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Britishness and Brexit

(First published 15.12.19 in Berliner Oracle - photo c. Jon Bennett)

Britishness: a concept as conspicuous as it is nebulous. Superficially, the mind conjures a cloud of stereotyped imagery; the queen sips a cup of tea aboard the top deck of a red bus winding its way through a rainy dale (what is a dale, exactly? Nobody outside of Yorkshire really knows) to the soundtrack of The Beatles and the aroma of old chip-shop oil. She stops for (more) afternoon tea, but her stiff upper lip won't quite budge enough to accommodate a cucumber sandwich.

Elsewhere a troop of northern monkeys and a frollick of southern fairies do battle on a Tesco car park after the match between a Yorkshire coal mining town and an outer suburb of London ends in a drab 0-0 draw. Later they all pile into the pub for a few 568ml glasses of tepid 'real' ale, coalescing in their mutual dislike of cool, refreshing 'fake' beer, and foreigners “coming over here”. Eventually they spill out into the street, some politely offering one of the few available taxis to a stranger to enable them to go home, others politely offering one of the few available bricks to a stranger to enable them to throw it through the Bangladeshi corner shop window. In the end they stress that it was only a joke, their laughter baring teeth the colour and shape of ancient geological rock formations.

Of course, these are just two images of Britishness, caricatured amalgams variously benign, insidious and ridiculous. Yet the point is, if we search beyond an image, are we to find something more enduring and coherent, or is an image all we can possibly hope for?

An important part of any national identity is a sense of group-belonging. This boils down to two questions; who is allowed into the group, and on which grounds? Answers to these questions have included a mixture of ethnicity, language, cultural upbringing, shared values, historical contiguity, religion, and citizenship, and over time the relative significance of each of these waxes and wanes, creating tensions in a population made up of millions of individuals with various beliefs and affiliations. If one needs any evidence of such tensions in the UK, look no further than Brexit.

British identity is currently in a moment of deep crisis (though reading the academic literature it seems to have been that way for some time, possibly since AD 43). Much of the rhetoric around the leave campaign focused on “regaining control of the borders”, circumlocution for halting immigration, with the “other” of the immigrant representing fear on two fronts; economic and cultural. The first is relatively straightforward; immigrants are (erroneously) viewed as economically damaging as they take British jobs. The second is somewhat more complex, based on the assumption that foreign interlopers in the UK will somehow contribute to the erosion, even destruction, of British culture. This assumes a relatively fixed, hegemonic conception of culture, which either precludes entirely the idea of change through contribution to society from new members, or sees any such possible change from “outside” being undesirable. Yet what, we must ask, comprises this precious Britishness which so desperately needs protecting?

For Jeremy Cliffe, post-war Britishness is characterised by the “cocktail of tragedy, history and comedy” which was evident in the run up to the Brexit referendum. The leave campaign played on a public sense of defensiveness at being assailed by outside forces despite winning the war (tragedy), yet doing so with a “defiant grandeur” evoking past glories (history), all the while being able to have a jolly good laugh about it (comedy). This all resulted in “a country marching to a confusing mash-up of Morrissey, Elgar and the Benny Hill theme”. Aside from the war, the other elephant in the anteroom of recent British history is the empire, the loss of which has yet to be fully processed in the national psyche, as the country transitioned from commanding large swathes of the planet to being just another free-market economy jockeying for position on the crowded racetrack of consumer capitalism (albeit one afforded a fair few furlongs head-start).

Perhaps the most one can say, following Orwell, is that Britain, along with every other country, has a flavour. This is preferable to a global, bland homogeneity, however when culture calcifies people can become prone to using the crutch of nationalism as a blunt weapon. Yet nationality is just one of many sources of identity, with as many myriad combinations of affiliations possible as there are individuals on the planet. Indeed, the juxtaposition between affiliation and individual teases out what Dror Wahrman has described as “two contradictory impulses: identity as the unique individuality of the person... or identity as a common denominator that places an individual within a group”. Could individualism be a response?

Living in Germany affords favourable academic, economic and artistic opportunities, but I will never be German. I would never want to be even if I could. I integrate enough to avoid friction, by speaking the language, frowning on public transport, and waiting at red lights, but otherwise I am happy being an outsider, a perpetual foreigner certainly not at the heart of all things German. I see nothing problematic with this, in the same way that I see nothing wrong with an individual living on the island of Britain and yet not drawing their sense of identity from a Britishness which surrounds them. In an increasingly globalised society this kind of international individualism may outstrip nationality as a source of identity.

How we might envisage the future? A Britishness tied to ethnicity is doomed to fail in today's globally mobile world, and one tied to culture belies a reliance on an ethically questionable and unshared past. For this reason some have suggested that any notion of Britishness must have civic life at its core, whereby discourse on community affairs, couched by institutions such as academia, local governance and the law, promotes healthy debate within a shared, mutually-accepted framework. As Rainer Baubock succinctly puts it; “it is nearly impossible to create a shared identity out of the past, because people can never all share the same history... a shared identity should be formed out of the potential for a common future”.

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