by Anthony Jones
Officially, the United Kingdom presently recognises four constituent “home” countries, three of which (Wales, Scotland, and the occupied six counties in the North of Ireland) are in fact under the open economic and sometimes covert political domination of Westminster, which serves as the political head of England, whose capital, London, is also the capital of the whole United Kingdom.
With the national identity and economic life of England being so strongly identified with the British state as such, “the English” are objectified in the “oppressor nation” role within the UK and around the world through British imperialism. “The English people” fill the same role for the UK and British imperialism that “the French people” fill with regard to the French state and its domestic and foreign policies.
It is the tendency of imperialism to create through the internationalisation of the productive process “oppressor nations” and “oppressed nations”. In contrast to the Three World Theory, we do not hold that this means that these national formations are no longer actually divided on a class basis. It was the Leninist assumption from the beginning that in spite of the power of imperialist to “nationalise” class struggle, the national struggles could never be fully extricated from the class dynamics. From the perspective of the proletariat of the oppressed nation, they experience their class oppression through the lens of the extra oppression and exploitation they receive as members of, for example, the Irish nation. From the perspective of the proletariat of the oppressor nation, however, they can conceive of the totality of the position of their class by identifying with the oppressed nation’s proletariat.
In this sense, Marxists even unfamiliar with British politics could easily say that the truly class conscious English proletariat ought to identify with the struggle against British imperialism, a principled unity in struggle against the capitalist-imperialist ruling class in Westminster. But in the UK, it has for some time been an implicit assumptionthat there is no national question on the island of Britain itself. It is very easy from Wales or Scotland to counter that, in fact, the Welsh and Scottish are separate nations from the English.
But it is not our goal here to enter into polemics on the Welsh national question, a debate which we consider very clearly resolved: there is a Welsh nation, with a territory and language, and a right to self-determination, which is being oppressed by England. The more interesting point is this: it was only by an ongoing process of nascent struggle by the Welsh people ourselves that Wales was again recognised as a country in its own right, separate from England, as it was insultingly considered a part of until the 1960s. We have won this debate in practice, and the Welsh people continue to struggle for our own future. No, magnanimously, in an internationalist spirit, it is our intention here to return to the question of England and ask how many nations live in England today?
Cornwall is a small national territory, south of Wales, and created by the expansion of the Kingdom of England over indigenous British territory. By the time of capitalism’s development and with it, the development of nations, the remnants of the British tribes on the island who began to develop something like a national consciousness were cut off from one another. The larger group became the Welsh of today, and the territory in question is clear. The smaller group, in Cornwall, spoke a closely related language which was dying out already by the time of the industrial revolution, and the policy of linguistic genocide applied by the English rulers in Wales to some success easily destroyed Cornish entirely.
Linguistic revival attempts are ongoing, but the Cornish still have a clear territory of their own, and a distinct economic life typical of small colonies of Westminster and its imperialist domination. The Cornish disparagingly refer to their neighbours to the east as “Emmets”, and a small national liberation movement exists, albeit even weaker than the one in Wales.
As political development continues throughout the crisis and takes increasingly national form on the island, it is possible the Cornish will experience a considerable growth in national consciousness, that the autonomist and secessionist movements will gain followers and reshape the economic and social dynamics in this territory. It is also possible that their weak cultural, economic, and political position will cause them to gradually identify with their long-lost cousins, the Welsh, or with the English people who currently dominate them.
It is up to the Cornish to decide what sort of national future they envision for themselves, but it is in our interest as revolutionaries to defend their right to resist the assimilatory politics of England, late though it may be, and it is in anti-imperialist terms clearly advantageous to us if the Cornish begin to sever ties with England.
The other Englands
The most salient division in England is that between the north and the south, with the southerners generally being the more bourgeois and mainstream and the north being the more economically disadvantaged and “otherised” culturally. But this does not mean that the north and the south of England constitute two separate nations. The north and south of Wales are likewise culturally, linguistically, and economically different, but it is no one’s view that there are two Welsh nations as a result. As far as it is normal within any country, it is not surprising that the English or the Welsh might display some quantitative differences in national cultural and politico-economic standing that does not carry over into a qualitative difference of being two separate national populations (of north and south).
So as much as we might relish the idea of dividing England after their bourgeoisie has done everything in their power to assimilate us into the culture of capitalist English modernity, it is of course up to the groups living in England today to resist this process and lay claim to an alternative future.
