To answer whether the final chapter of ‘Britishness’ has been written we must first identify when the story began, as it’s only through contrasting these opposites ends of the same part that we can understand the narrative in-between. I will do this by suggesting that if the reasons for the Act of Union are no longer pertinent then consequently the Union should collapse. If the ‘nation’ is a ‘story’ we must identify which symbols convey Britishness to its ‘readers’ as it is only by identifying these elements that we can decide whether the plot has reached a conclusion.
These symbols come in many forms and one thinks immediately of Woodrow Wyatt’s response when asked to spell his name ‘Waterloo, Ypres, Agincourt, Trafalgar, Trafalgar’ came the reply. (quoted in Paxman,1999: 87) The symbols I will focus upon are monarchy, from the Anderson-Nairn thesis, and daily ceremonies. Finally we must question is it possible for a nation to simply stop existing? Instead I will suggest that it is certain versions of Britishness which are ending, focusing upon Thatcherism and New Labour as examples.
The opening chapter of British history started when Scotland, England (and with it Wales) joined together in the Act of Union later to be joined by Ireland in 1801. In 1707 the parliaments united to create one single state. English motivation was to secure the Protestant succession in both countries and prevent Scotland from ‘being used for Jacobite plots and French intrigue’ where as for Scotland it provided free trade with England and later the expanding empire. (Keating,1996:163) It could be suggested that if these religious and economic motives are no longer fulfilled then by the same equation there is no need to retain the British union.
Religion is no longer the grand meta-narrative that it once was. Many factors have contributed to this release, most notably the enlightenment which ‘aimed at human emancipation from myth, superstition and enthralled enchantment to mysterious powers and forces of nature through the progressive operations of a critical reason’ (Doherty, 1993:5) In present times critical reason has been accelerated by the growth in technology and a greater access to information, thus providing individuals with more choice of how to consume and structure their own identity than the limited options which epitomised 17th century Britain.
So is religion as relevant as it once was to Britain? Perhaps it is more pertinent to acknowledge that Protestantism is not as important as it once was. There is a greater plurality of religious beliefs as a direct consequence of the Empire Windrush migration started in 1948 whose integration has not only questioned ‘the exact nature of being British’ but subsequently offered ‘new ways of being British. ‘(Childs & Storry, 2002:224) In this sense, the final chapter of Britishness has not been written but rather new characters have been added.
It is for this reason that Prince Charles has suggested he be crowned ‘defender of faiths’ to reflect the religious diversity of Britain- something which would have been inconceivable to the Empire. The fact that this is so highlights the contentious nature of defining Britishness. For example does the Act of Union simplify our cultural history and in turn encourage one view of history to the detriment of another? Has Britain instead not always been an invaded nation? From whence a mongrel half-bred race they came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech or fame In whose hot veins now mixtures quickly ran Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane. (Daniel Defoe 1701, in Paxman, 1999:58) The British Isles has always consisted of multiple ethnicity’s and in turn a multitude of differing belief systems whether cultural or religious. Protestantism merely became the dominant voice, or to use a Foucauldian term the ‘regime of truth’ through which different creeds were encouraged to imagine collectively.
Therefore its gradual demise signifies the end of one regime of Britishness which now accommodates multiple voices which it had previously denied. Hinduism, Muslim, Gospel etc. are merely new ‘mixtures’ of Britsihness following in the tradition of the ‘Saxon and Dane. ‘ The formula is as it always has been, just the answer has changed. For Scotland ‘the economic risk has always been cited as the principle argument against separation’ the union allowed free trade throughout the empire.
When the Empire passed the union was still beneficial as Scotland became increasingly dependant upon the central state as it offered economic development and alternative markets, but this had a twist. In particular it was affected by the growth of multinational capitalism which resulted in a rapid increase in non-Scottish ownership of business and industry. (see Ashcroft and Love 1993) When British Steel and Gas were sold ‘the opportunity to rebuild a Scottish ownership class was not taken, because the Treasury was keen to maximise revenues from the sales. (Keating, 1996: 204)
Constrained by UK policy and Treasury rules Scotland was unable to defend itself against privatisation and foreign ownership. As money has not been invested sufficiently into new Scottish business there is the argument that there is not the same benefit staying in the red, white and blue as there is in joining the twelve stars. Britain has always been the preserve of the English. Devolution, rather than signifying the break up of Britain allows a more individuated expression, renaissance even, of national and regional culture which enhances British heritage.
