Not Saussure

June 6, 2007

National Days

Filed under: UK — notsaussure @ 7:09 pm

Pretty widespread condemnation for the plan by Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to celebrate a Britishness Day, ranging from some excellent suggestions at both The Virtual Stoa and Blood and Treasure as to how, perzactly, we might celebrate it (the latter has a most useful link to The London Riot Re-enactment Society) to a really rather good leader in the Telegraph, including the observations

Being British means not worrying too much about what it means to be British.


We may fly flags and sing Rule Britannia enthusiastically at the Last Night of the Proms, but it’s not like us really.We might quite like the idea of a national day, but we would hate to be told what to with it.

And, as if to demonstrate the idea’s a complete non-starter, David Cameron promptly decided not only that he agreed with Ms Kelly and Mr Byrne but told us we:

should take a leaf out of America’s book when it came to teaching citizens “what it means to be American”.

One of my infallible rules of political analysis, other than that when both main parties agree on something, it’s time to worry, is that recommending an idea on the grounds ‘it’s what the Americans do’ is about as pointless as recommending something because the French do it. It might conceivably a good idea, but most Brits would, I think, instinctively feel it’ll be a good idea even though, rather than because, the French and the Americans do it.

In this case, there are good historical reasons for distrusting American and French examples. Both countries have had, in the past, to sit down and define themselves, the USA when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the French when, having done away with the French Monarchy, had completely to redefine what — other than speaking French — all citizens of the new Republic were supposed to have in common.

We’ve — fortunately, to my mind — never had that experience or necessity. Being British is, and always has been, ultimately a legal concept — you’re one of HM’s subjects, and that’s about it. Certainly there are various values that, at least at present, we hold to be important — liberal democracy, tolerance, freedom, the rule of law and so forth — but they’re hardly uniquely British; the Dutch or the Czechs would doubtless sign up to them, too. If people really want a liberal capitalist democracy day, then fair enough, but call it by its proper name.

Nationalism, it should be remembered, is an historical political movement which has never really got very far in Britain, for good historical reasons. It sprung from German romanticism and became very popular, and understandably so, both with people who were trying to liberate themselves from larger empires and with people who were trying to unify smaller polities into a larger whole. Yes, if you were a C19th subject of the Hapsburg Empire who spoke Hungarian (at least to the servants) and didn’t like being ruled from Vienna you quite possibly wanted to insist on a separate Hungarian identity, just as various Irishmen didn’t like the idea of being West Britons. Similarly, Italian and German nationalists of the C19th wanted to insist on a larger German or Italian identity that would unify all the little statelets and principalities.

But in Britain, we’ve never really had that experience; England essentially took over these islands and then we set about creating an overseas empire. I can see the point of being a Scots, Welsh or Irish nationalist; I can just about see the point of being an English nationalist, though I think it’s a pretty self-defeating idea, but trying to combine nationalism with Britishness — a supranational concept — is both ahistorical and utterly illogical. We don’t have a National Day in the way that the French or the Americans do for much the same reason we don’t have a President, do drive on the left and don’t speak French or get particularly fussed about abortion and gun control; our history is not that of either France or the USA.

Ruth Kelly, in her whitterings on The Today Programme about this said something suitably vague about

“The point of it would be to celebrate the contribution that we all make to society,

Well, what is that supposed to mean? Parades in honour of taxpayers? Somehow I don’t think so. Well, we know roughly what she meant, because she was praising voluntary organisations, but even that misses the point. Most people make a small but very important contribution to a small part of society just by being decent people. My late mother was able to spend her final years — particularly the last year, after she lost her sight — with independence and dignity not just because of the help various voluntary organisations gave her but because of the informal support network provided by her friends and neighbours. OK, that’s just one old lady they were helping, but it was extremely important to her. That, to my mind, is one of the important things that makes communities.



  1. There was little point in being an English nationalist prior to devolution to Scotland and Wales, but I now class myself as an English nationalist.

    Now that Englishness, as opposed to Britishness, is the identity in the ascendency (now the primary identity for white English) it’s essential that Englishness is given political expression. Otherwise a racial divide will open up and will be exploited by the likes of the BNP.

    Englishness needs to be constitutional. Not only to end the obvious iniquity of Labour’s asymmetric devolution, but also to help forge a progressive civic English national identity.

    Comment by Toque — June 7, 2007 @ 10:42 am

  2. A new National Day is a really dumb idea. Invented traditions can work, but only when they’re understood as a response to some vastly important event, such as the end of a war or a revolution or some such.

    (The streets of central London were packed for the 2 mins silence a week after 7/7, and buses and taxis pulled over; but for the year anniversary, we were just a small half-embarrassed gaggle on the pavement, not quite knowing when it was supposed to start or end.)

    To the extent that we have nationalism, it’s mostly far more informal and unofficial than in, say, France or the USA.

    I’ve got no problem with an extra bank holiday, though – let’s just not make a song and dance (and parade and ceremony) of it.

    Comment by Tom Freeman — June 7, 2007 @ 11:51 am

  3. “In Britain, we’ve never really had that experience.”
    We are beginning to have it, as we become further enmeshed in the toils of the EU.

    Comment by Little Black Sambo — June 7, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  4. I’m intrigued by the apparent parallel between the weakness of ethnic Russian national identity and that of English national identity; both nations were, after all, at the centre of large empires. There is a theory that the Russian weakness results from the burden of building and maintaining this empire, which was met at the expense of building the Russian nation. Is the same true of the English?

    Toque, I’d agree that English nationalism makes more sense now, in the face of devolution, and even that some form of civic nationalism may – superficially – seem attractive as a cohesive force in society, but I struggle to imagine a variety that is not more exclusive than it is inclusive. And, anyway, what would you do about people like me, for whom a strong regional identity (Yorkshireman, since you ask) actually seems at odds with my particular imagining of Englishness. What narrative could be used to bring us all together?

    In the given case, I’m not clever enough to understand how making one group of citizens jump through a set of hoops that that the other group never have to will actually serve to unite us…

    Comment by Ian Appleby — June 7, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  5. I’ve never really worked out the full implications, but I think there’s an important difference between the British and the Russian empires; ours was primarily a long way way whereas Russia just expanded, primarily South and East. Consequently we ran our empire at a distance — the relationship between Britain and the various imperial possessions was very different from the relationship between Russia and its various provinces and territories. It also meant is was a lot easier for us to part company with former colonies than it was for the Russians, be it by the American War of Independence, granting places dominion status or granting them independence in the latter half of the last century.

    My worries about English nationalism are partly similar to Ian’s. I don’t like it, partly because I want to retain the Union and I don’t see how looking at the botched job they’ve done of devolution for Scotland and Wales and then saying, ‘we’d like some of that, please’ helps anyone. For various historical and economic reasons, the UK has always, in effect, been an English empire.

    Trying to break it down into its constituent parts seems to me fraught with problems, and I’m really not sure where it’ll end other than in endless and acrimonious arguments about who gets money from whom and an extra layer of government for us all.

    I also very much agree with Ian that, for most people in England, regional identity is much stronger than English identity, and there’s no particular appetite for regional government, as we’ve seen.

    Comment by notsaussure — June 7, 2007 @ 6:54 pm

  6. “…for most people in England, regional identity is much stronger than English identity…”

    Bollocks! “For most people”? I take it you have asked most people in England which identity they favour then? No of course you havent. Therefore you’re pushing YOUR OPINION as fact. How ridiculous of you. Of course, it’s a complete fabriction to.

    “…there’s no particular appetite for regional government, as we’ve seen.”

    So? This has nothing to do with anything that was being spoken about.
    What? According to you, people have much stronger regional identities but they dont want regional government! Oh dear!! That seems to be a load of fucking bollocks mate.
    Dont you mean bogus regions to? HA! HA!

    Comment by cujimmy — June 8, 2007 @ 3:04 am

  7. I’m not talking about citizenship classes and false displays of patriotism. I’m talking about giving Englishness constitutional status rather than making people jump through hoops to conform to some prescriptive definition of Englishness.

    There is no conflict between an English parliament and English regional identities, just as there is no conflict between a Scottish parliament and Scottish regional identities, or a German parliament and German regional identities.

    Comment by Toque — June 18, 2007 @ 12:13 pm

  8. I take your point, Toque, but, nevertheless, I have very severe misgivings about the ideas of an English parliament.

    It’s partly to do with my instinctive small ‘c’ conservatism; in general, I take a lot of pursuading that we should scrap something that works — imperfectly, but still works — and has done for a couple of hundred years — in favour of a new and improved version. If I had my way, we’d be scrapping the Scots Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and going back to what we had before, but I realise that’s not really on.

    Maybe I’m unusual, but I’m not particularly bothered where I’m governed from; I’d rather be governed less, and less expensively — we can worry later about who does that. And adding yet another layer of government — so then we’ll have Westmister, the English Parliament and local government arguing about who does what and gets the money to do it — doesn’t seem likely to lead to less, or less expensive, government. Before I’m prepared to consider an English Parliament I want to know very clearly indeed who does what and how they raise the money to do it, because that’s where the problems are going to be.

    Even if we get that sorted, I’m still concerned that it’ll damage, and possibly lead to the break up, of the Union, which I’d see as a very bad thing indeed, particularly since the EU is always trying to expand its influence. But that’s another question.

    Comment by notsaussure — June 18, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

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