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.
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.
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).
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.
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