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Nations vs imperial unions in a time of globalization, 1707-2007.

In the circumstances of intensifying globalization, all nations are becoming mongrels, hybrids or foundlings, but old empires die hard. May 2007 marked the three-hundredth anniversary of the state that founded Australia--the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This elderly piece of multiculturalism has endured various titles like 'Britain' and 'Great Britain', all intended to make it sound more united than it ever was. At one time a rather swank lodger hung about the place as well: 'the Empire'. This dubious character was addicted to corporate planetary takeovers, thanks to a naval fighting machine that outclassed all competitors, and a similarly overblown financial apparatus, the City of London. The lodger's formula was neat but effective: punish the populations that object to the takeover terms. Is this too summary a definition of 'GB'? Yes, but objectors need not protest too much: the most successful imperial recipe from history's cookbook can stand plenty of disparagement. Also, it has always been apologized for with every sort of civilization-and-culture attachment, from Shakespeare of Stratford down to TV's 'Little Britain'. By comparison, Spain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia were failures in the imperium business. As I write, we find President Bush lounging awkwardly by the side door of the same has-been's club, hoping that he may yet sidle in without attracting too much attention. Until 2006, Britain alone appeared to have managed a half-convincing post-imperial act--a return to something like national normality, without revolution, defeat or humiliation.

But that was yesterday. Today something different is emerging, and there is little doubt about the four-letter word that has made this difference. British imperialists thought up 'Iraq' in the early 20th century, with motives not unlike those of Bush nearly a century later. In 2003, Tony Blair's New Labour government made the deadly mistake of both trusting ancestral creation and motives, and 'helping out' with another invasion of Mesopotamia. John Howard trotted on behind, fortunately on a much smaller scale. Both thought that national advantage lay in continuing to support the Greatness business. However, fortunately, the world has changed and, 'terrorism' notwithstanding, not wholly for the worse. We will not know for some time yet what the full costs will be for the United Sates and Australia. For 'Britain', however, they could not be more serious: extinction.

People are getting used to the idea of Iraq disappearing, divided between Kurdistan and one or more Muslim-Arab states. However, an analogous fate may overtake Britain's faltering Union if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland opt for new directions, as they seem to have done at recent elections. If they alter their relationship to Britain, still another acronym may come into play, the 'RUK' ('Rest of the UK'). That would be mainly England of course, though now with the curious sense of 'Little England' plus London--a cosmopolis with nothing little about it, outside of Westminster and Buckingham Palace.

The re-shuffle would affect Anzac Day. The old committee-agreed 'Union Jack' of 1707 would have to go. It was a smart-schoolboy montage of the older saint-nation emblems, minus the Welsh Dragon (mistakenly believed extinct), with St George's Cross emphatically on top. So what will become of those vestigial corners on the banners of Australia and New Zealand? More important, what will happen to what they have signified in the popular identity of these countries?

Britain's History Wars

Australians have already learned that big political shifts lead to 'history wars'. Inga Clendinnen's recent Quarterly Essay, The History Wars: Who Owns the Past has resumed the long dispute provoked by John Howard. (1) Now an analogous debate has been launched in Britain, thus far ably crowned by Michael Fry's definitive new book, The Union: England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707. (2) The book is a mixture of careful history of the Treaty of Union, as well as polemical argument for its repeal and for the resumption of Scottish independence--'resumption' (note) rather than 'claiming'. (3) Sometimes rows of this kind are dismissed as academic reinventions of the past to suit party factions or interests in the present. But there is more to it than that--as anyone in Australia who has dipped into the books and commentaries of Keith Windschuttle, Stuart MacIntyre or Robert Manne knows. The British case offers a still longer list, including Linda Colley's Britons, Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (2004) (4) and Captives: Britain, Empire and the World (2005); T. C. Smout's History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 (1998)(5); Neal Ascherson's Stone Voices: In Search of Scotland (2002), (6) a survey linking pre-history to the present day; Tom Devine's The Scottish Nation 1707-2000 (2001) (7); and Christopher Harvie's Mending Scotland (2004) (8) coming after No Gods and Precious Few Heroes (1998) and his Short History of Scotland (2002). (9)

Passionate identities are at stake in such wars. And these passions are the past: that is, the cumulative life-and-death baggage carried forward on the vessel of the present. The fate of the ship will actually depend on which bunch of stowaways gets control of bridge and helm. If rage over the past overcomes the present, it is for the sake of the future. And one characteristic pattern of such disputes is provided by disasters--exorcism of those past, and dread of others to come.

