Imagining British identity after Brexit

Patrick French cautions Britain against looking towards its isolationist past and argues in favour of opening ourselves up to multiple allegiances, which the reality of the 21st Century calls for.

British citizens, not being the kind of people who are willing to be coerced, have 60-million-odd visions of national identity. The question is: can a future, shared idea of the United Kingdom be capacious enough to include everyone?

To go back a century or two: nationalism started out as a romantic project before it became a political reality. An idea of nationhood that could unify peoples of disparate traditions under a common cause raced around the world in the early 19th Century. A figure like Garibaldi in Italy exuded glamour with his red shirt and neckerchief, and the sense that a hope of unification might be conjured into political life and geographical facts on the ground. In Germany, a conservative like Bismarck sought a similar affect by more elite and brutal means.

Across the world, from South America to Asia, nationalisms in different forms – cultural, religious, linguistic but primarily ancestral – bubbled up and became a driving force in determining the shape of the global 19th Century.

Just before World War One, Mohandas Gandhi travelled from South Africa, where he had been representing the cause of Indian migrants in a British colonial setting, back to his homeland of India, where he developed an influential strategy of noncooperative resistance as a means of gaining freedom from foreign rule.

Gandhi and Garibaldi were not unusual in that they journeyed great distances physically and intellectually to amplify their ideas of a nation. Principles of identity and patriotic feeling were exchanged between activists who wished to separate their protonations from a larger whole; they usually wanted to detach their perceived homelands from an empire and from those who lived beyond its claimed borders.

During the era of decolonisation in the mid- and later 20th Century, the development of a collective identity took place in opposition to retreating European imperial power: nationhood was defined by post-colonial ambition.

The United Kingdom had a different modern trajectory to most other countries, in that it was not only conjuring up a new national dream but living with an old one that was bound at multiple levels into an international empire, the like of which the world had never seen, but which was also in the process of being dismantled.

The demographic shape of the UK was changed by immigration, but the British people did not see themselves as in need of a decolonising process, and retained a clouded idea of the legacy of empire. They might have viewed it approvingly, or might not, but they rarely comprehended how deeply it was embedded.

Today, if the British recall, for example, victories in the two World Wars, they will generally not remember that the fighting
was done in the name of the British Empire; when they praise the beauty of the Palladian country house, the City of London’s dynamism, the remarkable reach of Victorian trains and steamships, the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence system, or the enduring influence of the English language, they will not be thinking in terms of capital and empire, although these formed the basis of such phenomena.

I am not suggesting there was no shared national identity on these islands before the age of imperialism, but it did not take the form of the Union Jack.

When Shakespeare wrote “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” and said “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day,” he was speaking not of a united kingdom, but of England.

Politicians of all stripes who have in recent decades sought to generate a fresh sense of nationhood have failed to address a logical incoherence: the United Kingdom was itself generated and built as a supplement to empire.

Our politicians have sought to project the relics of a 19th Century idea of British identity, which was bound into the imperial project and a formal reverence for monarchy, onto a very different 21st Century canvas. Those who doubt the historicity of this idea, or whose grandparents were on the wrong end of empire, or whose primary or deep cultural allegiance is to their Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage, are left washed up like flotsam on a beach.

If a new vision of British national identity is to mean something, it must take form in an idiom that is not rooted consciously or unconsciously in a projection of our former, imperial international position. As someone whose years of childhood and education were spent in Britain, but who has spent a lot of time outside the UK, I am constantly aware that British notions of global and imperial history are profoundly at odds with those of other countries.

The issue is not whether they are right or wrong regarding the legacy of empire, but rather that a cheerful view of British imperialism and continuing faith in historic links to Commonwealth countries is a misguided and bogus way to conduct a trade and foreign policy, or to project soft power. It may be applauded by a large section of the British public, but it is tin-eared when trumpeted abroad, and will provoke a backlash.

We now are at a moment of accelerated history: the Brexit referendum has precipitated our politics into a new phase. Whatever the wisdom of the vote and how it was conducted, it is apparent the UK was evenly divided over the virtues of breaking from the European Union. ‘Leave’ won by a tight margin, yet the message of political leaders since then has been that separation from the EU must be embraced as the immutable will of the people.

In practice, a workable settlement of future UK relations with Europe depends on accommodating the concerns of the giant minority that opposed leaving. Substantial danger lies in reacting to practical difficulties during the complex Brexit negotiations by blaming an enemy within, and taking refuge in an idea of the UK as an automatic world player. Such a belief has little resonance outside these shores, and lacks purchase – especially in countries that are part of the global economic rebalancing towards Asia.

Patriotic protectionism is by no means unique: an inward turn is happening now globally from Australia to America, from Moscow to Beijing.

For a nation dealing with the consequences of a constitution-shaking referendum and the possibility of restructured relations
with Ireland and Scotland, nostalgic simplicity represents a fatal lure: a successful vision of the United Kingdom should be capacious enough to absorb multiple forms of allegiance. A successful idea of shared nationhood depends on inexactitude. The British do not like being told what to do.