position formerly held by the Liberals, as possessor of the Scots and Welsh voting blocs, as well as being the main voice for social reform. 

The British Conservative party, meanwhile, received much of its support from the English heartland. But it has never been a vehicle for a specially English nationalism (as opposed to pan-British jingoism). As (officially) the “Conservative and Unionist” party, it has been the stoutest faction in defence of a United Kingdom, even as Labour and the third-party Liberals (now known as the Liberal Democrats, after a merger with the Social Democratic party) became committed to devolution: finally, under Tony Blair’s New Labour, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island — but not England — were granted regional legislatures.

As for the monarchy, it hasn’t been in “English” hands since the early eighteenth century, when the German house of Hanover assumed possession of the crown, with their descendants (having assumed the name “Windsor” during World War I) still ruling today.  

There is an argument to made, in fact, that the “English” crown hasn’t been truly English since before the Conquest in 1066, or at least since the heads of the houses of York and Lancashire traded the monarchy back and forth in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  
Modernity commenced in Britain with the House of Tudor, which was Welsh in origin, taking over the throne. This was relinquished only with the succession of the Stuarts, a Scots house. In 1603, new English King James I (who had been the fourth of his name as king of Scotland) formally unified the two crowns, assuming for the first time the title, “King of Great Britain”. However, Scotland still had its own Parliament until the union with Westminster in 1707. 

The Stuart kings’ relationship with the English Parliament steadily worsened, though, until the Puritan Revolution and the beheading of Charles Stuart in 1649. In this light, the English civil war could be viewed as resulting from nascent nationalist sentiments of members of the English yeoman class — men such as Oliver Cromwell — resentful against an interloper king. 

Whatever the case, “English” liberties were secured, decades after the Protectorate, by the Dutch Stadtholder, William of Orange (who died without issue and was succeeded by the Germans). 

After the freedom of Parliament was assured under King William, and especially following the union with Scotland, the central government became all the more preoccupied with colonial affairs, and progressively less so with “home” issues. 

The most important imperial territory during the eighteenth century was the Thirteen Colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. They were a key source not only of the primary goods which fed Britain’s growing economy, but also of revenues from duties imposed on staple goods traded from the colonies. Such excisions were ultimately to provoke British Americans in successful rebellion against the Crown and Parliament. But until very shortly before the Declaration of Independence, the agitators in the Thirteen Colonies were nevertheless claiming rights as British subjects which, they believed, were denied by their lack of representation in Parliament. 

Reciprocally, then, the sense of nationhood accrued through a people’s possession of a defined territory was, for the English, impaired by the fact that so many of their countrymen had migrated to British America and other colonies. 

Even after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, the nationhood concept was diluted for the English by the fact of colonial/imperial expansion throughout the globe. It was not only settlement, during the nineteenth century, in the Canadian territories, southern Africa, India, and the Antipodes. The imperial project itself, to some degree at least acted as a mortar for the nations of the British Isles, one in which Scots, Irish and Welsh participated in, far out of proportion to their number of the British population. 

The institutions through which the United Kingdom projected itself throughout the world — chiefly the Royal Navy, but also regular army expeditionary forces — were avowedly British, not English, institutions (again, the military having a disproportionate number from the Celtic nations in their ranks). 

Even the non-governmental, voluntary civil-society institutions that developed in the U.K. during modern times, such as the bodies representing physicians, surgeons, lawyers, scientists and other professionals, were specifically British (or “Royal”), not English, bodies. 

In other modern nations, the capital (or largest) city has been a lodestone for the national project: Paris, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, etc. But London doesn’t really fulfill this role for England, let alone the United Kingdom. Until comparatively recent times, “London” itself was a political fiction, given that the City of London covered just one square mile of territory on each side of the Thames river, and had only a few thousand citizens, with the other millions being divided and subdivided into boroughs and cities that made up the metropolis (there’s only been a city-wide London mayor since the year 2000).  

London isn’t really the capital of Great Britain, either, with the Parliament being located in the city of Westminster. Aside from this, the London metropolis has always been too cosmopolitan to be the mere cultural capital of England, or the U.K. 

There is, on the other hand, a palpable feeling of estrangement among English non-Londoners — the people “up north” — toward the metropolis on the Thames. 

There are few other institutions around which the sense of English nationhood could have coalesced. The Church of England ought to be, and to some extent is (or was), such an agency. But the Church also expanded its own jurisdiction in tandem with the growth of British imperialism, such that it became a global Anglican Communion, second in influence (at least in Western Christianity) only to the Church of Rome. Like the other British institutions of the imperial era, the Communion was directed more so to fostering Empire, than to promoting English nationhood. 

