British identity and The Second World War

All national identities are a construct that evolves and change over time. That the identity of Britain has evolved is in no way unique to this country. The concept of the national state or borders is a relatively recent concept in human history. Britain, as we know it today, is just over 300 years old with the 1707 Acts of Union where the Scottish and English Parliaments agreed to a merger. Ireland formally joined in 1801, through English conquest and rule over the much the Island of Ireland dated back to the Norman Invasion of 1169, then in 1922 much of Ireland became independent leaving just the six counties in the north. The Welsh have a much longer association with England, having been part of the Roman occupation and became part of the Kingdom of England under Henry VIII in the 16th century.

Of course, the national identities of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are also constructs. The Kingdom of England was formed on 12 July 927AD emerging from various Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Scotland is slightly older being founded in 843AD, though the clan system dominated Scotland until the battle of Culloden in 1746. Wales was slightly later to form in 1056 having previously been divided into various kingdoms. Ireland, after 800 years of English/British dominance gained independence in all but six counties in 1922 and became a republic in 1949.

It is little surprise then given this history that questions over Scottish Independence and a United Ireland continue to simmer. But regardless, the United Kingdom or Britain has during its three centuries constructed a strong national identity. One of an empire that for a time dominated half the planet and “ruled the waves.” French revolutionary Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac claimed the British were a “nation of shop keepers” a quote commonly attributed to Napolean who famously used it as an insult while at war, in fact, has been taken as a point of pride by many Brits who see themselves as traders and entrepreneurs.

Like many nations, Britain defines itself by its conflict with other nations and powers. Modern British identity is cloaked in the language of the Blitz and constant references to Churchill and the Second World War are made. As one English friend commented to me recently “to hear them speak you’d think everyone in Britain over the age of 60 was actually at Normandy for the D-Day landings.” The British identity is that of the great power who in her ‘darkest hour’ stood up to fascism and ‘never surrendered.’ Like all narratives, this national identity based on Britians glorious role in the Second World War is subject to historiography and interpretation of evidence. For example, whilst the British sacrifice and effort during the war was formidable, had it not been for the Nazi’s decision to attack the Soviet Union and that nation’s ferocious defence the outcome of the war may have been very different (a historical fact many wished to downplay during the Cold War and after). Nor is much made of fact that fascism had many supporters in 1930s Britain, including by many at the top of British society. But one cannot dispute the war effort of the British and allies was pivotal in defeating Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Moreover, doing so came at enormous cost to Britain which faced years of rationing and rebuilding after the war.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge Britain faced since the Second World War. Very quickly the narrative has been one of war with a virus where stoicism is expected, and NHS medical staff have been clapped as ‘frontline heroes’ in this conflict with a virus. In this context, it is little surprise that Captain Tom a Second World War Army Officer rose to national prominence during the pandemic starting walking laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS Charities Together. Likewise, when Queen Elizabeth the second made a rare public address outside of her yearly speech at Christmas she talked of how she and her sister Margaret, like many other children during the Second World War were evacuated from London and at this time she and her sister recorded a message to provide comfort to children separated from their parents. She followed this by saying “once again, many of us will feel the painful sense of separation from loved ones, but now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.” This emotive appeal to the spirit of wartime Britain from a member of The Greatest Generation and Britains longest-serving monarch was quite deliberate and important for establishing Britain at war narrative against the virus.

Captain Sir Tom Moore's family 'with him in hospital' as he battles  coronavirus - Wales Online
Captain Sir Tom Moore being Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II

Current British Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is a great admirer of Churchill and in what John Kampfner of The Observer described as a “not so subtle attempt to draw a parallel between Johnson and Churchill,” Johnson authored The Churchill Factor where he says of Churchill “he alone saved our civilisation.” This inflated sense of national pride along with the ‘great man of history’ outlook gives us a great insight into the current British PM’s worldview. Churchill’s role in the Bengalis massacre or the botched Gallipoli landing is of course played down, as to be fair they are in most historical accounts of his life. With regards to Johnson’s own leadership to date, his government’s apparent support of herd immunity as the response to COVID-19 in early 2020 had much more in common with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in the 1930s than the Battle of Britain.

The Johnson view of Churchill and Britains place in history is not universally shared by all who live in Britain. Increasingly many are becoming aware that British imperialism, in particular the slave trade that Britain participated in for many years. When the Black live matter movement erupted in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Police in the US, this prompted protesters to pull down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol and throw it into the harbour. This divided people as many thought this was petty vandalism or an attempt to censor history. Others however could see the link between the slave trade of Britain’s past and how this has contributed to discrimination and injustice against black people in the US and the UK today. To celebrate Colston’s Philanthropic works in Bristol without acknowledging that he gained his wealth through slavery causing misery to so many is wrong.

