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'Defining the nation' - Background

While we recommend you read some of the articles in this issue on the topic, such as The Quiet Revolution, Untied Britain, or The End of the Affair, below is a brief summary of some of the major reasons for a renewed interest in 'defining the nation'. This is background information for 'Defining the Nation - a classroom activity'.

The question below on the CAMBRIDGE PROFICIENCY EXAM of 1945 could not possibly be asked today:

"What are the elements of the British character which in your opinion have made the British so successful as colonial pioneers"

Britain had in 1945 just emerged victorious from a titanic struggle with Hitler's Germany and significant parts of the Empire, such as 'the jewel in the crown' India, were still intact. The years after 1945 would show the extent of Britain's economic and political decline. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in defining the nation, or 'navel gazing' as some see it. Some of the factors behind this are:

  • New Labour, New Britain - New Labour, elected in 1997, have tried to appeal to he whole nation by re-inventing Britishness as an all-encompassing, inclusive label. This was in part a response to the adoption of the Union Jack and other 'British' symbols in the 70s and 80s by the racist National Front. The reaction to the death of Princess Diana also brought a sense of the nation coming together. "I have never felt so proud to be British", said Tony Blair soon afterwards. The re-branding of the Labour Party has gone hand in hand with an attempt to re-brand Britain, with labels such as 'Cool Britannia'. New Labour is also keen to be associated with Britishness as a way of showing that increasing ties with Europe, (which most of the party wants), are not incompatible with a strong sense of national identity.
  • Devolution - In the wake of the assertion of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the English have also begun to talk about their own individual identity. The question is being asked whether there is something left which is distinctly 'British', or whether in the past 'British' has been used as a synonym for 'English'.
  • European Expansion - Just as in 1914 and 1940 the state comes together under threat from foreign enemies, so too the perceived threat from the European Union to the British political and economic systems has led to a revival of interest in safeguarding the 'British' way of life.
  • Globalisation - This is seen as an equally powerful threat, with British companies, institutions, and habits all being submerged into a global culture and economy.
  • Multi-cultural Britain - Britain has a long tradition of being a haven for refugees and immigrants from different countries. Since 1945, due to successive waves of immigration from the former colonies, (see Andrea Levy's article), Britain has become truly multi-ethnic, with large minorities of Black-British or British-Asian peoples. As in Andrea Levy's case, these children of immigrants are 'born and bred' in Britain, and yet their feeling of being British or English is not always reciprocated by recognition from other British people. This has led to much debate about whether 'Britishness' can include these groups, with or without the hyphen, (Black-British, British-Asian). A Report by the Runneymede Trust on The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, in October 2000, even suggested that the idea of Britishness carried 'largely unspoken racial connotations'. Although they were suggesting that the nation was being imagined as white, many journalists and commentators took it as a criticism that the term British was racist, and there was a huge uproar in the press and television. The debate continues.
  • Increasing Nationalism in Europe - immigration, globalisation, technological advances, and closer European ties are cited as leading to fears of the dilution of cultural distinctiveness which are behind the resurgence of right wing groups in several European countries. In Britain, as in all these countries, there is a tendency to retreat behind a familiar, stable definition of the nation.

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