Government and Politics


Nationalism in the UK

Paul Graham

Nationalism arouses strong reactions. It has been at the root of genocidal policies, yet has also been a force for democratic change. Discussion of nationalism is inevitably influenced by historical experience, with critics keen to emphasise its 'dark side' and supporters stressing its potential for liberation.


In the nineteenth century nationalism went hand-in-hand with liberal democracy. Many countries attempted to break free from the multinational and multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, and Ireland sought home rule from Britain. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73) wrote that 'free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities' (Mill 1991). Only in the twentieth century did nationalism become suspect, with the rise of fascism and the radical racist nationalism of Hitler.


Nationalism and liberalism

The ambiguity of nationalism is illustrated by the contrast between the British National Party (BNP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP). A visitor to Britain might think that these parties were basically similar in ideology, but the BNP is avowedly and unashamedly racist. According to its constitution, the BNP 'stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people', and party membership is open only to 'those of British or kindred European ethnic descent'. It seeks to reverse sex discrimination and gay rights legislation. The SNP, in contrast, describes itself as a democratic left-of-centre party committed to independence for Scotland. It is liberal in its social policies and internationalist in outlook and argues that only through independence can Scotland engage properly with the rest of the world. It was under the SNP banner that the first Asian (and Muslim) was elected to the Scottish Parliament.


The liberal case for nationalism rests on the need for solidarity as a precondition for what Mill called 'free institutions'. A 'nation' Mill defines as a portion of humanity united by, for example, 'race and descent', language, religion, shared memories and political institutions. Not all of these things are required to make a nation - certainly not 'race' - but there must be some 'glue' holding people together. Without this glue public life is made difficult. People don't read the same newspapers and books or watch the same television programmes, and, indeed, can avoid almost all interaction. Paradoxically, globalisation has deepened these differences, because people can get news from the internet and television from satellite and have no need for national broadcasters.



Nationalism with a small 'n'

In British politics some parties are defined as 'nationalist' and others are not. Nationalist parties include the SNP, Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists), Sinn Fein, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), BNP, along with less well-known parties, such as the English Democrats. But it is misleading to suggest that Labour, the Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats are not nationalist. It is simply that they are small 'n' rather than big 'N' nationalist parties.


Political scientist Michael Billig argues that political leaders do not define themselves as 'nationalist' - nationalism is a term applied to those on the 'fringe', whether campaigning for independence from a larger nation or seeking to change the consciousness of a nation through, for example, racism - but those leaders are nationalist.

Political and cultural discourse is full of nationalist symbolism: the word 'national', or an equivalent such as HM (Her Majesty's), appears in official titles of state bodies, along with visual symbols. Newspapers have 'national' and 'international' news. Tourism is promoted through a few national stereotypes. Billig (1995) calls this 'banal nationalism' - it is everyday and taken-for-granted. The key image of banal nationalism is not a flag consciously waved with fervent passion, but the flag that hangs on the public building.

Scottish nationalism


When nationalism is described as reactionary it is not banal nationalism that critics have in mind, but the racist nationalism of the far right or the separatist nationalism of parties such as the SNP or Plaid Cymru. But, while it is reasonable to describe the BNP as reactionary, it is not fair to apply the label to Plaid or the SNP.


The Union of 1707 between England and Scotland contained clauses that protected the autonomy of the Scottish legal system and the established state church (Church of Scotland), but inevitably British symbolism permeated Scotland. Anybody campaigning for Scottish independence must consciously project Scottish symbols against British ones. A small example illustrates the point. With the development of the internet and web domains the internationally recognised 'country code' for Britain is '.uk'. An attempt to get '.sco' recognised as a code failed, because Scotland is not an independent country, but the fact that the '.sco' campaign was seen as overtly nationalist obscures the fact that the banal, taken-for-granted, use of '.uk' is also nationalist.


The world is divided up into nation-states and, unless you can argue coherently for a world organised along nonnational lines, it is difficult to accuse nationalists seeking secession from an existing nation-state of being reactionary while you are not.


