The British ruling class has not only tried to stifle the national culture of Scotland and Wales: the radical tradition of the English working class is in dire need of popularization. For example, I did not learn in school about the Diggers, the Levellers, the Luddites, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the London Corresponding Society, or the Chartists, though the Suffragettes got a mention. Focus on events specific to England in the mainstream media did not stretch beyond coverage of sporting events.
It was no wonder that for a long time I confused England for Britain, and vice versa. Coming from an immigrant family further confused matters: could you be English if you were born in here but your parents were not? If my family came from Ireland but I was born here, did that mean I wasn’t Irish?
Unlike my Black and Asian friends at school, I did not face racism for being the child of immigrants, but I understood the hurt caused by jokes directed at the Irish and their use to divide people and prevent opposition to colonialism. Unlike my white friends, I knew a bit about the history of the British Empire, and could shoot-down claims that immigrants came to steal jobs or scrounge.
I have never experienced any animosity in Ireland for being English – and that is always the description, no one has ever said “Are you British?” upon hearing my accent.
As I grew up and became interested and involved in left-wing politics confusion over the issue of nationality returned. When New Labour allowed the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, it looked as if the contradictions inherent in the dual English-British identity held by most people in England were about to become antagonistic.
To this day, the idea that those “British” people in England might choose an English identity is rarely countenanced. If it is considered at all, it is as a threat. The reason for the denial or denigration of identity is that the development of an English national culture discrete from that of “Britishness” does in fact pose a threat to the British establishment. As Richard Weight wrote in his book Patriots,
“Over the coming decades, everything possible will be done to ensure the survival of the British state, some of which we shall never know about. The Empire may have gone, but capitalism – the economic system which helped to give birth to it – remains in existence. So too does the matrix of power relationships which evolved out of that economic system. It is highly unlikely that those who benefit most from capitalism would lose their privileges if Britain were to break up. But very few are prepared to take that chance.”
I would argue that the break-up of Britain is likely to pose a threat to power of the capitalist class. Would the independent nations of England, Scotland and Wales combine to pursue imperialist wars and colonial occupation in the Middle East as a junior partner of the United States? Would they have remained in the EU, and signed up to the establishment of a European capitalist super-state? Would the ruling class have succeeded in selling off public utilities and eroding the public provision of housing, healthcare, and education? Would there have been the policy of “managed decline” of the productive economy? I don’t think so.
The “matrix of power relationships” that evolved out of the demise of the British Empire have insured that Britain remains an imperial power – the process of decolonization did not result in Britain losing influence over its former colonies, and the close alliance with the United States is not just in recognition for the assistance provided during the Second World War, which itself came at a price.
It should be needless to say that what is essential to capitalists is detrimental to working people, and Britain’s role as a junior partner to the US, its membership of the European Union, and continued interference in the political affairs of former colonies, are essential for the capitalist class.
As a socialist, I do not seek an imperial or capitalist England, or a nation defined by religion or race. The abandoned Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution is probably the most famous affirmation (in the UK, at least) of what socialists seek, namely, “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.
In addition to this, socialists seek fraternal relations between nations and support the right to self-determination. At home, this should mean active support for the struggle to establish political representation at a national level for England – a cause which complements the movements for self-government in the other nations of the UK and would greatly improve the prospect of a united Ireland.
The nationalisms of Wales and Scotland are now reaching hegemony in the devolved institutions by implementing and supporting social democratic measures, stepping back from the neo-liberalism of New Labour.
The response to this from the capitalist press is to announce with outrage that inequalities in funding under the Barnett Formula allow this to take place, but to whisper that to increase the free provision of healthcare, etc., is simply not possible. In other words, their intention is not to see reforms that are beneficial to working class people implemented in England, but to see the reversal of these gains.
And there is a problem here – for as the former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted before his departure, the Barnett Formula has been retained because it holds the union together. If funding is levelled down in Scotland in the next few years, the nationalist-led Scottish government would have a stronger case for independence.
The concept of England as a nation is unfamiliar to many English socialists, just as it is often imprecise for people in England. Socialist organisations encourage members to study the history of the working class internationally, often neglecting to examine and learn from the history of the working class in England, its radical traditions, and its struggle for political representation.
Just as the labour movement remains tied to the Labour Party, despite New Labour being recognized by workers as the party of capital, socialists in England (and some in Scotland and Wales) remain attached to the notion that the working class will come to power through the maintenance of the United Kingdom.
I hope that this will change, and that English socialists will come to realize that devolution completely rules out a multinational road to socialism and that devolution in England, far from being an irrelevant or reactionary development, would actually empower working people across the world.