Dazed and Confused

Paul Laity

  • Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 by Richard Weight
    Macmillan, 866 pp, £25.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 333 73462 9
  • Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom by Tom Nairn
    Verso, 176 pp, £13.00, September 2002, ISBN 1 85984 657 2
  • Identity of England by Robert Colls
    Oxford, 422 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 19 924519 3
  • Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd
    Chatto, 518 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 1 85619 716 6

The organisers of the Festival of Britain in 1951 knew what to celebrate. At the start of the opening ceremony – a service in St Paul’s – the King praised the nation’s courage in the world wars; the official handbook declared categorically that ‘Britain is a Christian Community’; brightly coloured pavilions on the South Bank paid tribute to picturesque countryside, seaside holidays and an unparalleled tradition of Parliamentary government. To entice foreign visitors, four London buses made a promotional tour of the Continent. The lead bus, which sported a giant Union Jack, broadcast a continuous recording of ‘God Save the King’ and other patriotic anthems. ‘Not surprisingly’, Richard Weight remarks in Patriots, the convoy ‘got a muted reception when it parked in the ruins of Berlin’. In France, the bus crews were treated to mayoral banquets, only for their leader to complain about the ‘strange dishes’ which weren’t ‘up to English standards’. Frank Forsdick and his men asked for ‘a bit of old English roast beef or a plate of fish and chips’ and beer instead of wine.

It didn’t require the commercial vapidities of the Greenwich Dome – a Festival of Britain manqué – to reveal that such self-confidence has dissolved. Our ‘crisis’ of national identity has become an old friend. It’s 25 years since Tom Nairn first willed the ‘Break-Up of Britain’, and ten since Linda Colley influentially explained that Britons were the product of particular historical conditions – conditions which have now disappeared. We have had the woe-is-England vapourings of Simon Heffer and the rushed observations of Andrew Marr. An academic industry has flourished. Now both Weight and Robert Colls have written requiems for the old Britishness which are also ruminations on a new, more democratic England. Britannia, for so long a proud Amazon, armoured and helmeted, repulsing European foes and civilising barbarians is, these days, according to Weight, ‘pox-ridden and toothless’. Colls holds that Britain’s ‘deepest structures of identity’ are fast decaying. And Nairn, master anatomist of our decrepit multinational state, is back with another lyrical castigation of Britishness as a royal-conservative, know-your-place national identity imposed on the people from the top down. None of the three has any time for Telegraph platitudes about the incomparable virtues of the Crown-in-Parliament. Their arguments often overlap, and they are all, in different ways, hostile to Britain’s elites; all are recognisably on the Left. (Weight is sort of Blairite, Colls sophisticated Old Labour, Nairn a veteran of the 1960s New Left Review, who thinks the British labour movement has only ever been part of the problem.)

Is Britain still an imagined community, and if it is, how does this sense of nation relate to the individual identities of England, Wales and Scotland? To what extent has Britishness always applied more to institutions than the people? As Colley argued, British national identity took on an increasingly strong definition during the 18th century when what mattered was winning wars against France and building an empire. The state created by the Act of Union of 1707 was a conscious attempt to superimpose a set of ideas (Industry, Prosperity, Providence, Empire, Liberty) and institutions (Parliament, Crown) onto much older alignments and loyalties. England predominated, but many Scots wanted a stake in the enterprise. The island was thriving, virtuous and Protestant, set apart from and defined against a dissipated, tyrannical, unstable, priest-ridden Continent.

Notwithstanding the Irish Question, and the fact that in 1921 Irish nationalism ruptured the unitary state, the Britishness of Crown, Christianity, Empire and Parliament remained robust until well into the 20th century. With the Second World War, it became stronger than ever, not least because old prejudices about the Continental ‘Other’ were reconfirmed. Two hundred years after ‘Rule Britannia’ was first performed before the Prince of Wales, Britain once again, in the summer of 1940, proved itself the patron of liberty. New Whig histories (Churchill, Trevelyan) which upheld the myth of Britain’s distinctive tradition of freedom and equipoise sold by the hundred thousand. Orwell, in The English People, condemned the ‘ruthless ideologies’ of the Continent: England, he said, was ‘the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less decent manner’. At the heart of this revitalised Britishness (although Orwell didn’t write much about ‘Britain’) was a centuries-old sense of national superiority based on a particular idea of constitutional liberty – what might be called the cult of island freedom.

