By DANIEL G. WILLIAMS
October 29 2012
British identity is open and dynamic; those of the nations narrow and bigoted. So goes the ‘One Nation’ narrative, a logic of dominance and hypocrisy.
In the 1970s debates about devolution in Wales and Scotland, Raymond Williams detected ‘an implication of radical disloyalty, even treason’ as people referred to ‘the break-up of Britain’ with ‘their voices almost cracking with real or rehearsed emotion’. The combination of Jubilee celebrations and Olympic success has led to a similar climate today, bolstered by the open embrace of the Union Jack and an ideology of ‘one nationhood’ at the conferences of the British parties. Ed Miliband, in particular, seems to have based the revival of his faltering leadership of the Labour Party by placing himself in the lineage of Benjamin Disraeli, evoking the common bonds of ‘One Nation’ against the divisive cuts of the ConDem coalition.
Miliband’s lauded speech should be placed within the context of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. Drawing on the worldwide promotion of a tolerant, multicultural Britain through the figures of successful Olympians such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, and evoking his family’s own Jewish history of escaping to Britain from the forces of fascism, Miliband envisions a Britain that most decent people would be happy to embrace. This would seem to put Celtic nationalists in an awkward situation. Were Welsh and Scottish nationalists to reject this image of Britain they would be reinforcing the stereotype that theirs is a ‘narrow minded’, ‘divisive’, ‘intolerant’, ‘tribal’, ‘inward looking’ form of ethnic nationalism. On the other hand, to embrace Miliband’s Britain is to undermine the call for greater Welsh or Scottish autonomy. But Welsh and Scottish nationalists have been here before. Nothing exposed the rehearsed and regurgitated substance of Miliband’s speech more than the evocation of Disraeli – the Conservative Prime Minister of Jewish ancestry who (allegedly) first used the imagery of ‘one nation’ in transcending the social and ethnic divisions of the Victorian era by appealing to a common Britishness. (It is perhaps worth drawing attention to Jane Ridley’s observation that Disraeli was a baptised Christian, and that if he had been a practising Jew he would have been excluded from parliament by the laws of the time. For minorities, ‘Britain’ is rarely as benevolently tolerant as its cheer-leaders would like us to think).
The notion of Britain as a dynamic melting pot to which a diversity of peoples may contribute has a remarkable resilience. It was an idea powerfully presented by Matthew Arnold in his lectures of 1866 on Celtic Literature, where the Victorian sage hoped that an acknowledgment of the Celtic ‘element’ within the composite English self would put an end to Irish claims for home rule. (Arnold shifted his allegiance from Gladstone to Disraeli in the last years of his life, due to the former’s willingness to address the claims of the Parnellites). The success of Danny Boyle’s celebrated opening ceremony at this year’s Olympics was partly due to his evocation of this Victorian idea of a Britain in which a diversity of peoples become amalgamated. The narrative was of course reinforced by the dramatic victories of the multi-ethnic team GB, with Scottish, Welsh, Somali and other ‘ethnic’ and ‘regional’ identities co-existing under the British umbrella.
This Jubilympic vision of Britishness has been reinforced by Ed Miliband in interviews and speeches throughout the year, climaxing in his conference speech. In an interview with Krishnan Guru Murthy on Channel 4, Miliband evoked his own Jewish and English identities, and argued that Britishness allowed for both. Miliband’s Britain is based on a seemingly liberal, tolerant, open-minded conception of identity. But it relies on Britain being the vehicle for multicultural progress while its constituent ethnicities are static, background, identities. The problem lies in the fact that while Britain is narrativised, evolving and dynamic, its contributory peoples are essentialised as static races. In the Olympic opening ceremony the Welsh were represented by a choir of school children singing a famous Welsh hymn (in English!), while in the closing ceremony Wales was represented by a group of women in ‘traditional’ Welsh costume. There was no room for modern Welsh culture, in either language, in the Jubilympic vision. No Welsh rock bands, no indication of a modern, thriving, Welsh culture in the Welsh or English languages. No indication that Wales is itself a multicultural nation, that ‘the Welsh’ include people of Jewish, Afro-Carribean, Somali, Indian etc. descent, and that ‘Welshness’ signifies a whole range of cultural practices.
It’s very difficult to explain to an open-minded liberal Englishman what is wrong with Miliband’s vision of Britishness. It might be useful to transpose the debate to a different context. The problem that Slavoj Žižek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales. Žižek notes that he is ‘often accused of being a Slovene ant-Serb nationalist’, and notes that,
‘when I converse with members of the so-called Serb democratic opposition, they say they are in favour of a cosmopolitan democratic Serbia whose defining quality is citizenship and not national belonging. OK, I accept this. But this is where the problems begin, because if you speak with them a little bit longer, you discover a certain political vision that tries to disguise cultural particularity as democratic universalism. For example, if you ask them about Slovene autonomy, they will argue that Slovenia is a small self-enclosed nation and that they, by contrast, are in favour of an anti-nationalist democratic society which is not self-enclosed.’
