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National identity: dying force – or future hope?

What does the national identity and politics of the coming generations in England tell us about the future?

Somali women in London. Image, VOA.

‘My parents are from Malawi, I’m of Asian heritage, I’m a Muslim. I’m 17. English and British identity don’t mean much to me. If anyone does ask I just say I’m from London’. Aaisha’s answer to the question ‘who are the English and what do they want?’ was straightforward. In a few words she framed a key question facing contemporary ideas of national identity. The meeting at faith-based think tank Theos had heard from Robert Toombs and Mike Kenny, two leading experts on English history and political identity. They had spoken convincingly of the increasing assertion of English identity and English issues by English residents. They had explored how ideas of English history, conduct and ways of behaving shaped events today, not least Brexit.

Aaisha’s nagging challenge asks whether this significant force in today’s politics is not ultimately time-limited: a dying idea, held most strongly amongst older people (who will die first) in areas of the country that are dying culturally and economically. It may be a long and painful process, but perhaps the end of national identity is not in doubt. In this view, as Mark Rowney argued here recently, national identities will be replaced by a new cosmopolitanism, led by those in the most dynamic urban centres; in effect a new internationalism of the successful in global capitalism. Be cautious; it’s what the left assumed a generation ago. That ended in Brexit, not a cosmopolitan Europeanism. Futurology has its limits, then, but the values of the rising generation must be taken seriously.

Does it even matter that the Aaishas of London are unmoved by the idea of being English or British? No one should be expected to assume a particular identity but we should still be concerned. National identities are, above all, shared stories of who we are, how we came to be here, and what we share in common. If a young woman like Aaisha cannot find her story amongst the stories we tell about England and Britain we should all be concerned. It should be there: the story of a family moved across empire, then to be expelled and to come here with their faith is as intimately a part of the British story as Dunkirk or D-day. If our shared stories can’t include Aaisha’s tale they neither tell the truth about the past nor equip us for the future.

If none of us felt a shared identity with each other and we all held just our own stories and individual identities, our country would feel very different. The willingness to pay tax, to support the shared institutions like the NHS or the armed forces, or to support those in hard times, depends on a collective sense of ourselves as more than individuals who happen to share the same space and perhaps passport. If we share little identity with each other only a minority would be willing to contribute substantially on a simple basis of common humanity.

Those who have little sense of national identity or belonging nonetheless depend on the social and cultural capital and solidarity of those who do. It doesn’t matter if one young person feels little affinity with the nation in which they live; but the more that don’t, the harder it will become to hang together. The value of building a national identity that includes all members of all generations goes well beyond notions of patriotism and national pride. It goes to heart of creating a society that can sustain progressive social change.

The left is often complacently optimistic about the young. They are, after all, more cosmopolitan, socially liberal and European. They are more likely to tell pollsters they support Labour, even if they don’t actually vote. It’s easy to forget that, in traditional social democratic terms, this is also the most right-wing generation there is. Generation Y (today’s 18-30 years) is the least likely to believe that "the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes”. The largely Tory voting pre-war generation are twice as likely to hold that left-wing value. Only one in five of today’s young people regard the creation of the welfare state as one of Britain’s proudest achievements and they are the more likely to believe that most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another. The younger generation may sign up for a more liberal society but is not yet on board for a more traditionally left wing project.

It would be a stretch to attribute this rightwards shift to a simple decline in shared national identity. Personal experience will be important and the younger generation has none of the collective experiences or close family memories that forged collectivist values in war, reconstruction and large industrial workplaces. The collective sense of working together for people like us underpins any idea of any viable welfare state, and if old identities new ones must be found. Some will come from place – Aaisha happily identified as London – but if we want an identity than covers city and town, urban and rural, northern and southern, successful and less so, it needs to be national. And it can’t leave Aaisha out.

Aaisha’s name has been changed

About the author

John Denham is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester. He is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister and Director of the English Labour Network.

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