Popular Sentiments and the Nation

We believe that popular sentiments and everyday life should receive far more prominence than they do in both scholarly and political narratives of nations and national identities across Britain. This is a focus we share with a growing body of research into everyday nationhood. Since the 1990s, influenced by trends in postmodernism, anthropology and the turn towards culture and discourse, there has emerged a new subfield within nationalism scholarship concerned with the discursive production and reproduction of identities and with researching nations in relation to everyday life and popular discourse (Brubaker et al. 2007; Edensor 2002; Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008; Wodak 2009). Britain itself has provided a fruitful context in which to explore issues of everyday national belonging

(Billig 1995; Condor 2000, 2010; Thompson and Day 1999; Edensor 2002; Kiely et al. 2000; Leddy-Owen 2014; Skey 2011). The collective evidence of qualitative studies has identified the complex, and often contradictory, ways in which people experience, and talk about, the nation (Condor et al. 2006). Within qualitative accounts, national identities can vary considerably in their meaning and salience for ordinary actors. These studies also reveal how commonplace beliefs may be drawn upon to make sense of national identity, including taken-for-granted associations between nation and particular classes (Mann 2012) within an unstated whiteness (Garner 2012; Tyler 2012). To these ends, survey research can be questioned for assuming that national identities have fixed or singular meanings which can be deduced from responses to direct interview questions.

At the same time, we wish to retain a definition of nationalism as both a collective and political phenomenon. The relationship between elite and popular forms of nationalism has always been a key concern for broader nationalism scholarship, although there are disagreements over the nature of this relationship. Kedourie (1993) in particular considers nationalism as an elite creation by nationalist intellectuals who are set apart from the masses. Nairn (1977) on the other hand envisages an interactive relationship whereby nationalist projects, though initially conceived by elites, are then spread through attempts to engage with the masses. Similarly, for Breuilly (1993) the ‘success’ of nationalism as a political project— for example, in pursuit of independence or self-government—relates to the connection between elite portrayals of the nation and the way this appeals to and resonates with popular beliefs and grievances held by large sections of the population. Drawing on examples from recent East and West European history, Whitmeyer (2002) has argued that elites are not solely responsible for the development of nationalism and, moreover, that not all elite nationalisms have been successful in their appeal to ordinary citizens. The history of Europe is full of cases where elite-driven versions of nationalism have been rejected by the people, or at least by some people, as well as cases where an alternative version of nationalism to that propagated by elites arose from the people themselves.

This distinction provides a useful way of framing some important questions about nationhood across Britain. In particular, it makes attending to what ordinary people have to say about the nation very important for wider political debates about the significance of national identity. Across Britain, the distinction between popular and elite versions of nationalism is writ large. British nationalism itself looks increasingly like a nationalism that the majority of people in Britain are not accepting, certainly not in Scotland, and with support falling in England. Yet Britishness is certainly promoted by elites and governments of all types, most notably by New Labour promoting the idea of ‘cool Britannia’ in 1997 and then again by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who made a number of key speeches on Britishness between 2004 and 2009. As Kumar has argued (2003: 236-237) the very persistence of Britishness and British identity over the twentieth century can be attributed to the ‘integrative role’ of the labour movement and then Labour Party. Through nationalisation policies and the welfare state, Labour acquired ‘.. .a vast and far-reaching influence in every corner of British society’ (Kumar 2003: 237). However, there is an emerging popular form of English nationalism which is rejected by a liberal elite as too populist and vulgar or xenophobic (Aughey 2007: 108). Classically, it is contended, the English eschew political nationalism whilst at the same time promoting a diffuse, conservative sense of English identity (Aughey 2007; Baggini 2007). For some Labour Party politicians, there is now a pressing need to encourage the embracing of Englishness in order to reclaim it from right-wing politics (Denham 2016a, b; Hunt 2016). The question of how English identity is expressed politically is one that liberal and left political parties can ill afford to ignore (Kenny 2014).

Of course, elite discourses do play a role in shaping the content of nationalism amongst the people. But there is no guarantee that such top- down initiatives will be successful. More often than not, ‘nationalism misses its mark’ (Fox 2004: 363). In Wales, for example, local nationalist elites have promoted Welsh nationalism primarily as to do with the survival of the Welsh language and culture. Yet this version of Welsh nationalism is not widely shared amongst the majority of Welsh people. For a long period the link between Welsh language and nation sat in contention with other ways of being Welsh, in particular, those based on class and labourism. The period since devolution has seen a greater political and cultural promotion of Welsh identity in Wales. But it would be mistaken from this to assume that devolution has led to a rise in Welsh identification and an accompanying decline in British identification. On the contrary many Welsh people continue to view Wales as forming part of a wider British social and economic system, and there remains a large English-born minority in Wales who prioritise an English and British identity.

 
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