A Nation of Emigrants?

Over at Harry’s, Marcus has kicked off a discussion of Britishness, spinning out of this piece in today’s Guardian by the Britishness Tsar himself, the estimable scholar Bernard Crick.

Annoyingly enough, I can’t find my copy of the Parekh Report on multicultural Britain, in which I wanted to check a few things [disclosure: Bhikhu Parekh is one of my favourite human beings]. But I’ll just randomly make four comments here which seem to me possibly to be worth making, and which I’ll post here rather than in the comments at Harry’s for no terribly good reason.

The first is that it seems to me that the basic difference between Crick and Parekh is simply that they’re coming at a sort-of similar problem from very different angles: Parekh has post-colonial Britain and the experience of non-white immigrants in the UK closer to the forefront of his attention than Crick, who has been concerned for a while with the “Britain” chiefly composed of the different bits of England, Scotland, Wales, a chunk of Ireland, etc. And that if we think there’s a disagreement between them, we should probably just reflect on their different standpoints rather than hit one another on the head with misleading arguments about the history of demographics in these islands.

The second is that it still seems a bit strange (to me at least) to be launching something that purports (I think) to be a left discussion of Britishness as Marcus does, by focusing on legal and constitutional history and ignoring questions of class and economics. Boring hemi-demi-semi Marxist that I occasionally am, I tend to find it more helpful to think of “British” as a word referring specifically to the class alliance between lowland Scots elites and the dominant political and commercial classes in England: in return for (basically) surrendering their sovereignty, these Scots were given a privileged place in a transnational economic order (the emerging “British” empire). (From this point of view Sir Alec Douglas-Home is pretty much the definitive Brit.) And one reason why that’s an interesting story to stress today concerns the politics of the present: if the contemporary transnational economic order that matters is the EU, then the Scots can very sensibly reclaim sovereign self-government without making a severe economic sacrifice in doing so, and sometimes I wonder why they don’t. (Would you want to be shackled to England and the English in perpetuity?)

Third point: since it’s not unreasonable to see citizenship law as lying at the heart of any state, and since British citizenship law is so obviously racist (as any glance at the changing content of that law over the course of the 20th century reveals so clearly), I’m puzzled by Marcus’s confidence that “Britain is not a racist state”, and I’d like to hear more about why anyone can plausibly think that it isn’t.

The fourth, and not-entirely-frivolous point is that if we’re looking for a general overarching account of Britain, “Britishness”, etc., “a nation of emigrants” is as good as we’re going to get. These islands have almost always been a net exporter of population to the rest of the world, and when opinion polls ask people if they’d like to go and live abroad, quite high percentages tend to say yes.

And it’s not hard to think of reasons why.

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