National Conversation: Britain

Posted on 22 December 2011

Who are we, the British, today? How well do we understand the history which has made us the society we have become? How confident are we that we want to create a shared future together, asks Sunder Katwala.

Britain has had several major identity debates at once. Perhaps we have been having an extended identity crisis as, across the post-war decades, the focus of our ‘state of the nation’ conversation has frequently shifted from one identity anxiety to another.

The question of whether post-imperial Britain would find a new role seemed the central question in the 1950s, while the issue, arising from post-war immigration, of whether a multi-ethnic society was either possible or desirable was most sharply contested in the 1960s.

The British joined Europe in the 1970s, and then voted to stay in, though anxieties about this reluctant Europeanism, and whether it is compatible with national sovereignty and identity have persisted since, while the 1980s were dominated by a concerted effort to reverse not just relative economic decline, but geopolitical and national psychological decline too. The 1990s saw a major constitutional upheaval reshape relationships between Britain’s four nations, with the quest for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, and the debate about whether devolution to Scotland and Wales would save the Union or, ultimately, end it.

The world since 2001 saw sharp controversies over security and liberty at home, as well as Britain’s transatlantic links and global role. Long-running debates about multiculturalism, and about how the role of religion was changing in a multi-faith and increasingly secular society, were understandably sharpened, with a particular, and at times exclusive, on the role of Islam and Muslims. Meanwhile, arguments about opportunity and fairness continued to resonate – on issues from immigration to welfare – and inequality at the top was put back on the public agenda by the great financial crash of 2008.

Any of these issues can be debated practically, in terms of the costs and benefits of different options and choices. But what often gives life and feeling to public arguments about these issues is that they all also involve questions of identity – about what the choices we make say about the type of society we are, and the values we want to uphold. And we have probably done too little to join the dots between these different identity anxieties – and to examine how they each offer a different lens on the challenge of deciding the content of an inclusive citizenship and the common bonds that bind a society together.

Every democratic society in this global era is now talking about who “we” now are. Each must seek to secure confidence in an authentic sense of belonging which is inclusive of all of its citizens. That will be hardest where the identities which underpin citizenship are understood, in popular sentiment if not in law, as having a primary or significant ethnic basis, so that it will always be descent, ethnicity or faith that matters most.  “Blood and soil” national identities will need to take a new civic form if they are to include all citizens.

British identity has the advantage that it has always been civic and plural. Who has ever been purely British? There is no ethnic British identity today, not least because there never was. Being British was always the shared civic identity of a multinational state so not, properly understood, a national identity as such. We can see that as a weakness, creating a fuzziness so that we remain unclear as to the content or demands of our common citizenship,  or a vulnerability, because ‘authentic’ national identities must always ultimately overcome “invented” ones (though 300 years is a long time in identity politics).

But such a civic patriotism can both endure and bring positive strengths – so long as people choose to keep it, because it proves valuable in helping to authentically link our historic sense of ourselves as political community with an inclusive idea of a future that we want.

The fear that post-war immigration inevitably entailed national suicide – that the British were “literally mad … building our own funeral pyre” – always depended on a Little Englander amnesia about the history which gave rise to that ethnic diversity and the civic nature of British identity. Almost nobody know seriously argues that it is axiomatically impossible for those of Afro-Caribbean and Asian ethnic heritage to be fully and equally British; indeed, some from these “settled communities” will now express a rather traditional British scepticism about the next to arrive.  There are anxieties too about whether we are doing enough to get integration right – but that, by definition, depends on rejecting the idea that integration is impossible.

The most direct question about whether we will remain British arises from a more traditional dimension of British diversity, whether the four nations of the United Kingdom believe they share enough to want to stick together. This dimension of British difference is complicated by the lack of any neat and tidy pattern of identities, with different public desires, demands and identity claims across the different nations of the United Kingdom.

Scotland has enjoyed a confident national political and cultural renaissance since the 1990s – so its SNP government will now put the question of Independence to a national referendum. With the wind in the Nats’ sails, the question appears evenly balanced. Good work has been done to establish that the new Scottishness is civic, not ethnic, embracing Asian communities as Scottish, and depends increasingly on a positive

Scottish identity is increasingly salient and British identity less so – though that 61% of Scots say they are proud to be British citizens, shows a persistent majority appeal of “both/and” options.
Wales was much more reluctant than Scotland over pursuing devolution in both the 1970s and 1990s, with sharp divisions inside Wales over the question. Today, devolution has contributed to an increasingly confident Welsh national and cultural identity which, surveys show, most Welsh people are confident about combining with their British identity too. The Welsh debate is about strengthening the devolved settlement within the UK, and rarely about independence, though Scotland’s choices will surely have an important impact on both England and Wales.

The English – 80% of the British population after Irish independence in the 1920s – were least likely to make distinctions between British and national identities for a long time. If that was once a subtle strategy to make the imperial project possible, it later became a tendency to not spot the differences at all, often to the chagrin of Celts. The English are aware of the difference now, with an increasing chorus of grievance at an assymetric devolved settlement, though without, to date, any clear sense of what the English would like to resolve this. Regional assemblies were a tidy administrative solution with no popular appeal. An English assembly has never generated civic pressure and mobilisation on anything like the the scale of the Scottish Constitutional Convention after 1992. That “we’re not allowed to be English” is a regular refrain can suggest greater cultural recognition may matter more than an institutional offer – though the impediment to, say, the broader societal celebration of St George’s Day can be hard to identify. But Englishness, bubbling under since the happy return of the St George’s Flag as football came home in 1996, will find its contemporary voice and surely have more to say.

Northern Ireland is often kept at some distance from debates about Britishness which take place in Great Britain itself. That is not because of an absence of British identity – but rather because Ulster has been the place where British identity has both most vehemently asserted and violently rejected. In this deeply divided society, the quest for consensus ultimately meant rejecting the central tenets of British political model: instead legislating for permanent coalition to share power across traditions; for parity of esteem of British and Irish national identities; and the formal role of foreign governments in overseeing the settlement, from Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish agreement to the peace efforts of the Major and Blair governments.  Ditching the Westminster model can seem unusually un-British, though the politics of pragmatic accommodation have a long British history too.

Across these complexities, there is no doubt that all of these identities matter to people in Britain today.

There has always been an argument that we will have to choose between them – whether  by the most strident assimilationist Unionists who tried to make Scots think of themselves as “north Britons” and failed, or by those who advocate that the English, or Scottish, or Welsh can only be truly themselves if they dismiss the mongrel cloak of British identity as an imperial hangover.But if we accept that these are ultimately all questions of democratic consent, then there must be an equally good claim that we do not have to choose between them if we don’t want to.

We will remain British citizens if – and only if – there is majority consent across the different nations and regions for doing so. Once we understand that, then it makes little sense to think that the persistence of British identity depends on suppressing other national dimensions of identity.  The contemporary case for Britain will be weakened if it sees Scottish, Welsh or English identities as only and always a threat.  A successful civic Britishness will fly all of the British flags, and not just the Union Flag, even as those other flags are claimed for projects of independence too.

So the development of civic national identities within the UK – whether in Scotland, Wales and England, and within and between the Unionist and Irish traditions in Ulster – are projects which matter, to different ends, both for those who want to secure consent for a post-British national future, and for those who believe there is value in developing an inclusive British identity which recognises and respects the national identities which form part of the British sense of who we are.

Those on different sides of those questions can share projects too: a deeper public understanding of the shared and contested histories which can help to inform these choices;  and, whatever form our citizenship takes, the common commitment to a form of civic identity which is inclusive and can secure equal citizenship in our diverse societies.

British Future’s approach will be that all of these national conversations matter – as do the regional and local identities which also create a strong sense of place and belonging in Britain today.

We will want to make the case for an civic and inclusive British identity – but that commitment to inclusion and to pluralism means that we believe in giving space and voice to those who want to contest that with alternative democratic projects too.  We believe that we can all learn much by engaging civically in public debate – and disagreements in a spirit of mutual respect – about what we want history, identity, nation and citizenship.

So let all of the national conversations begin.

By Sunder Katwala