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What does it mean to be British?

America has its Dream, France its Republic – but Britain suffers from a failure of imagination.

By Gary Younge

When the United States joined the Second World War and planned to bring its troops to Britain, the British asked if they could either leave the African Americans at home or send them somewhere else. The request was prompted not so much by British racism as by a squeamishness at how the UK would administer American racism on British soil.

There was hypocrisy in this for sure. Thanks to the British empire, at that time the number of black people living under the British flag was greater than the population of Britain itself. All of those outside Britain lived under codified segregation. But like a meat eater who never ventures near an abattoir, Britain kept its legal discrimination at a sufficient distance from the mother country, so that the practice was unseen and, therefore, somehow not registered.

It was a genuine request nonetheless. The arrival of segregated American troops ­created anxiety at the highest levels. In the end the British housed the Americans in barracks that could be segregated and tried to prevent white and black Americans from socialising on the same night.

Once the Americans arrived an ­unforeseen problem arose: many Britons preferred the African Americans to their white counterparts. Among other things they were freer with their rations and complained less about the plumbing and food. “The general ­consensus of opinion,” wrote George Orwell in 1943, “seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the ­Negroes.”

[See also: Union Jacks aren’t just for Conservatives]

These affections were not uncomplicated. There were fights, slights and injustices – but the overall feeling, according to surveys at the time, was that the more likely British people were to meet African-American soldiers the more likely they were to think well of them.

A report from the Ministry of Information from the period cited that the most common attitude towards black GIs was one of “paternal tolerance,” mixed with sympathy for “the underdog”. There is a tendency, it stated, “to regard the Negroes as ‘childish, happy, and naive fellows who mean no harm’ and this sympathetic ­attitude has been increased by the good behaviour, kindliness and ­humour of the coloured troops themselves”. Or, in the possibly apocryphal words of one West Country farmer: “I love the Americans, but I don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.”

The story of the reception of black American GIs seems quintessentially British in ways that have nothing to do with race. The constellation of avoidance, indignation, feigned ignorance, hypocrisy, decency, conviviality, plausible deniability, paternalism and reverse snobbery came together in a specific way to particular, not entirely objectionable, effect.

National character is a slippery eel; the moment you think you have a grip on it, it’s gone. Its essence is fleeting; its shape shifts ­constantly and yet you know it when you see it, even if each person sees something different.

That is true of all nations and yet feels particularly true of Britain. In the absence of a constitution or a bill of rights we have no foundational documents to refer to, beyond the Magna Carta, which was not even written in English.

There is no national utopian trajectory that has captured the imagination of the British public or polity. (A huge asterisk is ­necessary here to acknowledge the disputed and autonomous elements that comprise the United Kingdom. If we can meaningfully talk of the Baltic states or Scandinavia then we can have a meaningful conversation about the United Kingdom, even if the present ­arrangement is not to everyone’s liking. But this extensive parenthesis is commensurate with the size of the caveats necessary for that conversation.)

For all the ways in which nationalism is central to what both ails and animates us, from hooliganism to Brexit, it is curiously devoid of purpose or intent. It speaks to the present only in passing and is so obsessed with the past that it completely eschews the future.

The managed decline of empire has been accompanied by a managed orderly denial of what the empire was and did. This process took place with indecent haste. In 1951, when Britain still ruled over all its Caribbean and African possessions, nearly three-fifths of respondents could not name a single ­British colony, according to the UK government’s social survey. A 2020 YouGov poll ­reveals that one in three Britons think the empire is something to be proud of, while just one in five think it is something to be ashamed of.

This, in no small part, is why the Second World War lurks so large in the popular imagination. As Paul Gilroy explains in After Empire: “That memory of the country at war against foes who are simply, tidily and ­uncomplicatedly evil has recently acquired the status of an ethnic myth. It explains how the country remade itself through war and victory but can also be understood as a rejection or deferral of its present problems.”

Given how determined we have been to distort or deny how we got here, we should not be too surprised if we are struggling to work out who we are. We are great, goes the logic, because we were once better.

British identity has no lodestar; it is grounded in no principle; put bluntly it has no point beyond its own self-assertion. When the prime minister in the film Love Actually, played by Hugh Grant, extols the Britain he loves, he insists: “We may be a small country, but we are a great one too.” He then goes on to mention not an ideal, virtue or value on which the nation is founded but instead provide a list of males, both real and imagined. “The ­country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the ­Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot for that matter…”

The equivalent figure in a French film would have given a nod to Republican values and the universalist ideals on which they are founded; an American president would have paid homage to freedom, liberty and the American Dream.

These are not just slogans. They come from somewhere. The notion that French citizenship is the primary political identity, against which all other allegiances are at best subsidiary and at worst contradictory, is a cornerstone of the French revolutionary tradition. In the revolutionary parliament of 1794 black, mixed-race and white representatives from the former French colony of Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) were welcomed with rapturous applause and the announcement: “The ­aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of religion have been destroyed. But the ­aristocracy of the skin still remains. That too is now at its last gasp and equality has been consecrated.”

In the US, at around the dawn of the last century white immigrants arrived en masse, fleeing pogroms and famine in search of work and a new start. They came to a nation formed through an anti-colonial war that had waged a civil war over slavery in its recent past. The issue of freedom and social mobility was urgent, even as some were denied it.

