British Nations and British “Nations”

Understanding the way the various nations of the United Kingdom work has long been a challenge for Australians I’ve spoken to. Since coming to the UK I’ve discovered it seems to be a challenge for a lot of people here too – though in some cases, it seems to be almost a deliberate misunderstanding.

Like all those European superstates, the UK started experiencing resistance to the dominant national culture in the 19th century, but different cultures at home were dealt with quite differently to different cultures in the international empire. All of these empires dealt with home dissidents differently. Austria changed its name and identity to Austria-Hungary in acknowledgement of the significant Magyar population (but also to enlist the Hungarians as part of the ‘ruling nation’, giving the Austrians an ally against the Czechs, Slovaks and various Yugoslavs in the Empire) after the 1848 uprising. Germany, after its all-rather-sudden unification in the 1870s, emphasised Germanity and the idea that Prussians, Bavarians, Rhinelanders and all the other ethnic groups were all elements of the greater German culture and language which united them – which perhaps worked a little too well, because if you think that the rise of Hitler and the Second World War were anything but the logical end state of this result you’re probably either naïve or a nationalist yourself. Spain took an even shrewder approach in the late 1970s, taking a step toward federalism and creating “Autonomous Communities”, which granted long-desired elements of sovereignty to ethno-linguistic groups like the Catalans and the Basques, yet also ensured that the movement would be slow to grow further, first of all by splitting the larger minority groups (land where a significant portion of the population speaks Catalan covers the entire AC of Catalunya, for example, but also parts of the Balearic Islands and Valencia) and second by diluting its significance by granting the same level of self-determination rights to places like Galicia and Andalusia – places which, due to historical circumstance (a longer survival of Celtic culture in the former, the strong influence of Moorish rule in the latter) have cultures which are slightly different to the dominant Castillian culture, but which do not – though perhaps I am being overly judgemental here – truly make up national cultures in their own right. Belgium became a three-state federation in the 1970s in response to the concentration of power in the Wallonian south while the majority of the population was part of the Flemish north (the capital territory, within Vlaandren but largely Francophone, makes up the third state), thought parliamentary deadlock in recent years has rekindled the debate over a split.

The UK’s response has been far less consistent, evenly-applied or, it must be said, successful. The contrast between Ireland and Scotland only makes sense when viewed through the lens of history: the conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century and subsequent colonisation and treatment of the Irish people was England’s dry run for its colonisation of North America, Africa, South-East Asia and the Antipodes (it’s also the reason a ridiculously disproportionate number of white people in settler nations with histories of racial and colonial oppression like Australia and the United States like to claim Irish ancestry, but that’s neither here nor there). Scotland, on the other hand, was welcomed into the union peacefully after failed attempts at military conquest in the Middle Ages, with the Scottish king taking the English throne in 1603 and the Act of Union – making the state, at least in theory, a union of equals – passed in 1707. The parallel continued into the 20th century, with Ireland staging a violent struggle for self-rule, succeeding in 1921 only to have a sixth of its land – the parts of Ulster where colonisation and settlement policies had been most thorough and Protestant immigrants were a majority – wrest straight back to the UK, leading to a near-century-long, still ongoing struggle for Northern Ireland which only intensified as the UK abandoned control of its overseas possessions. Scotland, on the other hand, experienced little of this, holding a successful devolution referendum in 1997 which led to the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1998 and a degree of self-rule, which has delivered results almost universally beneficial to the Scottish people (Scottish students, for example, will not only be spared the utterly ludicrous hike in student fees but do not need to individually pay fees for university education at all). As of a few weeks ago, the Scottish National Party now has a majority in the devolved Scottish Parliament, giving it the mandate it needed to hold a referendum on genuine Scottish independence. Such a referendum is unlikely to succeed, if recent opinion polls are anything to go by, but the fact that such a referendum is being considered is a significant step.

