There's a Scot, an Irishman, and a man who is confused...

September 3, 2004

Britain is an exception to the common nationalist belief that every nation should constitute a state and that a state is weaker if it is multinational (as J. S. Mill said in his famous debate with Lord Acton). So may I take a step backwards, intellectually but not politically, to consider how complex the British sense of identity was even before the issues raised by postwar immigration, loss of power and worries about Europe. Were we not always a pluralistic society pretending, for historically specific purposes now largely forgotten or taken for granted, to be a homogeneous society and a unitary state? But the mask has grown into our skin as the reasons for wearing it have mostly abated and have had some unhappy consequences. The majority of the British, in terms of numbers, are English, but they are the most confused about their identity.

They feel that their identity is under threat because of the conceptual confusion between Britishness - as common property to three nations, to a large element of a fourth and to immigrant ethnic communities - and Englishness, a cultural identity as authentic as any of the others, so long as the English realise its specificity and do not claim generality (or do I mean hegemony?).

There is a minimal demand in any country that immigrants should obey and broadly accept the laws and civic culture - in this case British.

But it is quite unwarranted morally, and needless politically, for them to embrace the whole culture, in the majority case English. But may I begin again more personally - as is the custom with so many fine writers of immigrant stock?

My name is probably of Danish origin. Most Cricks cluster in East Anglia, the old area of the Danelaw, so not strictly "Anglo-Saxon" as a black British friend calmly calls me. And as an English migrant to Scotland I am aware of being a citizen of a state with no agreed colloquial name. Is it "England", "Britain" (properly only the name of a province of the Roman Empire), "Great Britain" or the "UK"? Our passports call us citizens of "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". But what do we "old British" (or honorary Anglo-Saxons) reply when faced by that existential question in a foreign hotel register, "Nationality?"

If that question is meant to establish legal citizenship, then "British" is correct and is, I suspect, instinctively used by all "new British" (post-1953 immigrants). But among the "old British" it is the least-used name for a people, as distinct from, say, goods bought in shops or prime ministerial oratory extolling national unity for electoral purposes. It is more widely used by Aussies and by both Prods and Taigs in Northern Ireland in the expletive form of "Brits", often with a Saxon strengthening adjective. Rather than "British" many write in the register "Scottish" or "Welsh". The question does, after all, ask for nationality and not citizenship. When those with an address in Northern Ireland write "British", one knows that they are almost certainly Protestant Unionists; or if they write "Irish", then they are Catholic and vote for either the SDLP or Sein Fein. The few who pedantically write "citizen of the United Kingdom" are almost certainly among the few elevated members of the Northern Ireland Alliance Party or the diminished Scottish Tories.

The majority of my fellow English write "English". The majority of UK passport holders are English; but I have a strong suspicion that many write "English" not as an assertion of identity, but out of a common and mistaken belief shared by most of the outside world that "English" is the adjective corresponding to "citizen of the United Kingdom". This irritates me because my children are half-Welsh, I live in Edinburgh and I once was a frequent concerned visitor to Ireland. And it angers me intellectually because the UK has since 1707 been a multinational state, a union of different nations with different cultures. We are more like Belgium, Canada, India or Czechoslovakia (as was) than Italy or France. I like it that way. But while a friend's children studied Scottish history, I sadly note that south of the border, schools histories are almost entirely Anglocentric despite a remarkable change in the past decade by serious historians, such as Robert Colls, who are more concerned with interrelationships than separate national narratives.

But am I talking about the British or the English? The Scots, the two sorts of Welsh and the two sorts of Irish have problems and grievances, but do they really have a crisis of identity in the sense that the English do? And why hitherto have so few serious scholars and writers addressed themselves to the question of English identity? The answer must lie in the historical reality that part of the art of governing and holding together our multicultural country for nearly three centuries has been an almost deliberate suppression by English political leaders of a specifically English nationalism. There are two sides to this coin. There was the famous self-confidence of the English, not merely condescending to foreigners but to the other nations of the British Isles, often forgetful of their presence, pride and peculiarities (as when Margaret Thatcher in Scotland spoke of "as all of us here in England believe -so sorry, I mean Scotland"). But there was also a tradition in the old English governing class of statecraft by conciliation. Ranting that all Britishness is tainted by imperialism somewhat misses the point that Tocqueville saw long ago in Democracy in America : the great differences in governing practices of the French and British empires. We practised "divide and rule" in India, but how much more civilised than the French traditions of central control and la mission civilisatrice .

A state-cult of English nationalism in the 19th century would have been counterproductive, even when nationalism was sweeping through Europe, when the Italian nationalist Mazzini's bust was on the mantelpiece of all liberals in Britain alongside those of Garibaldi and the Hungarian revolutionary hero Louis Kossuth. An English nationalism would have hindered reconciliation with Scotland in the early 19th century (after the civil wars of the 17th and 18th centuries) and made impossible the attempted conciliation of Ireland (a story not of unrelieved oppression, but of oscillations between coercion and conciliation). The old Tories understood well that, since 1688, the main business of government was holding the new UK together. For that purpose, the English ideology of parliamentary sovereignty arose. The English elite dominated the state, but it was not a closed elite. It was open to the rich, the well connected, and to talented and loyal adventurers and social climbers from all the component nations. Imperialism did become a state-cult in the 19th century, but there was room for each of the nations of the British Isles. Scots and Irish younger sons of impoverished aristocratic families were disproportionately active as empire-builders and exploiters.

Linda Colley has related in her brilliant book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1701-1837 the Hanoverian attempt to create a sense of an overriding and overwhelming British national identity. Certainly, the French wars and popular fears of Catholicism, both identified with tyranny, autocracy and wooden shoes, created among all classes and regions a popular and British patriotism. But British patriotism still left ordinary people feeling distinctively English or Scottish. The political structures were British but the cultures remained those of the different nations. Theatre songs rang out "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves" and "the British Grenadiers", but folk song was of "old England" and "auld Scotland" (as was the elan and culture of the regiments). Patriotic loyalty was and is given to the British state and the Crown, not to a single identity.

So "British" is a strong term politically and legally but with a narrower reference than is often believed. It implies the union itself, the laws, the Crown and Parliament. (The Crown will remain important until we have a clear and respected constitution.) Most Scottish loyalty to the union state was and is real, but is highly and sensibly utilitarian, rather than emotionally nationalistic. The union and the sovereignty of Parliament guaranteed peace, order and free trade. The head was British but the heart remained Scottish. And who but uncertain foreigners talks of British novels, poetry and music rather than English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh? So strong is national consciousness within the umbrella of the British state and British patriotism that, aware of popular culture, the international football federation Fifa allows us to field four national teams.

Maybe I labour an obvious point, but I suspect that the significance is often missed, of fellow citizens calling themselves and being called "black British", "British Asian" or "British West-Indian" and so on, but rarely, if ever, "Black English" or "Black Welsh". New Britons may have a truer sense than many of the English that being a British citizen does not imply a common culture, only a common allegiance and a humane and utilitarian sense of obligation.

Sir Bernard Crick was chair of the "Life in the United Kingdom" advisory group that reported on education for immigrants as The New and the Old (Home Office 2003).

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