Can an English identity be a liberal one?

I was intrigued by Chris Bowers’ recent post A slogan you might not expect from the Lib Dems and by the comments on it. It revolves around the question of whether a national identity is or can be compatible with liberalism. Some clearly think not, but the comments thread reveals some blockages in debate that we need to clear up before an answer to the question can properly be made.

The first is that in many instances of the debate people speak past one another instead of to one another. What some people see as a statement of legitimacy, others see as a pitch for superiority. If I wave my St George’s flag, I will inevitably be seen by many as being chauvinistic. “Inevitably” means that that is what the current climate presupposes. It is not inherently so, as many liberals show when they say they want their flag back.

The second is that a claim to patriotism is in common discourse confused with nationalism – a belief in the superiority, the exceptionalism of the native race. This is mixed with the discourse of pride. One of the commentators wrote “I am not proud to be English – I am just English”. And another observed that being properly patriotic includes an ability to acknowledge one’s country’s flaws. Space for that acknowledgement seems to be remarkably small in the current climate. But again, that is the current climate. It is possible to argue that the British Empire was “A Bad Thing” and be patriotic.

The third is a question as to whether identity and diversity can co-exist, a question often asked rhetorically, to indicate that it cannot. In my view it can, but you need a confident identity to be able to accept diversity as an opportunity rather than as a threat. One might say that the most effective kind of confidence is a quintessentially English quiet confidence, not a brash assertion which often covers a lack of self belief.

This leads to the fourth blockage, which is the current historical coincidence of identity with powerlessness. Much assertion of British identity is felt among sections of our country who feel they have lost something over the last generation or more, and this feeling is preyed upon by UKIP and the like. As one commentator put it “identity is a consolation prize for those with power”. This is so, and powerfully so, but it is not the be all and end all of national identity.

Leaving aside the clutter caused by these blockages, my answer is yes, you can have a liberal national identity. In fact I think it is eminently possible to pitch Liberal Democrat values as English values. I do not spell out why here. It was more a question of laying the groundwork for beginning an answer to that question.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk

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15 Comments

  • Simon Freeman 17th Feb '17 - 11:50am

    My answer to Robs question is yes. I can support England at football and cricket and GB at athletics and the Olympic Games whist enjoying our countryside and history and culture. I can do that without being racist, sexist or homophobic.

  • I am immensely proud to be (in my case it happens to be) Welsh. I also acknowledge flaws in its history.

    Had I been born/raised English or Scottish or Canadian the same would probably be true.

    How could that possibly be incompatible with also being liberal?

  • Simon
    I enjoy tea and crumpet and listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Now he was a great liberal Englishman.

  • After 22 years in this city I am very happy to be a Geordie Bradfordian. My city of birth and my city of adoption both have much to offer in valuing diversity, both have a rich English regional culture. Overlapping identities has to be the key in all sorts of ways.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Feb '17 - 1:10pm

    As one of the most vociferous on the thread Rob talks of , I welcome another opportunity to revisit a favourite theme and declare my Liberal patriotism !

    I believe that as any American of similar hue knows, anybody of recent immigrant or part immigrant stock feels the feeling stronger than many , or often does , if the complete reverse has not set in , within a family, ie disappointment and disgruntlement .

    I am very aware of the great and good and awful aspects of all the countries I know a lot of.

    My wife is originally of America.

    My mother is of half Irish origin.

    My father was Italian.

    It was the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi , who was what is often referred to as a Liberal nationalist. This is merely a statement that he wanted a united Italy, a country divided until that time into principalities and provinces, without a national government or structure. His philosophy had nothing to do with what we and , others have perceived as the age old nationalism that is bigotry at worst, nostalgia at best. His was the view of Mazzini and many, for a liberal, democratic, nation state , with regional powers too and diversity. He would today have much in common with my view, to be very pro his own country, happy to be in the EU but no great fan !

    To love something or at least like it a lot for a reason , or many of them , is better than for the sake of it.

    There are many why I feel this way about England and Britain or the United Kingdom.

    I do not clearly see what another article adds on a topic we recently explored .

    But I like it’s conclusion and shall ever argue in it’s favour .

  • If the conclusion is that a liberal can be a proud English and British patriot, then count me in!

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Feb '17 - 1:36pm

    I’ve no problem with people claiming to be both liberal and patriotic, any more than those claiming to both liberal and religious, though in both cases I find claiming the second label implies a less than rigorous commitment to logical thinking. Just so long as there’s no hint of a suggestion that you have to be a patriot, or “proud” of whatever nationality you happen to have been lumbered with, we’re all fine.

  • Malcolm
    “than those claiming to both liberal and religious”
    Even better to be theologically liberal.

  • Matt (Bristol) 17th Feb '17 - 4:02pm

    I think there is a question here about whether you claim to be

    1) happy with your personal sense of English identity (or with that of the community you belong to ‘within’ Englishness), but are at the same time a) aware – as a liberal or a democrat or whatever – of how our collective past English heritage may conflict with or create problems for liberalism and democracy, and b) of how liberalism and democracy may challenge our English heritage.

    2) personally representative of English identity, and assuming that the sum total of Englishness and English heritage supports your personal political agenda, which cannot be deviated from.

    Oh, goodness, that’s a very convoluted set of statements… I know what I mean…

    Patriotic chauvinism assumes that the national interest and heritage must be expressed in a certain way. It will then attack those who are felt to be ‘unEnglish’ for whatever reasons. There are nominally liberal and leftwing attempts at creating an identity like this – usually from an outsider, revolutionist perspective, but they tend to break down under the weight of illogic.

    Only option 1), which allows for other iterations of Englishness, is, for me, viable for liberals and democrats.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Feb '17 - 2:00pm

    Interesting post but I’m not sure we English can claim quiet confidence for our own. The Obamas seemed to personify this trait and I’m wary of ascribing a particular characteristic to a nation because how can where we are born influence our behaviour in this way? Certain characteristics may be valued by the majority in a country but thank goodness there are always rebels and I like to think we Lib Dems have the strength to rebel against ridiculous and unnecessary restraints.

  • Matt
    Dissenters and Free Church men and women (Non- conformists as they were called) are very much part of English heritage and they were the backbone of the Liberal Party.

  • Simon Banks 18th Feb '17 - 9:43pm

    Of course national identity is consonant with Liberalism. I can’t unEnglish myself. Even if I left England for good and took on the citizenship of my new country – say Ireland – I’d be English and Irish in my personal identity, while being wholly Irish in terms of my social contract with the state.

    Rob says if he waves the English flag, he’ll be seen by many as being chauvinistic. Not at a football or rugby or cricket match. Part of the problem of course is that we generally accept small nations asserting their identity, but not bigger ones. That’s understandable, but the people of the bigger nations still are English or German or whatever.

    It’s interesting to look at what people identify as the content of their English (or German or Welsh or Chinese) identity. For me its much more to do with language, culture and scenery than battles or even the evolution of democracy; and while there is much to admire in our history, there’s much on the minus side too.

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