Frank Bowling Pandoras Box

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.

In the House of My Father 1996-7 by Donald Rodney 1961-1998

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’.

Kamal Koria Caged Bird

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.

Sabah Arbili Connection

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.


  1. Feudal elites and their gatekeepers have carefully fostered blind adherence to artificially developed, and autocratically maintained, vertically polarized structures we have called “political ideologies”. If you wish a reality check, at what point in time has there been a true “communism” or “capitalism”? How has a “conservative” party come to personify the unbounded greed of accumulation of stuff by an isolated elite?
    Little-noted horizontal fracturing at varying heights across the adjoining bases of political edifices has occurred over the years. Such minor fracturing has, in the past, only served to “divide and conquer”. If the fractures are publicly noticed, the response by political gatekeepers has been to plaster the cracks.
    More recently the edifices have attained such tenuous heights that horizontal fracturing has separated the top bits from the rest of humanity. These little islands of the ultra-elite are in the process of floating off, carried by winds of ultra-self-interest.
    While pundits apply terms like “polarization” or “disaffected voters” to the remnants of the bases, I propose that what we are actually left with is the fractured shadows of right-left political ideologies that are not relevant to our current conditions. Pockets have been created somewhat randomly by the horizontal fracturing and these have become jealously guarded by would-be ultra-elites. It is the nature of this fracturing across the several bases, and the presence of sometimes coherent pockets of self-interest, that have befuddled pollsters.
    Is this a conspiracy? Professional pollsters and so many of us want to believe that we are the author of our own brilliance, but lauded outcomes are usually the work of one or both of those Italian guys: Serendipity or Machiavelli. And the Machiavellian outcome is rarely as envisioned. Which oil executive would have forecast that having the developed world by the short hairs for years could have meant the inevitable killing heat waves and dying oceans we have begun to witness?
    It has been said that out of chaos may come creative solutions. I fervently hope so. That is the only positive thing that could come from our slow march through the Anthropocene cataclysm.

  2. jswagner

    The contrasts between abhorrent and inspiring aspects of britishness reminded me how a public intellectual’s work is so often to help others see complexity instead of simplicity; to help us learn to expect and trust complexity to be behind every knotty social problem. Instead, we call half of any given issue the whole enchilada, and insist that the rest the problem can’t exist. Most grave political errors have that approach as their foundation.

    Ideology is described here as descending in importance as a framework of values, relative to identity concerns. That may be more true in Britain, where coalitions can shift more fluidly. In the U.S., nationalism and our brand of globalism seem to be expressed more and more directly through ideology, because of the easy cultural conformities that streamline and simplify identity politics via a two-party system. Identity politics poisons both liberal and conservative impetus, in contrasting but self-reinforcing patterns, to the point that all of us are drawn inexorably into framing our ideology through an ethnic or nationalist lens.

    • jswagner . Recent academic work by Stanley Feldman at Stonybrook has mirrored this report and survey eerilly well: “The primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality…Democrats may be pressured to move further left on identity issues, given that both younger voters and the party’s donor class are quite far to the left on identity issues. If so, American politics would become further polarized along questions of culture and identity.” U.S. political structure has enabled a more rigorous, stable connection between ideology and identity.

  3. As always, a timely and enlightening piece. But I would go further; do “British values” even exist? I am not aware of sharing any values with, say, Katie Hopkins. If they do exist, what are they, what function do they serve, and what of British people who do not share them?

    People change their countries, countries change their borders, the very definition of a country is questioned at several levels where I happen to live (Scotland), and nationhood for these and other reasons seems to me a precarious basis for one’s identity.

  4. Les

    But isn’t this identity an increasingly consumerist one? Basically, a label? Or rather, isn’t our obsession with identity intimately bound up with or even an essential part of an increasingly consumerist culture?

  5. Britain exists only for political and admin purposes, being a federation of three proud, ancient (and very different) countries with very different cultures. No real British culture in common has arisen since 1707.

    England (having lost its old identity) no longer has an identity. Which is horribly miserable for many of its inhabitants, a driver of Brexit and public angst / anger and a threat to Britain as a whole. Moreover, England has been scapegoated for all the sins of Britain and its Empire.

    Therefore new English identities – Black English, Brown English, for example – need to arise as a matter of urgency; and the English flag to be suitably re-designed.

    For it’s less a question of re-claiming the Union Jack from the Far Right; but of re-claiming the English flag from them.

  6. There is always an intimate connection between values and community and they are always bound up by place, history and tradition and of course the forseeable future. For example green and blue infrastructure and the ecosystem services they provide are essential to the maintenance and functioning of communities and societies and as such the preservation or conservation or a sense of Burkean belonging to our green and blue infrastructure is essential to our ecological well-being.

    To focus primarily on immigration and cultural clashes is to miss the point entirely and is just another example for a plea for identity politics to overule the essential nature of our natural capital but in the guise of a transformatory/emanicipatory social or political goal. In other words it is just an another idealism that is disconnected from the earth on which we rely in the same way capitalism or socialism fails to incorporate the true cost of using Nature in their methodologies.

    Values and identity in the context of preserving and even enhancing the quality of our ecological infrastruture on which communities within a national context survive is not the drab and superficial Burkean perspective that is intonated here but an essential component of how we mediate between ourselves a sense of security and suffuciency within our lives in order to avoid conflict and the breakdown of social and community relations. Patriotism in this sense is the community spirit from which we wish to prevail and thrive in relation to the ecological infrastructure that is contained within a national territory. Therefore national identity will always imbue ecological values regarding 1. the places in which we live, 2. a certain amount of entitlement and discrimination regarding the history of peoples who have occupied specified territories of ecological infrastructure and 3. the traditions and customs that have proven successful to ensure community cohesion and a sense of reverence and gratefulness for the land and the rivers that support our survival.

    It is unfortunate however that this comes with the realisation that any given ecological infrastructure can only support a certain amount of diversity and lifeforms and here is the core of the issue, we have to be selective and we have to be discerning and even discriminatory in order to survive within given territories. However analysis such as the one contained in this essay pay little attention to the ecological dimension of our shared identity, our shared history, our shared traditions and our shared places and as such are ungrounded in their approach. Therefore it is not the differentiation between nationalists or globalists or the somewheres and the anywheres that is the problem or whether Burke is being misrepresented or not but whether the observer or critic is actually present in their ecological selves and as such whether they actually feel an intimate connection with the national land and rivers from which they survive. This is patriotism and this is the basis of national identity and national values. Patriotism or national values is not the wishing away of complicated dynamics like the carrying capacity of ecological infrastructure or the wishing away of the complicated social dynamics that acknowledge that families and communities have named, tended, worked and even loved the land and rivers from which they have derived their health and well-being for generation upon generation. So yes British values are real and in essence pay homage to the fact that British territory supports British people and yes we have to be discerning and uncomfortably acknowledge that there are limits in terms of how many people the British land can support. This is what it means to be British and with it is the responsibility to ensure that future generations can adequately survive without recourse to conflict. In this respect national identity and patriotism intertwines the past, the present and the future and so intertwines identity politics and a social and political project to ensure a positive future. However one that is very much grounded in the ecological realities of space, place and time.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: