The Great British Identity Problem

We are much less rational than we imagine. We British are not acting rationally these days about some of our big national choices. When foreign friends ask me with incomprehension about Brexit, I say that I can’t explain it to them rationally. Instead, I find they understand me better when I compare it with the issue of gun control in the USA. The fierce resistance there towards the slightest control of even military assault weapons is of course not rational and doesn’t increase safety for US citizens. But there’s no point arguing with a very substantial gun loving section of the US population; the reasons are deeper and much more to do with US history and their sense of pioneer identity and notions of individual freedom. It’s a similar predicament with Britain right now. We need to see how much our national past still influences our present view and sentiments. Facts sway people less and less these days.

I know it sounds like an old chestnut but we still haven’t gotten over The Empire. When the British Empire dissolved, it left us unsure of who we were. And we still haven’t got used to being just a country, because for centuries we had been an empire. In the Empire days, the very different races of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish were brought together in a new identity - being British. So an unexpected positive benefit of Empire is that for a long time now, being British has not been based on race, blood, ideology or religion. Instead, being British is based on liberal values and institutions like the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, free speech and individual liberty. This means people can chose to be British if they are born here or live here because it’s not based on blood, skin colour or religion. So our being unsure and indefinite about who we are can be a good thing and is actually a British quality.

Just what it means to be British these days is actually quite hard to pin down.

A few years ago, an eminent panel was asked to come up with an official handbook for aspiring British citizens. Tasked with the question of what does being British mean, the main conclusion of the experts was that living in the country was the definition of Britishness - which seemed pretty ridiculous and the press had plenty of fun with that. But I do understand why the experts had such trouble with the task.

BUT - there’s also a big downside to this sense of indefiniteness as to our identity as Britons. After the demise of the Empire, we were left adrift with a big dose of feeling in decline and unsure of ourselves, which still remains. This is not so conscious but I’m convinced it still affects how we look at things. We haven’t digested our history. We’re still in the state that US Secretary of State Dean Acheson tried to point out to us way back in 1962. ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’ were Acheson’s words; and we didn’t like them then, but never really considered that as an Anglophile himself, he was only trying to be helpful. 

The concern that we might lose our sovereignty - or whatever part of it which is felt to be still surviving - is more authentic to what is deeply felt by many. But why would we fear that so much? Why don’t all the other 27 European member countries similarly feel that they will be sucked into and subsumed into the unaccountable Euro monster in Brussels? It may well be an authentically held fear, but why do we Britons hold onto it so strongly? 

As I said, we’re not rational about it. All the arguments about the economics of it seem just rationales. Yes, immigration is certainly a real concern for many. But there are also deeper reasons which are not very conscious, having more to do with being unsure of our identity. We’re afraid of losing our sovereignty, our identity. Thinking of Britain in Europe brings up a visceral sense that our barely surviving nationality is under threat and must be protected. Raise the drawbridge and let’s trade independently with the rest of the world instead. Go back to being the buccaneers of old. This view is sincerely felt but is irrational, since the UK is actually the 5th biggest economy in the world, and not in any danger of disappearing.

David Goodhart in the The British Dream, identifies one major reason as to why Britain didn’t reinvent itself, say back in the 1970s, with routes to citizenship laid out for new arrivals and why it didn’t become more a citizen nation in the way that Canada and America had done.

‘Perhaps above all Britain did not reinvent itself as a nation because it wasn’t a nation in the first place, it was an empire. Many people, especially among the politically liberal and the highly educated, seemed to slide from an imperial idea of the country to a post-national one without passing through a ‘normal’ national phase.’

We still haven’t gotten over The Empire nor integrated that whole period into a healthy national psyche: one where we can feel reasonably self assured as Britons and not feel threatened by the EU or Europe. Really, it’s ok. Britain’s not so bad generally, all things considered, although we’d be loathe to admit it.

Chris Paris is the author of Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available here