Anthony Barnett is a writer and Founder of openDemocracy. This piece is an edited extract from his forthcoming book The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump. Published by Unbound, it goes on sale later this month and you can preorder the paperback from Hive or Amazon.
“As an English person, I would like to declare up front: I do not want to be English”. In a sentence, this tells you why the UK is no longer in the European Union. The author, Paul Mason, is a scathing critic of Brexit; I respect him a lot. In no way is it his intention to support the cause of leaving Europe – whether under the banner of Farage and his backers, Gove and Murdoch, or Boris Johnson and Theresa May. I am not blaming Mason for something he passionately opposes. But from his egalitarian, internationalist perspective he expresses with exceptional clarity an educated English repugnance with their nation – a repugnance that has deprived the English of a country they can believe in politically. The contradiction here is very powerful: the English have an immense cultural self-awareness of being English, with long, varied historic and regional roots, which creates a fearlessness. But it is coated with the defensive armour of Britain’s one-time imperial class system that subordinated yet employed them. The popular fascination with the servant and striving classes, who in endless ways juggle defiance and deference in television costume dramas and soap operas, reflects this strong and persistent tension. To spring the trap the English need England to become itself. With a healthy patriotism and self-belief, it will then become possible to be at ease with being European as well. An enormous resistance needs to be overcome. I’m going to use Mason’s article to address it.
Mason is not denying that he is English; he just refuses to let this define his political status. Instead, he cloaks what it means to be a native of England with a globalist sentiment, which he does by appealing to the planetary reach of the English language. He thereby joins most of his country’s cultural intelligentsia right and left, whether filmmakers, television pundits, artists, columnists, actors, directors and playwrights, poets, novelists, scientists or academics, in refusing to come to the help of their English nation. Without them, it will remain trapped forever within a Britannic integument that is incompatible – institutionally and emotionally – with membership of the EU.
Mason’s stark declaration followed the Conservative election victory in 2015 and their promise of EVEL, to ensure “English Votes for English Laws”. He wrote a column in The Guardian headlined “I do not want to be English”. His writing is distinguished by his trenchant thinking and grasp of political economy. His book, Post-Capitalism, is a sweeping contribution to a much-needed development of a strategy to replace market fundamentalism. In it, he shows that a confrontation is underway, rooted in the economy. Networks are replacing the hierarchies of the forces and relations of production. The challenge to control the networks is now the struggle of our time, he argues. It means that the most hierarchical area of all, politics itself, will be upturned. It’s a compelling analysis.
Mason is the opposite of a narrow or nostalgic critic. That he too feels a shudder of revulsion at the thought of England as the definition of his citizenship confirms the strength and penetration of this negative culture of feeling. At least he does so fearlessly. A less brazen attitude is widespread across England’s educated classes of all political persuasions. Many a time have I heard people – whether from the nether reaches of the House of Lords, the residues of New Labour, or sympathetic and scrupulous friends, say “I don’t really feel English”, or “I’m not interested in being nationalist”, or “I’m a northerner and a European”, or “I’m a Londoner and then international”, or “unfortunately I’m English” which at least is a recognition. The exception to this pervasive miasma is Billy Bragg, wrongly patronised as a mere bard, whose passionate argument for a progressive English patriotism was accorded “a certain charm” by The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead when all seemed well in 2006. That kind of patronising superiority provoked the grim Anglo-Saxon defiance of 2016. But, and here is the rub, until the English can accept that they are English, there is no way back to Europe. This won’t happen unless those like Paul Mason check into reality. Strange as it may seem, the only road back to Europe for those that wish this, as Mason does, is via England.
Mason observes that, thanks to the Scottish Nationalist’s domination of Scottish politics, English issues will become more important. His response is, “as an English person I would like to declare up front: I do not want to be English”. He does not object to the cross of St George – he accepts that football has taken back the English flag from the racists. But “if I examine my own gut feelings”, he writes, he finds he has more in common with his class and Celtic cultures than any ‘Englishness’ – which he defines as meaning “public schools and the officer class” (although these are British institutions which recruit across the UK and were integral to the creation of the Empire). His concern is that because new “English institutions” are coming, “sooner or later someone is going to try and foist an English narrative on us”. It will fail, he predicts, because “at the centre of English culture lies neither institutions, nor customs, nor sports teams, but a global language”.