The post-imperial period, coincided with a gradual but inexorable decline in attendance for the official English church, such that the most influential diocese therein are actually outside of England, or the “Anglo-sphere” countries entirely, in Africa and Asia (as when Anglicans in latter regions balked at the Church establishment’s attempt to impose ordination of homosexuals on the entire Communion, forcing archbishop of Canterbury to back down). 

Perhaps the only specifically English institution, is the system of law, which in the U.K., is distinct from the Scottish legal framework. Going back even before the Magna Carta of 1215, English law grants the right to trial by jury, to silence in the face of criminal accusation, to representation by competent expertise, to face and cross-examine an accuser in open court, and so on. However, this system of law is not exclusively “English”, for it extends (in the U.K.) to Wales, as well. 

During the imperial era, the law courts even of self-governing dominions such as Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and so on, were subservient to the high courts of Britain. The right of final appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court in Britain, was abolished for Canadian citizens only after World War II. 

But the Committee remains the court of last resort for several Commonwealth countries, into the present day (a few years ago, the Judicial Committee held its first session outside of London, when it presided over a hearing in the Bahamas). 

The lack of national institutions may underlie several paradoxes and peculiarities of the English. For example, England has been a modern country — with an urban-based, industrialized, non-farm economy — longer than any other nation.

In spite of this, the English maintain regional variation of language and custom that date back even before modern times, remarkable for a such a small country (about 50,000 square miles; the province of Ontario itself, is 415,000 square miles), let alone a thoroughly modernized one. 

As mentioned, nationalism is a project of the bourgeoisie, a response to the deracinating trend of modernity. It seeks to reestablish community and social-solidarity on mass-scale, put asunder on a local level by the increased mobility and velocity of life, through engineering and science. 

It is also a philosophy of right, arguing on behalf of middle-class supremacy, as against royal and noble cosmopolitanism. Nationalism, or nation-statism, dwells upon the past in search of the origin story that would unite otherwise socially and culturally disparate members of a single linguistic group. 

In this, nationalist mythology often turns to outright fable. Such myth-making didn’t have a chance to take hold among the English, or among them exclusively. The official story instead told of a union of nations, which thereby made English nationalism anathema to the British state. The British “imagined community” — the ultimate form of modern social unity — wasn’t the nation, but the kingdom, or “commonwealth,” as it was called even before the rise of Cromwell and the Puritans. 

But this is a construct even more artificial than the nation-state, and so the desire for community for the English settled not upon the nation, but the village, town, city, county and region. The lack of English national identity may also be responsible, at least in part, for the predominance over a long period of laissez-faire in the U.K. As a philosophy of political right on behalf of the bourgeoisie, nationalism is properly nation-statism, with a mandate for collective action and legislation in order to protect and defend the imagined community. 

As it was brought into being during the original French Revolution, nation-statism was a military project, in defence of the French nation, and liberation of other nations, from royal absolutism. The militaristic aspect of nationalism only increased following the Napoleonic wars. 

But nation-statism also became wedded to economic collectivism, so that by the twentieth century, the ultra-nationalist militants of Italian Fascism dreamt of an economy that was not only collectively owned, but also did not trade with other countries. The assumption of ownership of private industries by government, became known as “nationalization”, and twentieth century rebels against Western colonialism, even when adhering to internationalist Marxism, usually took on the guise of national-liberators before gaining power. 

Even non-Marxist governments in the former colonies of Africa and Asia, undertook large-scale economic nationalization of industries, though, in part as a means of fostering nationality. After 1945, Great Britain nationalized the “commanding heights” of industry. 

However, laissez-faire remained the abiding philosophy of British politics far longer than elsewhere in the Western world, due to the enfeeblement of English national identity. 

Officially, there was no imagined community at the national level to which people generally could assign their loyalties, and thus, no automatic lobby to act on its behalf. The “national-interest” factor which did so much to encourage the presumption toward statism and nationalization (even in the “laissez-faire” United States), hardly existed at all in the United Kingdom, due to the lack of national consciousness among the English. 

Welfare programs and nationalization came to Britain, also by deliberately ignoring nationalism. Initially the Liberal party, and later on Labour, were able to gain majority dominance in Parliament, in large part through the bloc-retention of seats in Scotland and Wales, the “Celtic fringe.” 

These delegates, not nearly enough to win government on their own, were supplemented by enough of the seats in England proper, either a bare majority (or often) a simple plurality, but enough to make the difference. When England voted against Liberal or Labour, that’s when the Conservative and Unionist party came to power. 