The danger in secessionist nationalism lies in how it goes about building an idea of the nation. Winnie Ewing, one of the best-known SNP politicians, opened the first session of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 with the words: 'The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the twenty-fifth day of the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.' It was a stirring statement, but misleading. The 1707 Parliament was scarcely democratic, and modern Scotland had been completely transformed through 300 years of union with England. Indeed, some historians even question that Scotland was a nation before 1707. This is implausible, but certainly the popular symbols of Scottishness - tartanry, bagpipes, the kilt, Celtic myths - are a later product.


In seeking to create a new Scottish nation distinct from Britain there is a danger that the cultural sources of that 'new' nation will exclude those who identify with Britain and Britishness. It is also out of keeping with the SNP's embrace of Scottish Asians, who certainly were not resident in Scotland in 1707.


Welsh nationalism

Nationalism has been divisive in Wales, too. Although in recent years Plaid Cymru has broken out of its rural redoubts there is still a very strong correlation between speaking Welsh and voting Plaid. Plaid's aspiration for 'full national status' within the European Union is stymied by the inability of the English-speaking Welsh majority to identify with the Welsh language, and by the geographical lines of communication within Wales, which run east–west rather than north–south. Trading on Labour's apparent abandonment of socialism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Plaid has marketed itself as socialist and campaigned as 'the Party of Wales' in English-speaking, Labour-voting areas of the country. Plaid stresses its liberal credentials, as does the SNP, arguing for the equal worth of all human beings, 'whatever their race, nationality, gender, colour, creed, sexuality, age, ability or social background'.


Plaid cannot be accused of being reactionary, but Wales, unlike Scotland, has produced a virulent nationalist extreme. For example, in the 1970s through to the 1990s an organisation called Meibion Glyndwr (sons of Glyndwr) burnt down holiday homes presumed to be owned by English people. The nearest equivalent in Scotland is the Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA), which has been responsible for sending letter bombs. Extreme, but apparently non-violent, is Siol nan Gaidheal ('Seed of the Gaels'), which campaigns against the 'Englishing' of Scotland. There have, however, been splinter groups of a potentially more violent nature, such as Scottish Watch and Settler Watch.


Perhaps the weakness of the Scottish nationalist extreme compared to the Welsh one is a result of a greater Scottish confidence. The presence of English-born people in Scotland - about 8% of the population - is not perceived as a threat to Scottishness. Because of the drive to defend the Welsh language and the geographical disunity of the country, the 20% English-born population of Wales is seen by some Welsh nationalists as a threat.


Northern Ireland


Whereas Britishness in Britain - the 'mainland' - is taken for granted, so that it is those who campaign for Scottish independence or Welsh self-determination who appear nationalist, in Northern Ireland Britishness is daily asserted and defended. Paradoxically, this makes the Britishness of Ulster unionists seem alien to people living in mainland Britain. It also gives unionism a backward-looking cast: unionists are isolated from the country they claim as their own and are cut off from the forces that have changed the rest of the UK. They are less liberal and less willing to embrace cultural diversity.


Unionism is not, however, homogeneous. There have been attempts to project a modern unionism, one which embraces power-sharing institutions and a role for the Republic of Ireland. David Trimble, former leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), stressed the relationship between the constituent nations of Britain and Ireland, and saw in Scottish and Welsh devolution an opportunity to forge a less rigidly British idea of unionism. His attempts to get a unionist majority to support power-sharing with Sinn Fein led finally to his losing his Westminster seat in the 2005 general election. Trimble's problem was that there was always a 'rejectionist' unionist party on his flank: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, the 'Dr No' of Ulster politics. Paisley rejected all attempts to share power with a party he claimed was the political wing of a terrorist organisation.


Sinn Fein claims to be a non-sectarian, left-of-centre party committed to the peaceful reunification of Ireland. It is the only political party that fights elections north and south of the border. The attention paid by the media to constitutional issues has obscured discussion of its ideology, which is caught between socialist radicalism and the conservatism of the Catholic church. To the amazement of many observers, Paisley has led the DUP into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein. There were many factors underlying this decision, but a powerful motivation was money. London threatened to introduce water charges in Northern Ireland and had the bills ready to be sent out if an agreement was not reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Many residents threatened to send their bills to Paisley if he didn't comply.


