The historian Linda Colley has devoted much of her career to thinking about national identity, and British national identity in particular. One of her previous books, “Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837”, won the Wolfson History Prize in 1992. Her latest book, based on a 15-part series for BBC Radio 4, is “Acts of Union and Disunion”. In it, she returns to the theme of British identity and the nature of the British polity and asks: “What has held the UK together—and what is dividing it?”
Colley dropped into the Prospect offices last week to talk to me about the past and future of the United Kingdom. I began by asking her about the point she seems to me to be making at the beginning of the book to the effect that all nation states—and in this Britain is, arguably, not distinctive—are, to some degree or other, fissiparous assemblages of discrete and often incompatible parts.
LC: It’s not true of all states, and it is the case that some states attempt to implement and rationalise a consciously assimilationist policy—France would be the classic example, extending Frenchness not just to its own borders but incorporating its colonial peoples, when it had them, as French citizens. The UK has been very different and it seems to me that it approximates much more either to what is neutrally called a “composite state”, but is more provocatively, and I think more accurately, called a “state-nation”, which traditionally operates at two levels—having an idea and rationale of the whole, but also paying due recognition to the component parts as well.
France went through so many tumultuous periods that it had to try harder—it had a much more rural composition than the UK did; it was bigger; it was not as linguistically united; it had to cope with sequential revolutions and changes of dynasties. So I think France had to think harder about unitary policies, whereas it was a rather different situation in the UK.
JD: Among the things that bind nation states together are what you have called elsewhere “constitutive stories”. These, you argue, are an essential part of nation-building and of the sustaining of nation states. Economic well-being is not enough, you’ve argued. Nations need these overarching stories to tell about themselves, too. Now, in the February issue of Prospect, John Kay says of the referendum campaign…