National Identity Nationality and National Identity



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National Identity

Nationality and National Identity

Nationality is having citizenship of a nation state. It usually involves the rights and responsibilities attached to being a citizen, such as healthcare, education, obeying the law and paying taxes. Nationality is most commonly based on place of birth or marriage but can also be achieved by naturalisation, whereby people choose their nationality after meeting legal requirements.

National identity can be defined as the feeling of being part of a larger community in the form of a nation, which gives a sense of purpose and meaning to people’s lives as well as a sense of belonging.

National identity is not necessarily the same thing as nationality. For example, people who have British nationality may not subscribe to a British national identity. Many citizens of the UK, defined as British, see themselves primarily as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Moreover, many British citizens may see their national identity as linked to their country or region of origin and so may see themselves as African Caribbean or Bengali, for example. Others may see their identities as being more closely linked to their religion, such as Muslim.

Hall suggests that every nation has a collection of stories, images and symbols about its shared experiences, which people draw on to construct and express their national identity.

Palmer discusses how a national identity is promoted and maintained by heritage tourism, using the historic symbols of the nation as a means of attracting tourists.



Nationality as a Source of Identity

National identity usually involves a sense of belonging to a nation state and sharing things in common with others of the same nationality, and an awareness of differences from those of other nationalities. Nationalism is a sense of pride in, and a commitment to, a nation.

The British nation state includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Citizens of the UK all have British nationality but they do not all have this as their national identity. A declining number of people are identifying themselves as British, instead adopting English, Scottish or Welsh national identities. In the 2011 census 58% of people in England described themselves as English only, not British.

We can see the growth of nationalism in the UK with elected assemblies being set up in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as a Parliament in Scotland. In addition, the Scottish National Party (SNP) formed a majority government in the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and in the 2015 general election when the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.



British Identity

The British are a mix of social and immigrant groups. As Guibernau and Goldblatt note, no case can be made for a single, original, authentic group of Britons. However, they argue that a sense of British identity has been created around a number of key themes:



  • Geography: the fact Britain consists of islands gave it a clear sense of boundaries that made it distinct from Europe.

  • Religion: Protestantism is the dominant religious identity in Britain. In times of national celebration religion plays a central role.

  • War: Wars have reinforced the sense of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ and especially British values.

  • The British Empire: Britain’s success as an imperial power brought economic success and a sense of achievement.

  • Monarchy: the cultural symbols of British nationality are designed to place the monarchy at the heart of British identity.

The 2014 British Social Attitudes survey found ¾ or more of people saw speaking English, having British citizenship, respecting Britain’s political institutions and laws and being born in Britain or living most of your life here as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important for being truly British.

Prime Minister David Cameron saw commitment to the values of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights as defining characteristics of British identity.

However, it is difficult to say that these values are uniquely British as they are found in most democratic countries. The history of British people is very different as well with battles between English and the Scots and Irish, and exploitation of former colonies under the British empire.

National Identity and Socialisation

Schudson points out that the British people are socialised into a British identity in several ways:



  • A common language: English is seen as central to our cultural identity.

  • Education: the teaching of History, English literature and Religion in British schools tends to promote national identity.

  • National rituals: royal and state occasions are used to reinforce the British way of life.

  • Symbols: these include styles of dress, uniforms, passports, styles of music, national anthems and flags.

  • The mass media: television, magazines and newspapers encourage people to identify with national symbols such as the Royal Family by taking a keen interest in their activities. The media also play a key role by talking up British achievement.

  • The mass production of fashion and taster: Britishness can also be embodied in particular foods, consumer goods and retail outlets.

The Decline of British Identity?

Waters suggests British identity may be under threat for four reasons:



  1. Celtic identities: These have always been a powerful source of identity in countries such as Wales and Scotland. They have been given legal legitimacy in the form of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. Scottish national identity featured prominently in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the electoral success of the Scottish National Party in the 2015 general election. People in Scotland are more likely to identify themselves as Scottish than British, whilst people in England people are more likely to identify themselves as equally British and English.

  2. Globalisation: British identity may be diluted as some British companies and products are taken over by foreign companies while others close down their factories and move production to cheaper developing countries. There are also concerns that American culture is taking over the British high street. Moreover, television programmes, films and music are increasingly being produced for the international market. There are fears that these largely American products may erode Britishness and create a single global culture.

  3. Multiculturalism: A survey conducted in 2005 found only 39% of minorities saw themselves as ‘fully British’. Modood found that Asians and African Caribbeans did not feel comfortable with a ‘British’ identity: they felt that the majority of white people did not accept them as British because of their skin colour and cultural background.

  4. English identity: Curtice and Heath have suggested that the group who identify themselves as English has grown and a significant proportion of these ‘Little Englanders’ openly admitted being racially prejudiced.

Hall suggests that one possible consequence of globalization is that national cultures may decline, leading to new hybrid cultures and hybrid identities. There is evidence for this:

  • Decisions and events in one part of the world can have significant consequences for people across the globe.

  • The media report events across the world almost immediately as well as exposing people to other cultures.

  • People travel abroad much more than they used to.

  • More British people buy homes in foreign countries

  • Britain’s membership of the EU means that some decisions affecting British life are taken in collaboration with other European countries.

  • Immigration means that there are substantial ethnic minority groups in different countries.

Postmodernists see such changes as opening up more opportunities for people to choose from a wider range of cultures and identities than they had in the past. Consequently national identity may be less significant as a source of identity, and people might see a European or global identity, for example, as more significant than a British identity.

On the other hand, Hall recognises that globalization can result in increased nationalism as a way of opposing it.



This idea of asserting national identity as a way of opposing changes like globalization has been described by Orr as part of a trend towards people constructing negative identities, where people rage at anyone seen to be different, Rather than people defining themselves as who they are, they instead define themselves as who they are not. Groups like the British National Party, the UK Independence Party and the English Democrats can be seen as evidence of this.

We may be seeing a new form of Britishness emerging. This can be illustrated with the news that chicken tikka masala has now replaced fish and chips as the UKs most popular food and in the multicultural nature of the British Olympic team at London 2012. In other words, a new form of Britishness may be emerging, shaped both by traditional British values and institutions and by values and institutions which are linked to the multicultural and globalised Britain.


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