I started writing this months ago, but only recently found the time to revisit and finish it. Alex Niven’s New Model Island was one of the most intriguing and exciting books I read during 2020, and although I disagree with much of his argument, I still think it deals well with a pressing issue of our time – namely, the future of the British Isles and our dissatisfactory politics. It’s a highly imaginative book that incorporates insights on literature and culture effectively into its broader political point.
In New Model Island, Alex Niven (in perhaps typically English fashion) argues that England does not exist. Through the drawn-out processes of unifying the British Isles and building the world’s largest empire, England and Englishness became indistinguishable from Britishness. In gaining an empire, England sacrificed any meaningful sense of national identity it had prior. London’s position as the capital of this empire led to the imbalance we are all familiar with today, where people and resources are sucked in from all across Britain and Ireland – for many of us, migration to the capital is down to economic need (it’s where all the jobs are) rather than an actual desire to live there. On top of its economic centrality, London remains the seat of political power in the UK, despite Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland having their own devolved legislatures.
What’s left of England, then? Niven finds three “essential facets” to Englishness: the sense that England is cursed or has not been allowed to exist; a feeling of confinement, as represented by the country’s castles, gothic architecture, and its involvement in the slave trade; and a lack of identity, a void, and hiddenness. While some on the left (such as that pillar of English leftism, guitar man Billy Bragg) have tried to piece together a progressive English patriotism out of the radical political moments in its history, Niven thinks there is something false or unsatisfying about this new story of England. There is nothing specifically English, for instance, about the struggles faced by rural labourers at the time of the enclosures, nor about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. These were moments of class struggle, not an English struggle.
Instead of English nationalism, Niven opts for the opposite route: he proposes that England should be split up into 7-9 regions of roughly the same size, each with its own governments. To balance out London’s impact, he proposes turning Carlisle into a “soft capital” for the “North-West Triangle” – that is, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Northern England. With its proximity to Scotland, Tyneside, the Irish Sea, and the cities of North West England, Carlisle is well suited to be the administrative centre for these regions. This new regionalist formation could also fill that void felt by the English, with positive regional identities providing greater meaning to the people of these isles.
I find Niven’s vision of decentralisation very appealing: political power has always been far removed from the inhabitants of the UK, and the gravitational pull of the capital makes it difficult for young people from outside the South-East to continue living in the communities where they grew up. I think Niven’s diagnosis of Englishness as being void, or non-existent, is correct too – there are no specifically English values, and all the cultural touchstones of England (cricket, tea, stately homes, whatever) seem so absurdly reductive and irrelevant. However, his argument is limited by an inverted English exceptionalism, perhaps because of his adherence to the Nairn-Anderson Thesis, which states that the England’s inherent conservatism is the result of the failure of the English bourgeoisie to cement its control during the Civil War. The Civil War was therefore a failed bourgeois revolution, as it concluded with the restoration of the monarchy and the aristocracy’s power. England is deemed to be an exception in this sense, as it failed to develop in the same way as other nation states, most notably France.
In the context of New Model Island, this inverted exceptionalism is apparent whenever Niven mentions the other nations present on this archipelago. While English identity is a problem that needs solving, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh identities are treated as if they were uncomplicatedly positive and progressive. Under Niven’s plan, England needs to be broken up to put an end to centralisation, while Wales and Scotland are granted independence without being carved up themselves. In Ireland, meanwhile, unification of the North and the Republic “seems inevitable, and indeed fairly imminent”. England is special in being a problematic void, while other nations are fine and good as they are.
When Niven writes that, “Unlike England, Wales has a positive sense of self founded in a long-running independence movement”, I can’t help but feel that he needs to dig deeper into the history of Welsh nationalist politics. English identity gets a thorough dressing-down, but Welsh identity is apparently simply good – good enough to warrant its own unified state. But Wales and Welsh identity are rather more complicated than that. For instance, life in North Wales is arguably more closely connected to Merseyside and Manchester than Cardiff. The train from Holyhead to Cardiff spends much of its route going through the West Midlands of England; getting to London is much quicker and easier. Growing up in Gwynedd, the Government in Cardiff felt nearly as distant as the one in Westminster. So why is it decentralisation for England, but recentralisation for Wales?
