Why Britain Needs a British Identity

September 23, 2014

Last Friday morning, 5,295,000 Scots woke up still British. The Scottish independence referendum was defeated and as the results came in, it was clear that it never really stood a chance. Only four of 32 constituencies voted in favor of independence and sub-nationally there was nearly an 11-point gap favoring unionism. In the wake of this result, the Scottish National Party’s chairman and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, the primary force behind the pro-referendum camp, resigned from both positions.

This win for unionists should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo; the current British political and civic situation is untenable. Institutional reform will be necessary (perhaps even democratization of the House of Lords), further devolution to sub-national legislatures will occur, and the United Kingdom will be on its way to a federal system. The redefinition of the relationship between Westminster and the rest of Britain partially assuages many of the nationalist demands and claims that those in power are out of touch elitists who do not represent the will of the people. What these reforms will not do is answer the more pressing question of what it means to be British.

This is not a new discussion. David Cameron famously punted on the British question 8 years ago, with the cynical “We don’t do flags on the front lawn” response to Gordon Brown’s push for a more defined and robust British identity. The consequences of this detachment can be felt not just north of the border, but across the kingdom, from economically deprived corners of English cities to the persistently sectarian, divided quarters of Ulster. The vacuum created by the absence of a coherent British identity is not always filled by something as benign as separatist Scottish nationalism: it is at risk of being filled by extremism, be it the radical Islamism that has driven hundreds to take up arms in Syria and Iraq or the exclusionary and xenophobic right-wing nationalism of groups like the English Defense League.

The pro-union,”Better Together” campaign itself illustrates this problem well. The case made by Better Together was more about highlighting the risks of independence rather than offering an alternative, British identity. Only in the last moments of the campaign did Gordon Brown attempt to sway voters with a sense of shared history; and ultimately his argument did not rest on the Britishness premise, as he retreated and declared, “If you’re unsure, vote no.” This lack of a cohesive sense of identity will remain problematic for Unionists, even with full fiscal autonomy at the sub-national level, otherwise known as devo-max, a democratically elected upper chamber, and a federalized government in Westminster. In the wake of the decision, nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland have already called for increased devolution in the former and a referendum of their own in the latter. As the question of Britishness remains unanswered, nationalists see this as the perfect moment to demand more.

There is little disagreement that British identity needs to be promoted; the difficult questions, however, are how to define British identity and what role the state should play in its propagation. British identity will need to be inclusive and resonate in South Armagh as much as it does in South Kensington. It will need to have its roots in a common history (which will also need to be taught effectively in schools) and shared values, both distinct from uniform views on specific policies.

Most importantly it will need to offer outlets for citizen involvement and encourage public input in the political process. British citizens, particularly young people, will need to be taught not just about their political system, but about their role in it and how they can influence public policy. This is crucial. It is simply not enough that students understand government and democracy from an academic perspective. They need to understand the role of citizens in their democracy and be proficient in the skills and knowledge necessary to exercise their rights. Most importantly, they need to be instilled with a positive attitude regarding citizen participation and believe that their voices and those of their fellow citizens can influence the public policies that affect their lives and their communities. Simply put, the state needs to cultivate in young people the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to be an effective citizen.

To move this forward, those in the British educational establishment should prioritize defining Britishness through high quality civic learning. They should learn from American organizations that are on the cutting edge of civic engagement research and programming.,To understand the best way to measure youth voting and engagement trends, policy makers should collaborate with Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). To learn how to promote youth engagement in local assemblies and parliaments and excite, engage, and inspire the next generation of citizens, Westminster should look to the Washington, DC-based Close Up Foundation (note: this is the author’s employer), which focuses on civic education.

To follow this track means that one day there may be a United Kingdom where individuals identify not based on retrenched sectarian and nationalist positions, but through inclusive terms. A well-defined British identity would celebrate a shared history and common values, but the key to success is the promotion of the citizen as the ultimate holder of political power. As Britain progresses towards a federal system, the stakes for promoting British identity could not be higher. The rejection of the Britishness question opens the door to further entrenchment of extremist ideologies and the Balkanization of Britain through increased hostility between various sub-national factions. The Union is safe for now, but the Caledonian question was just the beginning.

James Sheehan is the Grants & Communications Manager at the Close Up Foundation, a Washington, DC-based civic education non-profit. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College, London. The views expressed are his own.

Photo credit: matthew Hunt