The assertion of national identities within the United Kingdom has left Britain in an identity muddle. Englishness, stripped of Britishness, has acquired illiberal connotations. But Neal Ascherson hopes that a benign English identity can now "come out"-within a European embraceby Neal Ascherson / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Jim Bloggs, 101 Inkerman Terrace, Scratfield, Staffordshire, England, Great Britain, Europe, the World, the Galaxy, the Universe…” When schoolchildren used to write things like that in the front of their books, they were producing a classic old model of identities. It was a concentric model. It was seen from the central dot of all those concentric rings: the individual. Your house was the nearest ring; the universe the most remote. It was also a list of overlapping memberships. You “came from” the Potteries, but were also English. You were British, but also European, Terran, Galactic, Universal.
The question which the model does not answer is this: which of these identities, if any, has priority? By which ring does the central dot wish to be identified by others? Pope John Paul II, who derives some of his theology from 19th century Polish patriotic mysticism, also leaves this question open. In his view, God created humanity in three concentric categories: individual, family and nation. But which is the defining identity, and which might you be entitled to betray in order to save one or both of the others? There the faithful receive no clear guidance.
The schoolchild’s site of identity could be the house. It could be the continent. It could, when the child becomes a self-obsessed first year student, be the dot itself: “I am myself, and nothing else.” It could be several different rings at once. In the past, we used to ask a stranger: “Where do you come from?” But these days people are more often asked who they are-a different, more loaded matter. The answer is usually the name of a state or a nation. This is a learned response; ordinary people did not always think like that. In parts of Belorussia, language, religion and custom vary from village to village, and the only common cultural experience is of brutality at the hands of invaders. There, peasants who are confronted with “who are you?” will often reply: “We are tutejszy-we are ‘from here’ people.” But the world will not allow them that answer for much longer.
Identity is now a problem in Britain, too. To talk about an “identity crisis” would be exaggerated. But there is an enormous identity muddle. Many people have difficulty finding a satisfactory answer to the question of who they are. And this muddle has developed with astonishing speed. Fifteen years ago, the…