In a new series of interviews called ‘European Voices’, Ken Sweeney, talks with citizens of the EU and learns about their ideas, struggles or adventures across the continent of Europe. In this edition, Ken talks to Michael Patterson, a native of the United Kingdom, but a man whose heart is very much in England. Michael is an English nationalist, but certainly not your stereotypical type. Michael is a Civic Nationalist and we chat to him about his background, his feelings on Brexit and how a federal Britain can be created without the negativity of ethnic nationalism. I spoke with Michael when he visited Ireland in August and I was keen to get his views and ideas down here.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born and brought up?
I was born in Germany of an Anglo-Scottish paternal line and a Welsh maternal line. My father was with the British military and was posted to a lot of different locations, so I was at a boarding school for much of the time. My parents were politically conservative though and I have never felt comfortable within any party political framework. I have lived in culturally diverse parts of England and married into an Afro-Caribbean family. I have always been interested in notions of identity and am researching national identity for my PhD.
As a teenager, were you interested in local politics?
No not really, at least not in an English context. I was interested in wider politics though, and my first encounter with “nationalist” politics and self-determination was the civil rights marches in Northern Ireland. Self-determination is a key principle for me and I think that’s where it came from.
What party background would you most closely affiliate yourself to and why?
It’s hard for me to have party political home. Most UK political parties are just that: UK political parties. People often conflate Englishness with Britishness or the UK, which they shouldn’t do. Whilst Britishness was essentially an English imperial invention, there is an increasing distinction. There are some specifically English parties, but they’re minnows and none of them seem to acknowledge the primary red line that defines how I see English national identity; civic nationalism does not base claims to national identity on ethnicity or race, or necessarily place of birth.
Civic nationalism sounds intriguing. Can you explain it a little more?
Civic nationalism acknowledges the evident and much researched human need for identity and belonging, but removes it from the cauldron of ethnic nationalism. There isn’t a political party in England that does this. The SNP in Scotland does, for the most part anyway, and I guess the same is true of Plaid Cymru.
So do you believe that England should be an independent state?
I don’t believe that, not as an ideal anyway. I believe that England should have its own Parliament in common with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; the lack of it is a terrible indictment really, very much a democratic deficit. When Mr Blair implemented devolution within the UK it was for every nation except England. Since that time, and especially since the Scottish Independence Referendum, there has been a growing recognition that English is not the same as British; the latter is a state identity, the former is a national identity and both got confused with each other. That is changing, but it gives the British establishment a big problem; the rise of English national identity will reduce the role of British identity. Whilst the English see themselves through the prism of Britishness, the British establishment will rest easy. As that changes, it is interesting to see the response of the British.
Are you part of an official party, organisation or movement in relation to an independent England?
No. I quite like the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP). The problem is that English nationalism and even national identity still remain “off limits” to mainstream discourse, although that is changing. Whilst this situation persists and people feel guilty about acknowledging their English national identity through fear of being seen as racist, for example, then the territory of English national identity tends to get occupied by the sort of mouth-foaming ethnic nationalist xenophobes who quite like being racist. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that works quite well for the establishment and it needs breaking.
The image of an English nationalist is one of negativity then?
Yes, it is portrayed very negatively and this is often a convenience for the British establishment view for whom a diverse and inclusive Englishness would be the end of the road. I always find it hard to understand why people don’t claim their inheritance; if some ethnic nationalist xenophobes have stolen my national identity and my flag then I am going to take it back. People feel that they’re not allowed to be English, whether they were born here or arrived as immigrants. People think national identity is contingent on race or place of birth, which I strongly disagree with. If we can have a conversation about a diverse and inclusive Englishness then people will just take that territory back.
Why do you think that the image is so tarnished?
The British Flag (often wrongly referred to as the “Union Jack”) was tarnished by association with the National Front in the 1970s; it was seen as a racist flag. However, it was reborn by Mr Blair as part of “Cool Britannia” and now has the status of a brand, a fashion item. So symbols can be rehabilitated, although I think a fashion symbol might be a rather tenuous place for a symbol of state or national identity to be.
How can it be changed?
The rehabilitation of English national identity requires a national conversation after over three centuries of having been subsumed within “Britishness”, which did well on its own terms as a predominantly Victorian imperial identity, but whose time is now past.
If there is no official organisation, do you think it would benefit the movement if there was one?
Yes, if not an official organisations then something like an English National Conversation that involves everyone who lives in England or identifies as English. What’s important is to proceed from the England of today, not the England of 1707 when the Act of Union with Scotland was signed. A lot of people who come to live in England are told they’re “British”, that includes subsequent generations of people whose forebears settled in England from the 1940s. If you settle in Scotland you’re referred to as a “new Scot”. If you settle in England you’re referred to as “British”. Generations of immigrants then saw the English as “white people” without acknowledging their own right to that identity, and most English people until recently, referred to themselves as British leaving the territory of Englishness and its national symbols to the extreme right.
If I remember correctly, that last time we met, you spoke of establishing a federal type system in the UK. Can you give me a brief outline as to how you would see that functioning?
Yes, the creation of an English Parliament and First Minister with all nations within the currently constituted UK having developed powers. Powers reserved for the UK Federal administration might include defence, security, foreign policy and macroeconomic policy. One of the objections trundled out routinely is that the English would always get their way with the UK administration and the other national governments because 85% of the UK population is in England. However, the Americans manage to have both California (population 38m) and Wyoming (population 0.5m) happily integrated into a federal system with checks and balances, which is what a UK Federal arrangement would need.
How would the monarchy fit into a federal state?
In the same way as it fits into the current UK constitutional arrangement. The Monarch would be the head of the British state and would have whatever status the people of the four nations chose it to have for them if they chose not to be part of a federal UK.
You voted for Brexit, why?
The merging of two constitutionally unsatisfactory infrastructures was never going to be a satisfactory arrangement. I’ve already commented on why I think the UK constitution needs revision, and how. As for the EU, it bothers me that it is insufficiently accountable to people, it bothers me that national interest seems to be the predominant criterion for a policy decision, it bothers me that ethnic nationalist states put up barbed wire fences to keep out refugees within a community that was allegedly founded on the cosmopolitan values of Habermas, I cringe when somebody like Martin Schulz preach at people who don’t know who the hell he is and what right he has to preach at them, I get frustrated when member states have to vote more than once on major issues to ensure they vote for the “right” outcome, it annoys me when the EU doesn’t recognise England as an entity but as 9 “British” regions, I could go on……… The original referendum question in the UK in the 1970s about membership of the EEC was about an economic arrangement, not a political arrangement. Whilst the idea of an EU referendum as a means of resolving differences of view within the Conservative Party was pretty crass politics it gave a voice to the unheard. If the vote had been calculated on a first past the post basis it would have been 38% remain and 62% leave.
Do you think now that it will happen, if so what are your views on this?
Yes, I do. The more I think about it the more likely I think it will be a “hard Brexit”. If there’s a general election in the UK anytime soon I would think that the Conservatives and UKIP will do well in England at the expense of Labour under Corbyn.
Has Brexit damaged the image of Britain, and in particular England?
Yes, and the popular representation of the Brexit camp has been damaging, but also predictable. The population of people voting leave is far more nuanced in its views than the popular misrepresentation allows for. For sure, there are the xenophobes and “Little Brits/Englanders” (put together, as they often don’t get the distinction), but there are also more considered and, dare I say “liberal”, views such as those held by Lord David Owen. I do think there has been a deliberate attempt to put Brexiters in the “naughty corner”, but it backfired. We have to remember that every “region” of England except London voted leave; that can’t just be ignored or attributed to brainless racists. Wales voted leave. So did over a third of Scots.
If I remember correctly, we talked about an idea that Britain should leave the EU, but that an individual England, Scotland, Wales and NI could re-join…
Well, I made the point that both the UK and the EU need structural reform and, subject to that, the four nations of a UK Federation might then decide whether to nail their colours to a reformed EU or federal UK mast. It was notable that Nicola Sturgeon held a press conference the day after the Brexit vote and displayed the saltire and the EU flag, not the UK flag. This is indicative of what I mean. Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example, may well choose the EU, who knows. The point is that this is about self-determination at a national level not a federal level.
Toward the end of our conversation, I found it refreshing that a discourse regarding Britain, England and nationalism can be so calm and insightful. It is a real shame that the debate regarding Britain and its future in Europe is not all portrayed in such a manner. If it had been, then maybe this whole outcome could have been realised a lot better. I sincerely hope that the people of Britain, in whatever form that may take, will have adopted some of the ideas that Michael has given us today.