Even in a small national state like our own, it would be more accurate to talk about identities rather than posit the notion of a single all-encompassing identity. This multiplicity of identities is formed by an interaction of class, region and culture. George Orwell’s comment that one rarely hears an educated accent north of Watford (The Road to Wigan Pier) brings together two of these elements as expressed by an Old-Etonian Southerner.
As a student I had the misfortune to work in the kitchen of a Pontin’s holiday camp. During a lull in the proceeding which we loosely referred to as ‘cooking’ two of my Liverpudlian colleagues improvised a banner and marched around singing The Sash My Father Wore, an Orange Order marching song. As an East Anglian this Protestant bigotry was entirely alien to my cultural identity, and yet we were all English.
Crises of identities are also nothing new, in the early part of the 20th century there was a belief among opinion formers, including Fabian socialists, that the ‘racial stock’ of the nation was in physical and mental decline. This sense of crisis was in part stimulated by the revelation, at the turn of the 19th century, that 40% of those volunteering for military service were medically unfit. Marie Stopes, the birth-control campaigner was, in part, motivated by a desire to control the excessive fertility of the lower orders.
In the 1980s Baroness Thatcher of Finchley, as she became, promoted the idea that the British were entrepreneurial, individualistic and, after the Falklands conflict, neo-imperialistic. The blighted areas of the old heavy industries did not feature in this presentation. Before Thatcher, Macmillan declared ‘You’ve never had it so good’ conjuring up a late 1950s narrative of consumerist prosperity. Harold Wilson attempted to create a narrative of modernity and youth, a Britain forged in ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. These centrally driven presentations of British identity were always only true for a limited number; the homeless depicted in Cathy Come Home (directed by Ken Loach, 1966) did not dwell amongst the shiny new possessions of consumerist prosperity.
What appears to have happened in our own time, a product of the polarisation over Brexit, is the failure to generate a single overarching notion of national identity. In the absence of a strong central narrative of identity political leaders have opted for Populism. The essence of this approach is not to give leadership, but to give expression to the anger and frustrations that exist within many communities. Populists do not lead, they follow, and they frame slogans that their target audiences can add a multitude of meanings to. ‘Take Back Control’ can mean whatever you want it to. So, as someone once asked: What is to be Done? It does seem that this is a political issue. Clear political leadership is required by politicians who are not afraid to challenge bigotry and racism, who are not afraid to counter pose reason to the irrationality that seems to be growing around the world. Will it happen? Surely at some point, it must!
Dr Roger Spalding is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.