10 June 2012

Ed Miliband: British nationalist.

The name may not be familiar, but most of you are likely to have come across some permutation of the “Moreno scale” in your time.  An attempt to measure national identities where dual loyalties may obtain, the Moreno measure sets the two potential identities against one another, obliging respondents to reject or give priority to one over the other, or in the alternative, hold the pair in balanced equilibrium.  In Scottish surveys, the focus has been Scottishness and Britishness, and the options usually take the following form:

Scottish not British

More Scottish than British

Equally Scottish and British

More British than Scottish

British not Scottish

For my part, I’m decidedly of the leftmost extreme.  I do not and have never felt British.  It is a concept which seems to address other people: I can’t find myself in it. Although I’ve lived and lived happily in England since the autumn of 2009, this resolution has not wavered, and is unaltered.  For me, concepts of Britishness generate only antipathy, and I find that I rub along quite cheerfully with my English neighbours as a Scot, without any need for an interceding British identity common to us both to form warm and meaningful ties.  Like my friends and colleagues who hail from Ireland - or Canada, or America, or linguistically adept folk from anywhere elsewhere in the world - shared language and common interests mediate the possibility of conviviality and social comity far more tellingly than any supervening national identity. 

In his "Defending the Union in England" speech this week, Ed Miliband applied himself to these sort of concerns. “What does this summer say about the United Kingdom? What does it say about our identity as a people in 2012?”, the Labour Leader asks, continuing on that in Scotland “the debate about who we are is in full force: “To stay in the United Kingdom or to leave? To be Scottish or British or both?” Note the framing. In a terse couple of sentences, Milliband has identified the independence referendum primarily as a test of popular feeling of identity.   On the logic he is propounding, if you are Scottish not British, you’ll vote yes in the referendum – anything else, and you’ll be opposed. 

What is interesting and curious about this account of the referendum is that it relies on an argument Miliband explicitly denigrates elsewhere. “The nationalist case, wherever we find it, is based on the fallacy that one identity necessarily erodes another”, he claims.  While this might be true for the black-white nationalist, if Miliband rejects this sort of logic, how can the independence referendum be a choice between being Scottish and British? On his own terms, rather than those of the straw man he duffs up, how can this characterisation of the referendum make any sort of sense? 

He quotes no nationalist who has framed the referendum as a moment of choice between being British vs Scottish, so he isn’t rebutting a specific contention made by a political rival.  I’m happy to concede that the Britishness vs Scottish model he discussed is one hypothetical argument amongst other arguments which a “Scottish not British” nationalist might make in the referendum, but Miliband doesn’t present this either/or choice as one nationalist articulation among others which might dissent from it, but instead, as an incorrigible, inevitable feature of nationalistic thinking “wherever we find it”. But if this sort of nationalism is a false choice – and incidentally, I agree, it is – then the independence referendum cannot really be about being British or Scottish, as Miliband suggests, can it? You can't posit a false choice, and then insist people stick to its dicky logic.

Accordingly, Miliband appears to be suggesting that the question – British or Scottish – is inevitably central to the independence discussion, whether or not nationalists actually base their arguments on the clash of identities he proposes. As Iain MacWhirter neatly summarises this morning, this is a familiar misreading of much of contemporary Scottish nationalism.  However, let's follow where Miliband leads.  Where does his theorisation of the link between nationalism and independence for nation-states lead us? Miliband seems to be claiming that nationalisms are inherently totalising.  But if Britishness is characterised as an identity constituted by its diversity, woven from various non-totalising national strands, for Miliband, Britishness surely cannot be a nationalism. But if not a form of nationalism, then what? He refers to the Jubilee’s exhibitions of Britain’s “gentle patriotism”, but at no point did he try to cavil out a workable distinction between British patriotism and Scottish nationalism, as Michael Forsyth did on BBC Question Time this week.  So we’re stuck with the confusion. 

I think it is safe to say that Miliband does conceive of Britishness as a nationalism, albeit different in kind from Scottish nationalism insofar as it is consciously constructed from other national identities which exist concurrently and compatibly with it. Which makes perfect sense, as his speech makes an essentially emotive nationalistic argument in defence of the current constitutional set up, shot through with premises he shares with many Scottish nationalists on the alternative side of the argument.  In many ways, Miliband’s speech exemplifies some of the British nationalist ironies I’ve discussed before.  Rather than using the Labour leader’s words, consider this pared down version of the argument.  Let’s take it through in stages.

I feel Xish
X is a nation.
Nations ought to be independent states.
Ergo, X should be an independent state. 

For Scottish nationalists of some persuasions, the argument takes this form:

I feel Scottish
Scotland is a nation
The United Kingdom is a state, but not a nation
Nations ought to be independent states
Ergo, Scotland should be an independent state and the UK Should break up.

What strikes me as interesting, and paradoxical, is that Miliband’s British national logic simultaneously adopts and rejects these premises.  Unlike the more typical Labour Unionist fare, Miliband’s defence of the United Kingdom isn’t premised on claims about shared social, economic and political projects.  While he makes a passing reference to impoverished grannies, his isn’t really an instrumental image of Union, bent on delivering social justice in a cross-national coalition of British workers.  His thesis isn’t stick together for a left-of-centre Britain, stay in the UK to help secure decent welfare provision for London’s vulnerable, but instead is explicitly concerned with a British identity, and implicitly, a British nationalism.  Despite his argument that either/or Scottish nationalism is folly and confusion, he puts British identity at the heart of his defence of the Union.  Indeed, one can summarise his argument in essentially the same form as the hypothetical Scottish nationalist case we were imagining:

I feel Scottish and British
Both Britain and Scotland are nations
Some nations ought to be independent states, others not.
Ergo, Britain should be an independent state, and Scotland shouldn’t.

If you accept these premises, the obvious question is: why should some nations become independent states and not others? I've argued before that this is one of the most curious aspects of British nationalist theory, coupling identity with the political project of sustaining the United Kingdom. For Miliband, nationalism seems both to entail and not to entail the demand that national identity find representation in political institutions, in parliaments and bodies and tribunals and so on. But for the Union to make any sort of sense, we have precisely to reject the idea that all nations ought to be independent states. Scots may be nationalists - think of themselves in national terms, share national identifiers - but the Unionist has to break the intellectual link between nations and the imperative to acquire separate sovereignty for those nations.  Critically, this sort of Unionism doesn't reject the idea that Scotland is a nation, but rejects the proposition that this must needs lead to distinct states and political institutions.  

Ironically enough, this argument is precisely mirrored by various nationalists who've recently been (unlike yours truly) elaborating on their own sense of Britishness.  In response to Miliband's speech, folk like Pete Wishart contend that his argument simply conflates Britishness and the United Kingdom state. Just as the Unionist Scot must insist that his Scottish identity need not entail independence, so Wishart simply inverts the argument.  Even if you feel British, and identify as British, you may support Scottish independence. A shared national sensibility need not equate to belonging to the same state. On this, ironically enough, both Wishart and the most inveterate Scottish Unionist surely agree. Rhetorically, theoretically, both the Scottish nationalist and the British unionist have to find ways to isolate the institutional and political consequences of admitted national identities.  It's a queer sort of mirroring.

I was also struck by the terms in which Ed characterised his “dark English nationalism”.  A “mirror image of the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism”, the conception of Englishness which Miliband denigrates is envisaged as “anti-Scottish, hostile to outsiders, England somehow cut off from the rest of Britain, cut off from the outside world, fearful what is beyond our borders. Convinced that our best days behind us”. Ed circumlocutes around the real-world points of reference he intends to refer to, but it seems fairly obvious to me that the mordant, melancholy defensiveness he describes refers not to England, but to the primarily English spokesmen and women of contemporary mordant, melancholy and defensive Britain and Britishness.  Think about it.  England’s better days behind it? England doesn’t want all these immigrants? When was the last time you heard anyone say either of these things?

If, by contrast, you replace English with British, the sentences start sounding much more familiar.  And here’s the rub.  If you listen to contemporary political debate in these islands, you’ll soon find that the narrow nationalism, xenophobia, anti-European sentiments and melancholy for lost imperial mission which Miliband alludes to are primarily articulated in terms of Britishness, rather than Englishness.  As Michael Gardiner has so neatly put it, at present, we have a British politics in England as opposed to an English politics in England. That the key voices articulating this sort of British politics are English shouldn’t prompt us to make Miliband’s mistake of attributing to a “dark English nationalism” the vices of a very British nationalism. 

That he makes the mistake is explicable when we remember that it isn’t exactly unusual to see England/Britain conceived as the twin good-and-bad Janus faces of England’s patriotism. While Britishness is seen to be inclusive, civic, porous, available to all pigmentations in the human spectrum, Englishness has often been imagined in ethnic and racial terms, the property of white men and women.  The stuff of racist soccer hooligans and the EDL.  For those who see English nationalism as incorrigibly reactionary, Britishness offers the inclusive alternative national story. Madeleine Bunting's piece after the 2011 Holyrood election typifies this sort of anxiety: "If Scotland goes, all we'll have left is the Englishness we so despise".

In Scotland, by way of contrast, we have a nationalist discourse in which Scottish identity uncomfortably incorporates both of these elements, the racialising and the non-racialising.  There is evidence, for instance, that Scottishness is currently perceived as an civic identity available to our ethnic minorities in a way that Englishness is not. And a grand thing that is too. However, that isn’t the whole story, and there are certainly Scottish nationalists out there who would reject this understanding, couching their nationalism in suspect theories of race, envisaging their wan-faced compatriots as the privileged bearers of Scottishness.  A given Scottish nationalist may be a racist, or strongly opposed to racism, and must struggle between themselves to promote their understanding of their nationality, civic or ethnic, racialising or non-racialising. While Scots must contend with the Janus faces of their nationalism, for many folk in England thinking about Englishness and Britishness, Jekyll and Hyde are simply seen as two different men, the one brutish and unattractive, the other fond, open and fair-minded.  England all vice, Britain all uprightness.  Neither proposition seems to me remotely convincing. 

While Miliband’s distinction between a good and bad Englishness shows some awareness of this sort of analysis of nationalisms, his speech effects an altogether different sleight of hand, devolving British vices onto English nationalism, while glossing over the extent to which lapsed imperial and Britannic stories are palpably much more strongly implicated in contemporary Britain’s xenophobic, anti-European and nostalgic politics.  The exclusions demanded by our political discourses on immigration, for example, are conducted in British – not English – terms.  While the Janus-faced logic of nationalism is thus recognised in Englishness, it is conspicuously absent in Ed’s candyfloss account of Britishness, all inclusion, emancipation and generosity.  Humbug and moonshine.   


  1. Milliband is one of the best weapons the Yes campaign has. I welcome the opinions of any English toff telling Scotland what's best for Scotland, even more so if they can't even be bothered crossing the border to do it.

    Talking utter nonsense is a bonus, cheers Ed.

  2. British til the day I die,
    Rangers til mid July.
    Not really but we have a 3 way split in relation to national identity.
    Having lived in London in the 80's I sometimes frequented the Royal Parks with a few friends and some fortified wine. "Drinking MadDog with Englishmen out in the Mid Day sun." Great times and none of them wanted to oppress the Scottish People.

  3. Did Miliband inform, before his lecture, that the people of the Isle of Man and the Channel islands are no longer British, because they are not part of the UK?

    And when, exactly did he attain the divine power to decide upon geographic designation? What next? Will he think he is Napoleon, or Admiral Nelson?

    If Britishness were freed from the blood-stained taint of the butcher's apron, and detached from the Rule Britannia, Union Jack booted, chauvinistic, jingoism, it might - just might, become a desirable designation.

