Mark Perryman (ed.)
LAWRENCE AND WISHART, 2008
Reviewed by Richard Weight
At a St. George's Day event of speeches and music starring Billy Bragg, which Mark Perryman organised at London's Barbican Centre in 2008, a band playing a mix of rock'n'roll, ska and Hawaiian tunes was interrupted by a heckler shouting 'What's Honolulu got to do with St. George's Day?' The heckler was my friend Ed Davie, a committed New Labour activist and prospective local councillor in South London.
Although Ed had missed the main point of the event, which was to celebrate the glorious hybridity of Englishness, Perryman notes at the start of his book that it took 'balls to shout out quite so loudly and rudely'. Balls are now needed by everyone to confront the fact that Britain in its present form may not exist by the time we reach the centenary of the Partition of Ireland in 2021. As the title of Breaking Up Britain suggests, Perryman and his contributors have the requisite cohunes.
The centre-left has led the constructive debate about national identity in Britain over the last thirty years. Yet there are some who think it's a luxury at a time of economic crisis, while others are repelled by opportunistic slogans like 'British jobs for British workers', which are designed to appease anxiety about immigration and globalisation. In fact, national identity should be debated more than ever now because it is during recessions that conservatism and fascism tend to capitalise on popular discontent by re-asserting traditional notions of Britishness based around a centralised, sovereign state and cultural/racial homogeneity.
There is also a tendency, especially among English radicals, to sit tight and hope that the concept of national identity will somehow whither in a world of cosmopolitan, networked 'global cities'. It won't. If anything, the need for individuals to securely locate themselves in national cultures will grow in response to globalisation. So what does the centre-left have to offer them? Devolution was one of New Labour's great achievements and this book is as good a progress report as I've read.
Breaking Up Britain contains an eloquent plea by Gerry Adams for a devolved united Ireland, although having seen the capacity of a Conservative/Unionist pact to road-block the existing Peace Process in Northern Ireland, one is tempted to say 'Good luck with that, Gerry'. With regard to Labour's more successful devolution of power within Britain, the book contains...