Assertions of Britishness national unity, such as one in that occurred in response to the London bombings, are bound to be uncomfortable for those who don’t subscribe to the idea of Britishness. Scottish nationalist philosopher Tom Nairn is at the forefront of that category.
Since the 7 July attacks, London and the world have rung with slogans of depleted Britishness: steadfast grit, business as usual, we can take it (especially Londoners). Understandable in the immediate context, these reflexes won’t do for democrats. Now more than ever, the latter should be looking for new business, and for the sea-changes offering hope of a real end to “terrorism”. (Open Democracy)
He makes the familiar argument that terrorism actually strengthens the establishment:
Then came the London explosions: a lifeline to exploiters of all lands, who dread “peace” (i.e. democracy) far more than war. On 8 July they woke up feeling safer, not more scared. This was a world they can count on. “Terrorism” restores healing tensions, fosters recompositions of national willpower, causes first things to be put first (e.g. identity cards), and brings indefinite postponement of wimpish tunes about unmerited poverty, reforms and rights. “Cool it!” is the coded message: equal-temperature malcontents, get back in line while more policemen are recruited.
The immediate response to the London bombings was a reflexive unity, evocative of the spirit of 1940, the key moment in the history of modern British patriotism.
The definitive statement of this spirit is George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, in which he wrote:
England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. But in any calculation, one has to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to think and feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.
The book, subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, was intended as a call for revolution as the necessary counterpart of the victory over fascism, but it also underlined that while the war had changed some aspects of the status quo, it had strengthened others.
Orwell regarded the British Isles as basically one nation, on the grounds that few foreigners ‘can distinguish between English and Scots, or even English and Irish,’ an argument that could be applied to most regions of the world.
He also believed that a socialist revolution could leave the monarchy on the throne.
Both of these assumptions were to prove influential on the British left, and since the 1960s, Tom Nairn has spent much of his career trying to refute them.
In The Enchanted Glass, Nairn argued that the monarchy provides a focal point for a British identity that avoids the kinds of nationalism normally associated with modern democracy, in favour of the more cosmopolitan priorities dictated by Britain’s finance-based economy.
It is arguably that economy which dictates both Britain’s alliance with the US in Iraq, and the multiculturalism which the US right has criticised in recent days.