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…