It’s right there in our anthems. The French national anthem is literally a call to arms, so that the citizens may “water our fields” with the blood of their adversaries; Americans see the flag of their fledgling nation, lit by “bombs bursting in air” over the “land of the free and at the home of the brave”; in Britain we plead for another human being to keep us all in submission. “This country is nothing but offshore laundering for turning evil into hard currency,” says the Succession patriarch Logan Roy of the UK. “And now it just lies here, living off its capital, sucking in immigrants to turn it and stop it getting bed sores.”

National stories rooted in themes such as freedom, equality of opportunity, reinvention and solidarity clearly have staying power. In the US more than 80 per cent of people believe they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to achieving it; in France an appeal to the values of the Republic remain central to any successful electoral campaign. Emmanuel Macron’s party is called La Republique En Marche (“the republic on the move”). In 2021, with Macron’s eye on re-election, his government adopted a bill, Principes de la République, ostensibly aimed at combating religious separatism.

[See also: “I tried to give Britain a different narrative”: a conversation between Tony Blair and Michael Sheen]

That Britain does not draw on similar narratives, though, reflects a strength of sorts. These defining national stories are generally necessitated by some kind of rupture, such as a revolution, occupation, defeat or war, which demands an articulation of what the nation stands against. “We have made Italy,” said Massimo d’Azeglio at the first meeting of the newly united nation’s infant parliament in 1861. “Now we must make Italians.”

Britain, as a whole, never had those ruptures. It was not made, but emerged as the messy product of Roman, Viking and Norman invasions, regional fiefdoms and monarchist pretensions, and keeps muddling on, in relative stability and episodic dysfunction. There is value in that muddle – a foggy pragmatism with a healthy scepticism for the lofty and excessively prosaic. As a nation we have tended away from electoral excess – even if our economic and political extremities bear witness to other inequalities.

There is an inherent, tautologous conservatism in this process that defies evolution and favours vested interests: the way it has been done is the way we should do it; we do it this way because we have always done it this way. This world-view does not lend itself to dream-talk or ideological vision about what might be, but cloaks itself in ermine and presides over what has been. Describing England, Orwell once wrote: “It resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons.” Britain is a more fractious family of a similar ilk.

We saw the wear and tear on this structure as Theresa May desperately tried to find the right flavour of fudge to make Brexit a reality while keeping Northern Ireland in the Union. Her efforts were stymied, in part, when the then speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, cited a legal precedent from 1604 that ­forbade her from holding a third vote on her withdrawal agreement.

If our system is antiquated, however, so are the civic religions to which others cling. When I first moved to the US in 2003 I read a high-school history textbook, America’s Promise, to glean a sense of what a high-school graduate might know and think of their nation’s past. After pages that cover genocide, slavery, segregation and McCarthyism, it ended: “The history of the United States is one of challenges faced, problems resolved, and crises overcome… The full promise of America has yet to be realised. This is the real promise of America; the ability to dream of a better world to come.”

This belief in inevitable improvement and incessant progress is hard to stomach in an era of mass incarceration, children kept in cages, stagnating wages, growing segregation and police shootings.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

Americans are more than twice as likely to believe that they will be millionaires within a decade as Britons, according to a 2011 poll; but Britain has a higher rate of social mobility than the US, as do most countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Maybe Americans would be better off if they stopped dreaming and woke up.

In France, meanwhile, it becomes increasingly difficult to claim that race, religion and gender are irrelevant when racism, Islamophobia, Islamism and sexism are so prevalent. That doesn’t stop the French trying. In 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests, Macron used part of his national address on the Covid pandemic to warn that the “noble fight” against racism became “unacceptable” when it sought to divide French society. When the Paris Opera reviewed its repertoire and announced that, due to racial sensitivity, it would stop performing some works and ­actors would no longer use black face or ­yellow face, the editor of the liberal newspaper Le Monde branded the move an act of “self-censorship” that was pandering to ­identity politics.

All the evidence, however, suggests that if young black and brown people in France reject the promise of universalism, it’s partly because they do not experience it. A 2014 poll showed that more than a third of the French public acknowledged being racist, while more than 80 per cent of those in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, believe that race or ethnicity was the basis of discrimination in dealing with the police or in employment.

At a certain point it would arguably be preferable not to have an origin story than to amplify one that smacks of delusion when set against the evident realities.

What is the value, then, of a national story that does not reflect – or directly contradicts – the nation that actually exists? For that we have to embrace a less grounded, more porous sense of possibility: to accept the less-than-inspiring view for now in anticipation of the awesome vista to come.

As Benedict Anderson writes in Imagined Communities, “the fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion… Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity or genuineness, but in the style in which they are imagined.”

These myths have space for agency and reinterpretation; the scripts they provide can be altered; the goals they claim can be cited for the prosecution as well as the defence. When Americans are polled about the American Dream, wealth is consistently viewed as its least essential element. Most important is “freedom of choice in how to live” and “good family life”. When Martin Luther King made his most famous speech, addressing the March on Washington in 1963, he referred to his dream as “deeply rooted in the American Dream… that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

This, ultimately, is what Britain’s political culture lacks: not so much an ideal or a dream – you cannot conjure an origin story from thin air – but sufficient collective imagination for a shared sense of possibility and a set of principles that could apply to a common future; the idea that Britain stands for something more than posterity and itself.

Gary Younge is professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. His books include “Who Are We?: How Identity Politics Took Over the World” (Penguin)

This piece was originally published on 23 March 2022

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain