Our sense of “Britishness” is fading, but newer forms of collective identity are emergingby David Goodhart / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…