The full name of the sovereign state in which I live is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thankfully, it is almost always shortened to the UK or Britain – but it is important to remember that the UK includes Northern Ireland in its boundaries, while Britain (technically) refers only to the complete island that is made up of the countries England, Scotland and Wales.
In September 2014 the Scottish government will hold a referendum on the subject of their independence; people will have to vote on whether to remain a part of the UK (and Great Britain, although that’s more complicated) or to leave. Whatever the outcome, the murmurs of dissatisfaction – although hardly new – represent a crisis for the idea of a common Britishness shared harmoniously by Scotland, Wales and England. The concept of a united Britain is being rattled.
Utter the phrase “nationalism” in reference to the Scottish or the Welsh and a plethora of well-known stereotypes will surely spring to mind that, while unreliable, are entirely distinct from each other. Even though both countries are technically British, historical differences in language, politics and industry, for example, allow each to maintain its own unique identity on the world stage. It is their unique identity that some Scottish people want to protect and propagate by rejecting British nationality.
In contrast, England has become almost impossible to distinguish from Britain; the two are synonymous. One thinks of Britain and, unfortunately for the Scottish and Welsh (and often anyone living outside London), the go-to images for the rest of the world are those of the Houses of Parliament, red buses, rolling fertile hills (as opposed to wild northern moors) and monarchical grandeur of the southernmost territory.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a Scottish referendum pokes huge holes in the glorious myth of ‘what it means to be British’ that is otherwise kept alive year on year by a carefully planned national curriculum. England, with no distinct nationalism of its own to fall back on once imperial Britishness has been pulled out from underneath its feet, is in trouble. In other words, if Britain becomes a meaningless concept, so does England.
In this vein, I have decided on a project. By reading my way around England I want to pursue the ever-elusive English national identity in the modern world.
Is there one? Can we ever hope to agree on one? Does anyone apart from me feel the absence of one?