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Exploring the impact of perceptions of national identity on relationships between people from European countries, using the case study of Poland and the United Kingdom.

A seminar with the participation of Professor Norman Davies,
18 March 2002, Warsaw


This seminar was one of a series of seminars and activities following on from the conference in Krakow in 2001- “Europe 2021: Beyond Visible and Invisible Borders”. The events were designed in such a way as to add to the debate on cultural and societial development within Europe. The report was written by Anna Brzozowska. The British Council in co-operation with the Department of Development of Strategy and European Integration of Warsaw City Council was delighted to welcome participants working in cultural relations, academic studies, public diplomacy and others working on projects involving a number of international partners, to consider these important issues.

1. Understanding National Identity

National identity is a concept, which is referred to so frequently that one may get the impression that it refers to some organic, objectively existing entity. Identity is not, however, stable and self-contained. It rather implies mutability, shifting and reconstructed borders; it means constant alterations. The change within any collective identity happens most often in an incremental way. Only at certain times major events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union create dramatic conditions for more profound and abrupt reformulation of identities.

If we acknowledge that identities are always produced within a concrete social context we need to appreciate the significance of the dialogue between a concrete national identity and the world outside. Thus, considering the issues of our national identity we need to take into account what the outside world thinks of us. The perceptions of others and their opinions contribute to the production of the picture of ourselves, even more so if we respect those others or consider them important.

The Warsaw U.K.-Polish seminar discussions focused on the issues of mutual perceptions and their impact on the relationships between people from the two countries. The power of perceptions and stereotypes became clear as it was shown that they can be easily exploited in a political game. The speakers also emphasised the complexity of any national identity and showed how identities can be composed of many layers that do not contradict one another. This aspect is quite significant especially nowadays when some people may perceive the expanding European Community as a threat to national identities. At the end of the event, the participants tried to formulate practical recommendations that could facilitate Polish-British understanding.

2. Poland and the U. K.: Perceptions and National Stereotypes.

In the early 1990's the issue of Polish 'Europeans' started to play a more pronounced role both in politics and the media. Poland finally 'returned to Europe', as some contended. This 'return' rhetoric triggered protests from those who believed that Poland had, actually, never left Europe. Similarly, the feeling of elation and enthusiasm was accompanied by the uncertainty of how Poland is in fact perceived by countries of Western Europe, from which it was artificially cut off for almost half a century. Nowadays, with the official EC accession dates negotiated, with educational campaigns launched, Poles are becoming more aware of their future place in Europe and the obligations resulting from the membership. Moreover, open borders and relieved visa restrictions have allowed many Poles to travel abroad and verify their image of Europe.

In this new context a different type of communication started. Official, intergovernmental ties were supplemented by what Tim Simmons, the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy, called 'public diplomacy'. The British Council seminar itself was certainly one of examples of this type of diplomacy. It created opportunities for both sides to understand each other and to learn to communicate in a more meaningful way.

The idea of 'public diplomacy' assumes active involvement of citizens. Citizens are, too, in the very centre of the European enlargement process, which has ceased to be solely the business of the elite. Therefore, as Jacek Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs argued, it is important to study popular opinions. Very useful insights may result from such studies and not only because the population ultimately decides about membership in the Community. Stereotypes are a very powerful resource that can be activated by politicians. They can be used as a tool of manipulation, and there can be latent reasons behind some seemingly rational political decisions.

The opinion polls conducted in the UK and presented by Kucharczyk showed that as far as level of liking' was concerned, Poles achieved a high position (second after the Swedish) among six nations mentioned in a questionnaire. They were also the nation most favoured by the British public when the issue of prospective EU membership was brought up. The conceptualisation of a typical Pole was, however, quite superficial and evolved around such characteristics as religiousness or ability to work hard. Poland was seen through historical lenses, as a site of for dramatic events, for example WW2, Soviet occupation or oppositions! activities of the Solidarity movement. Although the social distance between Poles and the British was concluded to be quite small, the latter did not know much about the recent developments in Poland. Thus, although Poles were generally perceived in a positive light, they were still categorised as belonging to the 'other' Europe, still retarded and poorer - the lesser Europe that is in need of assistance.

Conversely, Poles were able to construct a more complex and detailed image of a British person attributing to her/him such qualities as tidiness, modernity and a high level of education. Although four other nationalities were classified as being liked more than the British, the latter were still perceived in a markedly positive way. Poles were also comparatively well informed about British cultural output, like films, or literature, and praised the British for economic results, and good record of human rights. At the same time Poles were more conscious of the differences between themselves and the British.

The clearly positive evaluation of the British by Poles was confirmed, too, by Robert Ratcliffe of the British Council. His report based on the opinion polls conducted among the 28 countries confirmed that Britain is mainly praised by Poles for its institutional arrangements and a. well-developed democratic system. The poll results featured the UK as a very traditional, conservative or even dull country. A big proportion (two thirds) of respondents believed that their societies were divided by class. Personal qualities of arrogance, coldness, lack of interest in other people, were listed to describe the British. Generally, the bigger the geographic distance, the harsher were the views held of the British, with the best results achieved among Germans. Young Poles, while describing the British focused on greater interpersonal distance and emphasised their caution, emotional control, and introspection.

Even if keeping their distance, the British people possess a very important asset that allows others to know quite a lot about them. This asset is their native language that has become a new lingua franca in business, banking, commerce, entertainment and academia. English is the language that currently needs to be mastered by upwardly mobile people. Even if the main reason for those coming to study in the UK is the prestige of British universities, and not English language as a medium of communication, the message sent out in English is certainly more likely to be heard by the world. Nevertheless, as the representative of the Warsaw Voice proposed, the associative link between English and the UK is getting weaker and weaker. English becomes more frequently the identification sign of things American.

Commenting on the findings of the two reports, one of the participants remarked that the content of stereotypes depended very much on the source of information. Thus, if knowledge was built solely on TV coverage, it tended to produce more hostility and negative judgements. This is due to the sensational character of news, focusing on crimes, or dramatic events. Thus, martial law introduction in 1981 still constitutes a very clear reference point for the British people. The positive information concerning economic reforms, democratisation and general improvement of the situation in Poland does not 'get through' so easily. Hence, an important role is played by channels of communication other than TV. Accessible and not dramatised type of coverage, the light touch, human interest type of stories as Simmons dubbed them, could lead to improvement of the image of Poland in the UK. Such a process will certainly take some time, as stereotype change is time consuming. The new information needs to be absorbed into the public consciousness, and there is always a certain time lagging in the formation of the public opinion.

3. Possibilities off Change: Multifacedness of Identities

National sentiment and national belonging can be defined in a number of ways. The most frequently quoted classifications divide nationalisms into ethnic or civic, cultural or political. It needs to be born in mind, however, that identities are most frequently the products of wilful activity of the elite. Forging an identity out of available material, the elite simultaneously tries to obliterate those contingent beginnings,  and attempts to make identities appear natural, essential and unquestionable.

The British identity illustrates in an excellent way the difficulty of 'defining' what really constitutes the core of this concept. As Professor Norman Davies observed, this difficulty may stem from the conceptual confusion between the notions of citizenship and nationality. Moreover, nationality constitutes an uncertain category in Britain as it entered the everyday vocabulary as late as in 1981, introduced by Margaret Thatcher. Until then, the references were made not to the British nation but to British subjects. Nationality belonged to quite another sphere, namely that of private identification.

The birth of 'Britishnness' is traced back by Davies to the 1707 Scottish-English Union. The history is narrated back in such a way, however, as to give an impression of British antiquity. Britishnness constitutes only one of possible identification platforms, a new layer added after the Union. The introduction of this new identification platform was, of course, not devoid of tensions. It was also accompanied by some linguistic reformulation. For example, the name of 'Scotland' was a discouraged term, to be substituted by 'Northern Britain'. On the other hand the category of Britishnness was always very flexible and comprised many 'immaterial' aspects. Thus, it was possible to extend it to include distant territories like Australia, or to Jamaica.

Today, the ambiguity connected with the notion of Britishnness is amplified by the usage of such phrases as 'Queen of England', or liistory of England', to denote the British Monarch and its History. As Davies claims, the level of identification with Britishnness is quite low at present, and the data quoted demonstrate that in 1999 majority of people in the UK described themselves primarily as English, Scottish or Welsh - and not British.

This experience is poles apart from the Polish one. The two countries travelled dramatically different trajectories. Britain was present worldwide and ruled the sea, whereas Poland was continental and enclosed. While Britain ruled others, Poland was herself ruled by her neighbours. While English language flourished and spread in the world, Polish was suppressed, used only locally, and preserved within the private sphere. Britain was founded on the Protestant faith, whereas Poland professed Catholicism. And yet, there are common features of the two, the features that are present in all identities. These include: constant change, reconstruction, and inclusion of new elements or reinterpretation of the old.

Just with as Britishnness, Polishness is not a stable category. Its definitions fluctuated throughout the centuries. Before the partitions of the country it was reserved for the nobility and was not correlated to the language spoken. Linguistic markers appeared later on and played a symbolic unifying role, which in other cases could be performed by the enclosed territoriality of a common statehood. The experience of being a linguistically distinct nation predisposes Poland, claimed Davies, to comprehend the meaning of Englishness or Welshness within the British Empire.

Interestingly, in the past the category of Polishness was attributed to some people even against their wishes. Thus, those who used the Polish idiom (or professed Catholicism) were classified as Poles in the Stalin Soviet Union, even if their self-identification was completely different (e.g. Belarusian).

Arthur Aughey continued the topic of Britishnness and its interpretations in his analysis. Britishnness can be felt, but it is hard to be described in words. It has functioned quite satisfactorily at a practical level (with the exception of Ireland) and yet has been a very illusive notion. Using a metaphor of porcupines constructed by Schopenhauer, Aughey demonstrated how the comparative closeness of constitutive parts was balanced in the British case by the distance ensured by the 'prickliness' of their national sentiments. The specificity of Britishnness is strongly related to its unclear nature; Britishnness stands for something quite unique and cannot be easily compartmentalised together with other national feelings of belonging. Ambiguity and duality is inherent in it. Consequently those who want to see it as a case of homogeneity are guilty of major misrepresentation, and those who emphasise the distinctiveness and incompatibility of the national parts as its main feature are equally misled.

Most probably, the main problem connected with the definition of Britishnness is produced by the attempt to force it into some already existing analytical or conceptual category. Britishnness defies such efforts. Hence, the uselessness of both Jacobin and Habsburg models to embrace the British experience. Drawing analogies, however impressive such exercise might be, always results in losing sight of some important aspect. Thus, the fundamental element of difference is usually lost in search of similarity and repeatability. Moreover, the construction of analogies and borders between categories frequently serves concrete aims, supports certain messages or justifies a political program. Nair's claim that the dusk of the 'prison house of nations' is approaching could be perceived in such a way. This does not mean, however, that the prediction of Nair may not be correct. But there is as well a possibility that it is absolutely wrong, as there is hardly any determinism in history.

Aughey argues that the U.K. political sphere has been successful thus far because they managed to accommodate two elements: contract and solidarity. The crux of the definition of Britishnness lies in emphasising the respect for difference that was traditionally present within the UK. This difference, the legitimisation of a certain distance, created British uniqueness. The 'hybridity' and the dubious nature of Britishnness resembled what Hegel defined once as a marriage arrangement - 'a contract transcending contract'. At the current time, the possibility of new, alternative re-contracting is high. The Welsh or Scottish nationalisms, for example,  could  be  easily re-accommodated within  the  bigger  European political body that does not include the British layer at all.

If membership in the European Community constitutes a way to reformulate British identity, it represents only one mode of belonging to Europe, claimed Davies. Europe is, after all, also a constructed category, like Britishnness and Polishness. As it possesses nothing inherently essential, it can be described in many ways, each of which is true. Europeanness can accommodate Britishnness, Welshness and other forms of belonging, too. This is the case because identities do not impose the necessity of choice; there is no obligation to be loyal to one of the identifications at the expense of another one. Therefore, Europeanness, even if it is going to undermine Britishnness, argues Davies, will hardly be able to eliminate it completely. Even more so, says Aughey, as the British trajectory was traditionally constructed in opposition to Europe, it tended to revile revolutionary solutions and after 1648 avoided turmoil, a characteristic feature of the European path. Therefore, although temporarily 'out of fashion', Britishnness may once again reappear as an interesting option.

4. Towards a Better Understanding

Mutual understanding between Poles and the British could be achieved, proposed Rachel Fearey of the British Council, by a variety of public diplomacy contacts, by both intergovernmental and interpersonal relations, as well as projects involving collaboration of cross national teams.