It does so happen that there are some such trends already, and it should not surprise us to find them in the north of England where local culture was not as quickly or as definitively bound into the new metropolitan English culture that became dominant in the era of imperialism. Each of these, like the Cornish national movement, may end up failing, and the people may choose instead an “English” identity, or some other one. But we should be aware of these trends, in touch with their proponents, and able to provide a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the concrete reality of these potential national struggles.
There exists a “North East Party” movement, which seems to seek autonomy for what is effectively the parts of Northumbria that fell under English rule. The historical context is telling: such a movement could easily eventually choose union with Scotland as conflict between England and Scotland grows, or it could present a “wedge” role, or it may remain satisfied with a certain autonomy of a non-”national” character within England.
Also in the north is Yorkshire, who have their own “Yorkshire Party”, but even without it, Yorkshire’s strong attachment to their regional identity is well known. In short it might be said that the entire north of England is host to a dynamic of strong proletarianisation and strong local culture born out of their fringe relationship with “their” capital in the south. Revolutionary cadres who organise in this part of the country ought to be especially sensitive to this potential for resistance to the state and capital becoming objectified in a “local culture” rather than “strictly” within the political realm, as has been observed in Wales and Scotland already for decades.
Moving south, there is a movement in the Midlands for a sort of revival of “Mercia”, which has an anti-Norman historical character and a regionalist present character. Even “Wessex”, a very traditional southern English region, has produced a small movement to protect local culture and advocates some sort of autonomy.
However much these movements are signs of the potential for national struggles that right now appear within “one nation” or not, it is a sign that whatever remains at the end of these deliberations, whatever is “legitimately” England, has some unease about an imposed monolithically English identity. The English, it would seem, come in various colours even once they have stopped colonising the other. A socialist and federative England alongside socialist republics of various Celtic peoples seems a perfectly noble goal for the English revolutionary, in this light.
The centre of empire
As the centre of empire, even when it is not incorporating their territory into itself, England is incorporating the labour, materials, culture, and lives of persons of many national backgrounds into its borders. Today one cannot help but notice in London that “the English” are the minority there. The majority is in fact the multinational proletariat which built the empire whose stolen wealth lies in the same city. Like a magnet, the two are attracted to each other. Without the labour of the slaves of empire, the imperialists in Westminster cannot go on, and so they jealously guard their commonwealth, their crown, their history of lies that is shoved down our throats, of the glorious empire on which the sun never sets. Their victims, unable to develop their own countries thanks to the genocide and subjugation and robbery of England, now fill England’s un-English capital, face racism and exploitation and death in burning tower flats, driving themselves to the very edge to survive.
London’s great multinational character is in some ways a disadvantage from the perspective of radical struggle: various national groups distrust one another and become nationalist in the diaspora, and to the extent they intermix, they begin to socialise into the English nation and its social-political values, regardless of their origins. To the extent that London can prove a base to radical groups from other countries, for example, the Turkish and Kurdish revolutionary movements, or the Irish, it would behoove British revolutionaries to offer concrete internationalist solidarity to help them build. Just as the English must see in the liberation of the Irish a blow against empire, so too must every Welsh or English or Scottish view the autonomy of anti-imperialist actors swimming in the sea of their compatriots as a key front of struggle against our common enemies.
Just because a potential geography, such as Cornwall, may not choose national development, does not mean their autonomy is of no value to us. The experience of local politics and fighting for local culture is the experience of the masses in fighting alienation, in demanding radical change, real democracy. By the same token, just because no national group in London can call London their national territory, does not mean that their national origins are of no concern. On the contrary, the longer that, for example, the Kurds hold on to their national identity in diaspora, in spite of the impossibility of creating a full national life as they hope to in their liberated homeland, the more chances the Kurdish liberation movement and our own socialists have to reach one another through this dialectical point of tension that we call “diaspora”.
When we look at England, we do not see one nation, and we do not see one class. We see a constellation of social groups, national formations, class politics, which reflect the totality of a brutal history of oppressive and exploitative empire. In this geography too, there is the real potential for struggle. But Marx did not say that “the lever must be applied in Ireland” because he was an Irish nationalist. It is because Marx understood that the march to proletarian liberation for English people must pass through a reckoning with the victims of the empire which was built in some sense in their name and image.
Under the conquest of the indigenous Celts, the toiling multinational proletariat of London pulled from the four corners of the empire which committed genocide against them, lies a complex history of the English proletariat, which like the French proletariat, first glimpsed a view of a radically different world during a “national” revolution. Like the French today, it is by fighting against the nationalism of the triumphant empire that followed that the English will achieve their dreamt-of liberation.