  4. Richard Thomson10 June 2012 at 15:02

    Milliband and Forsyth's respective stands seem quite straightforward and are perhaps best explained in terms of a peculiar form of British exceptionalism. Viz and to wit - 'nationalism is an infantile disease, which affects only those unfortunate creatures who aren't, by reason of geography or by dint of some grevious moral or intellectual failing, able to consider themselves British.'

    For British unionists it's a bit like an irregular verb: "I am a positive patriot; you are a narrow nationalist; he is a xenophobe."

  5. I imagine Mr. Miliband would be a bit bemused by this quite extensive treatise. Being English, he has never had to worry much about the difference between English and British. (It's the Scots, and other junior partners in this merger of ours) who have had to make sure they define their "-ness.")

    Isn't it more likely he's just being a economical politician? With one speech he can demonstrate he supports the Union (a promise made to Mr. Cameron); he gets to put some fear into Persuadables who hadn't realised they'd lose their Britishness overnight; and he gets to speak on the theme of Englishness for reasons of countering the BNP's theft of his core vote, without having to play a race card of any sort.

    Quite clever, really.

  6. Fascinating piece. I count myself firmly in the middle camp - British and Scottish - and am perfectly happy for anyone to have as many multiple identities as they wish without it causing me any grief. Such is life. I know two young Glasgow-born Pakistani women who felt very Pakistani until they went to Pakistan on holiday and came back feeling very Scottish - when they visit their English cousins they feel British!

    If Aiden McGeady scores for Ireland there will be wild cheers in the Brazen Head and other Celtic pubs, and there will be jeers in many other Scottish pubs. The less jeers there are, the more civilised we become as a nation.

  7. Nationalism is an infantile disease yet in every conflict between Nationalism and Internationalism, Nationalism wins out. I have always regretted this. Thus my strange hobby of trolling, nay, stalking, ultra left nationalist sites asking why so many Trots support a Bourgeois Nationalist project. Getting a bit bored with that though, did a head count and reckon the SSP / SWP / CWI groups add up to about 250 people all in these days.

  8. The problem with that Moreno polling is that the question doesn't actually ask about nationality.

    Put it this way.

    Imagine if it asked questions like this:

    Are you:

    Scottish not Protestant

    More Scottish than Protestant

    Equally Scottish and Protestant

    More Protestant than Scottish

    Protestant not Scottish

    Or try it this way

    Are you:

    Scottish not Glaswegian

    More Scottish than Glaswegian

    Equally Scottish and Glaswegian

    More Glaswegian than Scottish

    Glaswegian not Scottish

    Or this way:

    Are you:

    Scottish not a Celtic fan

    More Scottish than a Celtic fan

    Equally Scottish and a Celtic fan

    More a Celtic fan than Scottish

    A Celtic fan not Scottish

    See what I mean?

  9. I listened to Ed Millibands speech and felt irritated.
    He explained his own back ground in detail and where he was, as British-However for me, -I felt he confuses as many English people do -England Britain (same word)-our ancestors fault in Scotland who accepted England expect every man to do his duty --and so on where references to Britain were often replaced with England -as if Scotland never existed.
    So therefore I do not feel English-with a highland grandmother on fathers side and a Highland great grandmother on my mothers side --no doubt at all in my mind where my nationality lies.
    But British -well -I have a British passport -and both grandfathers fought in 1914 18 war and my father 2nd world war -my husband 12yrs service in Royal Navy.
    I am not sure who exactly taught me all of my Scottish history -was it school ? also my father who was a Gordon Highlander and whose mother was a Highlander-I think now history of Scotland were my bedtime stories.
    I was disappointed to realise that Ed Milliband like most,- saw England -as interchangeable with Britian-as he aspires to be our Prime Minister--His parents were raised in Europe -from a unique Jewish background -a race of people who never forget any of their history at all --why couldn't he understand the identity and history of the Scot -so different from England--and as his ancestors have felt the pain of tribulation --Scots in the past have experiences of ethnic cleansing with Highland clearances -long time ago -but its there with its emotions- .
    Of course I am expecting too much -his parents had there history to pass on , and what he would learn at school came from English History books -so maybe not too much on Scots.
    So are we expected to forget OUR unique past and culture -and just expect the watered down English version?. No I don't think so -So I know I am a Scot that's that -no doubt in my mind -and as for the British part Well I could live without it -We are going to accept the tag United Kingdom as that is what it will be -A United Kingdom-as Queen and royalty remain--but Westminster Government has to be looked at carefully -certain things may require unanimous decision making -perhaps! -but then there is West Lothian Question --so still much to be looked at . Serious discussion is required not this 'school kid' name calling going on by Labour Party who I feel are anxious only for their own Westminster positions. We must sort this out and two years is not long to do it in.

  10. Anon:

    'The problem with that Moreno polling is that the question doesn't actually ask about nationality.'

    Indeed. An interesting transposition would be to have an Irish tricolour in place of the Union Jack then ask your Celtic/Scottish questions. Celtic supporters are famously not much of a presence in the self-styled 'Tartan Army' - yet that doesn't mean they don't support the Scotland team or for that matter vote SNP. We are all a bit more complex than it seems!

  11. Milliband's speech was as much about positioning Labour for post-union Westminster politics as it was about appealing to the Scots for the continuation of the union.

  12. Perhaps the saddest thing so far is Labour using the Orange Card.

  13. Miliband's is a British nationalism if you think of nationalisms as essentially 'projects': seeking to realise and preserve a particular vision of the nation in question. In his speech, Miliband sets out his vision of Britain / the UK as a 'country' that subsumes the purported four 'nations' of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. Focusing mainly on England, in fact, he sets out a vision for how each of these nations finds their fullest and truest expression by coming together in the United Kingdom; so that, really, the UK becomes a nation representing the summation of the four constituent nations. Hence, it's a national project or nationalism; and Britain / the UK is, for Miliband, ultimately 'the nation'.

    Hence the logic of excluding Scottishness from Britishness in the case of Scottish independence: Britishness is a national project, not a cultural identity, from which the Scots will have separated themselves by 'going it alone'.

  14. Congratulations on a great article.
    I think Milliband's attack on a dark Englishness is just typical debased political debating in which people like him are all too prone to smear opponents whenever their opponents' case is a good one that would be difficult to rebut - like the argument for an English Parliament. (Almost perfectly in confirmation of his use of this ad hominem tactic, he claims that few support an EP when in fact opinion polls have shown overwhelming support for years now!)
    Part of the reason that Ed Miliband, the MP for Doncaster North, is focussing on the threat that he thinks English Nationalism poses to his party advantage is that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council is run by our Mayor and we have just comfortably beaten off Labour's attempt to unseat him in a referendum which we won 65%.

    Robin Tilbrook,

    Chairman, The English Democrats,

    Blog: http://robintilbrook.blogspot.co.uk/

    FB Profile: http://www.facebook.com/robin.tilbrookParty

    Key facts about the English Democrats

    The English Democrats launched in 2002. The English Democrats are an English Nationalist Party campaigning for a Parliament for England, First Minister and Government, with at least the same powers as the Scottish ones within a Federal UK; St George’s Day to be England’s National holiday; Jerusalem to be England’s National Anthem; Referendum to leave the EU; An end to mass immigration; The Cross of St George to be flown on all public buildings in England; The English Democrats are England’s answer to the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. The English Democrats’ greatest electoral successes to date: winning the Directly Elected Executive Mayoralty of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council; 2009 EU election gained 280,000 votes after a total EU campaign spend of less than £20,000, giving the English Democrats by far the most cost efficient electoral result of any serious Party in the UK.

  15. Anonymous said @ 8.10

    'Milliband's speech was as much about positioning Labour for post-union Westminster politics as it was about appealing to the Scots for the continuation of the union.'

    And that's all we need to know about his speech at the RFH, however:

    It was the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who said (after failing to secure a yes vote for regional government in the north-east of England), on radio: "the English don't exist".