Beyond Sinn Fein and the DUP there is an active women's movement, and a cross-community (largely Protestant) Alliance Party, which has sought to shift Ulster politics away from an obsession with constitutional issues. Significantly, the Alliance Party produced the first Chinese representative in any parliamentary assembly in Europe, with the victory of Anna Lo in the March 2007 election.




Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have devolved institutions. England does not. This has given rise to what former Labour MP Tam Dalyell termed the West Lothian Question. This was named after his Scottish constituency, which contained a town called Blackburn. There is a slightly more famous Blackburn in Lancashire, England. If Dalyell were secretary of state for health in a UK government, he would have responsibility for health in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not in Blackburn, West Lothian. This problem was posed in the 1970s, when the first attempt to devolve power to Scotland was made, and became a reality after 1999 with the creation of the Scottish Parliament.


There is evidence of English resentment against Scottish MPs voting on 'English only' matters and, to an extent, Scottish MPs having ministerial responsibility for 'English' areas of policy. Scottish nationalists, such as Alex Salmond, argue that the English are right to be angry and should express their anger through the demand for English independence, and opinion polls in England have shown support for this. Significantly, the pollster's question is posed or interpreted as one about Scottish independence. In effect, separation is viewed as Scottish secession rather than the creation of a new English state. This feeds a Scottish view that the English are confused about their national identity. They can't decide whether they are British or English and tend to run the two together. It is certainly true that there are no English state institutions through which the English can express their unity. There are major English constitutional events, the most significant being the 1689 Bill of Rights, but these lack popular resonance and are retrospectively interpreted as part of British constitutional development.


Sport is, arguably, one of the few bases of English unity. It is through football that the St George's flag has come to supplant the Union Jack (or flag) in England. But it also makes many English uncomfortable with Englishness - it is far too close for comfort to the lager-lout version of nationalism. Whereas the left in Wales and Scotland has to a significant degree embraced nationalism, it is relatively rare for the left in England to articulate an English nationalism. For example, David Goodhart (see Box 1) argues for a progressive British nationalism. Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg is an exception. He argues for a multicultural image of England to counter the BNP and UKIP. The latter party is, despite its name, essentially an English national party that expresses Englishness through opposition to European integration.


Many, from left and right, will disagree with Bragg, but it is worth noting that the Muslim population, for example, is heavily concentrated in England. Muslims represent 3.1% of the population in England, but only 0.8% in Scotland, 0.7% in Wales, and 0.1% in Northern Ireland. But, interestingly, whereas the great majority of Muslims in Scotland describe themselves as 'Scottish not British', a UK-wide poll early in 2007 revealed that 51% of Asians (not just Muslims) described themselves as primarily British, whereas only 29% of whites did so. Britishness appears relatively inclusive, Englishness does not.




Whether nationalism is progressive or reactionary depends on what kind of nationalism we are talking about. The secessionist nationalism of Plaid and the SNP might be progressive if it leads to the development of a more democratic and pluralistic political culture. An independent Scotland might foster greater citizenship participation and be more outward-looking than the nation presently 'submerged' in the union with England. Plaid campaigns for an ecological decentralism, and did so long before green politics became fashionable.


It is difficult to describe the politics of the BNP as anything but reactionary, and, while UKIP is not a racist party, it does struggle to project a forward-looking image of the UK (or England). Certainly, nationalisms come in many different forms - some arguably progressive, others reactionary - but no nation can entirely avoid viewing its citizens as 'special'. Partiality to one's 'own' is built into the idea of the nation. Nations compete against one another for resources. As Goodhart observes, the UK spends 25 times more on the National Health Service than on overseas development aid.


Some people advocate a 'post-nationalism' - a view that, for historical reasons, is strong in contemporary Germany. Post-nationalists argue for the explicit rejection of the nation and the development of world citizenship and would claim that all nationalisms are reactionary. Even if this were valid, one thing is certain: the nation-state is far from dead, and everybody - the political mainstream as well as those explicitly defined as 'nationalist' - thinks and acts as if the nation matters.