Nationalism and National Identity:
‘Nationalism is a belief that a nation, usually ethnically defined, is the appropriate unit for political organisation, and was central to the political activities of various far-right fringe parties (see, for example, the National Front). National identity is the feeling that one belongs to a nation. In Britain, the concepts of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalism have been well defined; those of English or British nationalism powerful but ill-defined. English people are often unaware that ‘English’ and ‘British’ are not the same, whereas most Scottish and Welsh people identify themselves as both Scottish/Welsh and British, and are aware that these are not the same. The so-called ‘Moreno question’ inviting respondents to choose ‘equally’ (say) Scottish and British, more one than the other, is now extensively used unpeoples prosperity to vote for one of the nationalist parties.
Most textbooks describe the United Kingdom as a multinational state. Scotland and Wales are nations with devolved institutions created in 1998 after earlier unsuccessful attempts. Northern Ireland is not a nation, but a forum where two apparently incompatible nationalism, British and Irish, contend. Irish nationalism was expressed in the home rule and independence movements at the start of the century, which led to the creation of Northern Ireland in 1920 and mutual incomprehension of Irish and English (or British, or Imperial) nationalists made the achievement of Irish independence more long drawn out and painful than it need have been. Welsh nationalism has always been primarily a cultural and defence movement, strongest in the areas of north and west Wales where Welsh speakers saw their language and way of life as under threat from assimilation (and sometimes, though not in the 20th century, outright persecution). Politically, it therefore has a strong but limited base. Scottish nationalism is more diffuse and not geographically concentrated within Scotland. Welsh and Scottish nationalism had some expression during the long crisis of Irish home rule, 1886-1921, but their link with the Irish did not help them. They faded after 1921, to reemerge in the 1960’s as protest movements against the perceived failure of the Labour governments. Scots and Welsh tend to find it easy to protest against perceived failure of a Conservative government by voting Labour; less easy to make the converse move. So Welsh and (especially) Scottish nationalism have been strongest under Labour governments.
British nationalism may be defined as a strong belief in Britain as a political (perhaps imperial) entity; English nationalism as either identification with specifically English symbols or reactive desire to secure fair shares for England in the face of claims from the non-English parts of the United Kingdom. British nationalism was a potent force early in the century, and fuelled Unionist opposition to home rule. It was linked to support for the Empire and has inevitably faded somewhat with the transition to Commonwealth. The revival of the Commonwealth in the 1990’s comes without ‘British’ in its title, and is unlikely to fuel British nationalism. However, it remains a potent force, which politicians and newspaper editors try to harness in opposition to the European Union. British nationalism as an inward-looking movement, however, was probably weaker in the 1990’s than at any time earlier in the century, is ‘nationalism’ involves principle resistance to devolution on the grounds that it could lead to break-up of the United Kingdom. The decline in the popularity of the monarchy in the 1990’s is both a problem for British nationalism and a possible symptom of the its fading away. However, reactive nationalism -in creation both attempts to attempts at further European integration and to the claims of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland -will predictably grow in his milllenium’.
References: Paul New, ‘Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism’, Oxford, 1994.
References: Simon Heffer, ‘Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England’, London, 2000.
References: Christopher Harvie, ’Scotland and Nationalism’, 3rd edition, London, 1998.
References: Ramsden John, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics, Oxford, 2002.
From, John Ramsden, Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London.