Britishness? What has it come to mean, and are we proud to identify as such?

By Jessica Warren

The Brexit vote has been and gone, and yet the repercussions of the ‘leave’ vote remain (rather ironically). The post-Brexit political landscape in which we are situated has stirred the pot when it comes to defining and understanding notions of Britishness. With Cameron bringing the idea of an ‘island people’ to the forefront of debate, it is important to recognise how any notion of ‘Britishness’ is fading into the backdrop within the UK.

To set the scene, I feel the need to address a common misconception. The UK, more correctly known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, never has been a single island, but an Archipelago; the technical name for a collection of islands (if that is the only thing you take away from this article). With this knowledge, it is important to contest ideas of an imagined community, or lack of a singular community within the UK.

We have previously seen grand rhetoric’s of Great Britain in the days of “Rule Britannia”, and it seems to remain to some degree when we travel abroad. Often, when asked where I’m from, people guess “England” straight away. Whilst technically true, I was born and raised in England, it demonstrates the lack of consideration towards the UK being consisted of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland as well. Not only this, but it stands to show that the “British” rhetoric is most often associated with “English”, ignoring the cultures of the various nations in our archipelago. Many of my Welsh collegues have expressed their frustration with ‘British’ becoming synonymous for ‘English’, and it’s about time we recognise how destructive this is becoming.

An instrumental factor in the disintegration of “British” identity is devolution. It has played a key role in the break-up of an imagined, and uniting community with the UK. Yet the internal politics between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are dynamic and ever changing in their structure. With the agreements for devolved powers, away from Westminster and to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK as a unified island is growing further from the truth.

I would argue where Scotland and Wales are united in their desire for political freedom, they are divided by their political power. Scotland; the richer nation declared a claim to nationhood, and kept their state system, traditions of law, politics and the church. Being maintained through the Scottish Office, which has historically always gained very talented recruits from Scottish men and women, Scotland could maintain a level of power and control. However, Wales opted for a weaker bid, and asked for a top-end local government reform, a feebler approach to devolved powers, which could be attributed towards the loss of Welsh talent migrating to London.

This is not said to undermine the powers that have been devolved to Wales, but it is to recognise the differences in devolution. It is often the case that Wales is overlooked as a country, and with the Second Severn Bridge being renamed the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’, it begs the question as to whether Wales are succeeding in breaking free from their assimilation with England. I would argue that the British and English national anthem being the same does little to further the cause for Welsh independence. Particularly when Welsh athletes who represent ‘Team GB’ are forced to play the English/British anthem, and not their own.

Switching to Scotland now, and when looking at the tumultuous political landscape of the last five years, it demonstrates the political disparity within the population, and what they want for their country. The referendum for Scottish independence saw the ‘no’ vote winning with 55.3%. Following on from this, the general election in 2015, saw the SNP take 56 out of 59 seats in the country; becoming the powerhouse of Scotland. Now back at 35 seats following on from the snap general election, tumultuous can be only word to describe the internal politics within Scotland. I would argue that the patterns in voting from the last five years, and the rise and decline of the SNP demonstrate a lack of unity even within Scotland, let alone the UK. Scottish identification with the “British” identity cannot be anything other than disengaged.

The disparity between Scotland and the rest of the UK is prominent, yet so is the disconnection between Northern Ireland and Westminster. To say Scotland are the only example that steps away from ‘British’ ideals would be wrong. Instead, I would argue the few groups that hold onto English nationalist ideals relate most strongly to Cameron’s “island story” of the UK.

Nationalism has notoriously been a key driver of Euroscepticism, particularly so when it advocates exclusive identities, such as that of ‘English’. Heavily associated with ideals of sovereignty, superiority and independence, for those that hold onto ‘English’ identities like this, the EU as a multi-national, multi-cultural institution that inherently weakens the direct power of nation-states stands as a symbol against their identity. Exclusive identities are known to create a hostility towards migrants, and with the EU facilitating the freedom of movement, this has only served to increase Euroscepticism and strengthen nationalist ideas of the far-right.

When looking more widely at the EU referendum vote, the demographic statistics act as evidence for the disconnection between the ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’. As a result, Brexit has seen new imaginaries of Britishness competing against themselves. The evident age disparity between generations fuel the idea that the younger generation are more a ‘European generation’ than older members of society. When 75% of people aged 18-24 years old all vote to ‘Remain’, we cannot shy away from the truth. Erin Minogue, interviewed for The Guardian stated “our futures have been governed by the votes of narrow-minded older generations who now will sit back and see our bright futures dimmed. I am embarrassed and disappointed that our country has been manipulated by the xenophobic, racist and above all incorrect facts that have been spread. Nigel Farage stated that leaving the EU is a victory for the ordinary, decent people – today I am proud to be exceptionally indecent.”.

Is the “British” identity dwindling so much so that the younger generation no longer identify with their country? I would argue yes, for the clear age-gap in voting patterns. This can also be put down to education levels for reasons twofold; they have the political skills to understand the role of the EU in domestic politics, therefore seeming less threatening or confusing, and they view the EU as an institution which can facilitate their post-materialist agenda of international cooperation.

Younger generations on average have more human capital because of rising levels of education. If we look to economic capital theory, it argues that if you have the skills, networks, and capital, you can take advantage of the economic opportunities of EU membership. Therefore, involvement in the EU single market at a higher level means these people will not be competing with low skilled, poorly resourced European migrants. With the younger generations being so well-equipped in their level of qualifications, no wonder they were more likely to support EU membership.

The UK is facing a situation where there are very different and new imaginaries of Britishness competing against themselves. The residents of the UK are not an ‘Island People’, and those that believe so are more than likely subscribing to ideas of nativism. When we consider the implications the Brexit vote will have for the UK, particularly with internal politics facing an array of dis-identification, lack of engagement and huge disparity between age groups, the question remains as to whether there will truly ever be a ‘British’ identity to subscribe to in the future. I used to say I was ‘British’ when asked, now I’m so sure I want to associate with such nationalist identities.

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