Lions, unicorns and ostriches

Patriots - Identity of England
November 8, 2002

Are we losing our sense of Britishness? Vernon Bogdanor is not convinced.

"A nation," Burke declared in 1782, "is not an idea only of local extent and individual momentary aggregation; but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space." In recent years, historians have come to worry, like a dog at a bone, about the "continuity" of the idea of the British nation; or, more recently, the English nation.

The debate was sparked by Linda Colley's book Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 , published in 1992. Colley's central argument was that Britain was in essence an artificial construct based on Protestantism, "the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible", and also on empire. It was the concern with empire that bound the English and the Scots together in a common venture, and prevented them from inquiring too closely into the relationships between them. The English, moreover, saw no need to distinguish between England and Britain. As James Bryce wrote in 1887: "An Englishman has but one patriotism because England and the United Kingdom are to him practically the same thing." This was just as true of the English in 1987, so Richard Weight argues in Patriots , as it had been in 1887.

Now, however, with the empire gone and Protestantism in seemingly irredeemable decline, the essential props behind British identity seem to have disappeared. Can the idea of Britain survive the development of national consciousness in Scotland, the challenge to the Union in Northern Ireland and the incursions of the European Union? And, if Britishness were to be eroded, would it be replaced by a resurgent Englishness that could itself fuel the conflict between England and Scotland?

Both Robert Colls, in Identity of England, and Weight, in Patriots, chart the decline of British identity - a decline that perhaps they exaggerate. Both books offer valuable, yet undemanding, impressionistic and rather old-fashioned accounts of recent social history, based as much on anecdote as on evidence. They cover largely familiar ground but in an entertaining way. Neither digs very deep.

"Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation," Ernest Renan once said. It was in the postwar years, according to Colls and Weight, that the British started to get their history wrong. This was in large part due to the fixation of the British people and their leaders on the events of the second world war and, in particular, on 1940, the year when there was, in Churchill's words, "a kind of warmth pervading England" - he meant, of course, Britain.

For 1940 seemed to show how fundamentally united the British people were, even though, as Weight notes, Protestantism "for the first time in the nation's history... did not play a major role in sending Britons into battle". Britain may well have been, as Orwell suggested, a family with the wrong members in control. "Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution," the Chamberlain government urged, "will bring us victory."

But, as Orwell added: "In any calculation (of Britain) one has to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis."

The war showed the geopolitical necessity for the continued existence of the UK. Hitler, after all, would not have stopped at the Scottish or Welsh borders; and Irish neutrality was an option only as long as Britain remained undefeated. The war years, moreover, strengthened the emotional unity of the British people. These years seemed to have completed the work that Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin had, in their different ways, begun - that of incorporating the working class into the nation. Victory, Ernest Bevin told Clement Attlee, would remove "the inferiority complex amongst our people". "The war," J. B. Priestley argued in one of his famous wartime radio broadcasts, "because it demands a huge collective effort, is compelling us to change not only our ordinary social and economic habits, but also our habits of thought... we realise that we're all in the same boat. But, and this is the point, that boat can serve not only as a defence against Nazi aggression but as an ark in which we can call finally land in a better world." So it was that the postwar Attlee government came near, in Colls's words, "to achieving the incorporation of a British party and trade unions into that liberal English constitutionalism - a key ambition of the party's leadership since 1925".

That ambition was not, however, to be achieved. It was ruined by many factors: by the end of empire, by the collapse of deference, but, above all, by the decline of Britain as a global power and by economic decline - a decline that politicians of all parties since around 1960 have sought to reverse. Moreover, as Weight points out, the radically different experience of the British people compared with that of their continental counterparts during the war encouraged Britain to define herself as a non-European power; it "soured Britons' view of their continental neighbours, and for half a century afterwards it undermined the faltering attempts of the country's leaders to reposition Britain as a post-imperial, European nation". Remaining unconquered, we alone did not feel the need, in Jean Monnet's words, "to exorcise the past". This point of view, the social democratic view of Britishness, as expressed by Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, who, in the 1960s, declared that Britain's frontier lay in the Himalayas, was very similar to that offered by the Conservatives.

