As the UK re-assesses its relationship with Europe—and the rest of the world—politicians must focus on the civic as well as the national aspect of British identityby Josh Simons / October 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Identities are driving political turbulence across the world. The ugly sight of police offers confronting their own citizens in Catalan should remind us that national identities matter in politics. This is the right moment to explore the contemporary resonance of British identity.
Britain is used to dealing with complexity and contradiction. Our language reflects this. To express bravery, we can say valour or courage (French), tenacity or fortitude (Latin), fearlessness or balls (Anglo-Saxon English). So too do Britons. 14 percent of those living in England and Wales are not white, four percent of those in Scotland. 3.5 milli0n citizens of other EU countries live and work here. It is natural that our identities should be diverse and multi-layered too.
Britishness itself is an identity which views pluralism as a source of strength. It is an identity resolute in its internationalism, defined and redefined over three centuries by men and women looking outward, seeking to understand the place their island should take in the wider world.
The history of British identity can draw our attention to this plural, dynamic, and outward-looking character. In a world of growing religious conflict, the sensitivity of Britishness to other identities in these islands, its comparative comfort with diversity, is an undervalued strength.
Even Britain’s history of conflict may have something to teach us. Many of our shared symbols, such as monuments to Lord Nelson, erected across the country through public donations after victory at Waterloo, or Remembrance Sunday, are the product of war. Our wars have encouraged proud moments of social change. As the Great Reform Act of 1832 sat before Parliament, two decades after Waterloo, the Scotsman’s ‘National Movement’ column declared, “A united nation is master of its own destiny; the people of Britain are now fully united…in support of this bill.”
Too often, we think our history of war has nothing to do with the present, or our future. Yet this is to take an especially sanguine view of what that future will hold. We live in an increasingly insecure world, and there is great value in an outward-looking and unifying identity, oriented towards a state that is still capable of engaging seriously in international politics. Isolationism has never been British.
However, political leaders must focus on the civic as well as the national aspect of British identity. This is not because national identities are intrinsically illiberal or shameful, but because their fate depends on more than political will. As the British state is transformed over the coming years, there are three areas to focus on to reinvigorate a civic and plural British identity.
First, clearer boundaries of citizenship must be drawn. We should begin by offering citizens of other EU countries who have lived and worked on these islands full British citizenship. The domestic politics of such an offer should be simplified by more control over migration policy. Even most Britons who embrace diversity and pluralism must recognise that membership of the EU challenges ideas about the relationship between taxation, representation and citizenship that are at the core of modern democratic states.
We also need a clearer sense of what it means to be a British citizen. Demands for a practice of modern citizenship are often ridiculed as overly rationalist and un-British. I do not see the force of these objections. Britain’s constitution is not uncodified, it just consists of documents that are dispersed and understood only by constitutional lawyers—sometimes, not even by them. Why can we not have a public debate about what a Citizens’ Charter might look like, which draws together these documents in a coherent and accessible fashion? Our distaste for such public debates and documents may be in the long run be counterproductive.
Second, political leaders must develop a language of citizenship that reflects the diversity of modern Britain. Pluralism is not only an economic and cultural strength, it is one of the best arguments for why Britishness still matters. We should demonstrate this in our public culture. For instance, the Remembrance Service is perhaps our most respected national ceremony, a reminder of the sacrifice and sufferings of war. It evokes symbols and music from across the nations of the UK—“Men of Harlech,” “Skye Boat Song,” and “Flowers of the Forest”—as well as Britain as a whole: “Rule Britannia,” “The Last Post.” In it, we should also recall the one million soldiers from ethnic minorities who served in WWI, and the three million Indian soldiers who served in WWII.
We have a long way to go. We should be ashamed of how we currently treat British citizens who are ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims. We must match our language with a focus in public policy on persistent social inequalities: between genders, ethnicities, and regions. The inclusivity of Britishness is perhaps its greatest strength. Our political language and shared symbols should confidently reflect this.
Third, political leaders, especially on the left, must rediscover an idea of economic citizenship that cuts across national, ethnic and religious boundaries. As Hobsbawm described the aims of the socialist movement, so important in driving the creation of the welfare state, “the socialist argument was not just that most people were ‘workers by hand or brain’ but that the workers were the necessary historic agency for changing society. So, whoever you were, if you wanted the future, you would have to go with the workers’ movement.” This politics of course involved distributive conflicts, but these conflicts were viewed as domestic conflicts between citizens. Working class history was quite definitely British history.
This kind of politics cannot and should not be revived. But this does not mean a politics based on hard economic interest is dead. As the world of work is transformed by technological change, common social and economic challenges will become sharper: the declining power of labour relative to capital, sluggish wage growth, and insecure work. More and more economic power is now held in fewer and fewer hands. A politics that is built on these shared challenges, rather than on a coalition of identities, may help to reinvigorate a sense of what it means to be British.
To be a political community is to trust your fellow citizens to make collective political decisions. To understand that such decisions are what make shared history, that in politics they have a strange power of their own – that is what it means to build a common future.
We should recall Caliban’s reassurance in Shakespeare’s Tempest, which Kenneth Branagh boomed from the top of a green hill at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012, as pounding drums signalled the arrival of the Industrial Revolution: “Be not afraid. This isle is full of noises.” Stephano responds, “That will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing.”
This article is edited from a recent paper in These Islands—a forum for debate that stands enthusiastically for the view that more unites the people of the United Kingdom than divides them. Find out more at our website, which goes live on the 24th October: www.these-islands.co.uk.