Friday, February 25, 2005

Sceptered Isles

There was an interesting review of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in last week's London Review of Books. The DNB is an enormous project, including as it does over 50,000 biographies, with the criteria for entry being that one must be dead and that one must have "in some way influenced the nation's life."

The review makes for an interesting read and I fully recommend it, but I was especially struck by Stefan Collini's comments on nationalism. The original DNB, apparently, was regarded as emphasising "the familiar truths of national character." "Less fortunate nations," Collini continues,
in whom the spirit of liberty and energy of ‘character’ had been suppressed by centuries of tyranny and regulation, may have committed public funds to corresponding enterprises, but their progress had been slower and the outcomes less glorious. ‘Our British lexicographers,’ the Athenaeum declared in 1900, ‘have had the satisfaction of administering a handsome beating to their most formidable competitors, the Germans.’ Our dictionary had ‘trotted the distance’ in little more than half the time it had taken the initiative-lacking Teutons ‘to waddle through the alphabet’.

The current DNB also reveals some interesting things about nation. But which nation? Collini refers to "this particular north-west European archipelago," but it's hard to see how this sits with the idea of a singular nation (I can count five nations in the archipelago, but the Cornish might suggest that there are six). But let's not get freaked about questions of territorial independence or about the position of Irish nationalism in all this. Instead, let's just assume that the DNB is referring to the British nation. But this in itself provokes some interesting thoughts.

First, the inclusive enterprise of the DNB suggests something about the idea of the British nation. That is, Britain is timeless. If one looks at Irish, or German, or American nationalism, one sees a story of a project. The nation has foundational moments and though (especially with the Irish) there are references and incorporations from the distant past (Newgrange, etc.), the story of the nation is a story of nation-building. And of state-building.

For Britain (and maybe France, though I'm not so sure), the nation is more or less unchanging. Sure, Elizabethan England saw the foundation of the modern state, but the general story is that, since the Romans arrived, England (and ergo Britain) has been stable, independent and unchanging. Of course, it's bollocks, partly because the story of England is far more complicated than that and partly because the melding of England and Britain is not at all a simple process.1 But that's the story.

I'm reminded, just to take a slight detour, of the idea of Oxford in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (though I only read the first one, which is set 'in a world much like our own, but different in many ways' so I can't speak for his other books). For Lyra, Oxford acts as a nest, almost. The colleges are timeless, unchanging, almost in stasis, and though the town is riven with distinctions of class, all children gather together in defiance of outsiders. There are also scary hidden depths that Lyra encounters briefly, but they can be easily avoided.

Anyway, it strikes me that the DNB can appeal to the idea of Britain as the neutral medium upon which events unfolded, the stable order upon which the pursuit of knowledge or of happiness or whatever, was founded. The biographies contained within don't tell the story of a communal project, of an endeavour towards a common end, but merely of character, of individuality, of the person flourishing (mostly) in the comfort of the national home.

How different from the mirror nationalisms on this island, replete as they are with stories of foundation (1916, the Solemn League and Covanent) and with claims to cultural homogeneity (often in terms of one's priority over the other). One would imagine that 'influence on the life of the nation' might be defined far more narrowly for the Irish nationalisms than for the idea of Britishness (though that said, I was fascinated by this little snippit over on ATW).

Which raises one final question: this Britishness thing. One of the great clichés of Northern Ireland is that Unionists are the only British nationalist in Britain. Well, in one sense it's true, given that Unionism has a pretty unique relationship to the idea of, well, the Union (borne, I would suggest, from their being the only group in Britain who don't take their place in the Union for granted. Au contraire). But I think that people also say this because the only nationlisms they recognise tend to be the more truculant 'ethnic' nationalisms in the Irish mould. And Unionism is certainly (though by no means necessarily) replete with religious and cultural talk.

But of course there is a British nationalism, upon which projects like the DNB are founded. For most of the other nationalisms in the UK, this British nationalism is just not a problem. It's a state patriotism that can sit quite comfortably with ethnic nationalisms, provided they acknowledge the state.

The really weird nationalism in the UK is of course that of the English. The English certainly do have a habit of conflating Britishness and Englishness, of not seeing any distinction between the two, but I'm quite sympathetic with this. The English story is very difficult, in part because it is the story of Britain as a whole. The English problem, I'd suggest (briefly: work beckons!), is not strictly arrogance, but rather that, outside Britishness, Englishness barely exists.

1 This is more or less the theme of Norman Davies's The Isles.

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