Seeking national essence

By Justin O'Connor

I first visited Finland in 1993 during the depression following upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was struck immediately by a widespread preoccupation with ‘Finnishness’. Every conversation seemed to lead to the subject. This was not just because I was foreign – at the conference I was attending this formed the subject of a number of academic papers intended as much for a Finnish as a non-Finnish audience. I had travelled fairly widely in western Europe over the years, and whilst national characters and traits flitted in and out of conversations (‘typical French’, ‘part of the German mentality’, ‘how very British’) I had never encountered such a sustained concern with a seemingly palpable national essence. Indeed, I thought it naïve, even quaint. Here was a nation on the edge of Europe which, with its welfare state, regulated economy and strong sense of an ordered society, seemed a strange survival of a pre-sixties, national-service world before counter-cultures, rock ‘n’ roll rebellion and the ironic blasts of post-modernity and consumption-driven lifestyles.

In Britain conversations about ‘Britishness’ were – for anyone born after 1955, educated and left of centre – simply embarrassing. This had a clear political dimension. Nations and nationalism were bad. The very question of national identity was saturated with ideology. Forming identities around the image of a nation was what Tories, war veterans, skinheads and football hooligans did. To define yourself as ‘British’ in any way but as a passport holder was both to align yourself with a nation-state tainted by Empire and to exclude those immigrants and children of immigrants who were not allowed or did not wish to buy into the available notions of Britishness. But perhaps more tellingly, such concerns with Britishness seemed irrelevant to what was going on in the world, irrelevant to the stories we were making up about who we were and where we were going.

The point is not about ‘Britishness’ and ‘Finnishness’ so much as our different relationships to our national identity, the availability and acceptability of a discourse on ‘Britishness’ or ‘Finnishness’. And to ask – if such a conversation is not open to us then have we lost something, are we politically crippled?

Finland – a country on the edge

The depression in Finland was – as is often the case – not just about unemployment but a national soul searching about identity, internal and external. Finland was small, marginal, squeezed between Empires and blocs, but had triumphantly built a modern nation that had retained its independence against the odds. Finland was a late comer – as with the Czechs, the Magyars, the Poles, the Serbs and others, history, culture and language were drafted into the service of creating a national identity. Finland was surprisingly successful. Taken into the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century it did not disappear but began to flourish – its growing cultural nationalism having the institutional foundation (the feudal rights and administrative legality bequeathed by Sweden) so tragically lacking in the Polish case. Unlike in Ireland, or in parts of the Austro-German sphere, the Swedish speaking elites did not adopt the master-language (in this case Russian) – they begun to carve out a new identity by learning the peasant language of Finnish. And unlike the Czechs, and definitely the Magyars, this re-assertion, re-learning of a language became linked to a particular social-democratic vision of the nation. Finland’s nation-building, despite some difficult moments in 1918-20 and in the 1930s, was set within the framework of Scandinavian social-democracy and the welfare state.

It would be wrong to describe Finland as under the shadow of the USSR; by the 1980s it had come a long way from the more anxious days of the 1960s and the Cold War. Nevertheless, the USSR was there. It represented a constant tug which kept Finland on the edge of that European tradition of which it had been part since the Swedish conquest in the middle ages. Finland always seemed to be on the edge – of Europe, of Scandinavia, of the Russian Empire and the Soviet bloc. In the great days of the Nation State to be on the edge was to be problematic. It meant standing to one side of those nations which were the subject of the unfolding historical narrative; it meant trying extra hard to be taken seriously as a ‘real nation’. Now, in an age of regional blocs and globalisation the Nation State is no longer the privileged subject of history, the smaller nations are now able to move in more interstitial ways within larger groups.

In its membership of the EU Finland is now both more attached and more independent that ever before, enthusiastically searching for a new European identity but also worried about the Finnishness it brings with it. This country from the margins – what image would it present, what figure would it cut? It was a new nation, a young nation, uncertain as to what it might become but open to possibilities, ready to seize the future. Finland was opening up to the outside; it quickly switched from German to English as the key international language; it adopted new technology with an energy and enthusiasm which has given it an international reputation. Finland – high tech, internet, Nokia. On the other hand it was archaic, peasant, only superficially modern. Industrialisation came late to Finland. Only in the 1960s did the big exodus from the country to the city take place – with the peasant cultures of the East and North settling uneasily in the concrete and glass cities of the South. The dislocation still has enormous resonance – in the relations between men and women, in the attitudes to social interaction, in the distrust of urban life. At an exhibition in Helsinki on Finnish art between 1840 and 1930 I felt a strange absence. Only towards the did I realise that, out of over a hundred paintings, I had seen only one or two images of urban life. Culture and nature were clear alternatives in a way no longer possible in Britain.

