Britain’s Identity Crisis

Written by Tom Daly

As dawn struggled to break through the dark midwinter London sky on 23rd January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron was engrossed in conversation with aides. They were discussing the pros and cons of a risky strategy. Cameron, a self-styled ‘moderniser’ who had once scolded the Conservative party he led for ‘banging on about Europe’, was feeling the heat from the right of his party for exactly that reason. Demands for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union were becoming increasingly loud, and Cameron was about to buckle.

As he travelled to Bloomberg’s London headquarters, he rattled off a list of reasons why a referendum could be beneficial – it would placate those unruly members of his party, it could settle the question for at least a generation, and British voters had not had a say on European membership since 1975. When asked for a reason not to hold the referendum, Cameron didn’t miss a beat: ‘because you could unleash demons which ye know not.’ 

Eight years later, Britain feels like a country in crisis. Multiple crises, actually. There is the health crisis presented by the covid pandemic, and the economic crisis that it has caused. In Britain, these global crises have arrived in the midst of another crisis that has been brought about by a decade of referendums and three elections – Britain’s crisis of identity.

Is there any more apt example of our national identity crisis than Brexit? Before and after the referendum, people justified their vote by talking about trade deals, immigration and the rest of it. But my sense is that it was never really about those things – not even immigration. My sense is that it was about what kind of country we are, and what kind of country we want to be. 

A slim majority of Welsh voters may have backed Brexit too, but Brexit was, and is, an overwhelmingly English phenomenon. And now the Scots want independence from us! 

Ah, the Scottish Nationalists say, but we told you not to Brexit. We told you how silly it would be for a small country on the northern fringes of a successful Union to leave that Union. Now, if you’ll just give us our independence, we’ll be on our way.

In the middle of all of this is our dear leader with the golden mop and a fatally misplaced sense of his own destiny. One day he decided that he ought to be Prime Minister and appears to have settled on a strategy of wrapping himself in the Union Jack but seemingly doing more than anyone else to make that flag obsolete. Just last week, the government announced that the Union Jack would fly from all government buildings. Quite uncontroversial, you may think. Didn’t the flag always fly on government buildings? But alas, nothing can be uncontroversial in this social media age. Keen as they are to position themselves as the defenders of the flag, it does seem that the more they fly it, the deeper its grave gets.

Just last month, support for Scottish independence was over 50%. Support for Welsh independence has almost been as high as 40% in recent times, while Northern Ireland remains a complicated question. In the government’s desperate attempts to promote a shared British identity, they only seem to remind the Celtic nations that this is a very English government, and one which confirms their worst suspicions about the condescending English at that. Although majority-leave voting Wales cannot have as much of a grudge about Brexit as Scotland or Northern Ireland, the fact remains that the increasing English nationalism that has resulted from it has left the other three home nations seemingly more convinced than ever that they would be better off on their own. 

It’s not as if this sentiment is only espoused by the three Celtic nations – a 2019 poll found that over 75% of English Tory leave voters would sacrifice the Union if it meant that Brexit was delivered. Can it be said that there is a common British identity with poll figures such as this?

In her maiden speech of this year’s local election campaign, Nicola Sturgeon outlined that this lack of a common British identity would be central to her message. Why should Scotland be ruled by a Tory party it never votes for? She asked. It is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with a convincing answer for that.

It appears that the type of culture wars that have dominated American politics are beginning to be transported to Britain. It’s what sells newspapers, it’s what produces clicks and retweets, and it’s the ground that the current government is most comfortable fighting on. 

However, Tanya Gold’s piece for the Sunday Times magazine suggests that most British voters prize moderation over extremity. Gold further points out that, while American voters are largely split into the two main groups of liberals and conservatives, in Britain there exists a third group – those who say they are ‘unsure’ about a range of issues – who are just as large in number as those on the left and right. 

Dorian Lynskey (writing for GQ magazine) expands on this point by suggesting that the culture ‘wars’, to the extent that they exist in Britain, are mostly being fought by niche online groups. Most people don’t have a clue that there is a war going on, yet alone what side they support. ‘Churchill’, ‘empire’, ‘rule Britannia’ and ‘statues of racists’ are a poor substitute, Lynskey writes, for the constitution, abortion laws, gun rights and the role of religion that amplifies the real culture wars in America. 

The outrage machine isn’t stopping, the culture wars are being stoked up, and even after all the years of turmoil in the aftermath of that referendum, a looming question demands to be answered: what kind of country are we, and what kind of country do we want to be?

References:

David Cameron Bloomberg speech – https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0008kk5/the-cameron-years-series-1-1-a-huge-fight-on-my-hands 

Scottish and Welsh independence support – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/welsh-independence-uk-highest-support-b1812241.html 

English Tory Leave voters poll – https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/brexit-worth-letting-scots-go-say-three-quarters-of-tory-leave-voters-in-england-7c5zpcmrv 

Tanya Gold Sunday Times Magazine – https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/culture-wars-how-divided-is-britain-black-lives-matter-brexit-megxit-q8h5660ks 

Dorian Lynskey GQ magazine – https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/politics/article/culture-war-britain

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