Thursday, January 19, 2006


Thursday Thoughts: British nationalism

Not the best looking flag in the world... I picked up a book recently called 'Postnationalist Ireland' by Richard Kearney. It's a good read and it offers a critique of Irish nationalism. What intrigued me in particular was Mr Kearney's comments on the subject of British nationalism. In light of the recent comments from Gordon Brown about a British day of celebration, which I posted about here, I figured it would be worth making a post on Mr Kearney's view of British nationalism and also how it relates to Irish nationalism.

Kearney writes...

"Far too often, the sins of nationalism have been laid exclusively on the Irish side, with the result that Britain's implication in the nationalist quarrel is conveniently occluded. This, I would argue, has been one of the most ingenious ploys of British (or more particularly English) nationalism: to pretend that it doesn't exist, that the irrational and unreasonable claimants to sovereignty, territory, power and nationhood are always others - Palestinians, Indians, Africans, Irish."

Kearney then goes on to assess the foundations of British nationalism:

"What the crisis of Irish nationalism brings home to Britain is the realization that it too is founded upon a nationalist principle of sovereignty; and that this principle is in fact more absolutist than the former's. Indeed, political theorists like Neal Ascherson and Tom Nairn have gone so far as to claim that Britain is the most absolutist nation-state in Europe. 'There is nothing else like it in the developed world', writes Anderson. 'What happened in the seventeenth century was that the English parliament just took absolutism away from the King, from the divine right of Kings, and gave it to parliament, where it still is. So there is no concept of popular sovereignty. Instead, you have an elected parliament, but it is completely sovereign in itself - it is not subject to the people as a concept or to a constitution.'"

Finally, Kearney assesses the relationship between the two nationalisms:

"This all-or-nothing nationalism stands in contradiction, of course, to the fact that the British state is ostensibly a 'multinational state' made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But to acknowledge this seminal fact would entail exposing and challenging 'the almost total sovereignty of an English-dominated parliament over these parts.' This explains why Irish (or for example Scots) nationalism, and the increasing demand for greater regional democracy, has put the very basis of British nationalism in question."

Kearney makes an interesting point here that perhaps Gordon Brown should take note of. It's a bit hollow for Gordon Brown to harp on about a "united share of purpose" when in a national sense at least, the UK has anything but!

A power struggle within the UK could very well be on the cards in the future and I'm not just talking about one concering the 'Northern Ireland' polity.

On one level, as Kearney points out, the English dominate the British parliament so much so that to everyone else, British and Englishness go hand in hand. Then again, we have been witnessing a more confident and noisy English national identity emerge in recent years out of the shadows of Britishness and who knows, a good World Cup run this year for England might create even more noise! The English seem keen on having a parliament established for their nation which they want to see acknowledged.

There are interesting times ahead for the British.

The UK succeeded in maintaining itself as a political entity. However, it did not quell the traditional nationalism inherent in the countries that made up the UK and this may very well come back to haunt them in the long run.

It all seems to augur well for the Irish though!


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