Single Nation, Double Logic: the problem with Miliband’s Britishness


Written by Daniel G. Williams.He is director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales, and senior lecturer in English, at Swansea University. He is the editor of Raymond Williams, Who Speaks for Wales? (2003. rpt 2008) and author of Ethnicity and Cultural Authority: From Matthew Arnold to W. E. B. Du Bois (2006). His latest book is Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales 1845 - 1945 (2012).

In the 1970s debates about devolution in Wales and Scotland, Raymond Williams detected ‘an implication of radical disloyalty, even treason’ as people referred to ‘the break-up of Britain’ with ‘their voices almost cracking with real or rehearsed emotion’. The combination of Jubilee celebrations and Olympic success has led to a similar climate today, bolstered by the open embrace of the Union Jack and an ideology of ‘one nationhood’ at the conferences of the British parties.

Ed Miliband, in particular, seems to have based the revival of his faltering leadership of the Labour Party by placing himself in the lineage of Benjamin Disraeli, evoking the common bonds of ‘One Nation’ against the divisive cuts of the ConDem coalition. Drawing on the worldwide promotion of a tolerant, multicultural Britain through the figures of successful Olympians such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, and evoking his family’s own Jewish history of escaping to Britain from the forces of fascism, Miliband presents a Britain that most decent people would be happy to embrace. This would seem to put the nationalist parties in an awkward situation. Were Welsh and Scottish nationalists to reject this image of Britain they would be reinforcing the stereotype that theirs is a ‘narrow minded’, ‘divisive’, ‘intolerant’, ‘tribal’, ‘inward looking’ form of ethnic nationalism. On the other hand, to embrace Miliband’s Britain is to undermine the call for greater Welsh or Scottish autonomy.

The notion of Britain a dynamic melting pot to which a diversity of peoples may contribute has a remarkable resilience. We can trace it back at least as far as Matthew Arnold, and the success of Danny Boyle’s celebrated opening ceremony at the Olympics was partly due to his evocation of this ideal. The narrative was of course reinforced by the dramatic victories of the multi-ethnic team GB, with Scottish, Welsh, Somali and other ‘ethnic’ and ‘regional’ identities co-existing under the British umbrella. This Jubilympic vision of Britishness has been reinforced by Ed Miliband in interviews and speeches throughout the year, climaxing in his conference speech. In an interview with Krishnan Guru Murthy on Channel 4, Miliband emphasised his own Jewish and English identities, and argued that Britishness allowed for both. Miliband’s Britain is based on a seemingly liberal, tolerant, open-minded conception of identity. But it relies on Britain being the vehicle for multicultural progress while its constituent ethnicities are static, background, identities. In the Olympic opening ceremony the Welsh were represented by a choir of school children singing a famous Welsh hymn (in English!), while in the closing ceremony Wales was represented by a group of women in ‘traditional’ Welsh costume. There was no room for modern Welsh culture, in either language, in the Jubilympic vision. No Welsh rock bands, no indication of a modern, thriving, Welsh culture in the Welsh or English languages. No indication that Wales is itself a multicultural nation, that ‘the Welsh’ include people of Jewish, Afro-Carribean, Somali, Indian etc. descent, and that ‘Welshness’ signifies a whole range of cultural practices.

It’s very difficult to explain to an open-minded liberal Englishman what is wrong with Miliband’s vision of Britishness. It might be useful to transpose the debate to a different context. The problem that Slavoj Zizek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales.

I am often accused in a very strange way - which I really cannot understand - of being a Slovene ant-Serb nationalist. When I converse with members of the so-called Serb democratic opposition, they say they are in favour of a cosmopolitan democratic Serbia whose defining quality is citizenship and not national belonging. OK, I accept this. But this is where the problems begin, because if you speak with them a little bit longer, you discover a certain political vision that tries to disguise cultural particularity as democratic universalism. For example, if you ask them about Slovene autonomy, they will argue that Slovenia is a small self-enclosed nation and that they, by contrast, are in favour of an anti-nationalist democratic society which is not self-enclosed. But in reality what they are practicing is a kind of two-level nationalism in which they go on to affirm that the Serbs are the only nation in Yugoslavia that is so structured that it can sustain this open principle of democratic citizenship. [...] So we have this double logic. On the one hand they criticize the Milosevic regime from a democratic standpoint - claiming that the Serbs are fundamentally democratic and that Milosevic perverted them - but, on the other, they deny this democratic potential to other ethnic groups of ex-Yugoslavia (you Slovenes want to be a state but in reality you are a primitive Alpine tribe). [...] And this is often how racism functions today - at this disguised reflexive level. So we should be careful when people emphasize their democratic credentials: do these same people allow the Other to have the same credentials?

For Yugoslavia read Britain. For Serbia read England. For Slovenia read Wales. British nationalists employ the same ‘double logic’, espousing the progressive potential of their own national identity, while denying it to the minority nations who may wish to decide the forms of governance suitable to their own still-forming interests and identities.  What the Miliband / Boyle vision of Britishness denies is Welsh and Scottish multiculturalism.  While many on the English Left embrace Britishness, and embraced Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ speech with enthusiasm, the true British democrat, following Zizek’s astute analysis, is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space that we call Great Britain.

If a case needs to be made for Welsh multiculturalism, this process of allowing the same rights to the Other pertain within the devolved nations themselves. For example, persuading the dominant Anglophone society that minorities can be multi-cultural has been an abiding concern of Welsh language activists. The danger for those of us who live in minority language communities and value linguistic plurality and difference, is that our languages are perceived to belong to a specific racial group, and are therefore closed to outsiders. Even those supportive of linguistic difference will tend to conceive of the speakers of the Celtic languages as belonging to an ethnic minority within their respective countries, with English functioning as the civic language of the nation, as the universal language in which a multicultural society communicates. Just as Britain, in the hierarchy of nations, is deemed to be the sole bearer of multicultural citizenship, the monolingual form of multiculturalism informing much cultural debate in Britain today is rooted in the belief that the English language is the only legitimate bearer of all civic-democratic nationality, and that those lying beyond its generously catholic embrace are little better than atavistic, tribal, racists. The construction of a genuine multiculturalism in the British Isles must be predicated on the rejection of this pernicious ideology. For while one cannot change one’s ancestors, a language can be learned.

So to develop the political autonomy of Wales and Scotland is not to reject British multiculturalism, but is to deepen multicultural citizenship. The ‘double logic’ by which ‘my one nation is progressive and cosmopolitan’ while ‘your nation is separatist and divisive’ has surely lost any traction that it may once have had. The debate over Scotland will be a truly depressing affair if conducted in these terms. It’s surely time for the Labour party to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the national question. While commentators sympathetic to Labour seem to be celebrating the fact that Ed Miliband, in evoking Disraeli, has moved his tanks onto David Cameron’s lawn, the backyard has been left wide open for Plaid Cymru and the SNP.



This piece was first published on the Our Kingdom section of the Open Democracy website:

It was then republished of Click on Wales

The comments are interesting. I can only plead guilty to the sins of omission that Cornish commentators in particular foreground on Our Kingdom. The article unleashed some of the usual anti-Welsh invective on Click on Wales. Some of the more intelligent oppositional pieces are ultimately based on a belief that Wales is no different to any other part of the UK.

I publish it on the Slate for Plaid Cymru members and activists, and so that a version can also appear in Welsh.