What does it actually mean to be “British”?
Recent years have heralded a growing call within pockets of the population to become more self-aware in its understanding of Britishness and British culture at a grassroots level. From the right, and amid a turbulent Brexit period, those whose political affection points towards Europe have been branded as “traitors” who are actively working against the interest of their beloved Britain; at the other end of the spectrum, the need to reassess our history, through the blue tinted spectacles of empathy rather than rosy exceptionalism – it is hard to feel exceptional about Britain in 2019, a nation so politically and culturally divided in a world of divided nations.
It’s always been a divisive topic, for we are a traditionally divided bunch, with intersectional lines drawn by empire in plurality throughout the ages, a constant influx of alien cultures over millennia, and class borders intersecting regional borders. As such it is more than simply a question of teabags or what to call a barm cake. Further still one cannot escape the fact that a journey across the Pennine way from Lancashire to Yorkshire sees a symbolic shift in the township’s brickwork; red brick to sandstone, and at a risk of isolating an audience, white never felt right to me. Pretty, yes but who could live in it? Does having an opinion on these trivialities make me British? Or simply a regionalist? Are the red bricks of Burnley and the white of Skipton in any way a political distinction?
First, a brief family biography serves as a slipway into the topic of British cultural identity. I was born in Warrington, England, when Warrington was Cheshire (it now apparently has a flirtatious relationship with Merseyside), and as such at the dinner table, if I call myself a ‘Lancastrian’ (which I am – I was raised in Lancashire after all). My family, two fifths born in Wigan, would decry that I, in fact, am a “Cheshire lad” and not Lancastrian like they are, ignoring that Wigan isn’t Lancashire anymore but rather Greater Manchester. My father, a self-proclaimed Yorkshireman would join in, before we all round on him, reminding my old man that he was actually born in Isolohn in Dusseldorf on a British Army base, and only raised in Yorkshire. Whatever that is – it’s only a historic country that’s now divided into three smaller administrative entities: the North, East and West Ridings. So, he’s a kraut – kind of. My other brother, also Warrington born, is ‘Northern’ and proudly so, until it comes to a question of roses. Then, he’s red over white.
Furthermore there are those who declare that in fact they’re ‘English’. I’ve even heard myself doing so, the words slipping out of my mouth as I recoil in fear that I may be pushed out of the bougy craft ale bar that are so comfortable to me and into those pubs with their wide array of three lagers for sale and red crosses in the windows; those for who are as softly spoken as I do best to avoid every Eastertime.
This doesn’t feel right. I’m not English; I’m a quarter Welsh, and with a swelling breast and a rudimentary understanding of British stereotypes, I proudly sing that I truly am a quarter Welsh, if only to avoid being English. Really, it means little to me. Still, it’s an uncomfortable distinction to draw in public, for doing so in certain circles doesn’t make me Welsh or English but rather “white”, and undeniably so. So to simplify the ordeal, I’m British. Administratively, I’m British. As a side note I’m pretty vocally confrontational of the very idea that nationality even exists, and whether it is an illusion which acts more as a hindrance than a benefit to nations such as ours, but my passport (Burgundy, and then soon only in spirit) states it clearly: British Citizen.
Not Northern, nor Lancastrian, nor Cheshire, German, white, or contentious objector. Intrinsically British. Culturally British.
It is scarce that politics of cultural identity is prevalent in in the mainstream of popular discourse during times of economic prosperity – when your nation is the winning horse you’re sat atop, a cultural consensus can be achieved for the sake of simplicity and “the greater good”. Unfortunately, this historically serves to hush the voice of minorities – for their qualms would rock the boat. See the Lawson boom of the mid 80s and Labour’s subsequent political alignment with a newly burdening political participation in identity politics of the 90s, coincidentally when the bubble burst, and Labour needed a new political base to oust the Conservatives (a ‘New Labour’ if you will, one that forgoes any traditional allegiances of the worker for the newly expanding liberal managerial and professionals classes).
And in 2008, as predicted, when the economic inefficiencies were not addressed, the bubble burst again and the political landscape was marred, now seemingly unendingly and affording a new kind of political ideology. One of inwardness, isolation, segmentation fuelled (unfortunately without great popular detection) by a failing belief in the neoliberal norms of roller coaster economies. Where trust is not placed in the sleek suited politicians your mother would want you to bring home, but rather the straight shooting cowboys offering an alternative politics, the kind that unpicks at the traditional regional political affiliations in favour for personal absolution from blame for political inactivity – it’s the immigrants, the English, the cities. Forces beyond control, sometimes with genuinely good reasoning, although often merely used as a scapegoat for greater issues (yes, I’m thinking of that ‘Breaking Point’ poster.) Scotland had their frightfully tight vote. The call for devolution to northern cities grew louder. The cities faced off with the country over Brexit.
