Campaign placards placed on seats, ahead of a speech by Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband on health, at a campaign event in Leeds, northern England, April 23 , 2015.
Phil Noble / Reuters

The United Kingdom’s electorate is headed to the polls after the country’s coalition government missed most of its targets for deficit and debt reduction, managing only to provide a return to prosperity for London and southeast England. The election looks thoroughly European, with a true plurality of parties emerging, making the possibility of another coalition or minority government inevitable. Gone are the days of the two-party system. Disparate portions of the country, once held together by collective achievements such as the National Health Service (NHS), nationalized industries, and the welfare state, are drifting. Nationalist parties such as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are rushing to capitalize on the change in ways which are only now becoming apparent. British and, perhaps surprisingly, English identity is at stake.

On the surface, the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales has been matched by the rise of UKIP in England, with some calling for English votes for English laws and others adopting caricatures of English cultural identity which may not have historically  existed. Many UKIP voters come from traditionally working-class backgrounds and feel alienated by a “professional” political establishment with which they feel little shared identity and which they feel has ignored their interests, with regard to immigration in particular. Bizarrely, this alienation has led them to identify with Nigel Farage, a Thatcherite investment banker and current Member of the European Parliament who in any other context would come to exemplify the elite. His placing himself as a political outsider who drinks, smokes, and opposes immigration has placed him as an antiestablishment candidate. Although anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric may sound appealing to the party’s base, UKIP’s laissez-faire economic policies are precisely those that have undermined the interests of their working-class supporters. The need for cheap and flexible labor has undermined traditional industries and created the need for immigration, the desire to privatize national assets and deregulate the economy has undermined job security, and the ideological aversion to the NHS will undermine the very health security that has transformed working-class lives over the past 70 years.

Unfortunately, it is precisely this context of neoliberal reform that has created the conditions for identity crisis in the United Kingdom, and it is not clear that more neoliberalism will resolve it. While the loyalty of ethnic or religious minorities to Britain has long been questioned, portions of the mainstream electorate are increasingly ambivalent about—or critical toward—both Britishness and Englishness. Increasingly, those in the northeast, northwest, and southwest have their own ideas about identity, questioning whether there is reason to have loyalty to a British state that provides fewer services of daily benefit while perpetuating negative discourses about regional welfare dependency, dismissing the value of these regions in the greater schema of the nation. 

With the likelihood of Scottish independence increasing yearly as the SNP secures hegemony in Edinburgh, there is a growing sense in the north of England that the heart of the nation sits within London and its surrounding home counties. There is a feeling that British politicians define English interests as those of London in particular. It is now common for people in the northeast to look further north to Scotland, with many supporting Scottish independence, were an independent Scotland to include the north of England within its territories (even if supporters do not identify themselves as Scottish). Interestingly, the SNP is now actively reaching out to this constituency as part of its Westminster strategy.

WHAT’S IN A NATION-STATE?

This shift in people’s loyalties and identities may surprise those who see Britain or England as a nation-state. However, neither entity has ever really been a nation-state in the traditional Westphalian sense: a state drawn around an organic nation.

While Britain is recognized as consisting of England and several Celtic nations, England itself, contrary to UKIP rhetoric, has consistently been diverse, especially since the Roman conquest. Although the Anglo-Saxon invasions introduced English, recent research shows that they did not create any clear ethno-cultural homogeneity. Kingdoms such as Northumbria consisted of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Nordic peoples, among others, each group speaking a different language. Speakers of Old English dialects, for example, were often almost incomprehensible to one another.

The Norman Conquest and its resulting state concealed these differences: indigenous elites were eradicated or replaced, and feudal rule was introduced by a Norman elite whose language—Normano-French—was understood only by that class. Norman society could be joined only by adopting Norman identity. Accordingly, many subjects opted to shed their culture and language, often changing their family names to conceal their conquered identities.

As the Normans lost their territories on the continent, their state and center of culture moved across the channel to present-day England. With this shift, the Norman elite increasingly identified itself as English, adopting a form of southern English and standardizing its use and pronunciation. English became the language not just of peasants but also of the elites—even if dialects and accents firmly marked out the perpetual inferiority of nonstandard English speakers. Accordingly, the development of a new state identity created the basis of a national identity within it, with Normano-English becoming synonymous with the identity of those within England’s boundaries. This new form of elite Englishness was, after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and Kingdoms in 1707, transformed into Britishness, as the related Scottish and English ruling families were enjoined. Britishness became an overarching imperial identity, eventually conveyed through Union Flags and maps of the Empire in Victorian-era classrooms throughout the United Kingdom. Identity construction became an active responsibility of the state, as it included and excluded different groups and characteristics over time.

Perhaps the most inclusive British identity emerged in the wake of WWII, where the national achievement of Britons in prevailing in a second war with Germany was compounded by the collective successes of the NHS, the nationalization of industries and the creation of the welfare state. With unprecedented security in life for people from most backgrounds, people began to buy more fully into the idea of a British identity grounded in a state that looked after everyone. 

