Foreword by Sir Ciarán Devane

The British Council is delighted to partner with Demos on this publication about the United Kingdom’s identity and identities. The expertise Demos has in intellectual provocation is an ideal match for the British Council’s experience and insight in the creation of relationships for the UK around the world through culture and education.

There has never been a better time to revisit ideas of UK identity. Who we are, and how we present ourselves to others, has rarely mattered more. The way we are perceived abroad is hugely important in determining the tone and outcome of our international conversations, whether the subject is trade deals or human rights.

The British Council is an international organisation with connections round the world. We have a very clear understanding of the benefits of an attractive UK reputation – built on the best this country has to offer from education and the arts to science and values.

I hope this collection of essays, which gathers voices from across the United Kingdom, and from beyond our shores, helps to focus minds on the question of who we are and what we might become.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that what the essays reveal is a great variety of views, shaped by our writers’ experience, background, and aspirations.

Britain’s imperial past, our wartime history, class division, immigration – all of these feed into the mix, as do our inventiveness, creativity, pragmatism and belief in rights. And they give rise to some big questions: How will our historical past shape our future relations with other countries? Will the regions escape the pull of London? What about the role of women?

One of the most interesting things to note, despite the wide variation of opinion, is the fact that many writers choose to focus on the many internal identities within the United Kingdom. These have been thrown into sharp relief by the EU referendum, and a non-comprehensive list would include: rich and poor, north and south, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘provincial’. These dichotomies are in addition to the national geographies that define our islands – between Scotland and England, England and Wales, and (most problematic in light of the referendum result) the two Irelands.

Because of this sense of potential internal fragmentation, one of the British Council’s priorities for the near future will be making sure every young person in the United Kingdom has intercultural and international experience.

The purpose is to widen young people’s horizons, to enlarge their ambitions, and to promote as powerfully as we can a message of openness and connection to the world. Doing so will, I think, give us a clearer view of what binds us together.

This publication does not offer a monolithic vision for the UK, and that is almost certainly a good thing. A nuanced and reflective response is the only way to approach the complex, protean world in which we find ourselves.

Our approaching departure from the European Union is an opportunity to dream and imagine; to explore new options, for our country, for our communities, and for ourselves as individuals.