Except, it was divided a long time before that. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland hasn’t been united in spirit since the Conservative reigns of the late 80s onwards – or was it during the punk era of Harold Wilson? Earlier still? Catholic and protestant then, the Huguenots, or tenant and landowner. It probably started with the Harrying of the North, that Bastard William. But then the inhabitants of the Wirral (formerly a major Viking capital settlement often argued by historians to be the capital) in a 2009 study still maintained 42% Norse DNA, they ought to have integrated into British culture better. Like the Mercians, or Saxons, and so on. In fact, it only united in name in the 19th Century, and even then this was merely an administrative attempt to unify Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For the Vikings of the Wirral, it wouldn’t have affected their lifestyles greatly at all.
Before I turn to UK separatist movements in detailing the instability of British identity, the English landscape alone has been divided if resentful of the opposing bun/barm/stottie/roll brigades for a great deal longer, a resentment still seen today most noticeably in cities – most vocally Northern cities, such as Newcastle or Liverpool, who seem to possess the kind of pride of one’s community required to survive a top down destitution; historical cities, once deemed by the administrative classes so important to the prosperity the nation, the industrial shelter of the North that served to build Britain to what it was: an empire.
For all its evils, which cannot be overlooked for sake of avoiding that pesky self-reflection, each city played its part in the maintenance of trade and diplomacy, of industry and innovation. And then, suddenly, in a rapidly changing world spearheaded by neoliberal individualism, certain towns, villages, regions appeared to fall by the wayside, creating even deeper chasms within Britain, arguably forcing these communities built on a unilateral scaffolding of each other’s interests to become, as stated, insular, and entrenching themselves deeper into the landscape if only to drag each other out through the rubble of deindustrialisation.
The unique perspective of Afua Hirsch, a Norweigan born journalist of mixed nationality parentage, (Ghanain and British) and whose grandfather was a Jewish immigrant fleeing Nazi ruled Berlin, shines a blindingly exposing super trooper on the culture of Britishness from what she experienced growing up, from the outside looking in – into a world where “Britishness” is intrinsically linked to having white skin. In a piece for National Geographic shortly after the release of her excellent text Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, she wrote:
Britain transitioned seamlessly from an imperial motherland passionately convinced of its own racial superiority to one with the moral integrity of having defeated Nazism. Acknowledging the crimes of the British Empire was neither an appealing nor convenient option.
It is a bitter pill to swallow, and somehow a spoonful of sugar in the face of confronting our plantation riddled, enforced famine laced past seems somewhat unfitting. But it must be pointed out that the perspective of Britain’s history is an administrative history – can be done by the bottom in the wake of top down social imposition, and if discussing the obvious notion that the local communities benefitted a great deal by this industrial boom on the back of such heinous acts, even today one third of all wealth in the UK is inherited. As for this administrative history, this does not start and end with the British Empire but in the particular and familiar case of England, goes back thousands of years, as Benedict Anderson in his landmark text Imagined Communities points out. In regards to the evolution of national linguistics, and how separate yet affecting the administrative languages, for example, were to the people that make up the societies of early England, Anderson pointed towards a blueprint of linguistic evolution on the isles in the face of such cultural impositions:
Prior to the Norman Conquest, the language of the court, literary and administrative, was Anglo Saxon. For the next century and a half virtually all royal documents were composed in Latin. Between about 1200 and 1350 this state-Latin was superseded by Norman French. In the Meantime a slow fusion between this language of a foreign ruling class and the Anglo Saxon of the subject population produced Early English…In every instance, the ‘choice of language appears as a gradual, unselfconscious, pragmatic, not to say haphazard development.