Then you have Wales, or as it’s known locally, Cymru. Unlike Scotland, it has neither the population (while Scotland is a small country, its population is barely smaller than the Irish Republic and larger than, for example, New Zealand) nor the natural resources (the idea of the wealth supplied to the United Kingdom by North Sea Oil staying in Scotland has been a major catalyst for the Scottish independence movement) to be successful as an independent country. Ruling out major innovation (some Welsh people believe that the wind and rain which makes living in the country such a pain could be harnessed to make the place an international capital of wind power, the way the Canadian maritime provinces hope to do with tidal energy) its people will continue to enjoy the lifestyles of a developed nation on the economy of a developing one. Because of this, the Welsh nationalist movement is far more conflicted than that of Scotland or Ireland – or continental contemporaries such as Vlaandren (major trade centre) or Catalunya (booming art scene and home of some of the world’s most popular tourism centres in Barcelona and the Balearic Islands). The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, noting this, have taken the progressivism and regional social democracy which has long been the modus operandi of the SNP and Sinn Fein, the Irish unification party which operates both in the Republic and Ulster (though it refuses to take the seats it is elected to in Westminster, because it believes that this would be seen as recognising and thus legitimising British presence in Ireland), and run with it at full-steam. What originally appeared as one of the more surreal moments of last year’s General Election, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh by the name of Mohamed Islam running as the Plaid Cymru candidate for Cardiff West, makes plenty of sense from the perspective of the niche Plaid occupy as a party. “Wales has given me so much, and I got into politics to give back to Wales” was Islam’s pitch to voters, and it’s clear that Plaid Cymru were the party for him to do that not simply because they support Welsh identity more than the other parties on offer, but because they supported the Welsh identity in a way which allowed them to embrace a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh not just as Welsh, but as Welsh enough to run as a candidate (albeit one who failed to make strong inroads against the major-party dominance in his constituency). Plaid Cymru aren’t naïve, they know they’re talking in terms of decades of development via strong economic and social policy rather than running headlong into an election with the intention of seceding next month. They have what nobody else seems to, a long-term plan. Which probably makes them the most intelligent party in the whole United Kingdom.

What it all, I think, comes down to in this globalised day and age, is identity and identification. Scots and Welsh people call themselves Scottish and Welsh. Happily, loudly, and to anyone who’ll listen – and frequently in a sort of defiant way. I’ve spoken to a couple who grew up in Scotland but moved to Enlgand decades ago, they identify as Scottish. I’ve spoken to a guy who moved to Scotland with his family when he was in his forties and who says that because his children were still children when they moved, he’s raised his children to think of themselves as Scottish and confesses that he wishes he could think of himself the same way. One girl in her late teens identifies as Welsh because her father’s family is from there – she’s never spent more than a few weeks at a time there and has lived her whole life in north London. People are happier to identify as part of a minority group for a variety of reasons, but most of them boil down to the same reason that unless they have an emotional stake in the game via their team or a team they hate playing, most people watching a game of football will barrack for the underdog. It’s this desire which is with us from birth, and I’ve very rarely seen exceptions: barely anyone wants to associate themselves with the concentration of power. Nobody was a bully at school even if they were, the bourgeoisie are middle-class, only Manchester United fans support Man U against Blackpool, and if someone can find a way to associate themselves with a non-dominant ethnic nationality in a multi-national state, they will.

Naturally, this enrages the ever-loving hell out of nationalists, crypto-fascists and reactionaries in general. The British National Party may be Anglo as anything but at least make the pretence of representing all of Britain and, of course “British” people (plus one Sikh who joined because he just really hated Muslims after they were told that their membership laws were so racist that they were illegal. But then you have groups like the England Defence League, who grew from humble origins as a group of football hooligans looking for someone other than each other to beat up while pissed off (ironically mostly European) cheap lager and adrenaline to a group capable of headline-making marches in major cities (during which they beat up others while pissed off cheap lager and adrenaline). A few months ago, the producer of the TV series Midsomer Murders said that he would never have a non-white character or even extra appear in his show because the location was intended to be “an idyllic English village”. Towns and villages just on the English side of the Welsh border (a border which, by the way, you really struggle to notice you’ve crossed if you’re travelling by coach or train) which lived for centuries under a mingled law and culture possible due to the decentralised nature of feudal rule became defiantly Anglicised when power was centralised in the nation-state during the early modern period, and when invented traditions (you know the sort – clan tartans, coronation ceremonies, the Green Man festival) began springing up in the 19th century as a reaction to the loss of power of the monarchy and aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, border towns like Shropshire latched onto them with all the eagerness we in the 21st century associate with born-again religious converts and the periphery became more “English” than the centre.

These two sentiments react against each other, collide and clash. English exceptionalists wonder how people who benefit from the English economy and standard of living can reject English culture and Englishness, considering it almost treasonous. Welsh and Scottish people notice that English exceptionalists are tossers and distance themselves further from England and English nationality. There’s a lot of people in Australia who believe that England, Scotland and Wales are different countries – though surprisingly, even more of them in the UK, even though the devolved parliaments have little more individual power than an Australian state. Pointing out what’s written on the front of their passport means little, pointing toward Westminster and the laws made there which affect the whole UK means even less. Identity is everything, and a people oppressed through economy, language or simply cultural hegemony is a people which most people will want to identify with. And for people with any claim toward being Welsh or Scottish – or hell, even Cornish – will make that claim and identify with that nation. At this point, that appears to simply be the human way.

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