The concept of identity has both personal and social perspectives but, irrespective of focus, each is concerned with categorisation and assumptions of similarity and difference. Social identity relates to the links that exist between people and places, the ideas and practices that align individuals to one social group as opposed to another and the feeling of acceptance and belonging which comes from such allegiance.
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Great Britain consists of a group of individual countries: England, Wales and Scotland, each of which joined the union at different points in a turbulent history. Northern Ireland, whilst part of the United Kingdom, is not part of Great Britain despite its population being included in the British political process. In spite of these confusing, apparently all-encompassing titles, each individual nation retains a separate identity in addition to the collective ones conferred by the UK and GB acronyms.
Historically, English dominance of the union has been a source of contention and in recent years the individual identities of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have become more officially recognised by the adoption of a partially devolved political process for the former two and a power sharing agreement with the Irish Republic for the latter. The merits or shortcomings of devolution fall outside the scope of this essay, nevertheless, it could be argued that at a time when the very notion of Britishness is up for debate, separating the union, even if only for political purposes, will do nothing to strengthen a collective sense of national identity if, in fact, one ever truly existed.
Diversity amongst the individual nations of the United Kingdom is only one part of the story and despite being an island and thus having an easily recognisable border, the reach of Britain extends well beyond geographical limits. Great Britain’s empire building past has left a web of connections that span the world. The British Empire at its height covered a quarter of the globe, and whilst many former colonies, dependencies and protectorates have since regained independence, the history of a British presence in parts of South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean left a postcolonial legacy of citizenship rights which has contributed to the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society that exists in Britain today.
Whether because of commerce or conquest, as an escape from poverty or persecution, Britain’s population comprises a diverse collection of people, some of whom may have connections to and, therefore, identify with places other than the British Isles. Who we are and who others think we are has a lot to do with where we live and our origins, but it takes much more than territorial borders to define national identity.
It is almost impossible to say exactly what British identity is or should be in the 21st century and as a result the very idea of Britishness “has been the source of much anxiety, uncertainty and political debate in recent years” (Clarke, 2009, P. 210). From politicians to social commentators, newspaper editors to academics, all have suggested ways in which the meaning of Britishness could be constructed and fixed.
Amongst other things, Clarke suggests that British national identity may mean having a sense of place, a shared way of life, a common history and a recognised image of race or ethnicity (2009, p. 219), but in light of the diverse nature of Britain’s population some of his suggestions seem more plausible than others. A sense of place can only come from a feeling of acceptance and belonging, hard to achieve when even after three generations of British citizenship your community is still viewed with suspicion and resentment. The idea of a common history may not sit well with everyone, especially those whose ancestors were the subject of domination, oppression and exploitation. A recognised image of race or ethnicity implies a singular recognition, fine if your skin is the ‘right’ colour, but at risk from discrimination if it is not, legislation can protect but it cannot change attitudes. Even though a shared way of life seems to be a reasonable suggestion, cultural differences make this equally difficult to imagine.
Culture, according to Clarke, has at least two meanings (2009, p. 219). The first suggested interpretation is what he calls ‘high culture’; this includes art, literature, theatre and music. Writers such as Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, artists such as Turner and Constable and composers such as Elgar all supposedly provide an “apparently shared set of reference points” with which all British people can identify (2009, p. 221). However, Clarke also notes that the stressed importance of English names in the list of preferred cultural icons excludes not only those members of British society whose origins, whether real or imagined, lie outside its geographical limits, but those from other parts of the UK too. Raymond Williams (1958, cited in Clarke, 2009, p. 219) calls this a ‘selective tradition’. Therefore, to suggest the use of British high culture as a unifying tool is to exclude a large section of society to whom it is probably irrelevant and perhaps even unintelligible.
Clarke’s suggestion of a shared way of life also falls under the cultural banner. Normal everyday practices of living such as dress, food, customs and religious observance are all important in defining the meaning of culture. Common forms of behaviour, values, morals and ethics are important in a shared way of life but immediately this highlights some problems. Religious and cultural differences, for example, may make behaviour considered acceptable to people in one community completely unacceptable to those of another. Not all diversity is necessarily ethnic or religious, however, and age, gender, social background and political differences can all divide as well as unite.
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Having established the difficulty in accepting shared culture as a means of defining British identity, the idea of shared values has been suggested by both David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips. Mr. Blunkett, former UK Home Secretary, suggested that “Britishness is defined â€¦ through our shared values, our history of tolerance, of openness” (2005, cited in Clarke, 2009, P. 221). Trevor Phillips, former Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, also suggested that “Britishness â€¦ lies in a way of living â€¦ In a diverse society, the shared values are the fundamental glue that holds us together; and the way we behave towards each other is the outward manifestation of our values.” (2007, cited in Clarke, 2009, PP. 222-223). Both these statements, whilst obviously well meant, do not stand up to scrutiny. To suggest that the British people are tolerant and open is to deny history. Perhaps Blunkett and Phillips are simply stating how they would like people to think and act, in which case their argument will likely fall on many deaf ears!
For Blunkett and Phillips diversity is a positive thing, something to embrace and celebrate. They suggest that only through tolerance and openness to diversity can Britain gain a unifying sense of identity. Their views have been contested, however, and statements denouncing the acceptance and encouragement of diversity have been equally prominent. David Goodhart, a magazine editor, has suggested that increasing diversity in Britain has caused us to become a nation of strangers. He also suggests, “As Britain becomes more diverse that common culture is being eroded” (2004, cited in Clarke, 2009, pp225-226). Whatever ‘common culture’ he happens to be referring to; he suggests that its loss is leading to a lack of solidarity and social cohesion. His opinion, unlike that of Blunkett and Phillips, however, does not carry the weight of authority since it is a personal opinion expressed in a magazine article.
In complete contrast to Goodhart, Bhikhu Parekh, in a report for the Runnymeade Trust, suggests that diversity and collective national identity need not be mutually exclusive. Whilst acknowledging the risk of social fragmentation and racism, Parekh suggests that if all members of society feel equally valued, have access to equal opportunities, lead fulfilling lives and shoulder the burden of societal responsibility that it may be possible to develop a “shared identity and common sense of belonging” (2000, cited in Clarke, 2009, pp. 226-227).
In a diverse society, therefore, the concept of national identity should be all-inclusive; clearly, this cannot depend on a shared culture. Moreover, simply telling people how to think or behave will not change attitudes nor make them feel united. Ultimately, perhaps economic and social equality will lead to a unified purpose and sense of collective identity – or perhaps not, this is clearly a complex question without a single answer.
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