05 Jan

If national identity is declining, does it matter?

Posted By Politybooks

In the first ‘ask an expert’ session of 2010, Steve Fenton (Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol) writes about national identity in Britain. Is it endangered? Does it matter? And how can we address the controversy it has given rise to?

The growth of supra-national organizations, of which the European Union is a key example, is said to have undermined nation-states and national identity. Similarly, multi-national corporations act on a global stage, not a national one, and the days when large companies had distinctive national images are mostly gone. Furthermore, as most capitalist societies continue to reduce state welfare and privatize state functions (such as now, in Britain, is proposed for the Royal Mail), the idea that people viewed the state as “for them” and for their security has lost power. All these things, and the continued migration of workers, are believed to weaken national identity. Hence many European states appear to be suffering crises of national identity. How much this is happening in Britain is disputed1; but assuming it is happening in some measure there is another question to ask: does it matter?

The evidence of political voices on the right in the case of Britain certainly suggests that it does2. Try typing “national identity” into a search box on the Daily Mail online and you will see what I mean. There is a portion of the population that is outraged at the erosion of national identity and angry about the European Union intruding on British prerogatives. They believe that what they call “mass immigration” has endangered a sense of nationhood that has been nurtured over centuries. Newspapers frequently give reports of assaults on Britishness or Englishness, for example “political correctness” about Christmas, multicultural teaching in schools, or the failure to celebrate St. George’s day. As a rough speculative assessment, I would think that some 30-40% of the population in Britain share some or all of these views. In opinion polls the percentages saying that we should do more to control immigration and even repatriate immigrants are pretty high. One possibility is that if a celebrated and taken-for-granted national identity has been lost, it has been replaced in England by a rather resentful and narrow perspective. This is not so in Scotland or Wales where new national projects express progressive national identities, in search of a new politics. But in England is the resentful version all we have to expect?

There are alternatives of which we might consider two: the first is a multicultural inclusiveness which at the same time leaves space for traditional Britishness (or Englishness); the second is an individualistic acceptance that national identity is no longer really important and, indeed, is an impediment to broader universalistic values. If I were to express a preference it would be for a combination of these two: a moderate multiculturalism linked to an acknowledgement that many of our best aspirations as peoples and states go beyond nations and national identities. There is a danger though: neither of these latter two more universalistic versions of national identity is remotely possible unless we understand – and deal with – the anxieties and anger associated with resentful Englishness and Britishness.

1 See Anthony Heath et al (2008) ‘Are traditional identities in decline?’ http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/esrcinfocentre/viewawardpage.aspx?awardnumber=RES-148-25-0031

2 Chapter 8 of my book deals with right-wing neo-nationalist movements in Europe. Chapters 4 and 5 address how we understand ethnic and national identities as sources of action.

Lauren asks: Do you think that in countries where there is greater awareness of national identity, like Wales and Scotland, that this encourages people to be more open to people from other cultures, or more concerned to protect their own national identity?

This question is sensible in avoiding suggesting that national identities are stronger in Wales and Scotland than in England: in those two countries national identities are clearer rather than simply being stronger. This is partly because in Wales and Scotland people, on the whole, are clearer about distinguishing themselves from the English as well as from, increasingly, the British. Many people in England notoriously fail to distinguish English from British, and their national identity is more ‘obscure’ and confused with British national identity. Furthermore, as Krishan Kumar has argued, the English have suppressed English nationalism since, in view of their dominance within Britain, Englishness would have been impolite and impolitic. However, these are all tendencies rather than unmistakable social facts, and the tendencies can change and are changing. The tendency for Englishness to be ‘silent’ is diminishing and is reappearing as a new nationalism – which is often resentful and opposed to multiculturalism. On the whole, there appears to be a greater prospect that Scotland and Wales will be able to foster a progressive form of nationalism. (Neo-nationalisms, especially those of a ‘populist’ kind, are discussed in chapter eight of my book, Ethnicity.) 

Scottish nationalism in particular has made claims to be a civic and multicultural nationalism – i.e. not based on Scottish ethnicity, defined either as ancestry or culture. But strong strands of Islamophobia can still be found in Scotland as well as England, though to a greater degree in England. One of the best research sources is the work of Hussain and Miller (see http://www.devolution.ac.uk/pdfdata/Briefing%2024%20-%20Hussain-Miller.pdf and their recent book). Interestingly they show that, in England, Islamophobia is linked to a strong English identity; in Scotland it is not linked to a strong Scottish identity. But a strong Scottish identity is linked to Anglophobia, and a quarter of English people in Scotland (and half of Pakistanis) are reported as having experienced racial harassment. It is important to remember that sociology tells us identities are accentuated when there is some cause for them to be accentuated, not because of the degree of ‘cultural distinctiveness’.

Steve’s  new edition of his concise and accessible introduction to the concept and history of ethnicity is published this Friday, and looks at what ethnic identity means in today’s world.