By accommodating specific needs national tension is diffused and articulated into an English centred hegemony. Devolution does not mean the end of Britishness instead ‘it means to recognise that the ‘nation’ as a cultural and linguistic unit is not a closed history, something that has already been achieved, but is an open, malleable framework in the making. ‘ (Chambers, 1993:160) This fluidity is best illustrated in the ways in which we imagine ourselves as a nation and how these processes are changing.
Benedict Anderson has argued that any national identity is an imagined community because ‘even the smallest nations will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them’ (1983:5) One way he illustrated how this ‘fictioning’ operates is through the symbolic consumption of the newspaper which has paradoxical connotations for the reader. It is performed in silent privacy… yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated… by… others of whose existence he is confident… this ceremony is incessantly repeated… throughout the calendar… reating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations (ibid: 35) The introduction of radio further structured life in a way that indicated national synchronisation by incorporating symbolic national events into its programme such as ‘days of solemn remembrance and national pride such as Armistice Day or Empire Day… the F. A Cup and the Boat Race’ (Cardiff and Scannell, 1987:159-60) The chiming of Big Ben to indicate the news would arouse in the imagined community the same sense of expectation and familiarity of a salivating Pavlovian dog.
By the time of the Queens coronation in 1953 television not only allowed the monarchy into the front room but it was almost like they were part of the family itself. This intensified the sense of one big happy imagined community sharing in the same values, worshipping the same symbols, presuming that everybody consumed the new mediums the same. These technologies strengthened the notion of ‘Britishness’ through repetition of Andersons notion of ceremonies.
However this process of identification has been disrupted by the advent of Satellite TV which has altered the traditional organisation of programme schedules by replacing mixed programming with thematic packages (sport, music etc). This has resulted in a mass production of niche programmes which atomise the nation by addressing them as individual consumers. The greater freedom of choice, as in two hundred channels instead of five, offers a more eclectic way of imagining ourselves or communicating with others than was physically possible before, thus making it harder for one clear identity to be imposed.
The internet has furthered the opportunity for social pluralism. Through proliferating information and communication flows and through mass human migration, it has progressively eroded territorial frontiers and boundaries and provoked ever more immediate confrontations of culture and identity. (Robbins ; Morley, 1995:87) As we saw in the Acts of Union, the sea around Britain has served as a kind of territorial boundary which operates as both a form of inclusion and exclusion. But now due to the disembedding mechanisms of time-space-distanciation, the sea is no longer the master signifier it once was.
Instead we are able to imagine ourselves as part of an electronic community where the only requirement for inclusion is access to a telephone port. What epitomises this relatively new form of communication is all the old signifiers of prejudice; ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and physical appearance are transformed into the same font so that individuals are judged for what they have to say rather than who they are. This suggests the limitations of a national framework and in turn how we define what constitutes a society.
What the information age seems to be offering the consumer is cosmopolitan multi-culturalism which ‘seeks to break through the bounds of cultures altogether and to create a society in which individuals, now no longer committed to specific cultures, freely engage in intercultural experiments and evolve a cultural life of their own’ (Thompson, 1997:184) The internet functions as a kind of ‘global supermarket’ from which the consumer selects which ever aspect of a particular culture appeals to them thus giving greater autonomy to how we imagine ourselves.
However it is perhaps worth noting that we live in real time not cyber space. Of course this can have the reverse effect. The dislocation and fragmentation created through modernity can lead to greater attachments to particular territorial locations as ‘nodes of association and continuity, bounding cultures and communities. ‘(Rustin, 1987:33-4) From this perspective there is arguably a greater need to be ‘British’ than ever before.
But the ‘problem’ is that the customs, beliefs and social practices which cement our society are arguably McDonalds, Ikea, Sony and Versace. Does the fact that we embrace these foreign symbols collectively make us any less British or is being British to embrace modernity and through it capitalist western values? Perhaps ‘place’ has become to limiting of a definition for communities to imagine themselves.