What Bristol should erect in place of the toppled Colston statue | Art and  design | The Guardian
Edward Colston’s statue being lowered into Bristol’s harbour in 2020

The Bristol statue toppling was followed by protests outside parliament. Soon security were having to cover up the statue of Winston Churchill in parliament square for fear that his statue may be thrown into the Thames. These debates absolutely polarised public opinion as for many Churchill is the man who “saved civilisation” without whom we’d “all be speaking German”. Voted the “greatest Briton” in a 2002 BBC poll, for many his legacy is above question. To others, he represents a British establishment that profited from the empire at the expense of its colonies. For example, Churchill was on the wrong side of history during the Irish civil war for independence after the 1916 uprising, motivated by holding together the empire above all else.

Coming from New Zealand, one feels connected with this history, yet also like an outsider. In New Zealand, the narrative that has developed since the disaster at Gallipoli is that of the brave young men, ANZAC’s, from Australia and New Zealand who were sent to their death due to incompetent decisions by stuffy British generals. New Zealand history, since colonial times, is heavily connected to Britain and this continues to dominate this countries narrative about who it is in the world to this day. When New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage declared war on Germany in 1939, technically a few hours before Britain due to time zone differences, he famously said of Britain “where she goes, we go.” It is slightly jarring these days to hear New Zealand’s celebrated first Labour Prime Minister being so deferential and subservient to Britain. By contrast, New Zealand current Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made political mileage by juxtaposing her government’s response to COVID-19 compared with that of Britain. In response to a journalist question, Jacinda said she was “not willing to risk a UK style ‘live with COVID’ policy.” In this way Jacinda connects with the ANZAC narrative of common sense kiwi’s (and Aussies sometimes) doing things better than those stuffy old Brits, which many white New Zealanders are descendants from.

Back in the UK, recent divisions over Brexit have challenged national unity. One bizarre event earlier this year to try and combat this was the song put out by the ‘One Britain, one nation’ campaign. Then Education Secretary Gavin Williams, who since has been sacked due to his poor performance in the role, tried to get every student in the UK to sing this song at school on 25 June. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the media she thought it was a spoof, also that it showed the ignorance of politicians in Westminster as the 25th of the day Scottish students started their summer holidays.

The current push to unify and create a modern “British” identity is actually about “English” nationalism. Very little in the ‘One Nation’ rhetoric British politicians espouse, is about Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Of the 66 million people who live in Britain, 55 million live in England. If you want to win a majority in the House of Commons, you need to win English voters primarily. At a time when nationalism dominates the world of politics, it is increasingly clear that what is cloaked as “British” is increasingly about the dominant nation in the United Kingdom. This English dominance is nothing new, however, in post Brexit Britain counter-narratives by nationalist groups in the other nations of the UK have gained far greater potency. During the 2019 general election, I commented on the increased support for Scottish independence since Brexit. I will explore this topic further in another post, but it is clear that the conflict over Scottish independence will continue to hover like a dark cloud over the British establishment.

The COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020 has changed peoples lives considerably. Whilst some hoped that facing a crisis on this scale may ease divisions caused by Brexit. This is clearly not the case. For those supportive of Brexit, the fact that the UK were quicker to roll out the vaccine than EU nations was seen as proof that leaving was the right thing to do, ignoring the fact that UK COVID-19 infections rates were considerably higher than most European nations at the start of 2021. Vaccine nationalism ignores the fact that the virus does not respect international borders and any long-term effective response must be a global one. This is a sentiment that was shared by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May who complained that the virus has been “treated as a national issue for countries to deal with alone” and that “the global impact of Covid-19, and our inability to forge a coherent international response to it, have raised new questions about the effectiveness of a system of cooperation through shared institutions.” May’s more outward-looking internationalist view of course represents a different strand of the British establishment and indeed of the British Conservative Party to that of the current Prime Minister and his ministers who use more inward-looking nationalism as a way of achieving short term electoral success. The long term consequences of this tension for the future of the British state will be fascinating to watch.

The British identity is one many still hold onto as a key part of who they are and their overall worldview. Increasingly though this identity is being challenged and interrogated by those who do not feel part of this dominant narrative and those who believe it would be better if the United Kingdon broke up. It is important to remember that all national identities are a construct built on a selective interpretation of historical events. National identities can and do change over time and it is clear that the identity of Brexit Britain is still being challenged and contested far more than it was even a decade ago.

But whatever the future holds for Britain, that narrative of Britain at War is likely to hold fast regardless of whether the union stays together or not. The “spirit of the Blitz” is etched deep into the psyche of the populace and will reliably cause an outpouring of national pride when mentioned. Increasingly though, many do now question this history and counter this narrative. Certainly, for Winston Churchill, his earlier canonisation as the patron saint of all things good in British politics, is now in doubt. And as the country tries to recover from Brexit division and COVID-19, constant references to Britain and WW2 may have diminishing returns for Boris Johnson and his allies in Government.

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