The phrase “national identity” is popping up everywhere in Britain. I have read two recent books with those words in the title, and they recur throughout an article in the March 17 London Review of Books, “The Wonderfulness of Us: The Tory Interpretation of History” by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans. In February the prime minister David Cameron spoke at an international conference on security at Munich, addressing the problem of domestic terrorism, and specifically of young Muslims who are alienated from the society in which they were born and grew up.

Cameron’s speech, with its critical reference to “the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” was found controversial in some quarters, but I could not see much to disagree with in it. He made a crucial distinction when he remarked, “Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority.” This was the ideology that prompted the suicide bombers who, in 2005, set off bombs in London Underground trains and a bus, causing several dozen deaths. Cameron was indeed making a political point in attacking the “multiculturalism” that the Labour government had favored: “Instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.”

Since then a questionnaire for the pending national census has arrived, in which the government hopes to find out how many of us there are, and who and what we are. I was not surprised that there was a section headed “How would you describe your national identity?” This provides a number of boxes, labeled English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British, and Other. The last of these is necessary, given the large number of foreigners who live and work in the UK. I have no hesitation in describing myself as “British,” and Welsh and Scots people of nationalist inclinations would no doubt adopt the appropriate label. “Northern Irish” seems to be a pseudocategory; Unionists in that divided province would regard themselves as “British” and Nationalists as “Irish.”

The problem with “national identity” is that “national” implies that there is a nation, and it is not always easy to say what it is. My passport says I am a citizen of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (before 1922 it would have covered the whole of Ireland). It also describes me as a “British Citizen.” This is a more complex business than being, say, a citizen of the United States, where a sense of national identity is straightforward, and reinforced by education and culture. The noisy Unionists of Northern Ireland certainly regard themselves as British citizens, even if their territory is not part of Great Britain. Political, geographical, and historical categories have become muddled. This was emphasized some years ago by a leftist wag, Tom Nairn, who proposed that the country should be known as “Ukania.” (Nairn’s model was “Kakania,” the name of the Austrian empire in Robert Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities; this was derived from the imperial logo K und K, which stood for Kaiserlich und Königlich, Royal and Imperial, the emperor also being king of Hungary.) I doubt, though, if many of us would want to describe ourselves as “Ukanians.” It sounds so un-British.

“Britain” was a geographical term before it was a political one. It referred to the largest island in the northwest European archipelago and its many offshore islands (but not the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which have their own constitutional arrangements—don’t ask!). The country was called “Great Britain,” not out of grandeur but to distinguish it from “Little Britain,” which was the French (but strongly Celtic) province of Brittany. This term is confusingly used in a political sense, as when British drivers abroad carry a badge on their cars saying “GB” rather than “UK,” and banks describe the currency as “GBP,” standing for “Great Britain Pounds.” The constituent nations of Britain were England, Scotland, and Wales, of which England was by far the largest and most populous. Hence a tendency to take the part for the whole, so that people frequently say “England” when they mean Britain, or the whole UK. In two world wars the Germans prayed for Gott to strafe England, while the Argentinians regarded their enemy as “England” when in 1982 they were fighting for the territory they called the Malvinas, which the British called the Falkland Islands.

A thousand years ago England was an independent kingdom. Its monarchy was taken over and continued by the Normans, and “England” remains an emotionally charged idea, symbolized by the flag of St. George—a red cross on a white background—which is flown on parish churches on April 23, St. George’s Day. St. George is the patron saint of England, and of several other countries, but remarkably little is known about him. He was a Roman martyr, perhaps a soldier, in fourth-century Palestine, and the rest is myth of a potent kind. St. George became a paragon of chivalric virtues and was famous for slaying dragons. There are far more appropriate candidates to be patron saint of England, such as Edward the Confessor, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings (apart from Harold, who died in battle when the Normans invaded); Edward was canonized a century after he died in 1066. But George’s position seems secure.

Shakespeare provided a famous expression of sentiment in John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” There are many expressions of the idea of England among poets and songwriters, including the popular song “There’ll Always Be an England,” which became something of a second national anthem during World War II. The England invoked is seen in rural and pastoral terms—Blake’s “green and pleasant land”—though England launched the Industrial Revolution, whose grimy and often decaying remains are scattered over the North and Midlands.

It will be interesting to see how many people describe themselves as “English” rather than “British” in their answer to the census. A recent poll suggests that 39 percent might do so. Anti-immigrant groups make much of their “Englishness” and display the flag of St. George at their meetings. One that has aroused a lot of publicity and some concern lately is the fascisant English Defence League, which is loudly hostile to Islam. This gives them an affinity with right-wing parties with a similar program in France, Holland, and Austria. The English Defence League launches noisy demonstrations that aim to be provocative. These may originate in the phenomenon of “football hooliganism,” when the supporters of soccer clubs take the opportunity to beat up their opponents, particularly in international matches, where the name of the national team is chanted as “Engerland.” England supporters caused a lot of trouble in foreign cities until such behavior was stamped out by cooperation between British and foreign police forces.

Quite apart from problems of demagoguery and right-wing extremism, the present British constitutional arrangement has an unstable look to it. Traditionally, the United Kingdom was a highly unified state, in which political decisions for the whole territory were made by the Westminster parliament. Now Britain has become quasifederal, with parliaments or assemblies for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, though these areas still send MPs to Westminster. But England has no separate administration, and everything that affects it is decided, as in the past, at Westminster. This means that Scottish or Welsh MPs at Westminster can vote on issues that concern only English constituents. This is regarded as an undesirable state of affairs, but no one has many ideas for dealing with it. To complete the federalization process by making England a separate administrative unit with its own parliament would have logic in its favor but little else. England is too large and too populous for that tidy solution to work. And despite the rise of demagogic English nationalism, I doubt there is a substantial sense of English identity comparable to that in Scotland or Wales. Being English as a cause of pride has long been tied up with being British. In fact, once one gets away from the flag of St. George and the pastoral paradise of the poets, England remains a country divided between north and south, the rural and the industrial, and by a class-based educational system, which introduces a sense of division in the way people speak. Insofar as people move beyond these divisions it is by emphasizing their Britishness. Many of our fellow citizens whose families came from the Caribbean, Africa, or the Indian subcontinent do not feel particularly English, but are happy to refer to themselves as black or brown Britons. In my youth the word “Briton” was almost obsolete, restricted to accounts of the “Ancient Britons,” but now it has become usefully current. If anything is becoming obsolete it is the traditional idea of the Englishman (and still more the Englishwoman, that formidable archetype).

The results of the census may offer some surprises, and some reasons for unease. English is a language in which pronunciation and emphasis can affect meaning. “Who are you?”—as one might ask a fellow guest at a party—is a question about identity. But “Who are you?” is existential and potentially disturbing.

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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