Separatism has never been the English way of life

Leave nationalism to others: in England diversity rules, says Felipe Fernndez-Armesto
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The Independent Online
Don't be so English," says the Ikea advertisement. "Swedish style" is offered as an antidote to stuffed sofas and stuffy souls - a means of resuscitation from rigor mortis of the upper lip. But there are deeper dangers in being excessively English. Old-fashioned Englishness exuded austerity and patience: "no sex, please", ironic self-deprecation, bad food and orderly queues. Resurgent English nationalism looms charmlessly and loutishly. It threatens to take revenge for Scottish and Welsh autonomy by snatching back subsidies. It demands the Tebbit test from black sports fans. It leaves the Kosovar refugees "to be looked after locally" and withholds hospitality from asylum-seekers. It imperils cultural diversity by encouraging a checklist of Englishness.

In reasserting English identity, spokesmen for Englishness are not being particularly English: they are being just like everybody else. For all over the world, revived nationalisms are replacing dying ideologies. As superstates crumble, old ethnic hatreds crawl out of the woodwork. Strong separatisms incubate under shells of unity. Every triumph of globalisation shivers some part of the world into fragments. Menaced by ever-remoter centralisms, people reach for the comfort of their historic communities and visible roots. If the parts of the United Kingdom separate, they will be conforming to a model of our time: dissolution into a well-shaken world of maddeningly complex Bantustans. In the arena of states and empires, peoples are kicking up sand, which is settling in new patterns.

In Europe, the results include gentlemanly severance, which has parted Czechs from Slovaks; rancorous co-existence, like that of north and south in Italy; ill-tempered devolution; or lines of partition drawn in blood. The more historic identities are threatened - by attrition and attenuation or by "homogenisation" and "convergence" - the more they thrive. For centuries, the English have shared a British superstate, which gave the Irish something to fight besides each other; the Welsh gained common institutions and espoused cultural self-preservation; the Scots discovered a common identity as a result of self-differentiation from England. In a uniting Europe, by analogy, resentment of Big Bad Brussels will make Englishness a stronger sentiment.

Meanwhile, the unity of the kingdom is likely to be threatened less by the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies than by the English reaction. Even unstereotyped Scots voters are too canny to dissolve a union which is so advantageous to them: the English, however, may want to assert self- determination of their own - and pocket saved cash. "The rottenest bits of these islands of ours," sang Michael Flanders and Donald Swann prophetically, "we've left in the hands of three unfriendly powers. Examine an Irishman, Welshman or Scot - you'll find he's a stinker as likely as not." If the United Kingdom goes the way of the world and dissolves among mutually reproachful nationalisms, what should the British government do about it? There are three possible courses.

The first is to welcome the future with relish or resignation. Self-determination leads often to hatreds and sometimes to bloodshed. But it should be the inalienable right of every genuine historic community. Nationalism can pick quarrels but it can also inspire art. National identities, when passionately felt, need to be democratically expressed: otherwise they turn to terrorism. They have to be allowed spaces of their own - autonomous or sovereign: otherwise they will try to wrest space from others. A sense of nationhood must be free to define itself: otherwise those who feel it will take revenge on those who do not. It must be encouraged to take an inclusive shape: otherwise it will define itself by excluding people on grounds of colour, creed or some other unfair prejudice. It must be granted security, or it will lash out at imagined enemies.

Mr Blair, however, is unlikely to welcome English independence. If achieved, it would leave New Labour without an inheritance - sharing with Plaid Cymru its former fief in Wales, abandoning its Scottish stronghold to the SNP, alternating with Tories in the government of England. At his recent meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Aznar, Blair might have picked up a tip or two on another way to cope. Castilians are Spain's equivalent of the English: demographically dominant, centrally positioned - they created the state by cajolery or conquest. Spain also has its small, peripheral nationhoods, expressed in distinctive languages and hallowed by peculiar pasts: the Basques, Catalans and my own people, the Galicians. With qualified enthusiasm, they have taken part in the Spanish state, while resenting Castilianisation and resisting centralisation. When they achieved devolution, legislators forestalled a Castilian backlash by splitting Castile into regions and giving autonomy to all of them in a policy known as "coffee all round". Blair may find he has left it too late to apply the Spanish formula in Britain; by the time he gets round to regionalising England, English nationalism may have outgrown the opportunity.

The Swiss model is even more attractive. No state in Europe has successfully spanned deeper divisions. Switzerland is cleft by valleys, riven by boundaries of language and religion. In 1847, it was the scene of the Continent's last religious war. Its 23 cantons guard identities of their own. Yet respect comes relatively easily: the plurality of Switzerland has become a badge of Swissness. England, too, might work as a cantonal state, whereas regionalism would never suit this country: the sense of historic community is too fragmentary and reposes in communities of incommensurate size. Pluralism is not just a consequence of the recent history of immigration from the former empire: it is imbedded in England by a history of multiplication of faiths and hospitality to new blood. An English identity that embraces pride in diversity can only take shape over a long time. But it is an end worth striving for.

The English have a remarkably uniform set of assumptions about themselves - almost all of which are false. They think they love animals, but they impose quarantine. They proclaim fair play but inhabit perfidious Albion. They say they are reserved when they are repressed; they claim they are uncomplaining when they are uncommunicative. Before the world they affect sang-froid but at home they honour Men Behaving Badly. They call indiscipline individualism and bloody-mindedness common sense. They espouse a mythic past and mistake it for a progressive story of peaceful change and democratic climacteric. They name themselves the Bulldog Breed but their bark is worse than their bite. They inhabit clouded hills and think they are in Jerusalem. Good for them. I love their magnificent irrationality. There has never been nationhood without falsehood. But now, as Blair recrafts New Britain, the English have an opportunity to discard myths and face a reality which could be so much better. Otherwise, the vaunted "re-awakening of England" will be only a prolongation of dreams - or a stirring of nightmares.