Anderson goes on to point out that because of this unselfconscious and pragmatic creation, this does differentiate from “the self-conscious language policies pursued by nineteenth century dynasts confronted with the rise of popular linguistic nationalisms”. However, the similarity can be drawn that regardless of whether it was an enforced policy or “natural” progression, our linguistic history, the foundation stone of every culture, is formed of a series top down administrative alterations, done to accommodate and assimilate those within the society deemed to exist within a superior status. This is not to be misconstrued as a compliant – for all of its thoroughly thoughtless flaws and incoherent inconsistencies, it’s a rather wonderful language with which to sculpt. Rather, this serves to highlight the cultural dynamic of England – as a ‘nation’, we cannot necessarily identify with our historical roots in the same way that the Irish, whose only real fight has been with England and later Britain. We have historically enveloped our invaders, though often reluctantly, and instead have not had the ability to impose a homogenous identity, but rather have historically had it enforced upon us – Dutch and German monarchies for example, or the American cultural hegemony of the 20th and 21st century, and so on. The Vikings of the Wirral are now scouse. In England, as anywhere, the fingerprints can be found in our vernacular. This nationalised, imagined “Britishness” is always a Hobsons choice, and as such our language is made up of borrowed words with roots spanning as ancient as Latin, and as far reaching as India. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the other cultural identities of the British Isles – and language paints the picture clearly – the Irish language (which influenced Scottish Gaelic) became a minority language in Ireland during the 19th century. Irish nationalism had to punch from below and impose itself in the late 19th and early 20th century.
It is no wonder then, that the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of the British cultural establishment’s, the ‘British Nationalists’, concern themselves with the likes of immigration, wherein the culture is not changed by those in power but rather those who really possess very little political sway, often historically oppressed by the British elite, is the matter of how “immigrants integration into British culture”. For portions of the working class, once propped up by Labour but since largely abandoned, the mantra of “they’re coming over here, stealing our jobs” echoed in rings forged strictly around racial identity. The “they” being the most concerning (and rightfully alarming), instead of also dealing with the obvious factor of job stability and security being virtually non-existent in areas of the country most affected by economic downturns of the last 30 years. Unsurprisingly, when one can harness this as a scapegoat to gain political sway in today’s climate of career politicians, they will (yes, I’m talking about that poster again).
From above then, the discourse can be shifted – it’s no longer about the “jobs” since the economy is slowly growing, as predicted. For much of the working class, the less politically inclined and long since disenfranchised, it’s about getting what they’ve asked from their rulers for once. For the growing right, it’s now about assimilation, of maintaining British values – whatever they are. One points towards Lord Tebbit’s infamous Cricket test: whether West Indian and South Asian immigrants support England or their cultural roots, and how it is a yardstick for the success of these immigrant communities’ assimilation into British culture. Such realities require examination: If for the immigrant it is not a question of skin colour, what culture are you demanding they integrate into? Whose culture? What aspects of culture must they adhere to, and how do you measure it?
If the parameters are set by the government, which as Hirsch pointed out: they were, in a “high profile 2016 poll”, what conclusions can we draw? The poll “singled out Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as particularly failing to integrate but found that only one of the factors—the desire to live near and have the support of a community of people from similar backgrounds – had anything to do with personal choice. The other factors were the pull of the labour market and the poverty trap.”
This suggestion, that it is a real choice seems questionable at best. A ‘real choice’ would suggest that integrating into “white communities” during the latter half of the 20th Century would be as easy as integrating into communities of those from “similar backgrounds”. The infamous election slogan of Conservative MP for Smethwick, Peter Griffiths, in the 1964 General Election – “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour” – suggests that this is, perhaps, not the case. (Griffiths went on to win that election by just under 2000 votes, and a British branch of the ultra-white nationalist terrorist organisation the Ku Klux Klan would be set up in its wake.) While it would be convenient to suggest that this was ‘a sign of the times’, and that in the 21st Century such sentiment is much less prevalent, Hirsch points her readers towards a condemning statistic: ‘A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture.’ Sure, the white robes are presumably gone, but the sentiment remains the same.
Then the question remains: what culture do they speak of? What is the definitive national British culture they speak of – 48% of Scottish voters chose to leave the Union in their Independence referendum, and Scotland can hardly be considered united in and of itself. There were murmurings of a Cornish independence referendum had the Scottish referendum swung the other way. In March 2018, the BBC reported that Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, stated that were they wish to hold their own independence referendum, and on May 11th held a Welsh independence rally in Cardiff attended by thousands. In a very real sense, the administrative culture of Britain is built upon more than shaky foundations.
