Gordon Brown and British Nationalism

I was on Newsnight all too briefly on 25 June 2019 discussing Gordon’s Brown’s comments on the Union.  Most was cut, but I  was prompted to write the following as Brown illustrated rather well some themes of my The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Penguin, 2019).

Gordon Brown is a British nationalist in denial. His is a nationalism that cannot speak its name, because it denies that British nationalism could be like other nationalisms.  He hates the nationalism of others, including that of Scots. He has laid all this out with some clarity in an article in the   Daily Mail (‘Why I fear the break-up of the United Kingdom is closer than it's been for 300 years’, 25 June 2019) to accompany a speech in London.

Gordon Brown is a unionist. While in government wanted to give the United Kingdom a National Day, to upstage Saints Andrew, George, and Patrick to celebrate its peculiar All-Union British genius. Today he believes the Union, the United Kingdom, faces its greatest threat since the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.   He does not wish to recall that most of Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, and the Commonwealth in 1949.  But not counting Ireland is par for the course.   

Brown does not like nationalism.  For him English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalisms are a bad thing, to be contrasted with the United Kingdom’s  ‘shared values — tolerance, respect for diversity, being outward-looking’.   As he puts it: In our long history, we have prided ourselves on being patriots who love our country — not bitter nationalists who must hate our neighbours, demonise foreigners, immigrants or other minorities, and blame external forces for everything that goes wrong.  … Great Britain (sic) has been, until now, the most tolerant of countries and the most outward-looking.’   He associates this bitter nationalism with ‘Scottish nationalism, plus English nationalism, plus Welsh nationalism, plus Ulster unionism (sic)’.  That last point is illuminating wrong – for the Ulster Unionists are not Ulster nationalists, but British nationalists.  Yet they need to condemned, and Irish nationalists ignored.

Contrasting the United Kingdom’s (or the British Empire’s) outward-looking patriotism with the petty inward-looking nationalism which threaten it is an old argument – for over a century  the nationalist enemies of the empire and the union  were criticised for being illiberal, compared with the fair-minded, generous, multinational and multi-cultural Union and Empire.  This was a  very British conceit.  Today such a position is perverse. In the current conjuncture Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalisms (though not that of Ulster Unionists) are peculiarly internationalist. They stand in sharp contrast to the very nationalistic English nationalism of our time, and indeed the nationalistic British nationalism Theresa May, the Conservative Party and the DUP.

For all his claims for outward-looking UK-British patriotism, Brown has a very UK-national perspective. He writes of the ‘UK single market and customs union’, when he  knows that no such thing exists. There is an EU single market and customs union; the UK single market and customs union went in 1973 (strictly, a little later).  He condemns Scotland nationalists for wanting to leave this UK economy, when, as he also knows,  they want to stay in the EU. They also want the rest of the UK to stay in the EU.  It is of course the English and British nationalists (including Ulster Unionists) who want UKexit, and to create a ‘UK single market and customs union’.

Like many another British nationalist  Brown invokes a mythological account of the second world. The D-Day landings, were a  ‘sharp and moving reminder of what four nations have achieved together and why our Union must endure and matter for centuries to come’ he writes.  He went on: ‘Thousands upon thousands of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish soldiers are buried side by side in the cemeteries in the now-peaceful fields of Europe — together in death as they were in life. When they fought together, they did not check each other’s nationality before they stood shoulder to shoulder, bound by trust in the trenches, all for a common cause. It would mock their heroic sacrifices to wish the partition of a United Kingdom that they died to save.’  Yet he surely knows however that the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish soldiers lie in cemeteries established by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, not in United Kingdom ones.  In fact by 1944 British and Imperial troops were fighting not for Empire (much less the United Kingdom), but the United Nations.  And, as we should all know, D-Day and the Normandy campaign was fought by allied armies, with troops from the US, UK, Canada, France and Poland among others. 

Brown, the supposedly outward-looking British internationalist, shamelessly chooses to write out of history the empire, the wartime alliance, and the EU from his account of the United Kingdom.   In fact this is a new phenomenon, a modern invention of the years after the second world. This was a unique time in which the United Kingdom indeed existed as a coherent, economic and political and ideological unit.   For this period it does indeed make sense to speak of a national British economy (including a national customs union and single market), a national British army, a national British politics dominated by national, unionist parties.  Before 1945, and since the 1970s, things have been different.

The British national moment has long passed, the British nation has since the 1970s opened up to the world, and began to break up.   The greatest threat to the Union today comes not from the peripheral nationalisms, as Brown suggests, but a new unionist and mostly English and British nationalism, which in insisting on UKexit, is breaking  the very ground on which the politics of devolution is based.  Today Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalism are internationalist, and British nationalism, which cannot speak its name, only pretends to be internationalist.  British nationalism  is  living in a past in does not understand, invoking an earlier past which did not exist. Thus are the mighty fallen.