It’s not just the possibilities offered by technology but diaspora which ‘problematizes the cultural and historical mechanics of belonging. It disrupts the fundamental power of territory to determine identity by breaking the simple consequence of explanatory links between place, location and consciousness’ (Woodward, 1997:328) Britishness is reconfigured as cultures entwine; as with ‘the ironic replacement of the traditional pork pie by a neo-traditional bucket of vindaloo'(Gilroy, 2002:xxv) which now is as British as it gets.
In these changing times perhaps the most potent sign to reembed a particular type of Britishness is the monarchy who symbolically function to reinforce the notion of continuity as well as providing a secure social identity through which nationalism is celebrated. Regal ceremonies operate similarly to religious ceremonies as it’s ‘exactly this kind of ceremonial in which the society reaffirms the moral values which constitute it as a society and renews its devotion to those values by an act of communion’ (Shils and Young 1956, 67).
It would appear that even though the growth in media and information has exposed these ceremonies as orchestrated shams ‘modern societies still need myth and ritual. ‘(Gilmour, 1969:313) Tom Nairn has described this Durkheimian approach as a ‘slavering eulogy’ to the British Crown (1992:116) which under estimates the political connotations of monarchy and in turn a certain representation of Britishness. If Britishness is to end then this ‘cosy fetish of state, domiciled like a garden gnome in everyone’s front conscience’ (ibid) must be exposed.
The monarchy creates a ‘Janus-faced’ sense of British identity which functions as the repository of conservative class based politics which centres London, and in turn England, as the centre of Britishness. For Nairn this is anachronistic and a form of ‘imperial capitalism’ as breed, nepotism and social networking is privileged above meritocracy. There is support for this thesis from Lupton & Wilson who have shown that between one quarter and one third of Britains top decision makers (as in Cabinet Ministers, Directors of the bank of England, City firms and insurance companies) were educated at Eton.
Glennerster & Prykes research found that two out of three positions of high authority (judges, ambassadors etc) are from such a background. (ibid:213 & 225) It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine the validity of such claims although what they insinuate is not. If we take Nairn’s ‘conspiratorial’ emphasis upon power as being the privilege of a residual feudalism of an exclusive ‘city-boy’ network of London, and as the monarchy as encouraging, and hiding, such a system then it follows that the abolition of monarchy will in turn lead to a different type of Britain.
However a particular notion of Britishness is so embedded in our psyche that ‘fearing the castration of modernity, an ‘infantile’ polity has constructed a fetish of its own retarded essence and imposed an instinctive taboo around it’ (Nairn, 1992:113) Thus any criticism of monarchy is treated as generally unpatriotic and unfair. The press ban on pictures of Prince William suggests a new taboo is already being formed.
There is clearly a certain security with Janus-faced behaviour and therefore the monarchy is still needed as ‘might the adulation perhaps have something to do with a queasy, half-conscious fear that, shorn of the monarchy, we should have to confront all these other decaying institutions unconsoled; alone? ‘ (Hitchens, 1990:9) At the moment monarchy is a pivotal aspect of the British brand which signifies ‘our’ individuality in comparison to perhaps becoming a peripheral member of a homogenous European community.
However in the age of media information ‘we’ have less control over our own image which contradicts Nairns notion of taboo. The monarchy has come to be seen as a mockery with global headlines focusing in upon the private and often controversial lives of the Saxe-Coburgs. In this sense the brand is no longer conforming to consumer expectations and thus may be replaced. But would this signify the end of Britishness? In one sense yes, as it is an essential collective symbol through which we are all encouraged to identify but in another, no.
The monarchy has come to signify imperialism, the white mind-set when Britannia ruled the waves which sits uncomfortably with a distinctly less white British plural culture. The commonwealth, residue of a far-flung empire, is no more than an historical souvenir… for the exercise of a make-believe hegemony; to the present government, it is more of an embarrassment than a source of strength (Samuel, 1989: xxviii) Therefore the abolition of monarchy could be used as a platform from which to announce ‘New Britain’ in much the same way that ‘New Labour’ announced itself.
Our challenge is to find a better fit between our heritage and what we are becoming… Two hundred years ago our ancestors invented a new identity… free from any sentimental attachment to the traditions they had inherited. Today we need to do the same again (Leonard, 1997: demos) It should be noted that the findings of ‘Renewing our Identity’ are from focus group research and how other people perceive Britain rather than ourselves. But this does make an interesting point, one which will lead me on to Thatcherism.
