Magazine article Commonweal

Engerland: Identity Politics in the United Kingdom

Magazine article Commonweal

Engerland: Identity Politics in the United Kingdom

Article excerpt

The phrase "national identity" is popping up everywhere in Britain. I have read two recent books with those words in the title, and they recur throughout an article in the March 17 London Review of Books, "The Wonderfulness of Us: The Tory Interpretation of History" by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans. In February the prime minister David Cameron spoke at an international conference on security at Munich, addressing the problem of domestic terrorism, and specifically of young Muslims who are alienated from the society in which they were born and grew up.

Cameron's speech, with its critical reference to "the doctrine of state multiculturalism," was found controversial in some quarters, but I could not see much to disagree with in it. He made a crucial distinction when he remarked, "Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority." This was the ideology that prompted the suicide bombers who, in 2005, set off bombs in London Underground trains and a bus, causing several dozen deaths. Cameron was indeed making a political point in attacking the "multiculturalism" that the Labour government had favored: "Instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone."

Since then a questionnaire for the pending national census has arrived, in which the government hopes to find out how many of us there are, and who and what we are. I was not surprised that there was a section headed "How would you describe your national identity?" This provides a number of boxes, labeled English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British, and Other. The last of these is necessary, given the large number of foreigners who live and work in the UK. I have no hesitation in describing myself as "British," and Welsh and Scots people of nationalist inclinations would no doubt adopt the appropriate label. "Northern Irish" seems to be a pseudocategory; Unionists in that divided province would regard themselves as "British" and Nationalists as "Irish."

The problem with "national identity" is that "national" implies that there is a nation, and it is not always easy to say what it is. My passport says I am a citizen of the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (before 1922 it would have covered the whole of Ireland). It also describes me as a "British Citizen." This is a more complex business than being, say, a citizen of the United States, where a sense of national identity is straightforward, and reinforced by education and culture. The noisy Unionists of Northern Ireland certainly regard themselves as British citizens, even if their territory is not part of Great Britain. Political, geographical, and historical categories have become muddled. This was emphasized some years ago by a leftist wag, Tom Nairn, who proposed that the country should be known as "Ukania." (Nairn's model was "Kakania," the name of the Austrian empire in Robert MusiPs great novel The Man Without Qualities; this was derived from the imperial logo K und K, which stood for Kaiserlich und Koniglich, Royal and Imperial, the emperor also being king of Hungary.) I doubt, though, if many of us would want to describe ourselves as "Ukanians." It sounds so un-British.

"Britain" was a geographical term before it was a political one. It referred to the largest island in the northwest European archipelago and its many offshore islands (but not the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which have their own constitutional arrangements--don't ask!). The country was called "Great Britain," not out of grandeur but to distinguish it from "Little Britain," which was the French (but strongly Celtic) province of Brittany. This term is confusingly used in a political sense, as when British drivers abroad carry a badge on their cars saying "GB" rather than "UK," and banks describe the currency as "GBP," standing for "Great Britain Pounds. …

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