In the British case, Blair has been shaken out of office by the sheer unpopularity of the Middle East War and his obsequiousness to Bush. His successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, is currently entering an unprecedented and vociferous campaign--justifying not just New Labour and his own economic successes, but British identity as such. He launched a 'Save Britain' movement in January 2006 with a Fabian conference called at Imperial College to debate future identities, and he means to intensify it over 2007 and 2008. Prepare for a never-ending episode of the Little Britain TV series: each Little Brit could be patriotically blessed and US-style flagpoles rise in all front gardens for the restored Union flag. It should be remembered that one theme debated at the conference was introducing a new Australian-style public holiday: 'Britain Day'.

I know nations are forever being reinvented, and would-be leaders rarely fail to suggest improvements, but there is something particularly deep, even hysterical, about this new case. As a Scot, Brown knows that something has gone fundamentally wrong, and that important changes must be made. About twenty years ago, historian Eric Hobsbawm, annoyed by my own connections with what then seemed the hopeless cause of Scottish nationalism, reminded me sharply it was the Scots who really made the British Union in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was implying that to withdraw from the United Kingdom now would be a retrograde move, and that to try and reform it made more sense than abandonment. Whatever is now thought of this political recipe, his historical judgement was surely right. Though the British Kingdom unites a surprising number of countries and cultures, ranging from Wales to the micro-nations of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, its backbone remains the link with Scotland. And however complex that rapport has become, it in turn rests formally upon one thing. This is not an idea, or a sacred code or emblem, or even what recent sociologists call a 'habitus', a set of assumptions and common norms. It is a sheaf of papers.

I recall vividly the first time I set eyes on them. This was at a court hearing in the 1980s on Scottish protests over Prime Minister Thatcher's 'Poll Tax', a disastrous but short-lived attempt to reform the raising of local government finances. Some Scottish lawyers maintained that a head-count tax might be incompatible with the 1707 Treaty of Union, and hence illegal under Scots Law. At the hearing, the presiding judge testily decided that a copy of the Treaty was required and dispatched a clerk to make a photocopy from the Signet Library archives. Some hours passed before he returned with a handful of folded sheets--the nearest thing to a written constitution that British statehood has ever attained. Quite correctly, the judge declared he needed more time to study this document from time out of mind, and would give a verdict in due course.

A few days later it came: there were no grounds for thinking the Poll Tax incompatible with any clauses of the Treaty, and Scots would have to put up with it. A year or so later the whole project was of course abandoned, amid general relief and derision: it turned out that no one could tolerate it, not even in England. The petty-minded, over-literal Scots had objected prematurely to what came to be seen as impractical--indeed, a by-product of the fanatical strain in Thatcher's capitalist revolution. And the Treaty had not saved them. The same miserable old sheets would be later included, unchanged, in Tony Blair's later legislation on devolution in 1998. So the restored Scottish parliament was to go on being hamstrung by them, exactly like its ancestor of two hundred and ninety-two years previously.

True, the Empire finally shrank and converted itself into a relatively meaningless Commonwealth, nowadays a venue for sport rather than politics. However, phasing out the swanky, note-flourishing lodger was a lengthy business, which after the break with India in 1948 took the form of many relatively minor disgraces and humiliations. These generated cumulative depression rather than wishes for a break--that English mixture of melancholia and ironic resignation, perhaps best conveyed in the post-World War II poetry of Phillip Larkin. The defeats were not big or meaningful enough to force revolt: everyone put up with decline, Scots included. 'Decline' was nothing like the defeats inflicted on France in 1940, or on the losers of World War II, or upon the Soviet domains in the 1980s. To an indurate general conservatism, such retreat could always be presented as something other than terminal. And it was compensated for by second-rung material prosperity, as well as by vague hopes for redemption. Union cohabitation obviously grew less appealing, and following World War I a growth of nationalism in Scotland and Wales reflected that. But surely nothing too disastrous or final could overtake it?

Advent of the Global

And indeed it did not--until now. Defeat in the Middle East is the trigger, but it should be remembered that it is happening at a moment when all other recourses have proved disappointing, or have failed. Thatcherism has been followed by Blairism; that is, over twenty-five years neither the Right nor the Left of Britain's political spectrum has seriously redeemed the previous times of global distinction and domination, or restored the old sense of meaning and self-confidence upon which 'Britishness' used to depend. Gordon Brown believes this can be conjured up from the dead, but is mistaken. (10)

From 1979 to the present, foreign policy has grown ever more crucial for London: the era of the South Atlantic War, a protracted (and unresolved) debate over European Union, and NATO's Balkans crisis, as well as of the advance of globalization. Status and a global presence have shown themselves to be more important to the all-British identity than the post-World War II welfare state, or the conventions of liberal legalism. In the end, it is foreign policy fixation and delusions that have dragged the state into the present abyss. A feared subordination to Europe has turned into actual subservience to George W. Bush's American neo-conservatism, and condemned the UK army (with its large Scottish contingent) to the Iraqi charnel house and the hopelessness of Afghanistan.

