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Richard Grunberger

A Question of Identity

At present the issue of British identity is a fluidum in which three relatively new forces are eroding what had long appeared solidly fixed. The first of these is massive immigration from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. This influx, while hardly noticeable in the countryside and smaller towns, is changing the population mix in industrial conurbations to a remarkable degree. (Leicester is now predicted to become the first urban centre with over fifty per-cent ethnic minority inhabitants by the year 2010.) The second of these new forces is devolution. The United Kingdom is currently in the process of transforming itself into a polity where matters that solely concern to the inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Ulster are deliberated and decided on in Edinburg, Cardiff and Belfast respectively. This radical reshaping of the country's constitutional framework has generated inevitable tensions between the centre and the periphery, despite of which it seems inconceivable that the UK will return to the status quo ante. The third force is European integration. Post-war Britain was a Johnny-come-lately to the evolving European Union, and today the man-in-the-street's attitude to Brussels and all its works could be summarised as acutely schizophrenic. The average Brit knows in his head that he will probably have to adopt the Euro, but in his heart yearns for the cosy self-regarding isolation of yesteryear. This mindset was elegantly sent up in the ditty The British, the British, the British are best/ The Germans are German, the Aussians are Red/ The French and Italians eat garlic in bed.

To deal with the issue of the dilution of British identity by non-white mass immigration first. In the early decades after the war this process met with considerable resistance, culminating in Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1969. Since then more and more indigenous Brits have grudgingly accepted the transformation of what had previously been an all-white society into a multi-ethnic one. Openly racist parties have faded from the political scene, though colour prejudice is still widespread. It finds expression in racially motivated crimes and the negligent police response to them, as well as in harassment on council estates. But there are also powerful currents flowing in the opposite direction. The most influential means by which Afro-Caribbeans have been gaining popular acceptance are, on the one hand, sport (particularly boxing and athletics) and on the other, music (reggae and rap).
In such sports as cricket, immigrants from the Indian sub-continent have likewise come to national prominence. Perhaps more significantly, Indians and Pakistanis have made a distinctive contribution to British cuisine. Their impact on British life has also been felt in the cultural sphere – both at the popular and the highbrow level. Films like My Beautiful Laundrette and East is East come into the former category, and novels by VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie into the latter.

Next: the issue of national identity in a devolved Britain. It has to be appreciated that for all the high degree of centralisation that previously characterised the United Kingdom, a limited form of devolution had historic precedents. Even after the Parliament at Edinburg ratified the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland retained its separate judicial and educational systems. Nor was English ever the language of instruction in the Highlands or, for that matter, in North Wales, or the West of Ireland. The twentieth century saw the secession of Southern Ireland, and the emergence of Stormont as the seat of government for Ulster. Although the Dublin government's introduction of Irish Gaelic as an official language proved less than successful, Scotland and Wales both experienced an, admittedly circumscribed, revival of their native languages. This cultural efflorescence, combined with anti-English grievances over the inter-war depression in the coal-mining and shipbuilding industries, as well as the remoteness of Westminster, provided the impetus behind movements for Home Rule in Scotland, and, to a lesser degree, in Wales.

With devolved government now functioning in Edinburg, Cardiff and haphazardly in Belfast, the question of English nationalism moves up the agenda. The flag of St George, hitherto mainly visible on sporting occasions, could conceivably become an assertive emblem of tribal Englishness. Potential grounds for a lurch into xenophobic Anglophilia do exist: devolved parts of the UK receive a higher per capita subsidy from central government than does England itself, and Scottish and Welsh MPs cast votes on English affairs at Westminster, whereas English MPs have no say in the deliberations of the Edinburg Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. Even so it is questionable whether tribunes of the people wrapped in the flag of St George will soon be making their appearance in the House of Commons, or even Trafalgar Square. This is partly because the present government is aware of the danger and endeavouring to obviate it somewhat. In addition the English have long enjoyed an untroubled sense of selfhood that subsumed feelings of'innate superiority over the Celtic fringe. Clichés like 'a dour Scot','Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief' and 'that's a bit of Irish' i.e. nonsense, still belong to the coinage of daily speech, though they are less prevalent than formerly.