After the war, however, the traditional pillars began to crumble. The recent soul-searching occasioned by devolution and the prospect of European integration has the familiar backstory of the UK’s relative decline as a world power. Is the devolved British state now doomed? No wars against Continental enemies are in prospect; even geography – white cliffs, island fortress – means a lot less than it did. In the absence of any unitary racial or religious self-definition, old loyalties and alignments – Scottishness, Welshness – have emerged from under the ragged counterpane of British identity.

That leaves the perfidious English, who, because of their ascendancy within the Union, have for centuries regarded English and British institutions as synonymous (think of all those Union Jacks draped around Wembley in 1966). A complex of cultural ideas of Englishness, whether admirable or ridiculous, has existed independently of the state. But unlike the Scots and Welsh, the English have developed no separate political identity, and have no mythic enemy. They are, according to Weight, dazed and confused. On the other hand, this summer’s rash of red crosses on white inspires its own clutch of vexations. Is there anything to political Englishness beyond arrogance or apologetics?

In Britons Colley explained the successful fashioning of British nationalism; Weight examines its disintegration. It is with some relish that he declares that Britishness has ‘now virtually disappeared’. It was always, he insists, an ideology ‘founded on greed, religious and racial bigotry, fear and contempt’: beneath the mythology of a godly and tolerant people lay the realities of elitism, xenophobia and imperial aggression. In particular, the history of Britain has always been characterised by an arrogant English refusal to recognise the Scots, Welsh and Irish as ‘equal partners’. Things are much healthier now that people have rediscovered what he calls their ‘core national identities’. Patriots doesn’t lament national regression, being more interested in the shedding of old prejudices about ‘class, race, gender and religion’ and the unsteady rise of individual nationalisms, but Weight makes a point of showing how slow and problematic this progress has been – running through his account is an indictment of the political and cultural elites which failed to provide an alternative to an England-dominated, war-obsessed, Eurosceptical and racist British identity. So much for dear old Blighty.

Patriots is in this sense a narrative of redemption rather than decline. Indeed, Weight is something of an Anglo-enthusiast, eager for England’s ‘unique nationality’ to be ‘respected’. Orwell in wartime mode is a particular hero, and Weight puts an Orwellian curse on generations of British intellectuals who have thought themselves above expressing national pride. A young academic (in his mid-thirties), he belongs to a generation which has become alert to the political importance of patriotism and which takes Britain’s European future pretty much for granted. His enjoyable tour through the past sixty years stops at the predictable sites: Dunkirk, the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, Suez, the Beatles, the various debates about joining Europe, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’, the Falklands War, devolution in 1998. He takes a special interest, however, in those moments when the nation seemed to be resurgent and forward-looking, and when Britishness was encouraged to become something more inclusive and popular – when it seemed, in his distinctly non-elegiac terms, to have a future.

In common with other left-wing historians of national identity, Weight celebrates the Second World War as a period when radicals – for the first time since Wilkes, or perhaps the Chartists – managed to reclaim the language of patriotism. The conflict was instantly mythologised as a ‘People’s War’, imbued with an unprecedented egalitarian spirit, when a highpoint of homogeneity became a moment of social change. Evelyn Waugh, he claims, was demobbed because of fears he would be shot by the men under his command. And when Churchill, visiting down-at-heel Camberwell during the Blitz, made a speech that concluded with the words ‘We can take it,’ a heroic voice shouted back: ‘What do you mean “we”, you fat bastard?’

Patriotism became associated with social reform as well as military victory: Labour’s 1945 election manifesto described its policies as ‘the practical expression’ of ‘the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz’. (Weight misses Michael Foot’s 1949 pamphlet on domestic reform entitled Who Are the Patriots Now?) A different kind of identity came to fruition during the Attlee Administration: new institutions were called ‘National’ or ‘British’ instead of ‘Royal’ – the NHS, the British Transport Commission, the National Coal Board, British European Airways.

But Britishness was only partially transformed. Weight is caustic about the pervasive influence of the Finest Hour and offers a reminder that ‘older, darker’ ties of racial unity also bound Scots, English and Welsh together. Contrary to folk wisdom, the Attlee Government discouraged and resisted black immigration (though it didn’t suggest, as Harold Macmillan had during the war, that black Britons should be issued with Union Jack badges). After 1945 most recruitment drives were directed at Europeans; ministers even briefly considered moving the Windrush passengers on to East Kenya, to work on the Groundnuts Scheme. As the number of immigrants increased, and the familiar idea of resisting ‘invasion’ became central to the rhetoric of racism, Attlee himself wanted to find out more about the ‘ringleaders’ of the ‘incursion’.

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