“English national identity” will not emerge, Mason insists, “because of the class and cultural divides within England, and because our linguistic identity is so full of free gifts from the rest of the world. Sure, this is a legacy of empire, but the empire itself was born out of trade and sailing, two activities whose identities are central to English identity, which explains why it is so difficult to pin down.” Mason concludes, “Please don’t try to burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics. The only identity I need can be created by speaking and writing in the most malleable language on earth”.
The assumption here is that we need only one identity. If so, it can be international. From financiers to globe-trotting academics, it’s a familiar song of those who benefit from globalisation’s ability to abstract them from everyday life. It should not seduce such a grounded observer as Mason. Working for Channel 4 and Newsnight, he reported memorably and sympathetically on the new generation of protests. He went to Wall Street to film the Occupy movement in their encampment at Zuccotti Park, where they flew the American flag quite naturally. They could do so in part because it symbolises a republican and revolutionary patriotism, one with which they were quite at ease. Before that Mason covered the development of the Greek crisis at length, and the country’s fight against German-imposed austerity. It was impossible to share any sympathy with the Syriza Government’s election and initial defiance of Eurozone austerity, as he did, without experiencing its Greek patriotic distinctiveness. On the warm evening when young crowds gathered to celebrate the Oxi referendum – when the Greeks voted No to the terms being imposed on them by the EU – they sang wartime songs of resistance to Germany’s occupation. In Scotland, Mason was one of the few contemporary analysts to recognise that the impulse of youthful support for Scottish independence during the referendum of 2014 was linked to the same international insurgency of opposition to the existing world order that drove those young Greeks and the Wall Street occupiers. I met him in Glasgow when he was with his team, filming during the final hours of the referendum itself.
None of the protestors would have regarded themselves as being only Scottish, or only Greek or only American. They were also part of an inchoate movement seeking global solidarities, as well as local loyalties and decentralisation – a tolerant, civic nationalism opposed to both exclusivist chauvinism and indifferent globalism. Yet Mason regards his own country and himself as being in no need of similar open-minded civic patriotism. He extends his solidarity to them but reviles the prospect of becoming like them. As they reframe their national identities in a democratic fashion, he insists he has no need for national identity at all.
The young who identify themselves as Americans in Occupy Wall Street, or as Greeks in Syntagma Square, or as Scots in calling for independence, are part of a forward-looking defiance of an unequal world order, not a regressive attempt to “foist identity politics” onto all and sundry. Civic nationalism is not about fusing your politics with a signifier buried in your background or DNA. Identity in its emancipating sense is part of the relationships to be found in the movement outside of yourself, in the wider culture, society and politics. How you carry and share your national identity matters. Denial is one of the most disabling. If the English were to embrace the truth of their existence, it would be an act of modesty, equalising matters. Its repression is a neo-imperial indulgence.
When it comes to the manipulations of spontaneity in the marketplace, Mason sees how larger forces are at work, which manipulate economic subjectivity in terms of choice and consumer fashion. With national identity too, gut feelings are never just the outcome of one’s own experience, even though they are stronger. They are also formed by social forces, if slower historical ones that shape us. Nationalism developed alongside industrialisation. The nation that initiated this was “God’s firstborn: England”, in Liah Greenfeld’s terms. Thanks to its legal structures and naval power England precipitated the industrial revolution that transformed humankind. All other societies had to mobilise their resources to resist being subordinated by its impact, to catch up and industrialise themselves – from America, to France, to Germany and China. It was this material ‘nationalisation’, as Ernest Geller argued, that brought pre-industrial societies into the modern world via nation states. They did so culturally, with print culture generating the extraordinary identification of oneself with many others, so powerful that, as Ben Anderson sets out in Imagined Communities, they are willing to die for them.
As the first modern nation, the English enjoyed an enormous advantage. They did not need to rebel against others. They had no need to internally forge their nationalism to defend themselves, rather were the threat to others from the start. Their immediate island neighbours were recruited into what became a joint project: the British, not the English Empire. In the early 1970s, Tom Nairn wrote The Left against Europe to explore why the Labour movement and the British left felt no need to be European, and overwhelmingly resisted becoming part of the European Union both in 1972 when the UK joined and in 1975 when there was the first referendum on membership.
British imperialists were not simply the first, the biggest, and the most successful plunderers on the international scene; they were also the best at pretending that their empire was really something else. It was this ‘liberal imperialism’ which the British workers’ movements grew up within. From the outset therefore, nationalism was to assume for them this distinctive and tenacious colouring. Their ‘living community’, their ‘participant democracy’ was not that of a mere battling nation-state: it merged into a greater, spiritual, multi-racial, inter-continental and realistically heterogeneous something-or-other.
