Who are “we”?

Somebody once remarked that the most important word in the political vocabulary is “we”. It was a shrewd observation, since to get someone to use “we” in relation to some group of people is to get them to identify their interest as the interest of that group.

In the battle for “we”, socialists are trying to get all those excluded from ownership and control of means of production to recognise the fact of their common interest as one class within capitalist society, to regard themselves as “we” and to use “our” and “us” only in relation to that class and its interests.

Those who control one or other of the two hundred or so armed states into which the world is divided have to try to prevent this practice emerging, and deliberately seek to undermine it, in the interest of the other main class in capitalist society – those who do own and control means of production and who derive a privileged income from this. They seek to convince the people they rule over that the “we” they should identify with is “the nation” as the nation part of what they call the “nation-state” they rule.

It is in this light that should be seen David Blunkett’s White Paper last month on immigration and nationality, which proposes that people seeking British nationality should be required not just to have a knowledge of “the British way of life” but also to publicly swear allegiance to the queen. It is part of the ideological battle waged by the British ruling class to appropriate the word “we”.

Immigration causes a problem for them since immigrants, having been brought up under some other state, have not gone through the same process of brainwashing and conditioning as have the “native” population. Those born and brought up in Britain have been taught, through what’s been drummed into them in school and through what they continuously read in the papers or hear on the radio or television, to regard themselves as British. In school they are taught the history of the kings and queens of England, and of the wars in which the British ruling class has been involved in over the centuries, and of the evolution of the British state. The media reinforce this by reporting news from an almost exclusively British angle and encourage identification with “the nation” via identification with “our” sports teams and performers.

It therefore comes almost as a reflex action for people born and brought up in Britain to use “we” in relation to the British state and to regard themselves as part of a British “nation”. So people spontaneously say such things as “we beat the French at Waterloo” or “we won the second world war” or “we got five gold medals at the olympics”. Even opponents of particular policies pursued by the British state, yesterday as well as today, fall into the same trap and say such things as “we should never have conquered India” or “we shouldn’t join the euro”.

Such usage is music to the ears of the ruling class as they know it means they are on top in the battle for “we”. They have succeeded in getting their subjects to identify with them and their interests. Wage and salary workers, instead of seeing “we” as their class, have come to see it as “the nation”.

It wasn’t always so easy. Historians such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm have demonstrated that a nation is not a natural community that existed before the state, but that it’s the other way round: the state existed first and then proceeded to impose on those it ruled over the idea that they formed a “nation”. The longest-standing states of Western Europe – England, France and Spain – emerged at the end of the feudal era and then had to create a national feeling amongst the population living within their frontiers. These frontiers were accidental and had been determined by a number of key battles amongst dynastic rulers in feudal times. Had the outcome of these battles been different, then southern Britain might have been part of the same state as northern France, while northern Britain might have been part of a state with Scandinavia and southern France part of a state with Catalonia and northern Italy. That’s not how things turned out, but the point is that they could have done. States pre-existed and in a very real sense created nations. Nations are groups of people ruled by a state or a would-be state.

States that have been formed more recently – and most of the world’s states today were only formed in the last 80 or so years, i. e., have only been going for two or three generations – have had, and some still have, a serious problem in convincing all those they rule over that they form part of a single nation with a common interest. It is why their nationalism tends to be more shrill and authoritarian. It has to be, to overcome the tendency of some of their subjects, especially those speaking a minority language within their state, to identify themselves with some other nationalism particularly that of a neighbouring state.

Even a long-established state such as Britain has not solved this problem entirely, as witness Northern Ireland where a considerable proportion of the population use “we” not in relation to Britain but in relation to the Irish State and the “nation” it fosters. On the mainland the British state’s problem in this respect has been amongst the immigrants from its former Empire, many of whom, notoriously to Norman Tebbitt’s annoyance, refuse to support the English cricket team and continue to support that of their country of origin or that of their parents. More seriously, the ruling class were shocked by the number of immigrants from Pakistan and their descendants who supported the Taliban in the most recent Afghan War.

Until recently the dominant opinion amongst those in charge of the British state about how to deal with this was to make a virtue of necessity and pursue a policy of “multiculturalism”. It didn’t work. In fact, it has encouraged division, by getting people to identify with their “culture” rather than with the British “nation”. (Socialists, too, see “multiculturalism” as divisive but for the different reason that it gets workers to identify with some other group over and above their class.) Now a change of policy is under way, as announced in Blunkett’s White Paper, a swing to “assimilationism”.

Queen Capital
The first to experience this change of policy are to be applicants for British nationality. Blunkett wants them to be able to show some knowledge of the British state, its institutions and the history of its rulers, before being accepted into the British “nation”. The expectation is that they will say “we beat the French at Waterloo” and “we should/should not join the euro” as readily as any true-born Briton. Perhaps too they will support England in test matches.

There are also to be required to publicly pledge allegiance to the queen in ceremonies akin to the patriotic flag-worshipping that applicants for US citizenship have to go through. Such a ceremony would be a farcical revival of feudal times, but it brings out the importance of the royal family to the British ruling class. The royal family’s role is to act as a focus for loyalty to the British state. The 19th Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is credited with first having thought this up. The royal family may be a relic from feudalism but it is easier to get people to identify with it than with some abstraction like the constitution. Nor is any superannuated politician dubbed “the president” ever going to be able to act as such a focus.

It is also less hypocritical, because members of the British “nation” are called what they really are –”subjects”, people subjected to the rule of a ruling class. Tony Benn, old-fashioned radical liberal still fighting 19th century battles against Disraeli that he is, finds this abhorrent. He wants us to be called “citizens” not “subjects”, as people are in France. But the people of France are no less subjects of the French ruling class and its state for being called citizens. Let a spade continue to be called a spade. What we should object to is not to being called subjects, but to being subjects.

Benn is a dissident member of the ruling class who hasn’t understood their interests properly (though republicanism and “citizenship” could become a useful alternative way of ensuring loyalty to the British capitalist state if ever the royal family becomes too unpopular). But even though royalty is much less popular than it was even 25 years ago, as the media is noting as the queen’s golden jubilee celebrations falter, it is still an asset that the British ruling class want to hold on to and use to the full. It serves to get wage and salary workers to be loyal to the British state and to use “we” in relation to the interests of its ruling class. A revealing demonstration of its effectiveness in duping workers can be seen elsewhere in this issue, in the Fifty Years Ago column, where we recall that the print workers – not the printing firm – refused to typeset an article in our March 1952 issue on the death of King George VI which pointed this out.

Perhaps we should have gone to a firm of printers that only employed immigrant workers who had not yet been broken in to considering themselves loyal subjects of the crowned head of the British capitalist state.

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