Flag of convenience

March 28, 1997

Labour and the Conservatives both claim to stand for national pride. Harriet Swain hears from a historian who is unconvinced

A recent party political broadcast by the Conservative party featured a lion roaring as a voice listed glorious British economic and political achievements. Half-way through, the voice developed an ominous note as it turned to Europe's correspondingly poor record and Labour's enthusiasm for closer links with our continental neighbours. The lion's roaring became a whimper and a red tear slowly trickled down its noble cheek. "New Labour, Euro Danger" ran the slogan.

General elections always seem to bring out the flag - probably because they are among the few times when people are forced to identify themselves with a nation rather than with the myriad local and domestic groupings which make up their everyday lives. But in the run up to May 1, nationalism is likely to play a more important role than usual as the parties push devolution and Europe to the top of the agenda, each arguing that their own policy on these issues represents the best interests of Britain. New Labour, New Britain, says Blair, backed by a conference display scattered with Union Jacks. And last week two Liberal Democrat MPs suggested a new national flag and anthem.

Linda Colley, professor of history at Yale University, who has made extensive studies of national identity, says British politics is increasingly taking on an American tone. "When Labour was more leftwing, there was a feeling that patriotism was vulgar and should be left to the Conservatives while Labour instead committed itself to internationalism," she says. "Now, however, Labour is becoming more like the American Democratic party and doesn't want the Tories to have a monopoly on patriotism."

But national pride is more complex than political slogans on either side suggest. In the recent Trevelyan lectures in Cambridge and Wiles lectures in Belfast, professor Colley has been concentrating on the grey areas between nations. She argues that British historians have been too ready to categorise history into British, European and global categories, a classification which, argues Colley, hinders understanding of how different parts of the world impact on each other.

Her recent research has concentrated on frontier regions, both in terms of geographical boundaries and as places where people of different nationalities mix. For example, studies of Europeans in captivity in India between the 16th and 18th centuries show that some decided to go native - perhaps becoming Muslim and taking a local wife - while others were determined to maintain their national identity, keeping their hats even when all their other clothing has been stripped away. "This emphasises how shifting identities are and how they change in the process of coming into contact with other groups," says Colley, who is part English and part Welsh.

Just as nebulous is the British identity upheld by today's political campaigners. The Prime Minister, John Major, has attacked Labour for putting in jeopardy "a thousand years of history" with its proposals for a Scottish Parliament. But the Act of Union joining Scotland to England and Wales was only signed in 1707. The thousand years of history is English, not British history.

Britain's stand-alone attitude to Europe has also been mythologised. "You get some people on the right who say that it is important to remember that Britain was an empire with a global view whereas other European states weren't," says Colley. "But it's important to realise how many other states did have an empire. The idea that having an empire distinguishes Britain from continental Europe must be knocked on the head. It was only in the 19th century and only among a small elite that the idea that we didn't need to be involved in Europe because we had an empire was fostered. Then it was partly a practical proposition because of our limited army and navy resources."

Colley points out that, on the contrary, links between parts of Britain and Europe have, at certain times, been particularly strong. "Scots and many of the Irish have, over the centuries, looked to continental Europe for employment. In medieval times the same king controlled parts of England and parts of France."

Usually, she says, it proves to be self-interest rather than ideological or historical allegiances which determines national loyalties and it is self-interest which will finally decide our approach to Europe. If foreign businesses threaten to pull out unless we join the European Monetary Union then we will have little choice but to become a fully-fledged member.

In the devolution debate, however, ideology appears crucial. "One of the great paradoxes is that if the Tories were merely motivated by self-interest they would argue for Scottish separatism because it would cut off huge swathes of (Labour) voters," says Colley. "Labour is also acting against its self-interest because if a Scottish parliament is created it will take Scottish MPs from Westminster."

Where political arguments over Britain's relations with its component regions and with Europe coincide is in claims by each party to be acting for the good of the country. It only remains for them to define what that country is. This has become particularly difficult because traditional symbols of Britishness are changing. Michael Portillo's attempts to rally support by pledging public money to repair the Royal Yacht met a muted response since neither monarchy nor British sea-faring traditions carry the weight they once did.


You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments