No Country For Melanie Phillips
An article appeared in The Times of London yesterday with the headline “Britain is the authentic nation in this battle.” It was written in response to the Northern Irish Assembly elections and the rising calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Its author, Melanie Phillips, is a professional denier, having built a large part of her career on the back of Climate Change denial in her old Daily Mail column and on BBC Question Time appearances. So it should be no surprise that she is continuing to deny conventional wisdom for the clicks.
This time she is denying the existence of Ireland and Scotland as authentic nations, saying that “Scotland has no right to rip the UK asunder if it wants to secede” and that “Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood.”
Unsurprisingly, this provoked outrage both in Scotland and across Ireland, with hot takes followed by the usual cycle of cynical put downs of those who were outraged in the first place.
While the article is indeed highbrow clickbait, it is also a reminder that the colonial mindset still exists. It cannot go unchallenged in its lazy assumptions.
Phillips’ talk of authentic and inauthentic nations is still of interest though, as nations are certainly tricky concepts. People perform them to bring them into being and codify them in institutions as she has said. In the same sense that race is the child of racism, nation is the child of nationalism.
“The claim to unite Ireland is tenuous since Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood.”
It's important to note that nations do not necessarily have to imply a unified nation state. There are Irish citizens within the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. It's there in the small print.
Nationalism must be seen as flux, not essence. It is something you construct at all times, not something lost that you yearn for. Our faultlines are defined by clashes of interest, not cultures. And when interests are at stake, critical cultural examination often becomes a hindrance.
The Clash of Civilisations narrative is a primordial myth, but one that's made real through belief. It is very dangerous territory to tread upon. Like the concept of species, itself a conceptual hangover from creationism, Civilisation is a fraught and lazy shorthand; it’s borders are nebulous.
So there is a world that is fixed and unchanging, giraffes have been with us because they made it onto the Ark. Countries and identities too are transmitted to us as fundamentally unchanged too.
“Faced with the contemporary resurgence of regional or tribal uprisings, it’s the ancient British Isles that must hold itself together to take its place once again as a sovereign nation in the wider world”.
Primordialisms “are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other”. Primordialists state that community identity is fixed and is often defined by shared language, denoting similarity of thought.
This makes it easy to see differences between different groups as irreconcilable, giving cover to those who would project today’s politics backwards onto ancient events. To those who would craft a chain of causality back to some ancient right or wrong that only has relevance once people are again ready to fight, kill, or even die for it.
“Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas.”
In a different context this language could easily be a call for establishing a Caliphate than a Camelot. It isn’t about history, it’s the present.
Phillips invoked historian Jonathan Clark, who wrote of “the resilience of a diverse and plural system of identities”. That Englishness came to stand proxy for all the communities of the British Isles.
Her framing approach of the four kingdoms approach to history is simply the history of England “writ large.” In fact it's this form of unthinking callousness that's making it harder to rule the country: try getting her to say “we're all in this together” with a straight face. However, this is her article at its most interesting.
At the heart of the “Atlantic Archipelago” is the question of England, it is a dark and unexamined land. The English identity was the first to succumb to the supranational “British”. Yet there is no attempt to critically examine Englishness and Britishness, and as a catchall term it is inadequate.
British & Northern Irish society is undergoing an upheaval often described as between the open and closed. Yet England has long been the site of battles between cosmopolitans.
Think the Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling and so-called Little Englanders, who originally emerged to oppose the expansionist Boer war. Who wanted England to extend no farther than its borders. Who thought that the upkeep of far flung colonies were more an economic burden than they were worth.
Phillips chooses to sidestep this entirely. National Identity is an interesting and dynamic process, she makes it boring.
When we look at the culpability imposed on the UK’s “Troublesome” periphery we must ask ourselves, who had the power in this situation? Did Sinn Féin and the SDLP win the election or was it lost by arrogant intransigent voices representing singular interests?
All nationalisms are as equal as each other in the sense that the nation must be dreamed beforehand. Following Melanie's logic it may as well be said that Ireland is not tenuous at all, seeing as WB Yeats imagined Ireland into existence in the backroom of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It's pretty much that simple.
All nationalisms are also bad in their own way, but only in the sense that they enclose your identity and force you to remain solely a citizen of “somewhere”.
Nationalism can be seen as a bit analogous to Infant Industry theory (protectionism) in trade, protect your core beliefs from competition with healthy doses of state aid, sometimes with unsavoury results.
Yet Nation-building has often been used to create a counter force to unchecked abuse of external power and a source of preservation for local traditions and ideals, think the Altneulands of the People’s Republic of China and the State of Israel.
National identity is a static defense, one that should be abandoned in favour of manoeuvre rather than held at all costs. Both the PRC and Israeli states reached back into older Dynasties or Classical texts to reform an old land into a new. Do they count as authentic?
Ultimately it all boils down to her own definition of authenticity. Power.
There is no warmth or common bond of affection from her for the poorer regions here. They are attacked for even having thought of seeking alternative vectors of development. Phillips attacks those who seek to balance power.
The rise of nationalism in the fringe can be summed up in this graph; The disparities in GDP per head per region is astonishing. The restive tribes may simply be calling for this imbalance to be addressed.
So let’s look at Power then. The great divider between the “authentic” and the “tenuous”.
Whether you're a legitimate thread of the UK’s tapestry all comes down to whether you have power or not. This also helps sort out the troubling interchangeability of the logic in the entire piece; The EU “was not invented; it developed.”.
The reason that the supranational UK (“authentic”) and the supranational EU (“inauthentic”) are described in such an artificial way is because it’s a matter of perspective and interest.
The EU has no primordial claim on its constituents, and this makes it more legitimate than Island Britain forged in the primordial prehistory of the world.
Both are artificial constructs, forged with the technologies of Modernism. The only way that common bonds of affection and holding nations together fray is by rotting from the inside.
The main threat to the UK is from the vile unthought and contempt held by people like Melanie Phillips who don't feel community, and only understand power and dominance. The UK of GB and NI is an object of affection, not suppression. It has a social contract which must be renewed to reflect this.
This article is an ode to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. It was about appealing to a market segment that already ascribes to this view point - in terms of link clicks and views the Times got a great return on investment from her.
That being said, we can’t let Phillips' fever dream of a mythic unified Britain define the discourse surrounding the future of these Isles.