Phil Edwards says something suggestive, if relatively commonplace on the left, in the comments on his piece on the relative virtues of Englishness:
[i]f we're going to mobilise on any basis I'd be happier orienting to class irrespective of nationality.
I too would, ceteris paribus, prefer to mobilise on the basis of class rather than nationality. That of itself, is not particularly interesting: nationalism, as a backwards-looking ideology, with its grounding of political rights in arbitrary membership of a historically-rooted community, is hardly a particularly progressive political force, so one would not expect progressives to approve of it. Conversely, class, for all that it is rooted in historical social formations, typically seeks to eliminate itself and so is both forward-looking and hopefully not as permanently or as seriously violent or divisive as nationality.
What's suggestive about it is the context in which it occurs. It raises issues about the relationship of nationality and class and their respective identities, by begging the question of whether the divisions which constitute classes and nationalities are so separate that one, distinct from the other, can be used the basis of an attempt at political mobilisation. After all, one can hardly mobilise on the basis of class as against nationality if class is deeply intertwined with nationality and vice versa.
I said in the comments to Phil’s piece that there can hardly be much hope of mobilising Englishness against the Britishness he characterises as an ideology of Empire and central state power when Britishness is so closely tied, at least in its elites, to Englishness. I think that’s true, if perhaps less so than it once was: for all Tony Blair, a man brought up and even educated in Scotland, is transparently culturally English, his next in line is unashamedly Scots, culturally as well as by birth, and to my mind superior for it.
Although I can’t speak with any authority at all on the class hierarchies of the other parts of the Celtic Fringe – and they are the Celtic Fringe: that’s precisely the point – I get the sense that class hierarchies are structured differently in Scotland. My mother, a Scot, has always claimed to find the English class system bizarre as well as morally repugnant, having been socialised into a quite different and, she would claim, substantially less pernicious system of social hierarchies in her Grampian fishing port. That would make sense in light of the thought that the British establishment is predominantly English: the Scottish class system has had its top lopped off, and so its exploitation and status hierarchy differ from that of the English one, simply because to a certain degree you stop being Scottish once you reach a certain level.
This calls into question the social ontology of class and nationality that motivates the commonplace sentiment about it being preferable to mobilise politically on the basis of class rather than nationality. Some of the same historical experiences which shaped Scottish national identity, however we might characterise that anyway, shaped the particular manifestation of class identities in Scotland: a variety of forms of English dominance, political, military and economic, played midwife to them both. For a Scot, to mobilise on the basis of class, presumably against various parts of the elite, is to some degree to mobilise on the basis of nationality, against the English.
If that’s true of Scotland though, it could be true elsewhere. Indeed, a priori – and this is all a priori – given that Britain was a centralised state relatively early, one might expect that it would be more true elsewhere. Political and economic centralisation, one would expect, by reducing the importance of more local centres of power, would tend to be a homogenising force, decreasing the importance of particularistic affiliations like nationality while increasing the importance of more universalist ones like class: after all, if the political relationship which matter are with some local notable, it is them, not the place occupied in the distribution of the means of production that will tend to define a political identity.
There has, I understand, been some debate within Marxian circles about the question of whether Marx made some mistake in his assessment of the world-historical power of class, on whether other, in some ways more primal, forces have shaped the world over the past hundred and fifty years. Tom Nairn quotes Ernest Gellner on this possibility here:
Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob. The awakening message was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error delivered to nations…
Nairn seems to think that the problem has been a lack of patience, that Marx’s prophecies had a longer delivery date than those awaiting them expected, that globalisation has finally managed to re-direct them to their proper recipients. I’m skeptical. Either way, his explanation is Marx’s youth in a society whose features he thinks are becoming more and more common – the Rhineland of the 1840s, a borderland imbricated and in the interstices of a number of competing authorities. I wonder, though, whether Marx and Engels’ time in England, experiencing a British class system which, despite ruling over a multi-national state, was, in its upper echelons, mono-national, might have had its effects too.
Update, 10/06/06: Merrick has a slightly different take on the Britishness-Englishness thing at the Sharpener here. I suppose the problem I have with Englishness is that it thinks of itself as Britishness: unless its resurrection involves some explicit admission that Great Britain contains two other nations, and the British Isles another one, Englishness is going to be even more reactionary than Britishness. Put it another way: so far as I know, the BNP has no presence in Scotland at all. It is only a minority of the English who think that they have some legitimate greivance on the basis of the their Britishness.