For a long time, I’ve been thinking about national identity in Britain, and about what it means to be British, indeed about whether it means anything distinct at all. I’m not just talking about cups of tea, about stoically toughing out a crisis, about Shakespeare or warm beer — though those are of course tangible expressions of identity. No, I’m talking about our understanding of what we stand for, our collective sense of being, of motion.
Sure, identity in some of its forms permeates every nook of our outward expression — just think of the literature and music around questions of place, race, gender, sexuality, education, family. Those are the things by which we define ourselves, and they are the things by which others define us. Those things are ever present.
But our public and media discourse on collective national identity remains bashful. There is little sense that we share a common, collective aim to which we can all contribute and all feel part of, irrespective of those things that define us as individuals. There is little sense that we are each contributing to a collective journey, no matter where we’ve come from or what else we believe.
In America, where I used to live and another country which thrives on a plurality of ideas and people, that sense of togetherness is palpable at every street corner — not just in the visual expression of the flag, but in how people interact, and how people operate in their day to day lives. America knows that it stands for freedom, opportunity, diversity and hard work. But America also knows that everyone contributes to that single mentality, and that the national narrative has constant flow to which all must contribute. As President Obama remarked just a few days ago, on the anniversary of that country’s creation:
“Today we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of a great experiment, American democracy…We gather in town centers and wave flags in parades not only to recall this history we share, but also to honor the vibrant and enduring spirit of America established on this day…That essence has permeated our land and inspired generations of Americans to explore, discover, and redefine the outer reaches of our infinite potential. It has become the foundation of the American dream…We must not simply commemorate the work begun over two and a quarter centuries ago; we are called to join together, hoist their mantle upon our shoulders, and carry that spirit of service into tomorrow…Their spirit-our spirit-will guide our nation now and in our bright future.”
Perhaps, being born out of trauma and a specfic moment in time, this collective identity and sense of motion is easier to hone on the other side of the Atlantic than it is here. Perhaps it’s just very un-British to even desire it, much more to try to define it. But at a time where selfishness amongst some has led to distress for all, at a time where hateful fringe groups are trying to divide our communities for the advancement of a selfish and intolerant agenda, and in a year of a general election and a World Cup, isn’t it time we reopened the debate about who we are, and who we want to be, in our national political discourse? Because if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that our actions are interconnected, and we thrive together and suffer together. And for the left, there is an opportunity as well as a challenge.
Today on LabourList, then, we will try to look at some of the core arguments and discussions around these questions. Who are we? What makes us who we are? Where do we want to go? How can we better express our diversity as unity? Which institutions and organisations are important to our collective identity? What role can politics play? And what is the role of the individual?
We will have the thoughts on nationhood of all five of Labour’s leadership candidates, and contributions from a range of people with a range of backgrounds in the Labour Party and beyond.
Of course, questions of identity are always challenging, and there are no easy answers, partly because even collective identity is subjective, and based on personal experience. The many forms of British identity — of north and south, of race and religion, of regional and local, and of course of our four separate nations, each with its own history and culture and pattern of movement — make this an especially difficult issue here. Our colonial history, too, is one which many on the left, especially, continue to struggle with. And in Britain, unlike in America, we are not bound by or to a constitution which articulates our values, and which connects us to our past or which opens a path to our future. But to paraphrase Obama again, while our stories may be singular, our patchwork heritage is a strength, and recent events have shown that our destiny is shared.
I believe we do have an historical identity available to us to grasp, to help bind our collective instincts. And I believe it’s one which we on the left can also be proud of and shape. From the Magna Carta, to the industrial revolution, to chartism and the sufragettes, to the NHS, to our role in shaping the world’s democracy and culture, it’s an identity based on the values of tolerance, diversity, compassion, respect and equality.
We won’t answer many of the big, burning questions today; but we might be able to help reopen that important conversation.