Identity Parade

Linda Colley

  • People and Places: Country House Donors and the National Trust by James Lees-Milne
    Murray, 232 pp, £19.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 7195 5145 5
  • The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769 by Michael Dobson
    Oxford, 266 pp, £30.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 19 811233 5
  • Myths of the English edited by Roy Porter
    Polity, 280 pp, £39.50, October 1992, ISBN 0 7456 0844 2
  • Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States by Stephen Daniels
    Polity, 257 pp, £39.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 7456 0450 1

‘I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party Conference is part of a long tradition whereby Britishness has been defined primarily by reference to a real or an imaginary Other. Understandably so, since defining this entity in its own terms has always been problematic and is fast becoming more so.

In part, and paradoxically, this is because the British nation has experienced such comparatively stable development since its invention in 1707. The French and the Irish can assert their common identity (whether it exists or not) by reference to recent liberation from foreign rule, the Germans can celebrate their post-war resurgence and re-union, the Americans can coalesce around a particular version of the War of Independence, and even around a nostalgic interpretation of their Civil War, but contemporary Britons are much less likely to find history useful in this respect. The invasions, revolutions and civil wars that occurred in their past are now simply too distant in time to supply effective signposts to identity. This was not always the case of course. Eighteenth and even 19th-century Britons celebrated a range of patriotic anniversaries, most of them to do with resistance to Roman Catholicism. And even when the memory of these wore thin, there were so many other powerful cements. Insular geography, overwhelming Protestantism, and a cult of Parliament kept the three parts of Great Britain together, as did an extraordinary range of joint successes: success in war, success in empire, success in trade and success in pioneering industry.

Looked at in this way, some of the reasons why late-20th-century Britons are increasingly at odds about who they are seem clear enough. The invention of the aeroplane and the telephone, followed by the advent of mass tourism and membership of the EEC, have made this island’s physical disjunction from the Continent far less influential than it was. Protestantism is no longer overwhelmingly the majority religion. There are now more practising Catholics than practising Anglicans in Britain, more Moslems than Methodists. The Mother of Parliaments, too, has lost some of her prestige and much of her power, and seems to many now to be inequitably elected. Finally and transparently, success has become elusive. The Empire has gone. There are unlikely to be any more attractive and victorious wars. Commercial supremacy has long since fled, and so have the triumphs of our Industrial Revolution. The recent surge in sympathy for the coal miners and the current outcry over the dismantling of British Rail suggest how deeply we still feel the loss of this last distinction. Out-of-work miners appear somehow more deserving than the rest of the unemployed, and trains command more affection than any other machines in this culture, because coal and the railroads were in the vanguard of our pioneering industrialisation, part of what made us British.

The fact that the Conservative leadership has set its face sternly against both of these symbolic industries is indicative of a much deeper iconoclasm on its part. Despite unvaryingly patriotic rhetoric, Conservative hegemony since 1979 has undoubtedly contributed to the undermining of Britishness. One reason for this, as the Party’s historian Robert Blake comments, is that Tories have always tended towards English nationalism, enjoying electoral paramountcy in the Southern counties, but possessed of far less secure roots in the North or in Wales or in Scotland. Predictably, therefore, the recent protracted Tory dominance has stimulated Celtic protest, just as it did in the late 19th century. What is new, however, is the Thatcherite brand of radicalism which has also worked to divide. The BBC, previously the purveyor of a truly nationwide public culture, has been systematically undermined. The Civil Service, formerly a component of the powerful myth of British official impartiality and incorruptibility, has been openly politicised and arguably debased. National industries which once gave a semblance of uniformity to the life of Britons throughout the island – water, electricity, and in the future trains and the postal system – have been sold off, in some cases to foreign companies. And the tabloid and quality press has until now been allowed to savage the reputation of the British monarchy to an unprecedented degree, in part because 60 per cent of our newspapers are owned by pro-Tory newspaper bosses, the most powerful of whom – once again – are foreign.

It is in this context that the compulsion to explore and unpick British identities which has been so striking among different kinds of writers in the Eighties and early Nineties must be understood. As Raphael Samuel has remarked, it was less Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands War that put questions of patriotism and national identity on the agenda in a new way than the Thatcherites’ dereliction of so many previously-accepted patriotic norms.

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