A supporters waits for Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's speech on health at a campaign event in Leeds, nor
A supporters waits for Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's speech on health at a campaign event in Leeds, northern England, April 23, 2015.
Phil Noble / Reuters

EMPIRE’S HANGOVER AND THE LOSS OF SUBSTANCE 

There have been two major factors in the dissolution of this inclusive British identity. In the first instance, the loss of Britain’s empire and the growing revulsion felt by large numbers of the populace at the legacy of empire ensured that Britishness became associated with notions of racism, supremacism, and abuse. Britain’s postcolonial hangover has been perpetuated by failures in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East. This has created an inward and fatalistic view of the possibilities of a constructive and progressive foreign policy, even within the confines of a role of global peacemaker or peacekeeper. The postcolonial hangover in the United Kingdom’s liberal center means that there is genuine ambivalence about Britishness, with feelings of pride in Britain’s progressive social policies on gender, sexuality, and race but concern about its role as an ally to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Others, particularly in the outlying regions, are increasingly hostile to the notion of Britishness, regarding it as a concept that made sense only in a colonial context. The notion of Englishness as an apparently patriotic counterbalance to this ambivalence has actually helped create intuitive (and ironic) support in UKIP for the prospect of Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union. 

In the second, the United Kingdom’s search for identity is being shaped through exclusion from prior sources of security. Britain’s experience of industrial dispute and dysfunction in the 1970s laid the foundations for the stripping back of the state through Thatcherism. The idea was that the state should perform a “night watchman” role, protecting life, liberty, and property but not interfering in the economy to redistribute wealth or provide the extensive support associated with traditional welfarism. The night watchman state’s neoliberal reforms emphasized and rewarded individualism, privatized nationalized industries and resources, dismantled the welfare state, and cut back the scope of the NHS. An unintended consequence of these policy changes was the removal of the communal institutions around which a postwar British identity had been built—concepts into which people bought, and from which the generation of baby boomers who have endorsed neoliberal reform had benefited. The dissolution of British collectivism and the rise of the night watchman has, in turn, fostered a poor-weather national identity; collectivism appearing largely in the face of external threats. In short, the United Kingdom has been, at best, a series of state-nations—relatively and unevenly successful projects in identity formation by specific state apparatuses. With those apparatuses diminishing even further, local and parochial identities are reappearing.

GOING, GOING, GONE 

That the identities of people in the United Kingdom took so long to form suggests that identities lost cannot be re-created easily. The almost inevitable loss of Scotland to the United Kingdom and its successor state is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is not scaremongering to suggest that the territorial settlement fostered in the wake of the Norman Conquest is under serious threat.

The effects of a weakened state-nation or state-nations are many and serious, impacting Westminster’s stature as a global political power. The United Kingdom’s Trident nuclear program, aimed at providing a constant deterrent against nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, has always been an artificial means of upholding international prestige: It is now recognized by some to be expensive and ineffective—not least because few in Westminster have the will to use it. Additionally, the concept of the United Kingdom as an international peacekeeping force is in doubt: gone are the days in which Tony Blair’s Britain could intervene confidently on humanitarian grounds. The failures of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, along with criticism for not intervening in Syria, have turned the United Kingdom into a hand-wringing country that is ill equipped to contribute substantially to conflict resolution.

There is also increasing awareness that the United Kingdom’s allies in the Middle East and beyond—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—have consistently undermined its national interest, with Israeli dogmatism fueling international conflicts, Saudi Arabia promoting Wahhabi doctrines that foster hatred of liberal democratic societies, and the United States engaging in conflicts without any clear means of resolution. This has weakened support for international participation in actions which are seen to further the interests of these partners. 

The domestic fragmentation of identity and the concern about practical implications of international activities does not mean that people in the United Kingdom are bereft of moral positions on such things as human rights, ISIS, tyranny, and slavery. It does, however, mean that there is greater cause for caution, restraint, and inertia than previously experienced. Much of the subtext of Trident debate centers around whether the electorate wants the United Kingdom to retain pretensions of being a global power. Consequently, the international community may lose the United Kingdom as a partner that is willing or able to perform the international supporting role it has played since the dissolution of the its empire. That means that British politicians will have less prestige and power to play with internationally and domestically, further weakening Westminster’s authority.

Reversing privatization programs or other strategic activities will not re-create a coherent national identity for the United Kingdom easily. That would require a confluence of circumstance, skill, and endeavor—all of which appear beyond the capabilities of Westminster politicians. Identity formation may not necessarily be beyond the new breed of nationalists, however. Scottish politician Alex Salmond was so successful in fostering a Scottish identity that his efforts nearly led the country to independence, despite consistently endorsing ill-fated economic visions embodied by the fiscal policies of Ireland and Iceland.  Salmond’s success, and the inevitable success of SNP in the forthcoming election, points toward the increasingly complex search within the United Kingdom for substance; values that previously were provided by state-nation identity. The shift from British unity to regional disunity demonstrates the failure of the state: a failure with wide-ranging implications for the effectiveness of the United Kingdom as a first-rate world leader.

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