One can make the same point via an inescapable contrast. Events have exposed a hollowed-out, craven and incurably anachronistic Great British state, at its worst when pretending to 'modernize'. Over exactly the same period, an intensifying globalization has been changing everything in quite different ways. Notwithstanding all the follies and exaggerations of the globalist creed, from the 'end of history' to the Murdoch press, it remains true that a profound shift of outlook has encouraged aspirations for change and new starts--'tumbled as they are into endless connection' (in Clifford Geertz's phrase), great powers and poor devils alike. (11) For all its pitfalls, the one world thrown up remains an authentically wider and expanding one--and bound, therefore, to resonate particularly strongly in a culture like Scotland's. In some ways Scottish society may have become over-committed to outflow and identity-switches--to being pathologically outward-looking, as it were. However, this same inclination may have attuned it to the new totalizing perspective, and to both the secular and religious belief systems that have accompanied it. (12) The present condition of globality is a disconcerting successor to the foundering of older forms of imperialism. But however much the former must distance itself from the latter, the line of descent should not be occluded.

The UK posture under both Thatcher and Blair has been as a vocal leader of an unreformed global imperium, one that bases itself on the Cold War's conclusion. Yet this course has ended by betraying all such hopes, and plunging the state into an end-game grimly reminiscent of everything at its worst in the old forms of empire. The descent upon Iraq should have been a victory for that would-be new, US-led world order. It has turned into an infamous and gory failure of the old, in which Great Britain's role has lapsed into a despicable mixture of bleating apologist and camp guard. Could any contrast be greater, or less controllable, in its repercussions? In the old-Brit two-party system, both great parties supported the American neo-imperial adventure; but neither imagined that failure might impose intolerable strains, not simply on those in office, but on the grander system that both the Monarchy and Westminster stand for: that is, the system whose axis remains the 1707 agreement, which Fry's book is about--the Treaty of Union.

Caught between global change and the 1707 agreement, what harm can there be, after all, in a Great Power shepherding the way towards civilization itself, along roads that all must, in the end, follow? The United Kingdom's hegemonic role (or 'burden') may have been merged into that of the United States. But England's essence will remain true to the outgoing mission--as if the Protestantism of earlier Britons had now mutated into the neo-liberalism of post-1989 victory. In a recent essay Krishan Kumar suggests any absence of English nationalism from today's scene may derive from that older tendency. So he doubts whether England can or should yield to anything so banal as nationalism ('reactionary', 'backward-looking' etc.). 'There is a wider world out there, with wider opportunities. It is time for the English to reach out, not to turn inwards ...' (13)

I doubt it. Tony Blair did nothing but 'reach out', yet in an utterly deluded way that sought to perpetuate these older conventions of outreach and wide-worldism. Kumar is not backing such delusions, of course. But the more important point is that new times call for a quite different style of outreach, beginning with emancipation from the paleo-imperialism of the Bush-Blair North Atlantic. Just as classic 'Free Trade' was impossible without assorted forms of protection and barriers, so positive globalization will work only via renewed forms of identity conservation, including that of national identity. I think the Scots know as much, if not more, about the outward-bound mentality. And they may be more aware of its pitfalls and temptations. Why else is the contemporary scene dominated by an ever-growing list of battling nationalist and irredentist claims, as well as 'rediscovered' identity concerns? Neo-liberal correctness put these all down as fossils. But since consciousness raising, too, is part of globalization, the relics cannot help growing more aware of their plight. And a self-conscious 'relic' is a nationalist dilemma. So far the devastating burning-glass of Iraq has produced three of them. Mobilized nationalities would not submit to high-command imperatives in the 20th century; they are surely even less likely to do so in the 21st. Seen in this way, Scotland's situation is typical rather than exceptional, and England's turn will surely come--'turning inward' is only a part of doing this, necessary for any remedy.

Even so, outside observers are bound to ask: isn't some intermediate or compromise arrangement possible among nationalities so long conjoined and sharing so much, even with all the shortcomings of the Union? For example, a federal or confederal British polity in which England, Scotland, Wales, one part of Ireland, and the micro-states, obtained equality of status and agreed on common rules and norms, sharing representation where appropriate? As things stand right now, the answer has to be: 'no'. While such formulae are easy to imagine, they are impossible in practice because of one factor: 'England'--at once the largest component of any such state, yet without any separate political identity or institutions whatever, and still so merged into a discredited Britain that few will even contemplate de-merger. (14) Or if they do, only via the shudder of a deprived, somehow shrunken 'little England'. In practice, therefore, the current turning away from Britishness has no alternative except straightforward independence, or separation--or, for the Scots, reversion to nation-state business as usual.