    If you add to that the appalling comment about the English made several years ago by the former Minister for Justice, Jack Straw (open mike gaff at a mosque in Blackburn),then you'll understand the type of scum we have representing us.

    This whole English-ness thing started with a speech Labour's John Denham MP made a few months before that last General Election. A speech wherein he made a commitment to do to English identity what they (Labour) had done to British identity, i.e. racialize it. Denham sees English identity as a 'battle', over which he and his party would fight and win.

    It is unlawful under international law to interfere, either politically or economically, with the identity of any ethnic group. To do so is punishable with long terms of imprisonment guaranteed. According to the UN (I've checked) English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are all ethnic groups.

    I am English and apolitical.
    Having served in the Armed Forces I know exactly who the Scots, Welsh and Irish are, and I love them all.

    Minority status is however the fate of the English - according to the ONS, between the second and third quarter of this century we will become a 'majority minority' and by the end of this century an 'absolute minority'. This makes me very sad so you'll forgive me I don't 'celebrate' the demise of my own people.


  16. Exceedingly interesting comments, all. To pick up a few points made...

    Anonymous 10 June 2012 12:04,

    While I'm happy to see Miliband shellacked (along with anybody else) when he's talking nonsense, given his biography, I don't think he exactly qualifies as a toff. Solidly bourgeois, certainly, with a tiring, political henchman's CV, but no toff.


    I think BritologyWatch has the pith of the thing here. While I know Pete Wishart and others are promoting that sort of bounded, geographical account of Britishness, Miliband's clearly about other business, with different definitions and boundaries.

    Richard Thomson,

    I find that phenomenon profoundly interesting. Every nationalism is bad, but mine - and let's call it patriotism, to pettifog our way out of our predicament. Very common among Unionist internationalists of some stripe, who seem intent on being practitioners of "internationalism in one country", apparently without a smidgeon of awareness of how odd this position's disavowal of its national-theorising is. Odd.

  17. Anonymous 10 June 2012 21:34,

    As you and Edwin Moore observe, the Moreno scale simply presupposes two overlapping but potentially problematic identities, however these might be classified: national, region, religion, football fannery.

    For many people, the British and/or Scottish question is to ask about two, simultaneously-held national identities. I'm sociologist enough to strongly believe that we construct our national identities through discourse, and accordingly, it is easily open to folk to think of Britishness as a national identity. As I allude to in the piece, I don't find myself in it, and recognise that many nationalists theorise the UK as a state but not a nation - but as BritologyWatch says, conceived as a political project, British nationalism comes to making some sort of sense.

  18. Groundskeeper Willie12 June 2012 at 09:10

    Issy 4512 --''Scots in the past have experiences of ethnic cleansing with Highland clearances -long time ago -but its there with its emotions-''

    The Highland clearances were not ethnic cleansing. They were brought about for economic reasons by land owners, irrespective of their nationality, seeking to maximise the return on their capital. England, and many parts of mainland Europe, went through the same process where 'sheep ate men' centuries earlier.


    Milliband bourgeois? Only in the sense that he talks posh and went to Oxford, a bit like yourself.

  19. Groundskeeper Willie,

    Milliband bourgeois? Only in the sense that he talks posh and went to Oxford, a bit like yourself.

    I don't know if I "talk posh", but otherwise, you've got me banged to rights.

  20. Miliband's speech is just another short chapter in an epoch of fairy tales.

    As a politician he's a reactionary without a cause other than the maintenance of the status quo of establishment expedience.

    Unfortunately the independence camp is falling into the same reactionary camp when it should be advocating a radical approach of a nation in the cusp of regaining its independence by forging a constitution and form of democratic governance fit for the 21st century.

    For or against this should be the most exciting and invigorating time for all that are still breathing and have lived long enough to have experienced memories.

    Instead it's akin to a grumbling argument between an octogenarian couple(same or opposite sex -I don't care) who don't really like one another but it's just too much bother to do anything about it.

  21. Brilliant piece. The most methodical dismantling of Milibot's wooly logic I have seen yet. Bravo!