Britain: “England plus a couple of other bits”

Alex Massie’s criticism of Ed Miliband’s take on Britishness raises a question Irish unionists ought to be well placed to answer. If Britishness is no longer defined so much by institutions as by “culture”, what then is this Britishness of which unionists speak?

And if Britishness can’t be adequately defined isn’t it already redundant?

And if Britishness is conceptually redundant, has the U.K. any positive, coherent long-term purpose?

According to Massie, Miliband inadequately understands Britishness as effectively “… England and a couple of other bits”, an instinct he attributes to an English bias that’s no doubt recognizable to Slugger’s readers.  (Though Alex may bristle at the point, I’d add that this English view is pretty much identical to the perspective held by everyone outside the UK too, to the extent that any of them give a hoot.)

While Massie does a decent job puncturing the premise of Miliband’s grasp of Britishness he either missed a chance to bring home his own case for a meatier, more accurate definition or he was simply unable to do so. I suspect the later and minus a compelling and coherent positive case for, questions about the U.K’s ultimate sustainability can’t be ducked.

So step up Slugger. If anywhere we’ll hear the positive case for Britishness, surely it’s on Slugger? So over to you…

But before we get started, see if you agree with Massie’s ‘non-English’ attempt to kick-start a more robust definition of Britishness (Warning to our stauncher Ulster brethren and our more hard-core Gales: Massie’s entry-point may provide a head-melting experience):

 “Is (southern) Ireland a truly foreign country? I hazard that it is not. Ireland remains a contributor to and beneficiary of a broader brand of “Britishness”.

How southern Ireland does this Massie neglects to say. Your suggestions are welcome but I ask, can one credibly claim that the south of Ireland ‘contributes’ more – whether to the language, ‘pop culture’, political life, economy, foreign policy, or any facet of British life –  than, say, the United States of America? Surely not. Yet no Brit with a straight-face could equate the vast US influence on and ‘contribution’ to Britain with any stateside retention of belonging to ‘Brand Britain’.  (Surely modern Britain is not that insecure?)

Massie later writes, “Even those who have left contribute to Britishness even if they do not always recognise or value their contribution. You can’t just switch these things off.”

My take: A ‘British project’ designed and implemented for centuries on precisely the demand, backed by the threat and use of violence, that people “just switch off” their sense of being Scottish, Irish or most any other identity that was resistant to London’s designs, has come, we’re now told, full circle: Britishness not only tolerates but depends on a plurality of contributing identities for its cultural raison d’être. A little brass-neckish, sure, but not a contradiction; indeed these are grounds for a considerable pride (unless the multiculturalists foolishly ditch the anchor).

This point – how identities once forged in opposition to an imperial project are now embraced in a pluralist one – will, I predict, be deployed by far-sighted Scottish unionists in a way English unionist are unlikely to appreciate.

For Britishness – for unionism –  to secure itself it needs to embrace nationalisms rather than take them on. Irish unionists have no excuse for ignoring or refuting this and though they’d be wise to think it through, past form suggests they’re more likley to foolishly pass up the opportunity inherent here. Though there’s no faster way to render a nationalist docile than to embrace his flag, today’s Stormont indicates that Irish unionists are miles from appreciating the opportunities such an approach to defining Britishness would provide them.

Massie, I suspect, instinctively realizes that the greatest threat to the union in Scotland is the English defining Scottishness as secondary identity in Britain.

Despite ignoring decades of evidence, will Irish unionists ever act on the same lesson?

Put another way, if there was a full embrace of Irish identity from Stormont down, how many Irish nationalists would be determined to leave the U.K?

Is today’s Britishness really more about a culture of contributing regions, as Massie suggests? Test: Let’s see if any unionist can resolve the contradictions where they’re sharpest – in Belfast – by welcoming the place of green. Get it right there and the union is stronger than ever.

Alternatively, by sharpening the contradictions eventually the chord could snap.