Minorities living abroad can form an important link between two nations. Stereotypes and perceptions of Poles are, after all, formed not only on the basis of the information received directly from Poland. In every country minorities living there constitute primary 'material' for stereotype building and knowledge accumulation about the nations they represent. In the case analysed, the very large Polish emigrant group which remained in Britain after WW2 constituted a strongly organised group, unwilling to mingle with the British, frequently emanating feelings of resentment and disappointment. These groups, as Krystyna Iglicka claimed, remained isolated due to many factors present in British society itself, among other things the high British standards of linguistic purity. Contrary to the American experience, emigrants in Britain had low chances of integration due to their foreign accents and their faith. Besides, they tended to make the barriers even more insurmountable, victimizing and alienating themselves.

Psychology analyses such situations and speaks of different variants of coping with difference in a cross-cultural contact. While some people look for universal values or ways of experiencing life that would create a common platform for a dialogue, others, to enhance understanding, would analyse the details and particularities of the behaviour of other cultures' representatives. Conflicts may surface, as Professor Grzymala Moszczynska of Jagiellonian University observed, if modes of "being" in the world differ considerably. Misunderstandings between Poles and Brits can result, for example, from the communal inclinations of the former and individualism of the latter, or from the different approaches to new situations in life. Even apparent similarities, for example the fact that we are both classified as cultures with the high context of communication may be detrimental to understanding. This is because the whole sphere of what is not verbalized matters greatly, and the simple assumption of the same evaluation of a situation may lead to conflict escalation.

Many conflicts may also arise as well from the perceived inequality of status, proposed Davies. This inequality is mainly created by the universal usage of English language as a means of international communication. Similarly, the divisions produced by the Soviet domination cut off Polish culture from intellectual exchanges on a larger scale. Thus, 'Polish credentials' need to be re-established now to ease the feeling of inequality. Secondly, people involved in cultural diplomacy should be aware of the harmfulness of artificial division made between so called Western, superior, and Eastern, inferior and exotic civilizations. The assumed lesser significance of the East is demonstrated by those not recognizing Poles as participants in European history. An appreciation of the cultural output of Poland is necessary to relieve communicative tension. Thirdly, intercultural understanding could be perfected via non-linguistic means of representation, like visual arts, dance, and music.

Jacek Kucharczyk emphasised, similarly, the need for mutual respect and recognition. Public diplomacy could then, aspire to do away with the narratives of lesser development, and backwardness of Poland. The lack of self-confidence that results from the consciousness of status inequality leads to many decisions that are politically damaging for Poland. For example, it may produce a greater rigidity during accession negotiations, resulting from the fear of being exploited. The image of Poland needs to be improved, and this task is harder nowadays than it was some years ago. To this end, greater attention should also be given as well to the development of human capital in Poland.

Robert Ratcliffe affirmed the importance of a positive image of any country abroad. The construction of a message to be sent out in the world demands profound thought, however. The World is highly complex and people do not have time to contemplate difficult issues. To be successful, the message needs to be customized to the present conditions of life: it should be attractive and simple. A good strategy could consist in firstly defining what is already the state of knowledge about this country and then building on this capital. It has to be born in rnind, too, that the producers of images, such as mass media or politicians are profoundly involved in the political process, commented Arthur Aughey. Hence, the importance of responsible use of research data.

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National identities, differences in their perception, possible sources of conflict, methods allowing to avoid it and promote intercultural dialogue -these were the main themes that reverberated during the seminar. The fluctuations within the definition of Europe, U.K. or Poland, the impossibility of listing core and unchanging elements in each of these concepts can be interpreted in a constructive way. The identities and the perceptions can be altered and improved. This, in consequence, can enhance the quality of intercultural communication.

The British Council public diplomacy project is one of the endeavours to promote mutual responsibility, comprehension and solidarity. It is especially predisposed to carry this task well, due to the long tradition of cohabitation of different national cultures within the U.K. Looking to the future, at the Europe-to-be, the project appreciates simultaneously the historical paths that different countries have taken as well as the varieties of personal experiences and expectations that resulted from these diverse trajectories. Its great contribution may consist in the promotion of the idea of public diplomacy, active involvement of citizens, empowering them, and making them, simultaneously responsible for the future of their country and Europe.

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