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Britishness remains strong

Don't write off Britain just because its component nations are embracing their identities.

The week of a Royal Wedding might be a good time to reflect on the strength  and durability of Britishness.  It’s often claimed that there is a 'crisis' of Britishness: that British national identity is waning, challenged from within by strong rival identities from the UK’s constituent nations, and from without by supranational challenges, whether European or originating further afield.

Such claims have been greatly exaggerated.

It is true that Britishness – and, more so, ‘Ukanianism’ to use Tom Nairn's phrase – lacks the emotional power often found in attachment to England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Ulster.  It is possibly also true that what holds the UK together most of all is a mixture of perceived economic advantage and comparative political apathy. None the less, most people clearly consider the layered structures of the UK preferable to engaging in active separatist struggles. Britishness endures for good or ill - or both – quietly and strongly.

I write this not as a patriot (British, English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish or other), but rather because so much current debate on the subject seems to me to rest on rather wishful assumption rather than on a cold recognition of some key realities.  I’ve tried to address some of these realities in an essay on English nationalism, just published by ippr. Here are a few brief points as they relate to Britishness itself. 

First, while many continue to read centrifugal nationalisms in Scotland, in Wales, and (competingly) in Northern Ireland as heralding the inevitable disintegration of the UK, however far off, and with it its associated Britishness, the reverse might in fact be the case.  For it seems at least as likely that the durability of the Union is reinforced, rather than threatened, by Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, and even more recently by expressions of English cultural identity. Economic realism and political stability mean that most UK inhabitants still think the Union the best political option. The opportunity for non-English national communities to celebrate their distinctive identities (and to engage in bouts of Anglophobic sentiment) perhaps makes this political option more palatable.  Paradoxically, the flourishing of non-English national identities allows the Union to function more comfortably, rather than hastening its demise.

For the English themselves, annoyance at the supposedly unfair advantages of the devolution settlement for those who live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, might be softened by the occasional yet powerful flag-waving associated with England.

Paradoxically, indeed, it may be that cultural and other expressions of non-British identity allow for the UK state to survive more easily than would be the case were there a necessary choice between either the UK or respective Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish/Irish, or English identities.

Second, and tellingly (though it is mostly ignored in debates in Britain itself), the one part of the UK which has during the past fifty years witnessed a genuinely powerful separatist movement – Northern Ireland – has seen that bloody campaign end in ways which might hint at British durability rather than morbidity.  Whether one loved or loathed the separatist campaign of the Provisional IRA, it unquestionably represented an attempt at separatism more ferocious, determined and committed than anything seen anywhere else in the UK during recent decades. But that campaign has ended with a former leader of the organization holding high office as Deputy First Minister within a UK regime in Belfast, and with him condemning those Irish republicans who continue to pursue independence from the UK through violence.

Put starkly, if a context within which many hundreds of people were killed in pursuit of the end of the Union has ended with a Union-based settlement, then how likely is the dissolution of that Union in the foreseeable future given the much more quiescent and less threatening separatisms in Scotland, Wales and England?

There are indeed committed nationalist movements in Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland, pursuing the end of their various nations’ involvement in the UK, and these deserve to be respected for the sincerity of their commitment and the serious national force behind them. But whether they herald the end of the Union seems open to serious question. 

The challenge for those who do enthuse over British identity and politics is surely to work to emphasize and develop those aspects of Britishness which offer plural and positive opportunities, and to diminish those trends which define Britishness in unnecessarily exclusive and conflict-generating manner.  Such enthusiasts for Britishness can relax and proceed with less of a sense of crisis than is often hinted at in contemporary debate.

These themes are touched on in our Royal Wedding Reality Check

About the author

Richard English is professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of Ernie O’Malley: IRA intellectual (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (Pan, 2003)


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