But especially when the Liberal party of the U.K. was most successful under Gladstone and the Welshman Lloyd George, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth, it appealed to the collective unity not of the English people, but of the Empire and a united Britain, with the Scots and Welsh as full partners in the enterprise. 

By the time Labour came to power in 1945, the British empire was fading away. But the Attlee government and its successors before New Labour under Tony Blair, were truly socialist in their program and policy of aggressive nationalization of industry. 

But dependent on the voting bloc of the Celtic fringe, they too had to appeal to supra-nationalist to get their policies into place — the interests of the industrial working class throughout Britain, as against the interests of bourgeoisie (as well as rural and small-town Tory noble and smallholder interests). 

Which brings us to the British class system. No human culture has been truly classless. Even savage societies award what little material goods are available, to some while excluding the rest. Characteristic of civilization, however, is the appearance of an enormous gap in wealth between an elite, and all the rest. 

The latter were usually very poor, or else completely destitute; there were also, in civilized societies of the past, a smattering of those that would be the equivalent of modern bourgeoisie — involved in trades and professions — that enjoyed relative prosperity compared to the misery of most others. The size of this “middle class” in ancient civilizations, was larger (though never approaching anything like a majority) dependent on whether wealth was acquired through commerce, instead of plunder and tribute. However, the widescale resort to mass slavery throughout the ancient world, inevitably affected the labour markets for free workers, including professionals and tradesman. 

As in Rome and Greece (societies that came to prominence in large part through trade and commerce), slaves in ancient times were used not just for hard labour, but also in skilled trades and professions. During modern times, when industry and commerce came to the fore, so grew the middle class in size and influence. This was nowhere more so, than in Great Britain. Yet, the British are as renowned for their snobbery as for any Whig sentiments.

Snobbery is indeed a function of the success of the bourgeois in the U.K., as noble and gentry sought to differentiate themselves, not any longer from wealth (as many bourgeois became richer than especially minor aristocrats), but through possession of noble and heroic breeding. The British are not unique in having class snobbery. 

But in the other European states where nation (sooner or later) became the key socio-political community, even the nobler classes sought to hide and disguise their condescension toward the masses, seeking to ally their interests, cynically or sincerely, with the nationalist project. The European nobility was, of course, chided and coerced into accommodating the interests of the bourgeoisie, including its nationalist yearnings, by the revolutionary wave that lasted from the 1770s to 1848 in its most activist phase. But even before the French Revolution of 1789, there was widespread understanding among the Gallic nobility that reform of the absolutist system along rational (and at least, somewhat more democratic) premises. 

As the insurrection became all the more radicalized, most of the aristocrats went along with the programme, voting enthusiastically in 1791 to abolish the feudal system, and renouncing their titles in ceremony at the National Convention. 

Only when Jacobinism declared them enemies of the revolution, as a class, did the nobility desert the cause (often fleeing across enemy lines only to be detained by royalist forces they were supposedly in conspiracy with). While the aristocracy was, following the defeat of Napoleon, restored to place, it never recovered the prestige it had before 1789. 

The enormous social and economic change that gathered after 1815, in spite of the reimposition of the ancien regime in France and elsewhere, as well as the outright success of liberal revolutionism in 1848, prodded the European nobility to turn away from cosmopolitanism, and invest psychologically with the nation. 

This didn’t occur in Britain, however, or at least nowhere to the extent that in did on the continent. The U.K. had experienced regicide and republicanism long before the revolutionary tide of Enlightened times. The austere and dictatorial Commonwealth led to the swift restoration of what ultimately became constitutional monarchy. The monarch’s role became, after the end of the seventeenth century, progressively ceremonial in nature. 

But British kings and queens were, paradoxically, powerful figureheads in so far as they did inspire the loyalty even of a majority of the Scots and Welsh (though not the Catholic Irish), to say nothing of the English themselves. They were dispensers, too, of titles, offices, patronage and other privileges that were, though largely ceremonial, were also key in sustaining an archaic sensibility among the British aristocracy. 

In Europe, the nobility and gentry attempted to pass themselves off as genuine natives, the rural husbandmen whence the national community sprang. Historian Peter Watson states, “In the late nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II described himself as "the No.1 German," but in saying this, as [historian Benedict] Anderson points out, "he implicitly conceded that he was one among many of the same kind as himself, that he could, in principle, be a traitor to his fellow-Germans, something inconceivable in, say, Frederick the Great's day." (The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, HarperCollins, 2010, p. 58n, citing from Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 82)

By contrast, the “English” nobility was proud to trace its genealogy back not to the heathen Anglo-Saxons, but to the Norman invaders of the island in the eleventh century.

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