British post-war identity

By Adrian Graham on 19 August 2017 — 4 mins read

The Second World War provided the crucible that defined post-war, post-colonial British identity. It taught Britons to ‘mend and make do’, ‘keep your chin up’, and maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’. The civilian resilience shown during the London Blitz, the quiet determination and cheeky humour of ‘business as usual’ affirmed that British identity was resilient.

After the war, a bankrupt Britain hit the austerity years, but managed to cobble together the money and vision to build a universal health care system (1948), the ‘welfare state’ (1946), subsidised council housing, a cohesive nationalised public transport system, and utilities that served the nation. A home-grown ‘British Socialism’, influenced by Christian values, became the nation’s reward for its wartime sacrifice. Meanwhile, the anti-fascist ideals of wartime Britain, a lack of resources, and a general sense of fatigue brought it home to people that the sun was setting on the British Empire.

The post-war world was dominated by a disappearing Empire, the rise of consumerism and the ‘Swinging ‘60s’—a high point for Britishness and British Identity. Britain was epitomised by James Bond and the Union Jack; Rolls Royce and miniskirts; Carnaby Street and The Beatles. The Empire was mostly gone but the country made up for it with energy and creativity. Things would turn sour. The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland brought sectarian violence and anti-Britishness to the fore, economic stagnation and weakening industrial competitiveness led the world to view Britain less as a leader and more of a ‘sick man’. American, European and Japanese competitors were pushing British industrial and consumer products out of the market. Overseas rivals tended to be cheaper, more reliable, or better marketed. The loss of the Empire saw previously guaranteed markets shrink. During the 1970s the country spiralled into despondency and bad labour relations—something bold had to happen. That answer was Thatcherism.

Free market capitalism became the defining characteristic of the Conservative party. It became an ideological position that defined politics and it would change Britain’s identity permanently by introducing economic Darwinian. Britain, they argued, had gone soft and inefficient from public ownership, excessive state control, and ‘red tape’, which throttled free enterprise. Ailing industries would no longer be propped up by public money—market forces would decide their future. Thatcherism dismantled significant areas of the centrally controlled ‘British Socialist’ state, the mining industry was especially targeted. There was a zealous eagerness to shed state owned businesses, to put them up for sale on the stock market, to cut back on the Welfare state and the National Health Service. Britain would become a service based economy, industry could be let to wither and die. The emphasis went on the financial markets—services. Areas of the Northern England became post-industrial wastelands, suffering from ‘urban blight’ and high unemployment. The Conservative transformation of Britain was propped up by a massive influx of money from North Sea oil, and profits made by selling off council housing stock and state utilities. It changed British Identity forever.

The 1980s were marked by a national schism between yuppies driving around in their Porsches, and unemployed miners living in devastated communities. Businesses were investing overseas, relocating manufacturing to cheaper labour markets with less regulation. This dichotomy between ‘the haves and the have nots’ became increasing apparent as the nation slid into a kind of neo-Victorian schism. The nation of ‘we’re in it together’ was seduced by ‘greed is good’: consumerism and money. The Thatcherite economic transformation of Britain; rolling back the so-called ‘nanny state’, privatising nationalised industries and utilities balkanised the country. For many, this new reality became the new British identity—buying a council house, owning shares in a privatised British Gas. The change in attitude from the earnest post-war ‘British Socialism’ to Harry Enfield’s comic observation of Thatcherism—Loadsamoney, a character who constantly boasts about how much money he has—was a stark transformation. The 1982 Falklands War also saw a return to a jingoistic last flourish of British military power with the defeat of the Argentineans. The new epoch of ‘me first’ selfishness continued with New Labour, which was in power from 1997 to 2007. The Blairite vision saw New Labour turn into a slightly less-radical version of Thatcherism, and the invasion of Iraq, based on the famously erroneous justification: Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It also saw large-scale deregulation of the financial markets, a move which contributed to the global financial meltdown in 2007.

Today, in the shadow of the Brexit referendum, there’s a wide-ranging anxiety about Britain’s future, and the nation’s role in the world—questions about national identity. Are we an outward or inward looking nation, is the frequent goad? Who are we? What do we stand for? Identity is like a story, a narrative of belonging. The cliché of British identity is the sound of a cricket ball on a Cricket bat, tea and a Victoria Sponge, the cucumber sandwich, Royal Navy ships, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Union Jacks waving at the last night at the Proms, and Olympic athletes dressed in ‘Team GB’ kit. Our notion of Britishness seems overly historical—Downton Abbey and English Heritage—and less about where we are going. The Britain of today is a place of tourist attractions, and the reality: run-down shopping centres, Pound shops, betting shops, and people living lives of low expectation. The British national identity, Britishness, is giving way to something else—regionalism, anti-colonialism, Islamic identity, and a deep distrust in politicians and ‘the system’. The Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, for example, see itself as being part of the Irish story of national identity, and many Scottish people want an independent Scottish nation, for it to go back into its own Scottish narrative. Identity is about choosing where we belong and where we want to go to. Who we are and who we aspire to be. What does Britishness mean? What future can there be for a nation without a cohesive identity that brings people together?