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Believing in Britain – Crisis of ‘British’ Identity

Rachel Castagne

I am honoured to publish this  ‘guest post’ by Rachel Castagne director and co-founder of the Centre for Human Emergence – UKthe foundation of which I wrote about in Britishness’ at the Regent’s College Summit.

I am reading Ian Bradley’s book on ‘Believing in Britain’. I used to think it was ‘just me’ or that I was in a minority when I didn’t consider myself British (being born in Trinidad gave me the perfect excuse!) or want to, was in fact ‘ashamed’ of being British. When my daughter came home from school a few months ago and said she was ashamed of being British, I wondered if I had ‘passed on’ the sentiment, like a hereditary gene – although I knew she hadn’t always felt that way, she’s become aware of ‘Britishness’ as a national identity in her adolescence. Turns out, its not ‘cool’ to be Brit – turns out she’s not the only teen that feels that way….

In fact Bradley reports some interesting stats:-

  • 2005 Social Attitudes Survey found 44% of the population said ‘British’ was the ‘best’ or only way of describing their national identity, as against 52% ten years earlier.
    Amongst those in Scotland 14% described themselves as British compared with 70% who described themselves as Scottish
    Wales: 35% and even England only 48% of the population considered themselves British, 15% fewer than in 1992.
  • The 2001 census was the first in which the majority in England marked their nationality as English as opposed to British

Throughout the 1990’s we lost the word ‘British’ from major national institutions thanks to privatisation: British Rail disappeared in ’92; British Steel merged with a Dutch Rival to become Corus; British Telecom became BT; British Gas morphed into BG plc, Transco, Centrica etc; British Leyland and British Road Services have disappeared. Even our political parties increasingly adopt a narrower national rather than UK-wide identities  – eg: Scottish Labour, Welsh Lib Dems.

Bradley asked those in his ‘Monarchy, Church and State’ class who were born in the UK how they would describe their national identity: 35% identified themselves as British against 70% who identified as English, Scottish or Northern Irish; only 20% felt that the United Kingdom was the best descriptive term for the country they felt they belonged to and 5% Britain.

In 2002 a general survey of young people by The Face magazine found most subscribed to the view “ We don’t know what British means and we don’t care”, and 65% said they felt ashamed of being British…

Apparently commentators chronicling the disappearance of Britain have made much of the of the erosion of the “four historic pillars of British Identity:  the Empire, the monarchy, Protestantism and the Parliamentary union of England Wales and Scotland”… there are various books written called, ‘The Break up of Britain’, ‘After Britain’ and ‘The Day Britain Died’….

The ‘Dying of Britain’ seems to be accompanied (not surprisingly) by the growth of separatist feeling on the part of the four nations that comprise the UK.  Thanks to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, there has been a distinct flowering of Scottish identity and self-confidence, mirrored in economic performance and cultural vitality, and tho less buoyed, Welsh identity is becoming more marked, with an increase of those speaking the Welsh language….

Blair’s rather embarrassing ‘Cool Britannia’ project has been followed by a more historically rooted campaign to define and promote ‘British Identity’ in the interests of social cohesion inspired by social alienation and fragmentation manifested in the riots of 2001 in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley….

The Government introduced compulsory citizenship classes in schools; and those seeking British Nationality now face tests in English Language and British history, institutions and values. Finally, Blair, in an address on Integration in Dec 2006, reflecting on the terrorist attacks in July of that year, emphasised the extent to which most Muslims are proud to be British and the need to balance multiculturalism and diversity with integration and key values that “define us as a people and give us the right to call ourselves British”:-

  • the belief in Democracy
  • the rule of law
  • tolerance
  • equal treatment for all
  • respect for this country and it’s shared heritage

At times Gordon Brown has come close to suggesting that Britishness provides the key to unravelling virtually every contemporary political and social problem:-
“I believe that just about every central question about our national future – from the constitution to our role in Europe,  from citizenship to the challenges of multiculturalism – even the questions of how and why we deliver public services in the manner we do – can only be fully answered if we are clear about what we value about being British and what gives us purpose and direction as a country.

“Our ability to meet and master not just the challenges of a global marketplace but also the international, demographic, constitutional and social challenges ahead – and even the security challenges facing a terrorist threat that has never been more challenging – depends on us rediscovering from our history the shared values that bind us together and on us becoming more explicit about what we stand for as a nation.”

Bradley is exploring the spiritual aspects of Britishness as they have “been imagined and constructed in the past and as they are being re-imagined and reconstructed today”. He draws heavily on the shifting and overlapping spiritual and religious identities, myths, metaphysical and ethical values and religious principles, interpenetrating each other to create a unity through diversity that have gone into making up Britishness…

Any thoughts? Insights?




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  1. Sherrilene says

    I’m from Barbados, also a former colonist, but have a professional relationship with the UK. This is interesting to me in part because I have observed the sense of apathy and almost embarassment to be associated culturally with the UK by people born there. Many of the traditions are indeed ‘of the old school’ and not really justifiable in this time.

    By the same token, I have seen this in the U.S. further to 9/11 and decisions which followed that event… people desiring to find whatever other ‘roots’ they had and embrace them.

    Indeed, if the ‘authorities’ are taking actions without a clear satisfaction of the people, I think this is inevitable. In these settings this is hardly the norm; these statistics prove the absolute need to not leave people [their wants, needs and values] out of any discussion if you want to lead them.

    Best, Sherrilene Collymore