Monday, 5 May 2014

UKIP and English Nationalism

Let's look at some recent research by Edinburgh University. While UKIP are basking in the warm glow of favourable polling, north of the border, Edinburgh's polling finds them stuck on 10%. Respectable certainly, but not a political earthquake. Interestingly in Wales their support stands at 20% - a good nine points clear of Plaid Cymru but trailing 19 to Labour. As for England UKIP are on 29 to Labour's 30, a score mirroring (trailing) recent polling. If you look at voting intention by self-reported national identity, 'English Only/More English than British' identifiers are 42% for UKIP. The party and Nigel Farage win a plurality of 'who best stands up for England', followed in short order by 'no party' and 'no one'. On the EU referendum, 40-37 would have us out in England, where in Wales and Scotland it's 39-35 and 48-32 to stay. And lastly of English only/mainly, 55% would vote to leave, and just 26% are for staying (the terms are almost reversed if one identifies as British only, or mostly British).

This will come like a bolt from the red, white and blue for precisely nobody. Except perhaps UKIP's support in Wales. Nevertheless it is fair to say UKIP, among other things, is a lightning rod for English nationalism. And, again, this leads us into the murky waters of what Englishness is and how has got attached to a party that touts United Kingdom in its name?

Nationalisms at one level of remove are, of course, fictions. They are less a body of ideas and more certain structures of feeling that have emerged over time, often quite consciously. They do not stretch back into ancient history. There was no Roman or Carthaginian nationalism. Our ancestors who lived and farmed the north German plains were not suffused with English sensibilities. The idea a nation has certain essential and inviolable attributes different to other nations is completely modern. They are as much a unique property to our period of history as factories, bureaucratic rationality, and capitalism. However, just because nationalism is a fiction doesn't mean it's fictional. It is very real. Imagined communities have the habit of coming alive if people behave as if they exist.

Attempting to define the properties of a particular nationalism is a tricky job. Is it emergent or established? Is it the nationalism of a former colonial power or the formerly-colonised? Is it a nationalism that intersects with the nationalism of a "family" of nations, or a diaspora of people dispersed about the globe? If that wasn't complicated enough, what role ethnicity, gender and class? Whose nationalism is it? And who does this nationalism define itself against the most - who is its primary Others?

Englishness is messy. If it has a unique character, it lies in its being overlaid and intertwined with a "multi-national" nationalism: Britishness. A dynastic and then an imperial project, Britishness is now less about empire and bovver boys and more (officially at least) at ease with liberal secularism, diversity and inclusivity. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalism defines itself against Britishness, though it has crept into their souls too. But, witness the independence referendum campaign in Scotland. The Other being set up isn't the huggable civic Britishness of London 2012 but the arrogance and austerity of Tory Britain, of the long years - still ongoing - of a nation ruled by a coalition government that holds less than a fifth of Scotland's Westminster representation.

As Britishness has changed, become something of a brand, and now has a section of the "family" wanting to pull away from it, what of Englishness? What does "being English" mean and why is it an emerging political factor?

The main problem with Englishness is its invisibility. That might sound like a strange argument to make. Every two years the Cross of St George flutters from cars and bedroom windows all over the land as we do battle in the European or World Cup. That I don't even have to say what sport I'm referring to shows how embedded the England team is in our collective psyche. Yet, is that it? Footy? Think about British virtues - 'keep calm and carry on', the stiff upper lips, reserve and understatement, tea and tiffin, royal reverence, fair play and rooting for the underdog. Yes, they're all a bit aristocratic, but they are entirely English too. So if one rejects a British identity in favour of Englishness, what is one rejecting? UKIP's persistence supplies part of the answer.

Britishness - and by extension Englishness - has a weird quirk in its character. Conquering the largest empire in history has left a deep stain. You cannot understand racism in these isles without grasping the imperial overhang. But if a national identity is more so a structure of feeling than a set of ideas, another of the empire's orphans is an inchoate sense of entitlement. This manifests less as strutting, post-colonial arrogance, even if there are plenty of Colonel Blimps haunting the Telegraph's comment pages. Rather, it congeals into a sense of Britain, or now the Scots want out; England vs the world. We are the part of the little island that dared. We deserve respect and we are at all times quite prepared to face down insurmountable odds. Group of death in the first round? No-hope entry in Eurovision? Standing up to Brussels? Being the disadvantaged little guy (yes, nationalism is imbued with masculinity) with only your wits and resourcefulness to rely on, that's what Englishness is about.

This is where UKIP comes in. It is a middle-aged man standing firm with his middle finger raised against the onrush of history. Everything its support doesn't like get the gesture too: the gays, the East Europeans, the (whisper it) blacks and Asians. The out-of-touch politicians, the scroungers and the shammers, the benefit and health tourists, the people who don't speak English in town, the lack of jobs, opportunities and housing for "our people". The European Union is the convenient bogeyman for all this, the German-run communist beast straight out of Revelations. The continental abomination who would pave over England with red tape, Romanians and mosques. UKIP's standing up, being counted. Doing what the people of this sceptred isle have always done. This is the secret of the party's appeal. It says the unsaid and does what needs doing.

At least that's how UKIP likes to see itself. In practice, it attracts plenty who define themselves against official inclusive Britishness too. If you bang on about immigration being the root of people's problems, don't be surprised that dredging the sewer turns up a few turds. No, rather than being the sort of figure UKIP's dear leader cuts, the party is a nervous wreck of a man. It is fearful, distrustful, and hostile to a world its generation ultimately made. It doesn't stand firm. It wants to retreat. It wants to cower behind the White Cliffs, shouting "go away!" at passing shipping. UKIP is the very opposite of how it presents itself. 

