Cracking the identity code with a humble fried egg

March 3, 2006

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Harriet Swain asks the experts what ingredients make up 'Britishness' and gets some mouthwatering answers

When Chancellor Gordon Brown proposed a British Day to rival America's Fourth of July, he acknowledged how far history helps shape a nation's modern identity. It is an issue that the new Iraqi Government confronts daily, and the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism will show what a complex business it is.

"Nationalism always has to claim a historical justification for its existence, so history becomes a vital cultural and political issue,"

says John Breuilly, who holds the chair in nationalism at the London School of Economics, where the conference is taking place. He adds that while history has become a source of contention in Britain in relation to concerns about identity and what aspects should be included in the national curriculum, it is much more so in new nation-states or in places where there has been regime change.

About 400 scholars from five continents will attend N ations and their Pasts: Representing the Past, Building the Future to discuss what is involved in constructing a nation's history.

For Stefan Berger, chairman of the project "Representations of the Past: The Writing of National Histories in Europe", the key ingredients are myths, heroes, a long pedigree and clear gender distinctions. His plenary presentation will draw on early findings from a five-year trans-European research project involving 60 scholars from 29 countries. He will demonstrate the striking similarities in the way historians wrote about different European nations during the past two centuries.

Kaori O'Connor, a University College London research fellow, will discuss other kinds of ingredients - those of a classic English breakfast, which, she argues, have been crucial in articulating English identity.

The differences in the scale and approach of these papers sums up the range of the conference, which begins with a day of keynote speeches from leading scholars, followed by two days of panel sessions involving more junior researchers.

On the first day, Terence Ranger, emeritus professor of African history at Oxford University, will talk about the Government of Zimbabwe's attempts to promote patriotic history, a move he criticises as narrow and divisive. He distinguishes patriotic history from the kind of histories of the country that he has written for many years, which some people have described as nationalist.

Robert Gildea, professor of modern French history at Oxford, will discuss France's uneasy relationship with its national identity, arguing that last year's vote on the European Constitution follows a pattern in which the country becomes inward-looking in times of stress.

Other key speakers will tackle national memory in Israel, how Japan and Germany have responded to their histories after the Second World War, and state history in Mexico.

The second and third days will sweep from Scandinavia to the Middle East and China, with themes such as nations as national heritage, myths and memories of a nation, war memories and how new nations view the past.

Francois Germaine, a PhD student at the LSE and one of the organisers, says the event has been extended from two to three days this year because the number of papers the organisers received was so great.

The conference is one of the largest postgraduate-run events in the UK, and the annual event usually attracts a good proportion of practitioners - people from non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and think-tanks - as well as academics.

But according to Breuilly, one fundamental interest of the conference will be how history as a profession is closely linked to the development of the modern nation-state. He says: "Even if one is not a fervent nationalist, imagine trying to write history without using terms such as English, French, German or American. The very idea of something that has an origin, periods of growth and decline, crisis and glory, is bound up in modern times with the nation above all."

As for breakfast, O'Connor says that not only did it quickly become a symbol of English superiority and industriousness (19th-century homemakers soon came to believe that without it men could not be expected to go out to work), it is also inclusive. After all, people from all classes and ethnic origins need to eat. It therefore offers plenty for Gordon Brown to get his teeth into in his current plug for patriotism - even if it is a meal that symbolises the English nation rather than the British, which the Scottish Chancellor would prefer.

The Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism's 16th conference, Nations and their Pasts: Representing the Past, Building the Future , London School of Economics, March 28 to 30.

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