Thus, the very act of seeking to capitalise on the wartime spirit of Britishness proved a hindrance in the attempt to adjust Britain to a changing world, one in which Britain was no longer a great power, but a country lying at the western end of a strategic arc whose centre lay in Germany. "You need another 40 years," Margaret Thatcher told the German ambassador in 1990 - a man far too young to be implicated in the Hitler regime - "before we can forget what you have done." Germany, Thatcher believed, was a destabilising rather than a stabilising force in Europe. It is because of misconceptions of this kind that the history of Britain since 1945 has been a long and steady yet persistent diminuendo.

Nevertheless, both Colls and Weight seriously exaggerate the crisis of Britishness. Weight, in insisting that Britishness is "in serious, if not terminal decline", seems to forget Adam Smith's famous dictum that there is a lot of ruin in a nation. Perhaps the best indicator of Britishness lies not in metaphysical constructs, or musings about imagined communities, but the brute facts of electoral behaviour. Voters in Scotland and Wales, after all, have every opportunity to elect candidates who seek to break up the UK. The SNP, however, achieved its highest vote in a general election - 30 per cent - in October 1974, nearly 30 years ago. During the long period of Thatcherite hegemony between 1979 and 1997, voters conspicuously failed to avail themselves of the nationalist option. The SNP never gained more than 20 per cent of the vote, and Plaid Cymru never more than 9 per cent. In the general election of 2001, the Plaid Cymru vote rose to 14 per cent, but the SNP's remained fixed on 20 per cent, having lost one-third of its vote in years. Thus, 86 per cent of Welsh voters and 80 per cent of Scottish voters remain obstinately content with Unionist parties. Perhaps Britain is not, after all, so artificial a construct or so imagined a community as many historians have supposed.

From his mistaken premise that Britishness is in terminal decline, Weight, following in the wake of journalists such as Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens, as well as The Sun, which launched a campaign to revive St George's Day, concludes that the English should rediscover their nationalism. England, the largest and most populous part of the UK, is of course an anomaly in the devolution settlement since she has always resisted both integration and federalism. Moreover, survey evidence gathered by John Curtice and Anthony Heath in their essay "Is the English lion about to roar?" in the 17th report of British Social Attitudes: Focusing on Diversity , edited by Roger Jowell et al (2000), seems to show that the English now accept devolution in Scotland and Wales, but reject it for themselves, with only 18 per cent seeking an English parliament. It is, no doubt, for this reason that when, in the previous parliament, William Hague sought to put himself at the head of an English army by proposing an English parliament, he found himself bereft of followers. That, perhaps, was fortunate, since, if the English were to exploit their dominant position in the UK, they could threaten the unity of the country. Indeed, Heffer, in his book Nor Shall my Sword: The Reinvention of England , positively welcomes the prospect of break-up since it would enable the English to find themselves again. The English, however, seek not to become lions but to stay as ostriches, preferring, as Disraeli once put it, to be governed not by logic but by parliament.

There has, perhaps, been too much emphasis by historians on the factors tending to the break-up of the UK, and too little analysis, with the important exception of Richard Rose's Understanding the United Kingdom , published as long ago as 1982, of the factors holding the UK together. Too much has been written explaining what has not happened, and too little on the subtle compromises that keep the UK in being. Indeed, Colley, who inaugurated the debate on British identity, has herself suggested that much of this debate has been misconceived. Speaking at a seminar convened by the prime minister in Downing Street in September 1999, she argued: "Instead of being mesmerised by debates over British identity, it would be far more productive to concentrate on renovating British citizenship, and on convincing all of the inhabitants of these islands that they are equal and valued citizens irrespective of whatever identity they may individually select and prioritise."

There is no reason why such a debate on citizenship should not take place in the asymmetrical UK that has resulted from the devolution settlement. For, while that settlement may have renegotiated the relationships between the English and the non-English parts of the UK, there is, as yet, no evidence that it has undermined them. And if the continued existence of a UK after devolution seems a contradiction, it would be well to remember Freud's dictum that it is only in logic that contradictions cannot exist.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000

Author - Richard Weight
ISBN - 0 333 73462 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 8

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