New Model Island
By Alex Niven
Published by Repeater Books
£9.99, paperback, available at Printed Matter Bookshop, and Bookbusters

Review by Tim Barton

Arthur, and many of our nation’s ur-myths, are Romano-British, which is to say Welsh (with, in Arthur’s case, a side-order of French). Few are the myths relating directly to the post-Norman culture of our masters. ‘England’ and ‘English’ are to a degree defined by negatives. Alex identifies tropes in our mythology – a void at the heart of our national ideal; a conception that a true England has ‘not been allowed to exist’; a cursed nation. From the Norman Invasion, through the enclosures and the industrial ‘revolution’, ordinary ‘Englishmen’ have been un-homed in their own land – no wonder there is a national obsession with ‘an Englishman’s castle’.

The resurgent ‘gothic’ pretensions of the romantics as Empire grew and a grandiose yet confused and psychologically embattled (by our own demons as much as by any real threat) imposition of ‘Englishness’ not only upon the Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cornish…, but upon every shore on which we landed, muddies the idea of ‘England’ yet more.

HAUNTOLOGY, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY AND HIPSTER FOLK NATIONALISM

Niven exhumes our Ur-Nation through Mark Fisher’s concepts of the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’, and their roots in the ‘uncanny’ / ‘unheimlich’. A confusion emerges here, as Niven is somewhat sarcastic about ‘hauntology’, ‘psychogeography’, and a ‘hipster folk nationalism’ he sees as inherent in it, but at the same time indulges at least the former two in his (anti-?) nostalgia around English history. This is exemplified by his essay on Alton Towers and the Victorian gothic folly at its heart, and the local legend of an English Oak bound in chains: I guess he squares this circle through a partial rejection of the fake ‘culture’ that binds the visitors to the fun-fair that has built up around (and through) it. Our ‘Cool Britannia’ of the 1990s, too, is an outflow of this homeless and lost ‘national pride’, at one and the same time mocked and lauded, often by the same commentators.

Niven posits ‘England’ as ‘sheer political void’, and predicts that we will, like Aragon, Burgundy, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, join Europe’s ‘vanished kingdom’s’. As the establishment’s new civil war unfolds, old money versus new, off-shore investment versus national, the removal of the UK from its close alliance with the European mainland moves apace. The incoherence of our national mythologies becomes important. As Finton O’Toole says, ‘the problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom’.

And here is where we approach the purpose of this book: to propose ideas on how we may, to quote the subtitle, ‘build a radical culture beyond the idea of England’. There are important precedents, such as Leopold Kohr’s 1970s work on ‘the breakdown of nations’, and Vernon Bogdanor’s on devolution. But Niven has been mixing in a left accelerationist milieu, which, even whilst he interrogates that view, brings fresh perspectives to a new vision of our Islands’ future. He looks to move beyond our exploited masses and away from profit-driven corporate interests, but does so with a sharp awareness of how deeply entrenched the small self-identifying yet genetically inbred elites are, and how far their reach and control goes. 

SLIPPING OFF THE BOARD THEY SURF TO POWER ON

So far as leftist narratives go, Niven has a healthily bracing intolerance of one of the most iconic intellectual heroes, George Orwell, whose middle-class nationalism he thinks suffocates real radical change from below. As a product of the war ministry years, indeed Orwell, like film-makers Powell & Pressburger, has a lot to answer for in promoting an anaesthetising vision of bucolic ‘roses round the door of the cottage’ home-counties England, writ large and projected across the isles, a sop, a blanket, suppressing our rage. Of course, with no pressure valve the heat eventually erupts, and Brexit seems another key strategy for the establishment to suffocate a left eruption (whether nationalist, decentric, or internationalist), as that requires a certain level of intellectual engagement, whereas the cultural vacuity of right-wing nationalist populism does not. Defining its terms negatively, riding the tsunami of entropy, right-wing nationalism looks set to win over anything that needs to build up that slope, hence the success of ‘the pseudo-populism of Faragism’.

Of course, the elite are playing a dangerous game and the cost of them slipping off the board they surf to power on will be very high indeed. But if they ride it out, it will ‘only’ be the underdog, the weak and the foreign that suffer. Whereas a success from the left will require the removal of the elite. In fact, the destruction of at least the top half of the pyramid under which mere mortals are crushed, and a partial version on what’s left. But this is necessary, to reverse “the deliberate removal of forms of social solidarity and security since the eighties has marooned individuals on islands of their own suffering”.

TO ECONOMICALLY AND POLITICALLY EQUAL A RUMP SOUTH-EAST

Niven talks of a ‘deep regionalism’, and a removal of London as the locus of power. He sees, too, the risk of tribal ‘blood-and-soil’ narratives (using Northumberland as his case study). But, in the context of “the ethnographic demolition of Englishness”, he suggests envisaging “a wholly new architecture for the islands, one that moves beyond both capitalism and feudalism”, one explored through the ‘dream archipelagos & regionalism 2.0’ (the title of chapter 4 – Christopher Priest coined the former term). Here he investigates a left internationalism that seeks to eradicate national borders, but his suggestions for “reorganising our polity” go beyond that, too. He would advance a multi-vocal identity recognising the breadth and diversity of our lands (though not along top-down liberal lines), and a decentred ‘tangible political shape to the multifarious nature of the islands’, one that breaks the London- and home counties-centric orientation of our currently inappropriately monolithic concept of ‘England’.

We are less an island nation than a collection of islands – let’s start there, he suggests. Creating cohesive new regions to economically and politically
equal a rump south-east would be his goal. Personally, I’d add grassroots directly democratic forums, encouraging local self-government, returning recallable representatives with a limited mandate to regional assemblies, and on up. The fly in the ointment (apart from ‘how do we get there from here?’) is how to empower an informed populace to make this function in a positive manner: the block not being some dubious Hobbesian ‘human nature’, but the time required to transform the acquisition of knowledge, learning, and reasoning skills.


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