A British National Culture?

Article excerpt

I remember as an undergraduate our history professor telling us the story of an academic visitor to Oxford who was shown around the colleges from Balliol to Magdalen. When asked his opinion, he replied that the colleges were impressive but it would have been nice to see the university. The moral was that he had failed to see that the colleges are the university but that the university, whatever the strength of collégial loyalty, has an identity through the colleges but larger than them and recognisably Oxford'.

This seems an appropriate starting point for reflections on British culture. The story illustrates a relationship between the particular and the universal which may be rephrased as the relationship - or negotiation - between the national and the multi-national. The relationship here is not only cultural but also political. As David McCrone (2002, 310) has written, in post-devolution Britain identities are increasingly fluid and can be read as political statements about culture.

The myths and allures of provincialism and cosmopolitanism

The question of cultural identity is a tricky one and the relationship of culture to politics is even trickier. To think through the trickiness at its most profound one can refer to those who have addressed these questions with a passionate intensity for, literally, their lives have depended on it.

Take, for example, Jean Amery's reflections on the meaning of 'home' (Amery, 1980). Home, for Amery, meant security and that entailed full command of the 'dialectics of knowledge and recognition, of trust and confidence'. Amery admitted the possibility that what we today call globalisation could 'expel the homeland'. However, experiencing absolute marginality as a European Jew obliged him to believe one simple fact: 'it is not good to have no home', a truth more poignant in the contemporary condition where asylum and immigration are key concerns (albeit in differential measure) for all parts of the United Kingdom. In finding a secure 'home' - and, of course, it could be only a civic and not an ethnic home - Amery identified the importance of local patriotism.

On the other hand, Andre Gorz thought that modernity involved defining a world in which the very possibility of being an outsider had been overcome (Gorz, 1989). The defect of all existing identities was 'their very particularity and their historicity', what Gorz called the 'great flabby body' of nationhood whose incarnation cannot be deduced by reason and where everything is 'permeated by the smell of wine, vodka or beer'. The quest was for an identity relieved of the contingency of such local patriotisms and the 'metaphysical fault' of finitude, that enlightenment desire to abstract from all local definition - the horror of cultural cringe - and to find a home in the universal.

In short, Amery and Gorz provide us with insights into two cultural myths of the modern age. The first is the myth of provincialism in which the local sustains its authenticity against the world, a myth negatively associated with exclusion, even reaction, but positively associated with civic engagement. The second is the myth of cosmopolitanism in which the local is exchanged for the world, a myth negatively associated with indifference to locality, even contempt, but positively with liberal inclusiveness. Both myths illustrate a synthetic truth - the political version of the Oxford story and its colleges - that we are all engaged in a constant cultural negotiation between the local, the national and the world (see Delanty, 1999).

The dominant twentieth century understanding of the specific British cultural negotiation between the local and the universal was expressed concisely by Sir Ernest Barker, whose Idealist understanding anticipated by half a century Benedict Anderson's term 'imagined community' (Barker, 1927; Anderson, 1983). Barker, the great melodist of Britishness, defined the United Kingdom by considering two forms of national belonging first distinguished by Lord Acton. …