Friday, 7 January 2022

Imposing a common identity


Many of my generation will remember the days when cinemas marked the end of their daily showings by playing ‘God Save the Queen’, but it seems that the detail of the memories varies significantly. Some seem to remember it as a time when the entire audience stood in silence and respect and allowed a certain sense of Britishness to wash over them and infuse their very bones with patriotic pride. Others remember it as the cue to start the rush to the doors. Perhaps both were true at different times, with those older than I tending to remember the former, whilst we ‘youngsters’ have a much more vivid memory of the latter phenomenon. The point is that, by the time cinemas stopped doing it, the anthem was being overwhelmingly ignored by an audience keen to get to the bus stop. Time changes attitudes, a fact of life which seems to have escaped a number of Tories this week.

I can also remember the BBC playing the same anthem at the end of its daily programming (back in the days when programmes really did end at a specified time). Maybe there were some older people who stood reverently to attention to hear it out, but I doubt that was true in most households. Although, thinking about it, it probably did cause most people to rise to their feet once it started, because in the days before remote controls were invented that was the only way to reach the off switch.

One of the strangest things about the demand from a Tory politician this week that the BBC should be compelled to play the anthem at 1am every morning is that he is quite a bit younger than I, as is Andrew RT Davies who has supported the call. Either their memories of what happened when the anthem came on during their childhood years are defective, or else they were brought up in very strange households. Their apparent belief that there are masses of wavering Brits out there who will be swayed into a surge of patriotic loyalty to the Crown and all things British by the simple act of exposing them to a daily dose of union flags and the royal dirge is almost touching.

They’re not alone though. Other Anglo-British nationalists, such as Sir Keir ‘I’m-not-a-nationalist-at-all’ Starmer seem to have been infected as well. Sitting surrounded by giant union flags, proclaiming that the monarchy is one of the things which makes us British and in which we should take a patriotic pride, and highlighting the England football team as a prime example of what he means by patriotism, he seemed completely lacking in any awareness of how his words might be seen in the non-English parts of the UK. (Or even in his own party, most of whose activists are, I suspect – on the basis of experience – committed republicans.) The problem with English nationalists, whether they are obscure backbench Tories or leaders of the opposition, is that they seem to believe that they can somehow define a common sense of national identity and then impose it on the masses using symbols and songs.

I say ‘problem’, but whether it’s a problem or not depends on perspective. I can think of few things more likely to push even more Scots towards independence than trying to impose a particularly English sense of Britishness upon them. Even here in Wales, where most people are entirely comfortable considering themselves to be both British and Welsh, trying to impose that Anglo-centric view upon them is likely to prove counter-productive to the unionist cause. Perhaps, from an independentista perspective, it’s not a problem at all, but a route to success. Maybe we should encourage them to go further, and make it a legal obligation to both watch the anthem at 1am and stand rigidly to attention when it is played. We could even have wartime-style wardens (they really love anything vaguely related to ‘the war’) patrolling the streets to check on conformance. I can think of few things more likely to advance the cause of independence than the imposition of a single version of Britishness.


Anonymous said...

Whilst the definition of Britain and British-ness is more or less readily accepted there doesn't seem to be any similar definition of Welsh or Welsh-ness.

This makes for difficulties understanding many of your articles.

John Dixon said...

"...the definition of Britain and British-ness is more or less readily accepted...". Really? Your basis for saying that is what, exactly? It is certainly true that some people believe that there is such a clear definition, but I've never seen it spelled out in a way which not only includes all those who believe themselves to be 'British' but is also specific enough to retain any real meaning.

Take just one of the elements which is core to the blog post above: the monarchy. Many of those pushing their 'clear' definition of Britishness see the monarchy as key; yet there are millions of republicans in the UK. Are they excluded from being British? As I recall, Tebbitt wanted to exclude anyone who didn't support England at cricket from his definition of being British - is that valid?

In truth, 'national identity' is essentially a subjective thing, not one easily defined in objective terms. People who consider themselves 'British' do not all subscribe to a single definition of what that means. Exactly the same is true for people who consider themselves Welsh, to say nothing of all those - probably a majority in Wales - who consider themselves to be at least a bit of both. What is the problem with treating national identity as something which is both flexible and fluid - rather than something fixed and immutable?

Your assertion that British 'national identity' is something clear and understood reinforces the point I was making in the blog post, which is that many of those who make such an assertion also believe that their definition of 'national identity' can and should be imposed on others. It's a very dangerous aspect of nationalism, and one of the reasons that I prefer to use the term independentista. I don't seek to define being 'Welsh' in any terms other than the subjective feelings of the people who live in Wales; it follows that I don't seek to impose my definition - or indeed any other definition - on anyone else. The desire of some Tories to impose a particular sense of Britishness on me is more a sign of weakness than strength, and is counterproductive to their political objective of maintaining the union. It's also essentially intolerant and undemocratic.