Talking about the future

This opening up to Europe, to new ideas, to the future was marked by a subtle withdrawal, an obstinacy which occasionally suggested only a superficial engagement with this new world. Finnish, the language so central to both the creation and the definition of the nation in the 19th and 20th centuries, often sat below English like a sullen, jagged rock. Compare this to the ease by which Dutch glide between their first language and English. This uncertainty extended to social behaviour. Finland was ordered and planned; its small population and efficient statistics made it transparent, knowable in a way surprising for many in western Europe. Commenting on the high level of university drop-outs in Britain somebody once followed up by asking – ‘what do they do when they have dropped out’? Not only had I no idea but it would not have occurred to me to even ask the question. Yet it is also a deeply ‘unsocial’ nation. Finns seek solitude. Social intercourse is about straight talk, honest communication. The ‘Social Art’ is here read as artifice, deception, twisted meanings, fancy evasions. So opening up to Europe meant negotiating this – if only to find something to talk about in the new pavement cafes and not to embarrass yourself when abroad. It was the uncertainty, the awkwardness of coming from the edge – of Europe and its urban(e) cultures, of modernity, of the map.

For all this ‘Finnishness’ was a way of talking about the future. There were those who saw the future as threatening, to be met with a unitary Finnishness undiluted by foreign (especially Anglo-Saxon) ideas and foreign (non-white) people. Joensuu has its skinheads and Helsinki has its Matti Klinge. But it was a dialogue all could participate in and it was a dialogue that concerned everybody. At its root was a commitment to social solidarity alongside its negotiation with far-reaching changes. During the depression, where unemployment was hitting 20%, there was much hand-wringing and shame about those on the dirty end of the stick. Men in purple shell suits holding dripping cans of strong beer on the tram were the object of pity and a sense of powerlessness. Contrast that to Britain in the early 1980s. Here a similar depression was used by the State to push through a political and economic programme animated by a shocking vindictiveness – to uproot a culture which was held to have perverted the sources of British strength and greatness, to systematically dismantle an industrial social structure reaching back to the 19th century, and to redrawn the political map so that that its representation would never be able to gain power again. Men in purple shell suits could just piss off.

Britain – future undefined

As the most astute commentators of the time saw, this programme promoted radical change under the banner of an archaic, disciplinary vision of Britishness, one that not everybody could share and which had the power to silence dissent. The shock of that programme was compounded by the fact that there was no alternative articulation of Britishness. Such archaic images were to laughed at in disbelief, not countered. I wonder if those of us who did not engage in conversations about national identity were the naïve ones, as well as arrogant. Could it be the case that our refusal was also a refusal to acknowledge the real State we were in? The glee with which a newly radicalised establishment took up the attack on the trappings of the old, independent working class cultures had its echoes in the fear and distrust the educated metropolitan Left had of these cultures. Britain now goes into a future which it has never defined for itself; the break with an older industrial past was an violent rupture never acknowledged. The values of that culture – a commitment to social solidarity and common advancement – were replaced, not by Thatcher’s grocer shop morality, but by a consumption driven individualism which cannot conceive of any other way of living. We advance towards the future blindfolded and incapable of really using our history – as with the psychotic preoccupation with the second world war. And the return of the repressed: the winning of the class war by Thatcher has simply spread the hatred and resentment of that war into the everyday social interaction of British society. There are very few public spaces in Britain where all elements of society can mix and mingle in a non-threatening environment. The fear and loathing of the winners is reflected in the aggressive assertion of territorial rights by the less fortunate. No middle class wanker tells me what to do.

And finally, I have deliberately used Britain and Britishness – but this is not available anymore. Scotland, Wales and Ireland can now talk about their futures, but England? Long in a symbiotic relationship with the British State it has suddenly landed with a bang centre stage. The problem is we don’t know how to talk about it. We laugh at John Major’s ‘little old woman cycling to the shops to drink warm beer’ but what do we set against it. We now have ‘middle England’ – a typically divisive notion in a nation incapable of seeing itself as it is. But that discourse is there, or has been, in the one element of cultural modernity which has really faced up to the future of England/ Britain in the late 20th century. Popular culture in Britain has been the site of this negotiation, as Kari Kallioniemi has written elsewhere – and it still holds the most inventive and energetic elements of our culture. But it, too, is currently buried in a hyper-mediatic culture centred on London  and its vapid fashion elites. So I think we should start talking about Englishness, find ways of re-thinking who we are and where we want to go. We have to engage with it not as a debunking of myths – the sneering aloofness that so disastrously marks English Academia, making it useless to the task – but as way of talking about ourselves in an historical and social context. Because we have no idea of who we are or how we really live.

Dr. Justin O'Connor is Reader in Sociology and Director of the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, Manchester Metropolitan University


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