The Dispute Over “Britishness” | Alex Johnson

To say that the United Kingdom has influenced world history would be an understatement. Having the luxury (and the curse) of claiming to once have the largest empire in the world, Britain’s place in history has been secured, its legacy still omnipresent. But as the 21st century continues to develop during these somewhat tumultuous times, the idea over what constitutes “Britishness” is becoming increasingly nebulous.

This is not to do with Britain’s own insecurities of what makes its identity through history, which has been previously elaborated in a sufficient manner. Unlike the United States and any nation that has revamped itself like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the UK has enjoyed a consistent political union that inherited a cultural amalgamation of several nationalities that have long existed before its founding in 1707 – a formula that has been left relatively undisturbed thanks to both the waters that surround its isles and the lack of successful intrusion by foreign powers since 1066.

That is not to say however that what defines the UK has not undergone slight alterations throughout its existence. After all, the concept of Britishness (or “Englishness” depending on your preference) is one that transcended the borders of its empire’s metropole. Even those who despised it begrudgingly admitted to its influence, such as the Indian nationalist Bipin Chandra Pal, who stated that the average Indian magistrate in his lifetime “was as much an Englishman as any Englishman” through his “mind and manners”.

Britishness is no doubt an English-centric concept, which is why “Englishness” is used an alternative term. When one is reminded that the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland are exclusive to them alone and not to England, their now large absence is testament to Englishness’s dominance over these regions, much to the chagrin of Scottish and Irish nationalists. The idea of Britishness thus becomes even more complex. As Benedict Anderson once said – “Nothing more sharply underscores the fundamental contradiction of English official nationalism, i.e. the inner incompatibility of empire and nation”. Through its own union, Britishness is thus argued by some as an imperial concept rather than that of a national one. It would, as Eric Hobsbawm and his acolytes of the “invention of tradition” would argue, merely a concept invented for political purposes.

However, the subjective nature of what constitutes Britain as a national idea, one that is “imaginary” to the likes of Anderson, is one that appears too simplistic. Nor could it be considered “invented” like Hobsbawm famously argued for many concepts such as the Turkish fez or, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Scottish tartan. The traits of Britishness are far from being invented, for they have undergone an evolutionary character since its coining. Subcultures such as Englishness and Scottishness had existed before pairing together and giving birth to the idea of one being a Briton. Nor does “Englishness” across the empire apply to the British alone. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out, half of the East India Company’s total employees were Scots. Thus, should Pal refer to those Indian magistrates – who were greatly influenced by the Indian Civil Service that succeeded the East India Company – be “as much a Scotsman” through their “mind and manners”? Or would Britishness be more sufficient as a term?

The idea of the British tradition is thus memetic, a process that proliferated as its empire expanded. Whilst Anderson described its collection of territories as a “grab-bag of primarily tropical possessions scattered over every continent” through its “official nationalism”, perceiving it as being created solely as a political initiative is parochial when considering cultural factors that have outlived the British metropole but continue to exist in the Commonwealth.

A prime example is Christianity, with Nigeria alone now possessing more Anglicans than Britain itself. Nor could this be blamed entirely on the legacy of Britain’s participation in the “Scramble for Africa” when one considers the efforts of David Livingstone, a man who only went as far as to represent the British when its interests coincided with his own evangelism. With towns named after Livingstone spread across all over Africa and President Kaunda of Zambia hailing him as “the first freedom fighter” in Africa, aspects of Britishness transmitted by those such as Livingstone go beyond that of imperial interest, especially when considering that Livingstone was himself a Scot, not an Englishman.

Even in areas which the British no longer occupy have some evolved into a new identity that is the result of an amalgamation between two conflicting cultures. One of these – which is highly topical – is Hong Kong; whose population, despite it now longer being under British control, sees itself as being neither British nor Chinese. In a 2018 review and 2019 forecast survey, 53% of Hong Kong’s population identify as “Hong Kongers”, with only 11% describing themselves as “Chinese”. British influence in Hong Kong was aggressively implemented as a result of the Qing dynasty’s disagreement with importing opium, but has now since evolved into a sui generis local identity – one formed by an inherited British system of legal and economic institutions and a self-consciousness of being a separate identity from mainland Chinese. A testament to both is Hong Kong’s prosperous financial sector (which is now under threat) and its locals who have been protesting recently with British and American flags.

When considering all these factors, calling Britishness an “invention of tradition” is thus a limited argument when one considers its evolutionary character. What could have started as a weapon to fulfil a politician’s Machiavellian desires can mutate into a cultural phenomenon when it has enough exposure to nature. What Antonio Gramsci theorised as “cultural hegemony” cannot be entirely explained through cultural phenomenon that defies the political authority that supposedly controls it. Even when certain facets of culture have clearly been invented deliberately, its evolution into something far more different or unique can hardly be predetermined when spread universally. Like Frankenstein’s monster, once it is reborn through human ingenuity can it exist through its sentience and possibly defy its creator as it develops.

This is exactly what has happened with Britishness. Whilst it seems to be undergoing an existential crisis in its own place of birth, its reputation continues to surpass itself elsewhere. Whilst the concept of its own identity grows ever more confusing, it does not mean that it should forget what it stands for. Douglas Murray once pointed out in an Oxford Union debate that some would say that the British identity is “not anything” as a deliberate attempt to “water down” its definition into a broad church for several identities. One must only remind themselves that what Britishness truly entails is the set of institutions it has preserved for itself that have also been adopted elsewhere. The positive facets of its historical legacy are what makes that definition and is one that can be enjoyed by anyone – regardless of nationhood – so as long they adhere to its laws. But as we see several statues or monuments being toppled that are related to that legacy, positively or not, do we risk entering an era of national nihilism. This should not occur if Britons or its admirers feel no shame in trying to preserve such an inheritance, so long as they do not contradict the very same values they supposedly represent.

Photo by john’s taken it on Flickr.

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