Arthur Aghey has a cogent answer to Brian Feeney’s urgent question: why are there no Unionist intellectuals?, by falsifing the premise. In this month’s Prospect magazine he probes the issue of English versus British identity, with particular attention to the tensions raised by the West Lothian question. The ambivalent character of Englishness, he argues, touches all of those inside the Union.
Outside Northern Ireland, “British” refers almost exclusively to the legalities of citizenship, while English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish refer to national belonging. This convention can be traced in part to Linda Colley’s work Britons (1992) in which she argued that Britain was an invention temporarily superimposed on much older loyalties. For Colley, these natural loyalties of Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English were bound to wax once the artifice of imperial Britishness began to wane. In sum, Britishness has become understood as exterior and formal compared with the interior and sentimental nature of national identity. This has given rise to two competing tendencies. In the first, Britishness becomes dispensable if popular identity is there to be authentically expressed in national institutions. In the second, the national becomes dispensable since Britishness signifies all—the idea advanced in the Parekh Report of 2000, a high-water mark of multiculturalism.
The politics of Englishness used to be conducted in an idiom that preferred, as Disraeli once said, government by parliament rather than by logic, an idiom that could see no point in removing an anomaly just because it was an anomaly (see Robert Jackson below). The consequence was an unthinking unionism in which England, as Bernard Crick has put it, was a relationship as much as a thing in itself. The insight here is not that Englishness is a relationship defined by some “other” (and so lacking an identity), or that Englishness has a fixed meaning, but that the Englishness of Britain and the Britishness of England have been bound up together. Devolution has clearly modified things: unionism can no longer be unthinking, because devolution has modified the institutional relationship between England and the other parts of Britain. Bargaining between the territories is more visible than the multinational solidarity that makes such bargaining possible in the first place. As a consequence, the English question has become England’s British question, and the question is to what extent devolution has undermined English patriotic identification with the UK. In short, does it inevitably mean disintegration?
Devolution has increased the attraction of clear-cut identities and it is possible to put the logic of simplicity into political practice. It would mean adopting the policy Tom Nairn has long advocated and Michael Portillo has now adopted—that the English should turn their attention from the management of British decline into the management of disintegration, a sort of “Four Nations and a British Funeral” strategy. It would be, in my view, a tragic case of national separatism based on the narcissism of small differences. On the other hand, the multinationalism of Britain can be understood as an appropriate location for popular Englishness. Billy Bragg captured the interconnected parts of this relationship when he sang: “Cos my neighbours are half English and I’m half English too.” He is “half English” because of the Britishness which has made England what it is today and his British neighbours are half English too, because whether they like it or not—many don’t but most do—what touches England touches everyone.