Žižek claims that the Serbs practice a ‘kind of two-level nationalism’ in which Serbia is the only nation in Yugoslavia that can sustain an open principle of multicultural and democratic citizenship. This results in a ‘double logic’, for while Serbs are seen to be fundamentally democratic, modern and evolving, the Slovenes are viewed as an inherently closed, traditional, ‘primitive Alpine tribe’. This, he argues, is often the basis for contemporary racism. ‘We should be careful when people emphasize their democratic credentials’, warns Žižek, for the key question is whether ‘these same people allow the Other to have the same credentials?’.
For Yugoslavia read Britain. For Serbia read England. For Slovenia read Wales. British nationalists employ the same ‘double logic’, espousing the progressive potential of their own national identity, while denying it to the minority nations who may wish to decide the forms of governance suitable to their own still-forming interests and identities. On the Left, ‘Britain’ has been separated from its connections with empire and racial superiority, and is espoused as the multicultural face of Englishness. David Marquand welcomed Ed Miliband’s speech on the pages of Our Kingdom, and was right to see it as a call for a revived ‘Victorian conversation’ on ‘the condition of England question’. For the dominant cultural forms of Britishness are of course English. Miliband unconsciously reflected this, in his interview with Murthy, when he described Keir Hardie as ‘born in Scotland, representing a Welsh constituency, sitting in an English parliament’, or when he referred repeatedly to the ‘English NHS’. Team GB received their gold medals to God Save the Queen. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown went so far as to suggest some years ago that the call for Welsh and Scottish devolution was propelled by a an anti-multiculturalist agenda, thereby demonstrating her total ignorance of the nature of nationalist politics in Wales and Scotland. What the Miliband / Boyle vision of Britishness denies is Welsh and Scottish multiculturalism. While many on the English Left embrace Britishness, and embraced Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ speech with enthusiasm, the true British democrat is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space that we call Great Britain.
If a case needs to be made for Welsh multiculturalism, this process of allowing the same rights to the Other pertain within the devolved nations themselves. For example, persuading the dominant Anglophone society that minorities can be multi-cultural has been an abiding concern of Welsh language activists. The danger for those of us who live in minority language communities and value linguistic plurality and difference, is that our languages are perceived to belong to a specific racial group, and are therefore closed to outsiders. Even those supportive of linguistic difference will tend to conceive of the speakers of the Celtic languages as belonging to an ethnic minority within their respective countries, with English functioning as the civic language of the nation, as the universal language in which a multicultural society communicates. The Celtic languages are seen as inextricably linked to specific cultural practices, and are thus seen to be incapable of becoming modes of communication for multi-cultural societies. Anglophone multiculturalism tends to view English as the only legitimate mode of communicating within a plural society. But Anglophone multiculturalism is different to Welsh aml-ddiwyllianaeth, a point made forcefully by Ned Thomas when he argues that we must ask ‘what is the meaning of multiculturalism within a particular discourse, and within a given language and culture’:
‘What is often meant within English-language discourse in Britain is tolerance and even encouragement of a number of background cultures and languages within a society which has English as the foreground language – or to be plain, the dominant language. Many speakers of immigrant languages are happy to accept such a place for themselves, always providing that sufficient resources are made available to support their background culture and that it is respected. Welsh speakers on the other hand, like other European territorial minorities, claim a historic space in which their culture too can be a foreground culture, allowing people of different backgrounds to participate. This yields a more European view of Britain, like continental Europe, as a mosaic rather than a melting pot, and requires a rather different account of multiculturalism.’
Just as Britain, in the hierarchy of nations, is deemed to be the sole bearer of multicultural citizenship, the monolingual form of multiculturalism informing much cultural debate in Britain today is rooted in the belief that the English language is the only legitimate bearer of all civic-democratic nationality, and that those lying beyond its generously catholic embrace are little better than atavistic, tribal, racists. The construction of a genuine multiculturalism in the British Isles must be predicated on the rejection of this pernicious ideology. For while one cannot change one’s ancestors, a language can be learned.
So to develop the political autonomy of Wales and Scotland is not to reject British multiculturalism, but is to deepen multicultural citizenship. The ‘double logic’ by which ‘my one nation is progressive and cosmopolitan’ while ‘your nation is separatist and divisive’ has surely lost any traction that it may once have had. The debate over Scotland will be a truly depressing affair if conducted in these terms. It’s surely time for the Labour party to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the national question. While commentators sympathetic to Labour seem to be celebrating the fact that Ed Miliband, in evoking Disraeli, has moved his tanks onto David Cameron’s lawn, the backyard has been left wide open for Leanne Wood and Alex Salmond.
Originally published by Open Democracy