The Great British Identity Crisis

JOSEPH GOUGH April 1 1973

The Great British Identity Crisis

JOSEPH GOUGH April 1 1973

The Great British Identity Crisis



Maybe being exposed to Canadian nationalism distorts one’s view but after seven months in the UK it seems to me that the British are going through an identity crisis backward.

This is partly visible politically. The far-right National Front, which did surprisingly well in recent byelections, proposes to “Keep Britain British” by sending the Common Market and all postwar colored immigrants packing.

Enoch Powell plays on the same two notes, immigration and the European Economic Community, to sway his hearers like no other British politician. Harold Wilson dances to half this tune; as far as one can keep track he has set his face against the Common Market. (In some circles the decimálized 50-pence coin, having seven sides and two faces, is known as the “Young Harold.”)

But another wing of the Labor party is pro-Market, as public figures in general seem to be. Even Mr. Powell now sounds willing, in the current term, to “renegotiate from within.” Sir Con O’Neill, leader of the official team in the Brussels negotiations, recently gave the British blunt notice that entry would impose unprecedented restrictions on sovereignty. Even this produced only a slight spasm of soul-searching, mainly confined to the press.

Politicians and other leaders seem less worried about sovereignty than about being left out of the international money-managerial world. The same feeling united Norwegian leaders in favor of joining the European Economic Community. Only the people voted against it. The British public, shown by opinion polls to be mostly anti-Market, won’t have that chance.

And it is they, the ordinary people, who are going through an intense identity crisis. They have to be. Otherwise they couldn’t possibly be so chauvinistic.

The little old lady who digs up young trees from city gardens and transplants them in the country where they won’t be lonely is not an eccentric. She’s a British eccentric. An Englishman’s home is his castle. “Save our British art treasures,” say the appeals to keep Italian masterpieces from going to the U.S.

Canadian nationalism is as nothing to what goes on here. Beer, trees, accents, hedges, incompetence — everything is evaluated in terms of Britishness.

Perhaps this is because, as one friend here explained: “The Italians aren’t much, and the Germans, well, we had to have it out with them, and the French have gone away down — we feel like we’re the only ones left.”

At least in the countryside, newspaper letter columns ring with pleas to save the British identity. “What price hope and glory now? The glorious Monarchy, and our Commonwealth are about to recede

into the memoirs of history. To those who care, I say: Rally round and remain British, if not for yourselves, for the future of your children.” The national papers filter out these clarion calls, but print correspondence on such threats to Britishness as giant EEC lorries, proposed continental-style licensing laws for pubs, the dreaded change, not yet suggested but already vigorously fought, to driving on the right, and the possibility of continental rats crossing through the projected Channel tunnel.

National identity has two pillars. One is the sense of likeness, of things shared, such as sayings, customs, mannerisms, building styles, all the components of what somebody called “horizontal culture.” The eminent historian A. J. P. Taylor was rightly serious when he called decimalization a blow to Britishness. But the British have enough national peculiarities to spare. The real damage has been done to the other pillar of identity: the sense of high achievement, of national status. Decline from imperial power to Commonwealth semi-leader to EEC “new boy” could hardly help stirring some sense of loss among the British people.

The press and radio and television, which probably give the people what they want more consistently than politicians do, have decided that what they want is history. Hardly a day passes without some BBC program reliving past exploits. In book stores, historical studies and popularizations emerge by the dozens every week. The weekend supplements are rarely without some

Joseph Gough returned to Campobello Island, N.B., after seven months in Britain.

historical celebration of Britannia. Then there are the straight historical magazines. and the part-works. Newsstands buckle under the weight of Empire.

Toa large extent, past heroes are seen as examples of a perennial British type, the restrained, seemingly lackadaisical hero who can take India as easily as his present-day counterpart can edge into your place at the bar. The British now actually brag about understatement.

Obviously their problem is not lack of identity. It’s that they know their identity too well — or think they do. Just how perennial is that understated type of Britisher? Shakespeare didn’t understate, or Dickens, or Blake, or Hogarth. One suspects that the rather bloodless British self-image (I say British because that’s what the English call themselves; maybe the Scots and Welsh are different) was partly artificial in origin, imposed on the British after the Empire was built, after the greatest deeds were done, perhaps by the public schools which followed the pattern of Dr. Arnold’s Rugby, dedicated to turning out a specific type of Englishman.

The trouble is that emphasis on the British form and the British past inhibits new achievements. There is too much to compete with. The Beatles and Monty Python operate in escape zones. But in fields like straightforward literature, there is a Graham Greene-ish pallor over everything. No one dares try to match past greatness. Instead, literary folk go in for word games, for more and more tortured allusions to Shakespeare lines as crossword puzzle clues.

The more educated are especially tied up in the British self-image strait-jacket. The lower classes — once you get over here, you start classifying people — are equally prone to nostalgia; I have heard more pub reminiscences here about Canadian soldiers in World War II than I ever heard in Canada (“The Princess Pats? Some fun in them blokes!”). But in this level of society, a good many tell you they want to emigrate. The top people seem more bound to Britain, Britishness, and the contemplation of the past, more engaged in painting the mural to hold up the wall.

Probably it is only a passing phase. There are too many strong qualities here to let people keep facing backward, fighting like cornered mice against the present. But for the time being, Canadian visitors may as well leave their chauvinist kits (Spanish Civil War per capita enrollment statistics, birthplace lists for Beaverbrook, Bonar Law, Bea Lillie) at the airport; there’s no competing with British chauvinism. And Empire Loyalists or émigré professors hoping to draw on some mother-lode of British strength may as well not get on the plane at all. ■