Do the British people still exist? When the Queen ascended the throne in 1952 her subjects, for all their class and regional and even national differences, thought of themselves quite consciously as forming a community and sharing a culture—a people with certain things in common and a special allegiance to one another.
The British, although an “old” people, were also busily renewing themselves in the early 1950s—the BBC and especially the NHS were both recent inventions and the welfare state and national service gave Britishness a solid grounding in everyday life.
To most of us, most of the time, national identity is no more than a background noise, but in the post-war decade it was quite a loud noise. I recently met a senior civil servant who remembers as a boy at a west country grammar school in the 1950s deciding to become a scientist inspired by the early developments in civilian nuclear power; he saw this explicitly as an exciting national project that he wanted to be part of.
A lot has happened in the past 60 years to muffle or disrupt that background hum—economic and cultural globalisation, European integration, large-scale immigration, devolution, the decline of external threats and above all the vast increase in incomes which has allowed us to live freer, more mobile and less collectivist lives. The very phrase “the British people” now sounds anachronistic, associated with Michael Foot or Enoch Powell back in the 1970s.
There is often a sense of regret about that weakening of national identity, especially among older people; and politicians in the past decade or so have tried with limited success to halt or even reverse the process.
They are right to try. Living in a rich, individualistic and diverse country with what seems like fewer opportunities to see fellow citizens as collaborators in a common project, ordinary national feeling has become a progressive and binding force. Collective action is easier when people share at least elements of a common culture and ascribe to some common norms. And many of the things that we take for granted—democratic accountability, equal rights, the welfare state, redistribution between regions, classes and generations—not only take place within a national idiom but are underpinned by an idea of the specialness of fellow national citizens.
Yet, as Michael Sandel has put it: “In our public life, we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before.” We need some sense of “emotional citizenship” to underpin those political and welfare transactions even while repudiating the racial and chauvinistic form of nationalism that was the norm in 1952 (well described in David Kynaston’s Family Britain: 1951-1957).
And the raw material of national attachment still seems to be there even if we, especially the English, struggle to find a comfortable way of expressing it. The number of people who were very proud to be British fell from 57 per cent in 1981 to 45 per cent in 2003. But the number who felt “somewhat” proud or very proud in 2003 was still a healthy 86 per cent. This does not look like a crisis of national identity even if people are now identifying more strongly with their core country—England, Scotland or Wales.
What seems to be happening is that national expression is adapting to a more fluid and individualistic society, one with fewer collective projects or the kind of external threats that inspire solidarity. It is like the shedding of a skin: as we move further away from the purposes and symbols of one national period—the British imperial and then post-imperial period—we gradually take on the shape of another.
Britishness itself is less intensely felt than in the first half of the 20th century, which leads naturally to a looser relationship between the constituent nations, possibly including independence or home rule for Scotland. It is also perhaps less focussed on the formal symbols of a top-down Britishness—flag, royal family and so on—and more on the common life of citizens. According to a recent Demos pamphlet “A Place for Pride,” less than a third of people strongly agree that the Queen makes them proud of Britain; they are proud nonetheless.
What about the emergence of England in this story? For most of the Queen’s reign England and Britain have been interchangeable for the majority of her English subjects, and English nationalism has been the preserve of eccentrics and extremists and largely shunned by the elite.
The English imperial elite in the 19th and early 20th century often saw nationalism itself as something rather vulgar, for lesser breeds. This disdain for the national came to be adopted in more recent decades by left-wing and liberal England, reinforced by guilt about empire and anti-racism.
Indeed, one of the reasons that England and Englishness has struggled to emerge from under a British blanket is that it has been a dominant nationalism in an egalitarian age—it cannot draw on the small-nation solidarity of the Irish or Danes or the anti-colonial spirit of many countries in Africa and Asia.
The English are only semi-literate in the language of modern national identity but the Scots, by rearranging the union, present an opportunity for the English to learn to speak it normally and robustly, like the Scots do themselves. What might that mean? A national story which sees England as special but not superior; a blurring of the rigid distinction between civic (political) and ethnic forms of identification; an understanding that there are many ways to be English; and finally more public and institutional forms for the expression of that moderate English national feeling.
Out of this could be emerging a new sense of English national identity, with a residual Britishness for state occasions. It will be weaker than in 1952 but more open, and could help to keep the show on the road. I think Her Majesty would approve.