Furthermore, the assumption that Welsh nationalism is innately benevolent is somewhat undermined by a tendency towards exclusion – a characteristic of all forms of nationalism. Nationality always leads to the question of who’s in and who’s out, and in Welsh nationalism there’s something of a tension over whether one needs to be able to speak Welsh to count as Welsh. The term ‘Cymry Cymraeg’ (the ‘Welsh Welsh’) is sometimes used for people in the Welsh-speaking heartlands, with the implication being that only a fraction of Welsh people are really truly Welsh and that the rest are living in some indeterminate zone between being Welsh, English, and British. Nor can a figure like Saunders Lewis, who held a prominent position in the early years of Plaid Cymru and who expressed anti-Semitic views and sympathy for Nazism, be so easily dismissed as just an aberration. (There’s a great documentary by historian Gwyn Alf Williams about Saunders Lewis’ life that’s really worth watching: https://youtu.be/Qayhc9KugOY?t=1678). At the very least, it indicates that Welsh nationalism hasn’t always been entirely progressive, leftist, or radical – although these currents are certainly the most prevalent today.
Plus, England is not unique in having cultural touchstones that become silly upon serious reflection. I prefer football to rugby, I don’t eat cawl or lob scaws, and I have never eaten laverbread (I do like Welsh cakes, mind). I don’t travel to work in a coracle. Llanfair PG’s incredibly long name is just a gimmick created for tourists, as is the story of Gelert rescuing the baby from the Wolves in Beddgelert. The longer you stare at national identity, the more it seems to dissolve into a translucent blur.
Niven rightly emphasises that he wants to avoid a “blood-and-soil version of regionalism” as a replacement to the void that is England. Nevertheless, I think his argument for rejecting ethnic regionalism/nationalism falls into the trap of arguing on his opponents’ terms. To dispel the notion of there being an ethnically homogenous ‘Angelfolc’, he highlights ethnographic research that shows the existence of several different distinct DNA clusters within England, as well as in Britain and Ireland more broadly. Central and Southern England, Niven tells us, comprise one of these clusters, while others exist along the border with Wales, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and Cumbria and the North East. This means that “the ethnic argument for a cohesive Englishness is completely without foundation”. The conclusion is sound, but the reasoning behind it is flawed. It only suggests that English ethnic nationalists have got their boundaries drawn in the wrong places, when we should be rejecting the very categories used by ethnic nationalists. Pointing to the diversity of DNA clusters within England still allows the ethnic nationalist to shift their pride and identity onto one of those clusters – so, ‘England for the English’ can be replaced with ‘Cumbria for the Cumbrians’. To reiterate, Niven is in no way arguing for a form of ethnic nationalism, but his criticism of ethnic nationalism should go further.
What is most frustrating about the discussion around the possibilities emerging from the unravelling of the UK is that it is never clear to me how what is being proposed is really that radical. Why is the division of a population into smaller subdivisions innately radical? I haven’t found an answer that satisfies yet. None of these changes – none of the new borders, polities, and identities that are being proposed – necessarily entail a major change for the better in people’s daily lives. Perhaps it’s characteristic of our age that utopia has become the division bourgeois states into a greater number of (still bourgeois) statelets. (Sorry, I’ve been reading a lot of Adorno recently and it’s really turning me into the biggest pessimist). It isn’t clear from Niven’s book how the internal politics of each of the new regions would work, but I would hope that it would be something more than the representative politics that was implemented through devolution. Why aren’t we talking about deliberative or participatory forms of democracy as well? I am also left with questions about the possibility for economic competition to accelerate between the regions and nations, resulting in increased inequality – but let’s leave that question for another day.
To close, I’d like to briefly reflect on what might be going on with such visions of a divided future Britain. Niven’s is far from the only reflection on the character of England and Englishness – it’s a topic that is growing in prominence, particularly due to the realistic prospect of the breakup of the UK. Recently, journalists like John Harris have written about the need for a positive version of English patriotism, in contrast to Paul Mason’s blunt view on England: “I do not want to be English – and any attempt to create an English identity will fail.” Maybe what Harris and Niven are both seeking is a clearer identity – either national or regional. But perhaps a middle way can be carved out, and the tool for that job are already at hand: the void in Englishness itself. What Niven finds frustrating about Englishness – the fact that it doesn’t really exist – is precisely what I think is worth taking advantage of. It allows for a greater degree of malleability and variety; you can do pretty much what you like with it; you shouldn’t need to learn any folk dances or wear a particular type of a hat to pass for English, nor speak with a particular accent or dialect. I fear that might change in future, and that the search for new identities as a response to our political situation could see us all, each one of the nations and regions of the UK, becoming more insular and strangers to each other.