Friday, September 24, 2010

"British *rather than* English"?

The other day, I covered Diane Abbott's answer to the following question; below is her Labour Leadership rival, Andy Burnham's response:
The recent controversy over the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi has exposed a new dimension to the West Lothian question, and illustrates the continuing contradictions between the unitary and devolved elements of the UK's political structure. Is the eventual formation of a devolved English Parliament now inevitable? If not, how should the West Lothian question be dealt with?

Across Europe, there is a growing trend of regional breakdown, almost a fracturing of nations. In Belgium, for example, the tension between the Walloons and the Flemish threatens to rip that country apart, leaving Brussels, the heart of Europe, potentially state-less.

I am a strong believer in the United Kingdom and think of myself as British, rather than English. We were right to pursue devolution, but I am disappointed that devolution is not reflected properly in the Labour Party’s own internal structures, for example in the electoral college to elect the new Leader. We need to complete that journey first before embarking on a new one.
I found this sentence quite an extraordinairy thing to say:

"I am a strong believer in the United Kingdom and think of myself as British, rather than English."

I was trying to imagine either Annabel Goldie or, for example, Tom Elliott remarking:

"I am a strong believer in the United Kingdom and think of myself as British, rather than a Scotswoman/Ulsterman"

Just wouldn't happen. So, does that make Burnham's Unionism or Britishness more worthy than theirs? Of course not. However, there does seem to be a fear amongst English Unionists of declaring:

"I am proud to be British and English"

On countless occasions, I have criticised the "Little Ulster" mentality which exists amongst a section of Northern Irish Unionism as I believe it ignores the fact that Unionism, by its very definition, means not existing in her own little semi-detached vacuum, but instead wishing to belong to the wider British family. Burnham's attitude is the opposite to that mentality but still as potentially dangerous to the Union.


kensei said...

I have certain heard Unionists here sopend a lot of time saying they are British above anythign else.

Dilettante said...

As an English/Irish but entirely British unionist, I can understand where he's coming from. The problem with 'Englishness' is that England is in effect a union in and of itself. It has experienced so many waves of immigration and invasion over the many centuries of its existence that - unlike the other home nations - there isn't really an overwhelming identity that can be readily subscribed to.

Additionally Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists often in part define themselves 'against' England, whereas England lacks that great 'other' (excepting perhaps the European Union) for nationalists to rally against.

In short, England is too big, too diverse, too coterminous with 'Britain' and not 'oppressed!' enough to have a serious English Nationalists movement. And I'm glad of that.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Dilettante, Burnham wasn't talking about 'nationalism' (English or British) but national identity.

O'Neill, I think you're being a little naive about 'English' unionists being reluctant to avow their Englishness. It's far more negative than that. Burnham's response typifies New Labour's anglophobic denial of England's very existence as a nation - something that Dilettante appears to agree with.

This is a new form of 'Anglo-Britishness' which, instead of failing to differentiate between England and Britain (referring to either interchangeably), fails to recognise or refer to 'England' at all, simply terming it indiscriminately 'Britain'.

The unity of the Union, on this view, is therefore predicated on the denial of any difference between England and Britain - because if you acknowledge that difference, you have to engage with the question of what forms of governance are fair and appropriate for England as a nation, and the whole concept of a unitary British 'nation' and political establishment might implode.

O'Neill said...


I don't know if you're referring to me or the likes of Vance at ATW who seems prepared to deny the island he lives on is called Ireland.

TBH I don't feel that much of an "Ulsterman" (but by geographical logic I am), my British, Irish and European identity are what matters most to me. Burnham seems to be following the Vance School of Geographical Illogicality by denying the piece of the UK he is from is called "England".


I see and understand where you're coming from but there's a subtle difference with what you've said and what Burnham originally said- you're saying you're British, of the English-Irish variety. Burnham is saying he is purely British which is denying the fact that the UK (and Britishness) is a multi-national as well as multi-cultural identity.

O'Neill said...


I would differentiate between the intentional "Anglo-Britishness" being propagated by the likes of Burnham for purely partisan purposes (ie a devolved England would mean a greatly weakened "national" Labour Party)and the unintentional variety which arises simply because of England's size in comparison to the UK as a whole.

The first variety is not wholly an English phenonomen (Brown's and Darling's "Scottishness" mysteriously diminished over the period of the former's Premiership)but as I said in my post, the English variety, I think, has the potential to weaken the Union perhaps more than almost all the possible solutions to the West Lothian Question.