The move is depicted by Anglo-American leaders and Consuls as 'radical', extremist and so on, but this is self-serving rhetoric. To anyone like myself, following events from far away and returning only now and then for re-immersion, something else is far more noticeable. This is what I can only describe as mounting matter-of-factness. From the 1960s through into the 1990s, most of the debate on nationalism was conducted in a furnace of mutual loathing and recrimination. Passions could hardly have been more intense, especially on the side of threatened Britishness. In Scotland, this led to institutional hatreds and vendetta-like feuds between SNP nationalists and British-Labour loyalists. Today, however, the returning native will find relative composure, and even a degree of resignation. 'Pros' and 'cons' are today--which means, almost every day--listed and contrasted quite equably, in an atmosphere occasionally testy or bitter, but quite free from the explosive incriminations and lifetime sentences of a decade ago. It is as if, in Hume's sense, some passionate original existence had fled the scene.

As of course it has: for 'Britain' has lost weight, everywhere except in Gordon Brown's sermons, or in strained liberal attempts to promote a civic patriotism supposedly inseparable from Britishness. As a consequence, a real openness much more favorable to independence has appeared. This is why the Scottish Catholic electorate (about 17-18 per cent of Scotland's biggest cultural minority) has been drawn to vote for nationalism, and why Cardinal O'Brien appears so reconciled to independence 'before too long'. It is also why (as Fry's book and the interview with him in Prospect suggest) Conservatives are finding themselves in an analogous situation. Kumar also suggests in his essay that David Cameron's ostentatiously renewed Conservative Party has been swept out of the Celtic regions because 'it may be the English nationalist party in waiting'. (15) Few now expect Great Britain to make a phoenix-like reappearance at the next UK general election in 2008 or 2009; but nobody at all expects Cameron's neo-Toryism not to win in England.

Fry's book has repeatedly reminded me of one revealing incident in recent Scottish history. Fourteen years ago, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government were meeting in Edinburgh, a big demonstration was organized in the heart of Edinburgh, the Meadows Park. Its aim was to remind delegates that a nation was missing from the assembly, one that wanted to be heard again. An open-top double-decker bus was used as a platform among the trees, and author William McIlvanney gave from there what became the most memorable address of the day. Neal Ascherson has provided an equally memorable account of it in Stone Voices:
 And then, in a tone of tremendous pride, he said this: 'We gather
 here like refugees in the capital of our own country. We are almost
 seven hundred years old, and we are still wondering what we want to
 be when we grow up. Scotland is in an intolerable position. We must
 never acclimatize to it, never!'...' Scottishness is not some
 pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition! ...' At those words,
 for reasons which perhaps neither he nor they ever quite
 understood, the crowd broke into cheers and applause which lasted
 on and on. What survives from those moments on the Meadows are his
 proclamation of Scotland the mongrel, and the joy these words
 released. (16)


I was present at the event, and can recall the sensation vividly. It is quite true that nobody quite understood the thrill that made every nerve in the Meadows tingle. But that was because McIlvanney had touched something far deeper than the terms and conscious aspirations that had brought the crowd together, and still formed the official discourse of the day. He had broken through onto an unclaimed terrain, and given provisional voice to a pack of mongrels by rejecting the very idea of a pedigree 'lineage' (or ethnicity). He was speaking for people in a field or on a hillside, from nowhere or anywhere, with mud on their shoes and rain in their faces--yet some kind of different covenant in their hearts.

That was only three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the contemporary intensification of globalization was still in its infancy. But in retrospect, wasn't it already fostering something different, far beneath the official chorus-lines of Free Trade and Deregulation? Mongrelhood is the obverse of the older uniformed identities of state and nationhood. In the Scottish context, it is also curiously like the positive assertion of what had been lacking since 1707: 'self-confidence', whose desolating absence was somehow converted into a virtue, even a sort of strength. The joy came from that acknowledgement of something real, the sudden awakening of a feeling that Scottish half-life was no longer fate--plus the obscure sense that altering circumstances might yet favour this change, rescuing it from the confines of pedigree and repetition.

