Masaryk University

English national identity

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1.2 English national identity

According to Baker, ‘British identity is certainly bolstered by an understanding of the multi-cultural origins of our society, but it is fundamentally underpinned by a clear sense of the social history of the British Isles.’ (Baker) This predicates difficulties while dealing with the national identity and the United Kingdom, especially whether to regard it as the whole or to consider nation individually. The fact is that the United Kingdom should be seen as four nations because of their separated histories and different cultures. As England has been for over a thousand years the largest and the most powerful country in the British Isles, the concentration on England and its national identity will become primary even though the issues of Englishness and Britishness might overlap.

On the basis of important historical events, such as wars, political changes and crisis, the formation of the English national identity experienced a long and turbulent development throughout the ages. Even ‘the fifteenth-century Englishman had some idea of national identity’ (Thomson 83) as foreigners could then be very noticeable. Nowadays it is said that the English identity appears to be in a crisis and, additionally, that the English do not even know who they are. For example, British Labour politician Blunkett said that “as the dominant partner in the Union, English identity was diluted, deliberately played down, and even suppressed so as to successfully integrate what was initially the British Isles into what became the three nations of Britain and Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom” (5). Of course, this statement may generalize the whole problem. Although the English nation could suffer to an extent, it still functions as a nation with its own national identity, which is more closely dealt with in the work by academic Kumar. Here the author transcribes national identity as “the character of the English people as a nation – as a collectivity, that is, with a distinct sense of its history, its traditions and its destiny” (Kumar 224) which supports one of thesis ideas that the history could be a symbol of national identity and historical buildings are visible evidence of the history of the nation. But Kumar’s work is mostly based on the “modernist” or “constructivist” tradition. According to Kumar, there was no such thing as a distinct English national identity until the late nineteenth century when the English, facing a declining empire and strong expressions of nationalism in the British peripheries and on the continent, experienced a “moment of Englishness” (xi).

There are many other works related to this topic, such as Paxman’s text. Paxman mentions dozens of aspects which create the English national identity, gives dozens of examples of being English, such as behaviour of the English in various situations, their habits and opinions, and finds specific elements, for example the past, i.e. being an Empire, which participate in creating of the English national identity. In this work he admits that the English feel anxiety whenever they begin to think about their identity (Paxman viii). He also supports the opinion of Blunkett that ‘the English national identity crisis’ has its roots in historical events related to the English nation (Paxman 62) and points out that the English at first believed in individual territories and spiritual and legal institutions (Empire, Church, Parliament) instead of the nation-state. Which is supported by Kumar by describing the English identity as bound tightly to British imperialism (155). But this opinion lost its basis while these institutions became less important or disappeared completely and therefore the English today start to create their new identity based rather on different values than simple elements of national identity (such as national flag or colours):

“The English are simultaneously rediscovering the past that was buried when ‘Britain’ was created, and inventing a new future….The new nationalism is less likely to be based on flags and anthems. It is modest, individualistic, ironic and solipsistic (and) based on values that are so deeply embedded in the culture as to be almost unconscious. In an age of decaying nation states, it might be the nationalism of the future” (Paxman 265-266).

Although Paxman presents a new approach while concerning national identity, national symbols, notwithstanding the basic ones (flag, colours) or the others (architecture, figures), cannot be ignored.

1.3 Elements of national identity

Smith maintains a more conservative attitude to the definitions of terms ‘nation’ and ‘national identity’. He defines nation as “a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members” (Smith 14) which is more related to widely accepted definitions than that of Paxman. All features mentioned in Smith’s definition are at the same time the fundamental features of national identity (Smith 14). Moreover, Smith states that “nations must have a measure of common culture and civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas that bind the population together in their homeland” (Smith 11) and the common culture mentioned above contains a wide scale of elements. On the other hand, this statement is so universal that it contains everything which could be more or less connected to a nation, starting with the language or national symbols and ending with a way of life and common consciousness.

