I was brought up to believe I was British, not English. It was a source of family pride to think that ‘bits’ of us were most likely traceable back to Ireland, Scotland or Wales.
What has happened to this sense of national identity, that Scottish independence has roused so little interest this side of the border? This was the question that dominated a seminar at the Centre for Policy Studies earlier this week.
Though the consensus was that the Union would last a good few more years, it would be despite indifference to the notion of Great Britain, most pronounced on the English side of the border.
It will be no thanks to careless English Brits if Scotland does not, after all, drift off into the North Sea. It will be more down to canny Scottish judgment – what will leave them economically better off – than to any sense of national pride in being British, either side of the border.
This side apathy has prevailed. Even ‘borderlanders’ could not be persuaded to demonstrate in its favour, the MP Rory Stewart revealed.
So why do we no longer care in ‘South Britain’ what happens to ‘North Britain’?
It is clearly down to an identity crisis that most people have no idea Britain is in the throes of – an irony that was not lost on the CPS audience. That’s why the Scottish referendum has excited so little passion. Chicken and egg.
But that this wavering British identity matters, no one was in doubt.
How, one participant asked, can we go through an EU referendum if we don’t have a sense of national identity? What is the point?
Answers and theories came fast and furious.
A lack of political leadership topped the list, though no one was so impolite as to ask why it took till last February for David Cameron to bang the drum for the Union; why he made his speech in London not the Borders let alone in Glasgow; why he didn’t take this opportunity to promote those British values (many deriving from Scotland) he decided latterly were important after all?
Criticism focused rather on the calibre (or lack of it) of the majority of MPs and candidates incapable of making the case for the Union.
It focused too on the failure of history teaching – what burden of responsibility did that bear? Undergraduates arriving at Oxford, a professor commented, did not even know when the Civil War took place since ‘theme’ and ‘topic’ knocked chronology and narrative off the history curriculum.
Then there was the failure to solve the West Lothian question. Did that account for (English) British MPs’ nonchalance?
Or was it really down to a baser, ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’, reaction to the increasingly left wing and public sector prone Scotland, eyes bright at the thought of offloading around 40 Labour MPs to boot and saving the next election?
No one mentioned the rise of the progressive PC culture in Britain that is hostile to the notion of nationalism and which is predominantly internationalist in its outlook – at the heart of the ‘British’ crisis.
Finally the conversation turned to how a sense of nationhood could be instilled into this void to make people care.
Did it mean being more like the USA where the new immigrant is shown pictures of American life from Californian orange growers to Kentucky horse breeders? Should we similarly imbue a sense of the British Isles, from Welsh hill farmers to Scottish whisky brewers, on new arrivals? May be.
Birthplace after all is the factor that bears on our sense of national identity most.
And there is no escaping that our foreign born population has quadrupled in the last 60 years and doubled in recent years (from 3.8 million to around 7.8 million, meaning that 1 in 8 of the usual resident population was not born here).
This has to have impacted on the collective knowledge of the nation; especially given the historic absence of positive integration policies and the counter policy of celebrating multiculturalism, to say nothing of anti empire history teaching about the ‘mother’ country.
The collapse of the family too, that other facet of social fragmentation and atomisation, warranted discussion it didn’t get. What price the changing face of the British family? The dramatic transition (in just 30 years) from families led by married parents to ones led by single parents or cohabiting couples must have weakened the transmission of national identity.
As Jonah Goldberg has argued with respect to capitalism, exactly how heritage is passed down is through cultural institutions such as the family. Where national identity is concerned if you do not know who your father or grandfather (or grandmother) is or was, let alone what they might have done for their country, your sense of belonging and loyalty is bound to be affected.
You are less likely to hear about sacrifice. You are less likely to understand JF Kennedy’s famous 1961 exhortation, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that so defines national identity and loyalty.