Friday, 6 July 2012

Union jackery

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the UK Coalition Government is proposing to change the basis of the citizenship guidance and test for new immigrants.  Amongst other things, they’re proposing that new immigrants should demonstrate that they know the words of the first verse of the UK’s National anthem.  The ability to sing it in tune is presumably optional, as is any knowledge of anything beyond the first verse, particularly, one suspects, any unfortunate references to crushing rebellious Scots.
The government’s definition of the vital elements which new immigrants require to know will also include Shakespeare, Brunel, Elgar and the publication of the King James Bible.  Excised from the previous government’s version of the same document will be any references to benefits, human rights, and Thatcher as a ‘divisive’ figure.
(As an aside, the fact that a change of government can lead to such a change of emphasis also tells us that the identity being portrayed does not perhaps have the timeless and unchanging character which one might think, listening to the way some politicians talk.  It’s not something objective and apolitical at all.)
We’ve also seen something of an outbreak of what some have called ‘union jackery’ recently, what with the Royal Jubilee and the procession of the Olympic flame around the kingdom, and it’s easy to see some sort of conspiracy to impose a particular straightjacket of identity, in the context of growing national sentiment in Wales, and even more so in Scotland.  That seems to be an over-simplistic response, however; I'm not convinced that the 'establishment' is sufficiently organised or cohesive to run such a conspiracy.
In any event, I'm not sure that it would worry me over-much if they were.  After all, there’s nothing at all unusual about any state seeking to reinforce a sense of belonging and loyalty amongst its populace.  It helps to legitimise the status quo.  As far as I can see, it’s something that every country does in one way or another, and I don’t for a moment doubt that Wales and Scotland, were they to become independent, would do much the same, even if the official identity being promulgated were to be rather different.  States use symbols, institutions, events, and history to attempt to reinforce a sense of identification which then legitimises the state.
What’s more interesting for me is which symbols etc. they choose.  The anthem is an obvious symbol.  (I wonder, though, what the reaction would be to a suggestion that anyone moving to Wales should demonstrate that they know Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.  On second thoughts, I don’t really wonder at all – I think I have a fairly good idea how that suggestion would be greeted…).  Celebrating the achievements of individuals who are outstanding in their field is another obvious one.  And what’s wrong with celebrating national history?
But once we go beyond such (comparatively!) uncontroversial symbols as flags and songs, people start to make choices about what to stress and what to gloss over, and those choices tell us something about the ‘establishment’ view of what identity is.  One feature which immediately strikes me is the overwhelmingly 'English' feel around the selections made.  Inevitable, probably, given that England makes up 85% of the population.  And almost certainly not conscious or deliberate - but obvious anyway.  But what it means is that the symbols etcetera used to express 'British' identity today could, by and large, simply be relabelled and used to express 'English' identity were Wales and Scotland to become independent.  It's part of the reason why 'English' and 'British' are interchangeable for many in England.

Another feature is the strongly militaristic element to the UK establishment’s view of identity, which we see not only in a selective view of history which often concentrates on wars and battles, but also in the prominent role of the military when it comes to ‘national’ ceremonies and events.  The comparatively recent introduction of Armed Forces Day is a case in point.
Perhaps that militaristic element is part of what makes me react against the establishment view of Britishness.  It’s not a particularly nationalist perspective, but for those of us opposed to militarism, it’s easy to feel excluded from, and alienated from, an identity which seems to insist on emphasising past military glory to such a significant degree.
Identity is a complex business, based on a whole range of factors, and with more movement and migration, it’s becoming more complex, not less so.  Allowing politicians to seek to define it in ways which suit their purposes or reflect their perspectives inevitably leads to over-simplification, and that’s reflected in the Sunday Times’ headline, which read “God Save the Queen test for migrants”.
But there’s a second reason for being relaxed about the whole thing.  The idea that identity can be imposed on anyone is very much in the past.  People have more exposure to a range of influences than they did when the UK’s anthem was written.  Loyalty to queen and country is no longer as automatic as it was, nor does failure to demonstrate such loyalty have the dire consequences which it held in the distant past.  Identity can still be reinforced to some extent, but you can only 'reinforce' what already exists to at least a degree.  I suspect that attempting to promulgate and impose a particular view of a particular identity is now more likely to be counter-productive than effective.
One small example of that was the question raised when the Olympic torch passed through this neck of the words as to why the organisers were giving out Union Jacks but not y Ddraig Goch for people to wave.  It doesn’t mean that everyone's gone nationalist, merely that attitudes have changed.  The days when such a question wouldn’t even have been asked are long gone.
National identity these days is much more bottom-up than top-down; people can and do choose their identity (or even identities – there’s nothing odd to me about having more than one).  The attempt, by both the last and the present UK Government, to define identity in a very narrow fashion is backward-looking.  It makes those who promote it look rather Canute-like, except without the wisdom to know that failure is certain.


Plaid Gwersyllt said...

I would be happy if some of the arrogant patronising individuals who come to Wales to run business just tried to grasp the basics of meet and greet in Welsh... diolch isn't that hard is it?

G Horton-Jones said...

The assumption is that all of those who have come to England have somehow automatically become Welsh citizens
There is no internatioanlly recognised law that says that possession of one nationality automatically gives you dual nationality of another country
asylum seekers and others should be aware that they may have acquired English citizenship but they will never be Welsh.
In reply to Gwersylly -If you are not Welsh you are a visitor here and always will be --you should respect our people, their language, culture and history or leave