The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

By Harris, Robin | The National Interest, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain


Harris, Robin, The National Interest


The continued existence of Britain as a medium-sized power with a more than medium-sized role has long been one of the given assumptions of international affairs. It is also a strategically crucial American assumption. Enthusiasts for the "special relationship" extol alleged Anglo-Saxon commonalities of culture, values, and understanding. For their part, the more realpolitik-ally minded emphasize instead Britain's unique status as a UN Security Council member with a first-rate professional army, and at the same time a country with no psychological inhibitions about accepting the realities of American world leadership.

But what if all that were to change? What if not just the institutions but the allegiances and even the identity of Britain were fundamentally to alter? Until quite recently such a hypothesis would have seemed risible. But suddenly it is not. For, though most of the rest of the world has not yet grasped it, Britain is now Balkanizing and, as elsewhere, the dynamic imperative in the process is changing national awareness.

The British, and especially the English, have traditionally considered themselves above nationalism. The Right has understood that as well as the Left. For example, in his Dictionary of Political Thought, Roger Scruton, Britain's leading conservative political philosopher, notes: "In the United Kingdom nationalism is confined to the celtic fringes, where it has been associated with movements for home rule in Ireland, Scotland and - to some extent - Wales. English nationalism is virtually unknown, at least under that description."(1)

Professor Scruton's judgment has an array of disparate evidence to support it. But one of the more revealing testimonies is provided by music. Here the uneasiness of the nation with reflective self-definition is quite apparent. The British national anthem is, for instance, an expression of loyalty not to the nation but to the sovereign - even though he is slightly ominously urged to "defend our laws and ever give us cause" to continue to sing "God Save the King." "Rule Britannia", composed in 1740, is a somewhat strange affair. It refers specifically to Britain's naval prowess ("rule the waves") and to its political freedom ("Britons never will be slaves"), but not to its cultural identity or geographical characteristics, or even its people. "Land of Hope and Glory", though evocative of patriotic pride for the wartime generation, is in essence just a celebration of imperialism: "Wider and still wider shall thy bounds be set; / God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet." It is, observably, the expansion that is celebrated, not the characteristics of the national identity expanding.

As for English nationalism, it has generally been a subject for ribaldry. This was so in Victorian times when Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" ironically extolled the First Lord of the Admiralty who, "in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, remain[ed] an Englishman." And it was still the case in the 1960s, when in their comic "Song of the English" Michael Flanders and Donald Swan sought to remedy the lack of a suitable national song with a composition whose chorus line runs: "The English, the English, the English are best: I couldn't give tuppence for all of the rest" - a refrain that even the most enthusiastic anglophobe would admit to be self-mockery.

None of which, of course, is to suggest that the British in general, or the English in particular, have altogether lacked self-awareness. The apparent absence of introspection has often been a pose. But it began as a reflection of the reality that the British in their heyday did not need to assert their national identity because it was already so pervasive. And not just good manners but common prudence required that such power be cloaked in a degree of self-effacement.

When Britain's Empire bestrode the globe and the schoolroom maps were largely colored red, London was a vantage point for overseas advance, not a refuge for a threatened society in retreat. …

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