The British think tank Demos published this week as a special issue of its journal a collection of essays on British identity called ‘Renewal Britannia’. This is my contribution to the collection, entitled ‘Proud to be British?‘
It was August 2012. I was sitting in the Olympic stadium in London with my daughter. She had red, white and blue braids in her hair and was enthusiastically waving a Union Jack.
I thought about when I was her age. Then, I would rather have burned the flag than waved it. The Union Jack was, in those days, the property of Empire loyalists and neo-fascists. If I saw a pub or a housing estate with Union Jacks flying, it signaled to me ‘enemy territory’.
Not only would I not wave the flag, I would not have passed Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ either. Growing up in a Britain that was viciously racist, and tried to deny me the right to belong, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. Whether in football, cricket or tiddlywinks, it was a case of ‘anyone but England’.
Thirty years on, it is very different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Ashes victories.
The nature of Britishness, and the debate about it, has changed, too. In the Britain of my youth, the ghosts of Empire still haunted discussions of what it was to be British. ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ was a football chant that often greeted me at Anfield and Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. Today, the debate is no longer about whether someone like me can be British, but whether Britishness has any meaning at all. ‘National identity does not exist’, John McTernan, former Labour Party strategist, tweeted recently. Theresa May has accused Labour of ‘abandoning patriotic working class people’.
What has not changed, however, is the poverty of the debates surrounding the issue. What much public discussion ignores is the complexity, elasticity and sheer contrariness of identity.
The contemporary debate about Britishness is framed, of course, by the political and cultural transformation being wrought by Brexit. For opponents of the EU, Brexit allows the nation to take back sovereignty and reassert its identity. Opponents of Brexit deride such desires as xenophobic, driven by a compulsion to turn away from the world. Neither side seem willing to grapple with the entangled character of our identities.
Behind these debates about Brexit and national identity lies the breakdown of traditional political divisions. The old fault line between left and right has eroded, giving way to a new fracture between those who feel at home in the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. This division has been portrayed by many as that between ‘nationalists’ and ‘globalists’; a division seemingly given electoral form not just in the struggle in Britain between Brexiteers and Remainers, but also in that between Marine le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in France, and between Donald Trump’s supporters and opponents in the USA.
Yet such a portrayal of the two sides hides as much as it reveals. Consider, for instance, one of the key criticisms of the globalist view: that its advocates ignore the significance of community attachments, imagining rather a world in which individuals can float free of culture, traditions and ways of life. It is an argument that has led some critics to demand strict limits on immigration, fearing that too great an inflow necessarily undermines a sense of community and belonging.
It is true that humans are social beings whose individuality emerges only through the bonds they create with each other. It is true, too, that a sense of shared ownership of, and obligation to, the public space is crucial to a properly functioning society.
There is, however, more than one way of envisioning the community or collective, and of thinking about the relationship between the individual and society. Many contemporary supporters of nationalism, and critics of immigration, adopt what one might call a Burkean view of belongingness, a notion of community that derives to a large degree from Edmund Burke, the late eighteenth-century founder of modern conservatism. A Burkean imagines a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Burke himself put it.
Values, in the Burkean tradition, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity. The Burkean argument for community is a species of what we now call ‘identity politics’ – stressing common attachment to a particular given identity, in this case, an identity given by place, history and tradition.
We can, however, think about communities in a different way, drawing people into a collective not because of a given identity but in order to further a political or social goal; a collective defined not so by the question ‘Who are we?’ but by ‘What kind of society do we want?’; movements for social transformation defined less by a sense of a shared past than by hopes of a common future. These two ways of thinking about communities and collectives usually co-exist and are often in tension with each other. The idea of a community or of a nation inevitably draws upon a past that has shaped its present. But the existence of movements for social change transforms the meaning of the past, and of the ways in which one thinks of national identity.
The political and social changes of the past few decades, from the atomization of society to the decline of the left, from the erosion of trade union power to the encroachment of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, have, however, made it more difficult to view collectives in terms of social transformation, and led many to retreat into Burkean notions of nation and community.
People have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms but in terms of ethnicity or culture. It is through this process that the question many people ask themselves has shifted from ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ to ‘Who are we?’.
The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’, than as ‘English’ or ‘European’ or ‘white’ or ‘Muslim’.
All this bears upon how we understand what it is to be British. There is constant talk of ‘British values’ and of the necessity of immigrants to adhere to such values. Yet, much of the argument for a national identity defines it primarily in terms of an attachment not to a set of values but to a place, a history and a tradition. It is this, in nationalist eyes, that differentiates being ‘British’ from being ‘French’ or ‘German’. Out of this emerges the idea of patriotism – of showing pride in one’s nation – and a view of national identity as a package deal. If one supports the nation in one arena, one is expected to do so in every arena. One must wave the flag not simply in the Olympic Stadium, but also when it comes to Brexit negotiations or territorial disputes.
This view has never made sense to me. I may be tribal about the national team when it comes to football or cricket, but I refuse to be patriotic when it comes to the political or economic arena. I do not look at every argument about trade or territory through the lens of ‘British interests’. My political and moral values often conflict with those demanded by patriotism. And when they do, I am guided by my values, not by any patriotic pride.
My sense of attachment and of belonging, whether personal or national, is shaped by the context. Who am I? Well, that depends. ‘Who am I to my daughter?’ requires a different answer to ‘Who am I to a reader of this essay?’ There is only one ‘me’. But that one me expresses itself through myriad identities.
Similarly, with national identity, too. What is the Britain in which I am supposed to have patriotic pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity, a diversity celebrated in every street and street market in London and Liverpool and Glasgow? Or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians talk of ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain of the Levellers, the Suffragettes and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?
There are many aspects of British life that I admire. There are many I despise. There are many British traditions that resonate with me. There are many I find abhorrent. There are many moments of British history that bring a lump to my throat. There are many that make me shudder. And there are many non-British traditions that have helped shape my views, my values and my ideals. To erase this complexity in the myths of patriotism is to diminish the very meaning of common values.
Thirty years ago I was an angry outsider knocking on the door of a nation uncomfortable with my presence. Today, I am as at ease with my Britishness as Britain is with me; I refuse, however, to reduce that relationship to an unthinking patriotism. What links the old me to the current me is an insistence that common values are important but that these can emerge only through political contestation and struggle.
Will we define what it is to be British through the singular lens of patriotism and through a Burkean attachment to a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past? Or will we embrace the fact that Britishness is necessarily a contested concept, and that it is in the struggle over the values we want to define us that we will find common ground?
The answers we give will define not just the nature of Britishness but also the character of British society in the post-Brexit world.
The images are all works by black British artists. From top down: Pandora’s Box by Frank Bowling; ‘In the House of My Father’ by Donald Rodney; ‘Caged Bird’ by Kamal Koria; and ‘Connections’ by Sabah Arbilli.