More importantly still, most free-floating anxiety about the future role of the country, and the associated feelings of wounded national pride, are contributing to the Europhobia currently being generated as part of the general election campaign.
In considering the issue of English national identity I propose to take the long view, i.e. to look at the near-millennial time span since the Norman Conquest. It could be said that for just over half that time till around 1550 England was an integral part of continental Europe. This was due to the intimate Norman links with France (which were not finally severed till the Hundred Years' War), but, above all, to the universality of the Catholic Church.
From the pontificate of Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear) in the 1150s to Cardinal Pole's participation in the mid-sixteenth century Council of Trent, England had been an average subdivision of Western Christendom. Erasmus of Rotterdam moved with ease between the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and England; Castiglione's Il Cortigione was a 'bible' for aspiring courtiers in countries on either side of the Channel. Within its Catholic carapace England had, however, developed certain characteristics that put it ahead of other Western European states. William the Conqueror's (and his successors') centralising measures prevented the fragmentation of authority that hindered progress elsewhere, most notably in the Holy Roman Empire; nor was England plagued by the linguistic differences and internal tariffs and imposts affecting communication and movement of goods inside France. The middle third of the sixteenth century saw the Breach with Rome – a caesura which led to Anglicanism becoming the state religion. The Church of England is unique. As the only variety of Protestantism totally linked to a particular nationality, it, and its various Non-Conformist offshoots, has done a great deal to give the English a sense of unique national identity.

Coinciding with the great religious rift, the countries of Western Europe experienced a refocusing of direction and interest towards the New World. At the start of the age of overseas expansion, around 1500, England was a very modest player, but by the time it ended, circa 1900, she had amassed the largest overseas empire in history. In consequence continental Europe only impinged on the national consciousness in periods of crisis – as when Spain threatened a Catholic reconquista by means of the Armada and Jesuit infiltration, or when France supported the Stuart restoration and Irish risings.

The image of France as the great national enemy, personified first by Louis the Fourteenth, and then by Napoleon, coexisted persistently with the aristocracy's preference for all things French. In fact when xenophobia raised its head, it tended to be, as often as not, an expression of class resentment. This applied on Evil May Day 1917, when London apprentices staged a riot against the presence of immigrant Dutch craftsmen. In the first half of the Eighteenth Century when Germans seemed to dominate both music (J C Bach, Handel) and painting (Kneller, Zoffany) the humb1y-born William Hogarth chided the aristocracy for patronising foreigners at the expense of native-born artists. Hogarth's painting The Gates of Calais, with its obese monk and emaciated beggar, also gave pictorial expression to the popular English view of France as the land of 'popery and wooden shoes' (i.e. poverty).

Xenophobia was also enshrined in idiomatic speech. The Dutch tended to be scoffed at for their drunkenness (Dutch courage) or their parsimony (Dutch treat; going Dutch) while France was associated with underhandedness (French leave) and immorality (French letter; French kiss).
Francophobia remained fairly widespread, and even increased during Hitler's War which inevitably leads on to a consideration of the image of Germany in the English national consciousness. Back in the Middle Ages that had been extremely positive. The term 'sterling', denoting thoroughly good character (and also applied to the coinage) derives from 'Easterlings', the name given to Hanseatic merchants engaged in English trade with the Baltic or Eastern Sea (Ostsee). In the 18th and 19th centuries British royalty was overwhelmingly German. Not that these monarchs were particularly loved by their subjects (though George III did enjoy some popularity). In fact George III, George IV and William IV were dubbed 'the lunatic, the libertine and the poltroon', but the reign of Victoria – during which Prince Consort Albert, incidentally, 'Germanised' the English Christmas – restored the crown to popular favour.

Nineteenth century cultural luminaries such as Carlyle, Coleridge and George Eliot evinced a keen interest in Germany, and the country was generally esteemed for its scholarship, devotion to music, etc. However, under the impact of the Franco-Prussian War public opinion began to veer away from Francophobia and Germanophilia towards their opposites a lengthy process that culminated in the appellation 'Hun' for Germans during the Kaiser's War. Today, after subsequent German-inspired horrors that would have made Attila blanch, the English perception is ambivalent – compounded in equal parts of respect and suspicion.

In the national consciousness the less than positive view of France and Germany, the two main players in Europe, is complemented by such irritants as the Brussels-decreed switch to a decimal currency, and to metrication. They are seen as steps on the road to the potentially impending and much-resented abolition of the Pound. The currency with the sovereign's head stamped on it, is perceived as a symbol of national sovereignty, as well as a token of a long cherished inwardlooking uniqueness.
What the Europhobes leave out of account, however, is that since 1945 Britain has neither been sole arbiter of its own destiny (pace the Korean and Gulf Wars and the Suez Campaign), nor has it retained self-sufficiency in popular culture. While the Big Mac has altered the British palate, films, TV, pop music and, above all, information technology, from across the Atlantic have profoundly modified the cultural climate in the UK.

As of today most Brits still profess to see Europe as posing a threat to national identity – but the time may come when they will welcome a narrowing of the English Channel, aka La Manche or Ärmelkanal, for no other reason than that its corollary would be a widening of the Atlantic.

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