That being the story of Britishness serves as nothing more than fodder for political parties to win votes. Culture is a continual negotiation and accommodation of various beliefs and viewpoints all struggling with each other to create meaning. Therefore at different historical moments different viewpoints gain temporary hegemonic prominence. National identity is one way in which political parties are able to homogenise the most popular beliefs into their own particular manifesto. For New Labour going into a ‘new’ millennium a ‘new’ perspective was needed.
Therefore they presented an image of Britain as a complex hybridity of multi-culturalism. As we have seen previously it has always been multi-cultural and even the term itself has multiple implications (is it isolationist, accommodative, autonomist, critical or cosmopolitan multi-culturalism? ), the intricacies of which did not bother New Labour as they had a slogan from which to present a new version of Britishness to ensure votes. Thatcherism had performed a similar trick but from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Rather than facing up to the prospect of declining international, political and industrial power (as with EEC refusal in 1962, the humiliation of Suez and the gradual handing back of empire) Conservatives identified Britain’s decline as a direct consequence of its national identity being eroded, citing that most favourable scapegoat of the right- immigration.
This ‘narrowly defined’ and specific national identity could be resurrected through traditions, those ‘tokens of a vanished authenticity’ which gloss over the ‘textures of the particular’ (Chambers, 1993:160) Thatchers cultural engineering is epitomised through her vision of education. ulti-cultural education… subverted the British sense of national identity, diluted British history and culture by putting them on a par with others, failed to promote British cultural values and even destroyed them (through)… material that pampered minorities but lacked education value (Parekh, 1997:179-80) Here Britishness is ‘something unproblematic and pre-given, a unity which defies time and space and links past and present in a mystic union. ‘ (Samuel, 1989:xvi) When history is perceived as this simple and static it is little wonder a last chapter seems to have been written.
No ‘single tradition can function as a guarantee of the present’ as there are ‘many traditions constituted by gender, ethnicity, sexualty, and class that criss cross the patterns of our lives. ‘ The recognition of this through multi-cultural education ‘challenges the tyranny on the present of a single, official heritage: that of being British’ (Chambers, 1993:160) Britain as a nation is not in decline, instead certain representations of history are as the political left and right use specific ‘regimes of truth’ in an attempt to gain votes.
In this sense politics, monarchy and daily ceremonies all serve the same function of attempting to create an imagined collectivity between a diverse range of people and communities. It is as ridiculous to think a nation suddenly ceases to exist as it is to claim one ever really existed in the beginning. Andrew Marr suggests in The Day Britain Died (2000) that the ‘old Britain’ has gone, ‘an imperial nation of warriors and colonists and with it the islands certainties’ He suggests that Britishness felt strong during battles and that ‘perhaps the greatest loss was when we defeated the great enemy Germany who we defined ourselves against. This Britain, which Waterloo Ypress Agincourt Trafalgar Trafalgar remembers has ceased to exist since the nuclear revolution which has ‘helped to restrain the great powers from pushing their competition to the point of conflict, as happened in the past. ‘ (Reynolds, 1991:305) Rather than Britain imposing on European trade as it did during empire, now it is Europe dictating to Britain from Brussles. In a twist in fortune now it is England who are defined the ‘great enemy’, the ‘other’ as Wales, Scotland and Ireland opt for devolution.
As England has always high-jacked Britishness it is left in a kind of schitzophrenic identity crisis whereby it must become English if it is no longer British ‘The Union Jack… is not what it was. For a start, it must now contend with the flag of St. George as an alternative, down-sized iconic signature in the weird post-colonial pageantries of national decline and national rebirth’ xxiv Both will feel inadequate and perhaps nostalgically lament for when times were, perhaps, simpler but this does not mean the end of Britishness.
It just means that the focus group led politicians will have to be more imaginative than ever when delivering ‘bread and circus’ representations of BritishnessTM to the public. If nationality as a concept is to remain a means of how communities imagine themselves then it needs to be flexible with its cultural brackets as now technology, migration and social pluralism offers multiple layers of complexity to how we imagine ourselves.