Today, it is remains excruciatingly painful for many on the left who are the inheritors of the workers’ movement to abandon their special something-or-other for, well, for Englishness. Instead, in the Labour party, Britishness has been embraced with even greater resilience than on the Tory right. But Scottish nationalism has not just become an indelible part of the UK. Its political expression, the SNP, has expelled Labour from its Scottish redoubts. While Scottish Toryism was an addition to the English Tories, the Labour party was co-created by Scottish and Welsh leaders alongside English ones. From the start, ‘Labourism’ was always British; just as the island’s working class was formed by Clydeside and the Welsh valleys as much as the Black Country and the London docks. The profound grip of this experience means that even after the end of New Labour, when the SNP has clearly displaced the party in Scotland, Labour leaders such as Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn – both Londoners – found the idea of Labour becoming an English party unimaginable. A visceral shudder went through them and their supporters at the thought. To become what they clearly and obviously are remains intolerable.
There are political reasons for Labour’s resistance to recognising itself as an English party. It points towards abandoning an absolute commitment to governing alone, which is built into winner-takes-all Westminster politics. Labour is very tribal and party members hate the idea of electoral alliances. There is also a cultural imaginary getting in the way. A good look in the mirror without their British make-up would tell them they are English. But they fear the perception that they will be seen as narrow, Farage-like, bigoted and altogether dreadful – “bogus” is Mason’s word – and go to the most extraordinary contortions to deny it, one being a direct leap into internationalism.
Paul Mason attempts a genial solution. He knows he must have an identity. So, he makes it linguistic: “the only identity I need can be created by speaking and writing in the most malleable language on earth”. Such an argument, however, must apply equally to everyone brought up with English in their mouths. Would an American, a Jamaican, a middle-class Indian, a Pakistani or a Canadian deny their national identity in the way that Mason does, because they have the same access to English? Of course not. Speaking English naturally enhances their national identity – it does not replace it. Suppose that the world language Mason enjoys was not called English, but instead its name was Jamaican. Would Mason argue that he has no need at all to regard himself as English because he speaks the world language of Jamaican?
His claim only appears to be plausible because his native language and his nation have the same name. Because England was the first nation and created the largest empire of the early industrial period its tongue has become a world language. Mason uses this to deny his need for a mere nationality and expresses an attitude that is quintessentially English. Unlike everyone else around the world who include attachment to their country among other identities, he is above such a need. This is an expression of unselfconscious superiority. Mason is being an English nationalist when he makes it.
Mason is right in one vital respect. He, and millions like him, will refuse to embrace the creation of an English identity within Britain. They are not going to support a movement to create an English parliament underneath the existing British-Westminster system. After all, they are 80% of the British and Northern Irish population. For the Scots, having their own new parliament is a way of growing as a people, of becoming more themselves in both Britain and Europe. For the English, to set up an assembly of the English in addition to the House of Commons, when this is already England’s parliament, represents no such emancipation. Powerful regional assemblies are essential, as Westminster is far too centralised. But these do not address the national question. Nor will an additional parliament that is perceived as adding “another layer” of oppression and a further grinding down, rather than providing an escape from the British carapace that is the abiding problem. In addition, a call for an ‘English parliament’ would challenge the mongrel identity of many people who mix Scottish, Irish, Welsh and a hundred other nationalities, as well as numerous immigrants and their children. All that is needed is a parliament of England that re-occupies the existing House of the common peoples. Relieved of the crushing weight of serving great, global Britain, England, together with its independent neighbours, can then enjoy its Britishness to the full, no longer bloated by institutional grandiosity.
Today, Europeans describe themselves as being civic nationalists to distinguish their form of patriotism from exclusivist, chauvinist mobilisations of the past. Open and tolerant both internally and externally, European nationalism has become pluralist and lawful, not bullying, monomaniac and demagogic. Today, a new civic normal is being created, as it is changed by the fifth, digital, element that is adding itself to the dimensions of land, sea, air, and outer space that form the environment for our species and our planet. As well as being civic, nationalism is now becoming networked. Networked nationalisms will play an essential part in public identities this century. To say that one’s own distinctiveness is only national is to defy the nature of life today. To deny that one’s identity is also national is to deny one lives amongst present day humanity. Those of us who are “English persons”, to use Paul Mason’s description, must embrace reality: we are English Europeans.
 Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Cambridge MA, 1993; Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca, NY, 1983; Ben Anderon, Imagined Communities, London 1983, revised 2006.
 Tom Nairn, The Left Against Europe, Middlesex, 1983.