Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

16
Whither Britain?
Society and Culture since 1979

During the morning rush hour on July 7, 2005, simultaneous bombings of Underground trains and a London bus killed 52 people and wounded hundreds of others. Public transportation halted as commuters and tourists alike grappled with the enormity of the attacks and waited to hear whether more would follow. By the afternoon, workers in business attire walked miles to their homes through the eerie quiet of a stunned capital city. Television stations broadcast scenes of fright and carnage taken by passengers’ cell-phone cameras. To everyone’s mounting horror, the perpetrators were British citizens.

What unites the citizens of a country? In some countries, ethnic nationalism is prominent: the people who live within its borders are assumed to share a common ancestry and a common language. The concept of “Britishness” had long incorporated an idea of ethnic nationalism that cast nonwhites as de facto outsiders. But as the 2005 bombing showed, breaking down ethnic nationalism was insufficient with nothing to take its place. Civic nationalism had to be encouraged, based on a common attachment to civic engagement, the idea of a collective society, and a shared commitment to tolerant values.

Many centrifugal forces beset Britain in the modern period: Britain now contained people of many races, ethnic backgrounds and religions; forces of regional self-determination had led to the emergence of relative autonomy in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; and deindustrialization had exacerbated regional differences in prosperity. In an age of commercialization few cultural forces bound Britons together.

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