How to counter this appeal? A new elite project of Englishness won't fit the bill. UKIP have articulated a stance, a feeling embedded in the national psyche. It's almost impossible to undo, because it has always been a part of Englishness. There's certainly no harm in trying to promote a civic, inclusive nationalism but ultimately cultural/national insecurities of culture usually mirror insecurities elsewhere. Interesting seminars and fine books on English nationalism have their place, but more important is for people to feel secure in their lives, that they have a sense of place and know where they and their children are heading. And only a programme of thoroughgoing political and social change is capable of achieving that.


Speedy said...

"more important is for people to feel secure in their lives, that they have a sense of place and know where they and their children are heading. And only a programme of thoroughgoing political and social change is capable of achieving that."

Your first sentence contradicts the second. Isn't this principally a reaction against political and social change?

This reaction has come about - as we have discussed previously - for a range of reasons, but certainly the impact of massive immigration (a third of the English population coming from an ethnic minority within one generation, according to latest research) in a tiny window (95 per cent of over 65s are white-British), the promotion of "multicuturalism" which in practice has tended to sneer at indigenous culture when it is not beating it with the "racist" stick, combined with globalisation and the growing sense of powerlessness people feel, embodied in supra-national institutions, must play a significant part.

I know you struggle with this, but these are verifiable facts. I agree that power, fundamentally, sits behind this - which is why the bourgeois class is more relaxed about this than the rest. It derives its identity elsewhere, and its income. Yet it is all part of the mix - we are not in a cultural studies laboratory, we are in the real world.

The Spanish are the Spanish, the French the French and the English the English.

Angry English people set up the USA - these are English values in their purest sense: the desire for liberty and representative democracy and the taint of hypocrisy (ie, slavery etc). Tom Paine - the quintessential English political theorist. That's the spring UKIP draw from, even if they don't know it.

The USA represents everything the Left loathes, so it's not surprising the Left loathes UKIP too. Yet for generations the USA represented (and still does even though it grows closer to a rigidly unequal society) the best chance working class people had to improve their lot. Which is perhaps partly why the Left has such a visceral loathing for it - it challenges their dreams of bourgeois revolution, their dreams of being top dog. Of course when they imagine their socialist paradise, they are the commissars not the car plant workers.

But I digress! As we know, UKIP will be locked out by FPP. The real threat to social cohesion has not been born yet - an England First party that will spring from the remains of a Balkanised Britain.

I don't see that as a good thing, simply the result of decades of wrong-headed, arrogant, bourgeois-driven social policy that has ignored the interests of ordinary people, sacrificing them at the alter of delusional universalism.

And no, they don't call me Speedy for nothing.

Gary Elsby said...

Maybe the history of being conquered or un-conquered lies somewhere at the heart of it.
A Britain that stood alone during the 1940s and the conquered European mainland.
The latter see much emphasis of cross border co-operation removing rivalries and we in Great Britain seeing no need for this.
It comes as no surprise to me that most politicians and supporters have the European view at heart while the tabloid minority play out the Battle for Britain.

Robert said...

England is emerging from Britain following devolution to Scotland and Wales. If Wales and Scotland are nations so is England and arguably England deserves its own parliament or at least some sort of political recognitin. Of course England is bigger than the other UK nations put together but I don't think this would make a federal UK impractical provided the devolution settlement was equitable.

Some suggest devolving to English regions I don't think this will fly. The North East turned it down and English local identity is based on cities and counties rather than regions.

Lloyd George toyed with the idea of Home Rule all Round - devolving to all four nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with a federal British government in London as a means of resolving the Irish crisis. It never happened but it would have been very interesting had it gone through. Maybe Churchill would have won the Federal election in 1945 but Attlee would have become Prime Minister of England and Scotland and Wales would have been protected from Thatcherism?

Anonymous said...

As Speedy says, the liberal essentially Middle class Left despise UKIP with the assumption that most UKippers are Working class and racist, certainly those who vote for them. But rather strangely Farage, Bloom and a number of others in the party hierarchy are Middle class Southern English rich boys, just like Nick Griffin of the BNP. UKIP have brought up the issue of immigration because nobody else has for fear of being called racist, and yet it is the most pressing issue we have in these islands. Whether the most important, I don't know, but most people in private have an opinion about it, yet fear the PC harpies pointing fingers of 'racist' or 'fascist' if they do. This, ironically enough, has allowed Farage et al to gain so much headway so quickly. We live in a democracy, or are supposed to, and nothing should be off limits for politicians or anyone else to discuss.

The Middle class now like to demonise the Working class as racist, xenophobic, nationalist and so on, yet it is easy for affluent people who have good careers to be blasé about other people's real fears of having to compete for low wage jobs for people who will undercut you. I don't blame poor immigrants for wanting a better life here, many of us are indeed descended from immigrants too on these islands, I do blame the disingenuousness of the political class both left and right for closing the debate on immigration because it has enabled them to keep wages low at the bottom and give more wealth to the rich and Middle class. That is the reality of immigration: cheap labour. If it affected the Middle class and their livelihoods you would see the left wing liberals singing a different tune!!!

A lot of Middle class politics on the Left and all the PC stuff that goes with it, is the politics of the affluent and those who live in ivory towers, those who can afford to be magnanimous about other people's poverty and struggles and economic hardship, as long as their precious futures are assured and their children have good educations and they live in safe areas with little crime.

UKIP have tapped into all of this, even though Farage and UKIP are totally right wing and London based and for the rich too. The Working class have been abandoned by all the major parties, that is plain for most educated people to see, and so in desperation the desperate will cling to any straw, Farage being the name they cling to.

I have to say this, I hate and despise the Ingerland style nationalism of skinheads and St George flags and the rather polite xenophobia of the little Englander Middle and Upper class too. It is hanging on to past glories and totally sad to me. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel so I have heard.