There are many other lists of elements of national identity, such as “the main cultural components of national identity comprise language, religion and traditions” (Kearney 32). Contradictory, London University Professor Guibernau claims that ‘it is not important whether they are subjective or not, but rather whether they are felt as real by those sharing a common identity’ (Guibernau 12) and this opinion also generalizes and contains almost all aspects of a culture. There were written many works about the English, their way of life and their characteristic; about national symbols, such as the national anthem, colours or the flag; and many more or less important parts of lives of the English. Paxman speaks about ‘paucity of the English national symbols’ (Paxman 11) but those symbols could be all aspects of culture, including famous people, language and all kinds of art, such as literary works, music and architecture. In British Cultural Identities authors do not even make a distinctive difference between the terms “national identity” and “cultural identity”. Additionally, the elements of the English identity are here described in detail, such as the above mentioned great individuals: “It applies to single strong figures who somehow stand for or represent the nation...Florence Nightingale and the Queen Mother...Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener...” (Childs 19). Other scholars prefer to deal with the English language. ‘The importance of the English language’ is, for instance, described by Paxman, who claims the English language is “the greatest legacy the English have bequeathed the rest of humanity” (234) in spite of the English displaying “an easy-going attitude to their language” (237), supporting its diversity and new usages. However, this thesis will concentrate on a symbolic value and importance of architecture, individual buildings and their significance for the English nation because these are closely connected to history of the English nation, to the English as individuals and to the nation as a whole. History of the nation, i.e. shared historical experience is a crucial element of the national identity. The historical buildings provide common associations of the historical memory of the nation and serve thus as concrete evidence of the nation’s past. When still operating as institutions, they connect the past with the present and future and become a continuous symbol of the nation. Moreover, significant participants of historical buildings are those related to religion and monarchy.

1.3.1 Religion

Religion has been an inseparable aspect of the British national character. Historically, Christianity “has been the most influential and important religion in Britain” (Office for National Statistics), and it remains the declared faith of the majority of the British people. The influence of Christianity on British culture has been “widespread, extending beyond the spheres of prayer and worship” and “Churches and cathedrals make a significant contribution to the architectural landscape of the nation’s cities and towns” (Office for National Statistics).

The definition of the religion is discussed by the founding father of French academic sociology, Durkheim: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (47). According to Durkheim himself, he mainly explored elementary forms of religion in primitive societies and on the basis of his definition there later derived another stream of thoughts developed by German sociologist Weber. Weber suggests that “it is impossible to define religion, or at least that it can only be defined after empirical inquiry and discussion” (Weber 1). Approaches to defining religion varied through the past. In his essay How religious are the British? Thompson adds that “there are different ways of being religious” (215). Thompson also points out that even three-fifths of the British population from the survey in 1981 identified themselves as ‘religious persons’ (229). Probably the most important and the oldest Christian church in Britain is the officially established Church of England. Moreover, according to Robbins, ‘the Church of England’, a leading article in The Times on 8 July 1980 declared, ‘is the British national church’ (Robbins 85). The Church of England is based on the strong emphasis on teachings of the early Church Fathers1 and shaped by some of the doctrinal and institutional principles of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The nominal head of the Church of England (so called Supreme Governor) is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the senior primate and chief religious figure of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The status of the Archbishop of Canterbury is the main reason why Canterbury Cathedral is one of representative examples of religious buildings selected.

As regards to the importance of religion, Robbins claims that “the Christian religion in the British Isles, in its divided condition, has in turn been deeply involved in the cultural and political divisions of modern Britain and Ireland” (Robbins 85), which supports the idea of the inseparability of religion in Britain, and that “churches have been, in some instances and at some periods vehicles for the cultivation of a ‘British’ identity corresponding to the political framework of Great Britain and Ireland” (Robbins 85) explaining thus the connection between the British identity and religion.

1.3.2 Monarchy

The British monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy, therefore the Sovereign is Head of State but the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament. Moreover, the Sovereign acts as a representative for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service. The importance of the monarchy is closely tied to national identity, also mentioned by British historian Hobsbawm in his work. He writes about the Royal Family as about ‘a public icon of national identification’ (Hobsbawm 142) and according to Ward ‘the British monarchy was supposed to represent the English people’ (Ward 12). Although the symbolic meaning of the monarchy and the Queen is obvious, there are many scientists who deal with the role of the monarchy more closely. “The Monarchy,” says essayist Bagehot, “is a strong government because of its intelligibility” (61) and that means that it has a certain significance and not only a symbolical role. Moreover, he presents several statements to support his idea of functions of monarchy except the symbolic one.

The present meaning of the Monarchy is mainly based on opinions of British inhabitants. Paxman observes that “we must accept that a sense of history runs deep in the English is deeply felt and is one of the things that makes the people what they are” (Paxman 153-154). Therefore, it is the nation which has been strongly relied on the British monarchy and Royal Family. Bagehot even claims that monarchy is ‘the most national thing in the nation’, also the ‘standard to which eyes of the people perpetually turn to keep them together’ and ‘a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol’ (Bagehot 68). The British monarchy, as a symbol of unity of the nation, is not only the person of contemporary Queen Elizabeth II but it is large number of kings, queens and members of their families who left behind them thousands of symbols of their lives.

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