British Imperialism and English patriotism

Writer Mike Marqusee is unusual for an American in being a cricket buff. Despite his affinity for the quintessentially English game, he’s suspicious of the resurgence of English identity visible at recent sporting events.

Marqusee makes his arguments at Comment is Free and in a debate with Mark Perryman on his site. Perhaps his most significant point is this one.

Recasting English national identity as forward-looking, inclusive, free of chauvinist aggression is a more complicated business than merely "reclaiming" the St George’s flag from the far right (which is not in the least depressed to see its favoured emblem so widely adopted). The reclaimers want to skip over a vital step in the process: a realistic examination of British imperial history and its current role in the world. In a climate shaped by paranoia about immigration, demands that minorities "integrate", the war on terror and the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, an uncritical, ahistorical celebration of England remains, at the least, problematic. (CommentIsFree)

While I agree that the British Empire is a central part of English history that cannot be ignored, I want to take issue with some of this. The current policies which Marqusee mentions are all being pursued by a state which prioritises Britishness not Englishness. Indeed, Englishness may be the ultimate threat to that state.

Marqusee’s point about ‘chauvinist agression’ is reminiscent of Jack Straw’s claim that the English are "potentially very aggressive, very violent."

The irony of Straw’s statement was that the then Foreign Secretary was scapegoating the English public for the evils of empire, in order to argue against a reform of the very Westminster institutions which really were responsible for the empire.

Straw’s comment comes straight from the Whitehall playbook of ‘uncivilised tribes.’ The only difference is that this time the tribe is Anglo-Saxon.

The reality of post-Imperial Britain is summed up perfectly by a quote which I was lucky enough to come across today while working on another post:

Although Britain is a democracy in some senses, the ‘will of the people’ has never been extended to cover the key areas of interest to a state which was developed to run and service an empire. Defence, foreign policy, security and intelligence policy – in none of these areas can MPs or their constituents have access to official information or have any input into policy. (Robin Ramsay, The Wilson Plots, in Variant magazine)

If you doubt what Ramsay in this 1999 article, think about everything that has happened since: the decision to go war in Iraq in the faces of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen, the dodgy dossier, the Hutton Report and the emasculation of the BBC.

You don’t even have to back that far, just look at the ‘democratic debate’ over a replacement for Trident.

English nationalism may be the best chance for a renewal of civic identity that can challenge those assumptions.







3 responses to “British Imperialism and English patriotism”

  1. Tom Paine avatar

    It is really offensive that our national flag should be damned by association with unpleasant people who have waved it. Should the Stars and Stripes be abandoned, because some scoundrels have – from time to time – wrapped themselves in its colourful folds? Of course not.
    The resurgence of England is to do, quite simply, with injustice. The reason we invented most of the world’s great sports is that a belief in “fair play” is the essence of what it is to be English. Labour’s constitutional reform of “devolution” is the antithesis of fair play. They cynically and wickedly gave Labour voters in Scotland and Wales the power to spend extra money on themselves from general taxation. If they had the power only to spend what they raised locally, no-one in England would care. As it is, they are spending English gold on benefits not even available to the English. That a German can send his son or daughter to Edinburgh University at taxpayer’s expense in the name of equal treatment for EU citizens, while an Englishman must pay tuition fees is a vile, racist outrage – and intended as such. What reaction do the Scots expect to such an insult?
    Margaret Thatcher famously quoted Kipling’s “Norman and Saxon” to President Mitterand when negotiating Britain’s European Union dues;
    “When he stands like an ox in the furrow, with his sullen set eyes on your own,
    And mutters ‘this isn’t fair dealing’, my son – let the Saxon alone.”

    The English are passive and quiet enough generally – perhaps too much so, judging by their submission to current assaults on their liberties – but when their blood is up, Jack Straw is right. They are dangerous. Many of us now hope that the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union will be the last. For all their past contributions (Adam Smith, John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell) the Scots now seem to have nothing left by which to define themselves than an abiding hatred of the English. It would be healthier for them to go their own way and develop a better definition – at their own expense.

  2. Dafydd avatar

    I enjoyed your site would you like to add this to it? A critique of new British nationalism as esposed mainly by the Labour party.

  3. Tom Griffin avatar

    Hi Dafydd,
    I have a link to your blog in my blogroll on the right. Admittedly, its not a very exclusive distinction. I will try and link in a post at some stage.

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