In Emma Rothschild's very apt phrase, a 'world of foundlings' was already on the rise, to which even a disabled country might hope to belong. (17) Globalization does not make all nations disappear, or become equally small. But it does make some permanently and irreversibly 'smaller', in the sense of rendering older styles of imperium and domination impossible--or perhaps (more realistically) retainable solely by reversion to the crude tactics of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet such retention is certain to be contested, and temporary (as the first six years of the 21st century have so cruelly shown). At bottom, the reason may be simple: in the new global dimension, not only are there vastly more mongrels than owners-club pedigree hounds (which was of course always the case) but the former are acquiring voice and presence, assisted by the Internet. A process of global democratic warming is going on, alongside global warming. On that foundation anti-globalism is less an opposite than a modification of globality, and of the distinct yet open societies that will alone make the global tolerable. The '-ism' was the trouble, not the opening-up. The world has been afflicted by Thatcher and Friedmanism, rather than the spread of capital and commerce in themselves.

And new foundlings may be particularly useful in formulating these. In his account of the origins of modern Scotland, Fry several times makes the interesting point that over 1706-07 it was not the case that the Scottish anti-Union parliamentarians were arguing for pedigree preservation and protection, or the erection of new barriers. On the contrary, some were demanding free trade, equal treatment and openness, and others a solution like the Netherlands United Provinces--both perceiving the retention of the national identity as necessary for such answers. The Union, on the other hand, stood for something simpler: 'incorporation' (the unvarying watchword of its devotees) into one increasingly successful quasi-mercantilist system: the armed imposition of laws convenient to its leadership, prosperity and empire.

The Union describes this process, and ends by arguing that it is time for our little country, Scotland, to de-incorporate itself. All genuine mongrels will agree with him. But my own belief happens to have been somewhat reinforced by living in the original land of foundlings: a continent-sized country of guaranteed mongrels, cast-offs, larrikins, hybrids, gold-diggers, escapees, confidence-artistes, refugees, boat-people and professional exiles. Of course most of them are still struggling too--not only to shake off the Poms and their Crowned progeny, but also used-Greatness salesmen and All-we-hold-dear-mongers from other parts as well. Not so totally different, in fact. I find myself wishing the tyranny of distance could be put into reverse, to let this homeland come into its own, and extend the counter-empire more effectively. But who knows: in time perhaps this too could be another unexpected byproduct of globalization.

(1.) I. Clendinnen, The History Wars: Who Owns the Past, Quarterly Essay, no. 23, Black Inc., 2006.

(2.) M. Fry, The Union: England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707, Birlinn Press, Edinburgh, 2006. Another very readable, and shorter, account of the events from a nationalist perspective came out in 2006: P. H. Scott, The Union of 1707: Why and How, Saltire Society, Edinburgh, 2006.

(3.) The author's political stance was reported at the same time, in Prospect magazine (no. 120, 2006). In an interview he describes his transition from Conservative candidate to Scottish nationalist.

(4.) L. Colley, Britons, Forging the Nation 1707-1837, New Haven, Yale University Press, and a new Yale Nota Bene Press edn, 2005; and Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850, London, Jonathan Cape, 2002.

(5.) T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830, London, Collins, 1970 and updated for 1830-1950 in A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, London, Collins, 1986.

(6.) N. Ascherson, Stone Voices: In Search of Scotland, New York, Hill and Wang, 2002.

(7.) T. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1707-2000, London, Allen Lane, 1991.

(8.) C. Harvie, Mending Scotland, Argyll, 2004.

(9.) C. Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1998 and his Short History of Scotland, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

(10.) In Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness (Institute of Welsh Affairs, 2006) I present the argument at greater length.

(11.) C. Geertz, Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 4.

(12.) Some background for understanding this continuity has been provided by Arthur Herman, in his How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It, New York, Three Rivers Press, 2001, a narrative linking the Scottish Enlightenment to neo-liberalism and early globalization.

(13.) See 'Empire and English Nationalism', in Nations and Nationalism, vol. 12, Part 1, January 2006. Kumar published by far the most definitive study of England in The Making of English National Identity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

(14.) The New Labour regime did in fact try to set up such a structure some years ago, when it still half-believed in reform: 'The Council of the Isles'--a reconfigured British Isles where all devolved and partial jurisdictions would be represented, with England being represented twice over, as itself and as the main stakeholder of 'Britain'. But this phantasm disappeared almost at once, when it became obvious that it could never function at all without more serious reform of the central power apparatus, including its electoral system. Within a few months the promised high point of constitutional change lapsed into total failure.

(15.) Kumar, p. 10.

(16.) Ascherson, pp. 75-6.

(17.) See 'What is Security?', in Daedalus, vol. 124, 1995. Similar themes are explored in P. James and T. Nairn, Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State Terrorism, London, Pluto Press, 2005.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Nairn, Tom
Publication:Arena Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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