Jonathan said...

The rule is very simple. In its simplest form a nation is "a body of people who feel that they are a nation". Quite early in my legal career came "Jones v Gwynedd 1985" which analysed things a bit more and concluded that Wales was a nation: based on the Wales Rugby team as much as anything.
But its not easy to apply the rule to the UK now. Fairly straightforward with Wales and Scotland - they are nations. Not least because they are regarded as such by those outside Wales and Scotland.
The real problem is of course England. The English constantly muddle up 'English' and 'British' and I think we need to identify and accept this confusion - up to a point. The more Brexit and Covid develop, the clearer it becomes that the England identify is breaking out from its chrysalis. I always had trouble understanding the Brexit mindset, but its simple really. GK Chesterton in "The Secret People" wrote "we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.." Very simply, they are finding their voice.
I don't mind this. I was born in Fulham and like cricket, the KJV and much else. But it means that Wales must find and assert Wales' voice. It has done so over Covid but I don't trust the 2022 assertion because it will be secondary to the Labour party, and I disagree with Drakeford's approach (sorry Borthlas) on social, political and economic grounds. Wales is going to have to find a much better script than micro-management by the Welsh State. My script would have to include a lot more freedom and energy and savoir faire than we've seen in recent decades.

John Dixon said...

"a body of people who feel that they are a nation" That's a good definition, and neatly sums up the fact that it's ultimately about what that body of people subjectively feel. The only objective test then becomes 'does that body of people consider itself a nation', which is actually fairly easy to determine. It tells us nothing, of course, about the reasons for those people feeling that way - and it matters not a jot if each and every one of them has a different reason (or set of reasons) for feeling that way. And it certainly doesn't help our anonymous friend who, like many nationalists (whether English, Anglo-British, or even Welsh) seems to be seeking a neat way of determining what Welshness is based on objective and measurable criteria.

Anonymous said...

Britishness is based on language, culture, shared history, and so on. That's why the concept survives.

Welshness may be based on how people feel but those feelings are likely to be very transient. Perhaps this explains the lack of 'nationhood', there just aren't enough people who feel the same way at any one time and for a sufficiently long enough time for any momentum to build.

The more we learn about our genetic history the more tenuous our ties to any particular language, culture or shared history that isn't also shared by the people of England. Perhaps this explain the re-emergence of Britishness for many in Wales.

As for Mark Drakeford, he is just a rather poor representation of someone who tries to exploit difference for his own ends. Adam Price is in danger of ending up that way too. May they sleep well at night!


John Dixon said...

You ably demonstrate that peculiar trait of exceptionalism which so characterises Anglo-British nationalism, and leads you to the curious supposition that the British nation is somehow different and more real than the Welsh nation.

I’m not sure which part of Jonathan’s ”a body of people who feel that they are a nation” is giving you so much difficulty in understanding, but you have clearly not taken in the implications, or the general applicability, of the statement. You claim that ”Britishness is based on language, culture, shared history, and so on.” No, it isn’t. Such factors, to different degrees for different individuals, may lead people to consider themselves to be British, but it is the fact that they consider themselves to be British which gives existence to the nation, not the factors in themselves. Those factors do not, and cannot, apply in the same way to all individuals who consider themselves British – and to the extent that anyone insists that they do, the effect is to reduce the number of people to whom the label can be applied by excluding those with different attitudes and interpretations. In exactly the same way, language, culture and shared history are factors which may lead people to consider themselves Welsh and the same caveats apply; the idea that Welshness is based on feelings whilst Britishness is based on fact is an absolute classic of exceptionalism.

You also display a rather distant relationship with facts: the concept of a Welsh nation is as old as, or even older than, the idea of a British nation, meaning that ‘transient’ is a strange word to apply. What would be true is to say that the relative strength of feelings of Britishness and Welshness among the population of Wales has varied over time (and, actually, as Jonathan points out in his comment, the same is also true for Britishness and Englishness). National identity is no more fixed and unchanging than it is based on purely objective criteria.

Your assertion about ”the re-emergence of Britishness for many in Wales” is pure wishful thinking. What opinion surveys show is actually quite the opposite – in recent decades, people in Wales are tending to feel less British and more Welsh. It’s a spectrum, rather than a binary division, with most people still considering themselves to be both, but survey after survey shows that there is movement along that spectrum. You do, of course, have every right to wish that it weren’t so, and even to seek to persuade people to move in the opposite direction: that is, after all, what the attempts to impose union flags and the royal dirge are all about. Some people may even be persuaded by the arguments put forward by yourself and others, and that’s legitimate political debate. But the point of the original post was to make the point that trying to impose a particular perspective, and force people to adhere to one particular concept of national identity is likely to prove counter-productive. The good fortune of independentistas is that most Anglo-British nationalists seem, like yourself, incapable of seeing beyond a simplistic demand that we all accept that they are right and any other view is wrong. I don’t seek to invalidate Britishness, nor do I feel any need to do so. And I don’t understand why you and others feel such a strong urge to invalidate Welshness.

