In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.
The rise and fall of Britishness shows that apparently ancient and stable European identities can be as recent, contingent, fragile and transient as any in the formerly colonised world. It is something which the Brexit vote has thrown into sharp relief, because it will probably lead to the end of the United Kingdom.
It was the existence of the British Empire, and the benefits they gained from it that made Scots, Welsh and Irish want to be British in the first place. It was service in and migration to and from that empire which formed Britishness as an identity. I think of myself as British – not English – even though the latter is what most of those I have met outside the British Isles consider me.
My surname is Scottish – that grandfather was born in Greenock, near Glasgow, though our Morrisons were originally from the Isle of Lewis. My grandfather spent 25 years working as an engineer for Sudan Railways on their Nile steamer services. When he returned to Britain in 1954 he settled in Fareham, near Portsmouth. His wife, my grandmother, was half English, half Austro-Hungarian Jewish. My other grandfather's family were all English, from Kent and Sussex, but my grandmother's family were part Irish,
part Anglo-Indian, and we had relatives living in southern India until the 1970s. With its mixture of backgrounds from different parts of the British Isles, and the strong connection with empire, this is a quintessentially British origin – and not, I think, an unusual one.
Britishness is a civic, not an ethnic identity. As such I think it has been easier for more recent migrants to the British Isles to identify with it than with Englishness. For me it is a much more personal question – although it was clear there was a decline in the number of those explicitly identifying as British, the United Kingdom was still there, and I didn't have to choose between being English, or Scottish – I could be British and leave it at that.
When Scotland leaves the UK, as following Brexit I believe it surely will, and if Northern Ireland follows, I think it will spell the end for Britishness, as a culture, a nationality, an identity – we will be able to chart its rise and fall in full, from the Union of Crowns in 1603 to dissolution of the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century. A lot of people will not be sorry to see it go – in many cases with good reason, given how many crimes have been committed in its name – but personally I will regret it – and I don't think its replacement with the type of 'Englishness' that brought us the Brexit vote will be an improvement.
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