by Matt Parrott
The central argument of Alex Niven’s New Model Island is that England doesn’t exist. In thinking this he isn’t alone. Far too many English intellectuals are incapable of tracing the contours of their home nation, accustomed as the English are to imagining all of mainland Britain to be an extension of their own country, a greater-England, a ‘sea-walled garden’ or ‘sceptred isle’.
The fact of the matter is that the original treaty which gave rise to the state within which we live preserved aspects of Scottish civil society (Scots law, the Kirk, forms of nobility) that perpetuated a unique national identity for three hundred years before the mainstream resurgence of separatist political nationalism. Add to this Welsh historical memory and widespread use of the autochthonous language and you have three very distinct and very real national polities even before the advent of modern devolution.
It is a truly brilliant sleight of hand that the English ruling classes have performed to make Englishness into Britishness and to conceal the bloody geopolitical history of the island of Great Britain. England both does and does not exist because Britain both does and does not exist. Both nations are imagined communities, but the British nation contained within it a fatal flaw from the very beginning: the emergent nation was shaped principally by and through the ideology of the English state.
On these islands it is the English and the English alone who say England when they mean Britain, and musings from English quarters on the non-existence of England appear to the Scottish and Welsh observer as a peculiar and morbid form of self-indulgence.
Yet the national question for Niven is intimately linked to a wider discussion. That discussion is of the correct programme for a socialist party to pursue, either before or after the conquest of power. He recommends radical regional devolution and the breaking up of (non-existent) England into smaller parts. But the black grit of reality can’t help but smear the specs of the dreaming intellectual and Niven wraps himself in delicious contradiction when he asserts on page 69 that:
A political discourse committed to giving at least partial credence to the lived experience of working class subjects must take some account of the fact that working-class Englishness is a very real phenomenon
So we are forced to accept that, regardless of its provenance, a significant majority of the English working classes consider themselves English. It is a categorical failure of both British and English socialist theory, and a significant setback to the advance of socialism, that this has been left to the petty-bourgeois right to exploit. From the Conservatives and their oak tree to the English Defence League, the right has understood that to mobilise a specifically English political imaginary is to ‘let slip the dogs of war’.
Having argued for long that states are artificial constructions, intellectuals have failed to confront the issue that England exists, and that its role and character are being pushed to the fore as the stability of the United Kingdom comes under pressure, notably from the ambitions of Scottish nationalism. English nationalism is too important to be left to the extremists – Jeremy Black, English Nationalism: A Short History, 2018
We contend that English nationalism is too important to be left to the centrists. At the current historical juncture, everything is up for grabs and we cannot afford to waste the opportunity. The present United Kingdom is a highly volatile composite state of four nations, three of which are dwarfed in terms of the size of their population and economy by the instigator of that union – England. It is a terrible irony of history that the class struggle is simultaneously sharpest and at its most blunt in the most populous nation but, with Brexit settled, the English working class will be forced to settle its account with the British aristo-bourgeoisie. And England alone among the home nations is unrepresented.
To push this contradiction to its limits, we must call for a truly representative English Assembly, elected according to a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post. Opposition to such a united English Assembly will likely be divided along class lines, with the resolutely British minor aristocrats and upper middle class opposed to a system of representation which would further fracture their homeland and threaten their material interests, and the working and precariously-middle classes in favour.
Imagine if we were to squander this unique opportunity to constitute ourselves as the nation by embracing an alienating programme of regional devolution that in practice means nothing less than the dismemberment of that nation. It is as plain as day that setting out a programme before the electorate to dismember England would be toxic.
Instead, arguing for formal political equality among the nations of these islands, with the option to secede, would placate patriots and democrats of all stripes, leaving only the chauvinists isolated and displeased. We are internationalists; we must exploit every opportunity we have to break the stranglehold of the nationally-composite aristo-bourgeoisie over the nations and peoples of these islands. The two positions are not mutually exclusive, and recognising legitimate national concerns is not the same as endorsing national chauvinism. England, it goes without saying, is not in any sense superior to the other nations.
The first task of the English Assembly will be to dissolve Westminster and to enter into negotiations with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly on a truly federated republic.
Writing well before the industrial proletariat melted into air, Engels told Bebel that ‘a really general workers’ movement will only come into existence here [in England] when the workers are made to feel the fact that England’s world monopoly is broken’. What will Brexit and the tearing at the seams of the Union achieve, if not this? The reflections of what is happening to the economic base take time to appear in the life of ideas. As Britain’s monopoly has broken, so is it – in its current form – breaking. This crisis presents us with an unparalleled opportunity. We can either turn away to cultivate our own gardens – in Northumbria or elsewhere – or we can push for the overcoming of the nation through the nation.
We live in an imperfect world, and we have to work with what we have inherited. British pragmatism calls for the Aufhebung of Westminster and, with it, of Britain.
Of such stuff are New Models made.
New Model Island by Alex Niven is published by Repeater Books with an RRP of £9.99