Jonathan said...

Anonymous, it is good that you care enough about Wales to post. So I hope you don't mind if I come back at you.
"Britishness is based on language, culture, shared history, and so on."
True, somewhat, back through 2 World Wars, Spitfires, Scapa Flow. But pre-1914 it was going to be Home Rule all round. For solid reasons.
Englishness is based on language, culture, shared history, and so on. This is what is now re-appearing. (But the North-South divide going back to the Normans weakens England.)
Is being American based on language, culture, shared history, and so on? Problematic. Abolish Civics lessons, Taking the Pledge and Old Glory leaves them where they are now, on the verge of another civil war. They don't share all that much, being racially very diverse indeed.
Well, is being Welsh based on language, culture, shared history, and so on? Yes, as people other than the Welsh agree, like my Judge. We have language, Rugby, music and used to have religion and education and tv journalism. But the English conquered us in 1282 and the adverse effects have been serious. I agree with Borthlas, being Welsh is not "transient". But we do need to be more assertive. and dynamic.

Anonymous said...

'And I don’t understand why you and others feel such a strong urge to invalidate Welshness.'

I suppose it has something to do with the perennial cost of Welshness. A cost that is majority paid by those who are happy not to express Welshness.

Fix that and I don't see any further problems.

John Dixon said...

"the perennial cost of Welshness" 'Welshness', in the terms in which we have been debating it in this thread (i.e. a subjective sense of national identity) costs absolutely nothing, zilch, nada to anyone. Whether I identify as Welsh, English or British is a personal choice which costs you nothing.

I presume that you are actually talking rather about something completely different, and I'm guessing that is the presumed cost of setting up and maintaining political structures which are seen as giving expression to that Welsh identity. I cannot deny that there is a cost to democracy and administration, at whatever level and under whatever structures we design. But if you want to argue that Welsh structures and whatever they do are a 'cost' of Welshness, I'm afraid that you also have to accept that British structures and the things that they do are a 'cost' of Britishness. And that is a vastly higher cost, not only in absolute terms but also in relative terms as a cost per head. But then, logic doesn't always come naturally to nationalists of any description.

Jonathan said...

I might end up agreeing with Anonymous!
"strong urge to invalidate Welshness" - no, we are not invalidating it. But we are realistic and feel the burden of Welshness. Myself, I loath living in a Wales which has
-farmers who vote against the EU, trusting in Johnson to support them of all things.
- such an addiction to hygge that we seem to welcome closing Wales for 2 years. With no real justification save that Wales becomes quiet, cosy and dead. Paid for by England.
- so many objections to energy or fixing Wales, cancelling any enterprise (Welsh lobsters)
But I am not dead and will keep trying to improve Wales
"I suppose it has something to do with the perennial cost of Welshness". If by 'perennial cost' you mean 'burden' I think you are on to something.
Wales was conquered and exported so much talent that, yes, we now struggle and underperform and still depend on England. But each new generation brings a crop of youth, energy and talent. Or did until pietistic narcissism became so fashionable. But get this wave out of the way and Wales could definitely fly

John Dixon said...


I know that we disagree on a number of things, such as the response to the pandemic and matters economic. However, many of the points you make here are straying rather far from the point of the original post, which was about imposing one particular form of identity on all the inhabitants of the UK. If I may return to that point...

After I wrote the original post, the Tory who raised the matter of playing the English anthem on the BBC went even further and argued that school children should be compelled to sing the royal dirge in school assemblies at least once per week. It's worth noting here that not only are the people putting these sort of views forward seeking to invalidate any sense of Scottish or Welsh identity, they're also trying to mandate one particular version of British identity: to them, republicanism, and any attempt to develop a different understanding of history are fundamentally un-British attitudes, even if expressed by English people living in England. It's not just about Wales or Scotland - there are plenty of people who consider themselves partly or entirely British in both those countries who wouldn't subscribe to that particular version. Anon's argument, if I understand it correctly, is that it is entirely justifiable to impose one particular view of what it means to be British on all the inhabitants of these islands if allowing people to have different views might end up costing money. I somehow doubt that there is any real chance that you might end up agreeing with that!

Anonymous said...

John Dixon,

'... if allowing people to have different views might end up costing money.'

Interesting interpretation. But you are right, views/persuasions invariably have a cost (for someone).


John Dixon said...

"Interesting interpretation" If it's not a valid interpretation of what you meant, you're welcome to correct it. But the rest of your comment does indeed seem to suggest that people's right to a different view should be constrained by any costs arising from doing so.