So, if I am supposedly a regionalist and not a nationalist, let’s assess the unity of the nations’ communities with one another. There is a clear North/South divide in the Isles in terms of economic prosperity, job prospects, heritage and history, which as we have seen above plays a huge role in community strength/identity and outsider immersion. I’ve seen pies in London that where I live, if you presented them you’d be laughed out of your own dinner party before the parsley sauce accompaniment arrives. At university I found out that a very close friend of mine from London had never had a Greggs before, whereas my brother (the “Northern” one) proclaims, routinely, that he possesses an instinct wherein he can locate the closest within a 2 mile radius wherever he finds himself. Amazingly, it’s true. The great ‘British’ tradition of cheese rolling to me sounds alien. I know next to nothing about the city of Birmingham outside of Peaky Blinders, despite it being the second most populous city in the British Isles, and even that TV show stopped focusing on Birmingham after one season – London shortly after, New York next.
What of the soundbites that ‘London is basically a different country’, or the existing town/regional rivalries that run throughout the nation, county boundaries that are still based on the bucolic feudal system, varying local folklores and superstitions, the variations of popularity of local sporting and leisure activities – I ask again, what does it actually mean to be “British”?
This question has a very simple and dissatisfying answer: there are no unanimous British values outside that of the administrative envelopment of a number of immediate regional micro-cultures that surrounds the self; and the ethnicities, sexualities, interests, familial ties or any unforced commonality that still serves to unite. It’s sort-of true what Anderson said, that nations are purely imagined communities, but it is a step further than this – it is a number of real, genuine communities that have the concept of nationality applied from above and this is something we are born into, and have no say in. ‘British culture’ is one of self-perpetuating nationalism and nationalism alone, for what is nationalism but the surrendering of ones identity to a history of intangible power above by common populace?
Why then does such nationalisms exist?
In times of great hardship, in times of duress or dictation, it is useful even noble to unite under a banner – you can call this banner what you want, but since the separatist movements within colonial powers cried for self-determination the banner has been a most useful tool. Anderson argues that the Spanish communities of South America were the first self-recognised ‘nation states’, and I do not wish to suggest that there is no place for nationalist sentiment. As Anderson again points out it has brought with it wondrous works of art, literature, music, as well as historically been an instrumental tool in the overthrowing of Empirical hegemony – Haiti, for example, would not be the vibrant nation that it appears to be on a community scale were it not for the banner of nationalism in the overthrowing of its French owned plantation heritage. More recently, and on a less significant note, the England football team’s run into the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup brought with it a sense of calm among this particular divided nation within Great Britain, regardless of whether one was interested in the sport or not; a national unity despite the precedent set in recent years, where we have been subjected to such horrors as the political assassinations of pro-European MP Jo Cox in 2016, other acts of terrorism such as the Manchester bombings a year later. My quibbles regarding the validity of nationality in general were forgotten during this month long celebration, where I could be found in a pub in Clapham, a staunch Arsenal fan singing and celebrating the quarter final victory against Sweden with a stranger in a Tottenham shirt. This serves as proof of nothing but how genuinely pleasant it is to be united by something great.
Why then would I be so repelled by the notion of being a part of Britain, if I can support its national football team?
Again, Anderson has the answer, one that dovetails nicely with Afua Hirsch’s perception of Britishness. “The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history…The dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation: above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to ‘blue’ or ‘white’ blood and breeding among aristocracies.”
Our ‘culture’, British nationalism; Hircsh’s white British Nationalism, arguably more so than any glamourizes our administrative past: that of Empire, war, cultural plundering, communal land thefts, without any kind of regard for how it has affected our grassroots social cultures and the innumerable cultures across the globe that faced atrocities at the behest of signatures, justified by a perceived racial caste system. Where the example of Irish Nationalism served to break the hegemonic British thumb from below, British nationalism still strives to press without acknowledging that there is a clear difference of intent. If they can be nationalists, why can’t we if the pre-requisite is to simply belong to a nation? It is this specifically and initially that must be scrutinised in this time of required national self-awareness.
The old Empire may in many of our minds be a Victorian notion: one of khaki clad moustachioed adventurers and Borneo in an age where we now navigate via satellite, but it is worth remembering that the last days of Empire are still within living memory of many Brits, and its imprints still found both geopolitically, and manifested within our national politics. The likes of former British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP as recently as January 2019 stated his desires of opening British military bases across the world in order for Britain to have a “global military reach” and to once again become a “true global player”. This, once again, is our administrative culture and one that will only perpetuate internal divisions if it continues to avoid confrontation and a sense of self reckoning on an unprecedented scale during its time in the driver’s seat of Britishness. If Lord Tebbit’s Cricket Test holds any truth, it is only because Britain has not from beneath the administrative boot heel, made Britain for immigrants and for so many natives worth supporting. Until that is rectified, I’m Lancastrian.