The Second World War, the crucible that defined post-war, post-colonial British identity, 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, meant that whatever Hitler threw at Londoners they would keep on going, ensuring it was ‘business as usual’. Even the heroics of the RAF fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain represented a certain unassuming British modesty: refusing to draw to much attention to oneself.
After the war, a bankrupt Britain hit the austerity years, but managed to cobble together the money for universal health care (1948), to produce the ‘welfare state’ (1946), subsidised council housing, and nationalised public transport and utilities. Socialism was the nation’s reward for its wartime sacrifice. Meanwhile, the anti-fascist ideals of wartime Britain had led to less appetite (and physical ability) to run an Empire. When the country financially recovered, in the 1950s, consumerism had taken off (especially television ownership), and services were becoming more corporate (local independent shops were competing with supermarkets). The 1960s saw ‘swinging London’ — a high point for ‘brand UK’ — but also saw the conflict in Northern Ireland. By the 1970s growth had stalled and Britain was experiencing serious economic problems: European and Japanese industrial competitors were pushing British products out of the market — British products were more expensive, less reliable, and poorly marketed — and a byproduct of losing the Empire was also a loss of guaranteed markets for British manufacturing.
Thatcherism was the 1980s antidote to British industrial decline. How much of this radical transformation was actually necessary, and how much was simply spiteful, or ideological dogma, is anyone’s guess. What Thatcherism did see was a lurch to the right, rolling back the so-called ‘nanny state’ — privatising the nationalised industries and utilities. It also saw the Falklands War, and the perception from overseas observers that Britain was back on track as a functioning state. From 1997 to 2007 Blairite ‘New Labour’ headed to the centre-right in order to win an election. New Labour was a vocal supporter of the Iraq war (2003) with the famous justification for war: Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, or ‘weapons of mass destruction’. It also saw large-scale deregulation of the financial markets, which eventually contributed to the global financial meltdown in 2007.
Today, in the shadow of the Brexit referendum, there’s wide-ranging anxiety about Britain's future. What does it mean to be British? What is Britain's role in the world? These aren’t new questions. They are at the heart of post-war British identity. The nation tried socialism, things became shambolic, and then the right rolled back state control. The Empire has long gone, but there’s still a dilemma about the UKs role in the world. And now, it appears, that the pan-Europeanism of the ‘European Project’ has been rejected.
Beyond ‘brand UK’ — the Union Jack's waving at the last night at the Proms, and the Olympic athletes dressed in their Team GB kit — there’s a world of run-down shopping centres, Pound shops, betting shops, and people in grey Primark tracksuits. Where once these people may have felt a certain pride: that they had built the world around them, made the things that had been sold all over the world — what did these people have now? With 11% of its economy based on manufacturing, Britain no longer makes as many things as it once did. The world is choice full of Chinese engineering projects and German industrial robots. The UK has a service based economy, and the City of London. Where does it leave ordinary people outside of that bubble?
The philosophy today appears to be ‘everyone to themselves’, it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world. Once, the British establishment needed the working class to run the nation’s labour intensive industrial base, and defend the Empire. Global capitalism has no loyalties. Histories and narratives can be cut at any moment — the only constant: shareholder profit. The general rule of thumb being: people seem to complain less when there’s money in the economy.
Is Britishness breaking apart?
The Nationalist community in Northern Ireland seeks to be part of the Irish story, and many Scots desire an independent Scottish nation. Identity is about choosing where we belong: people choose where they feel they can be themselves and enjoy greater prosperity. In other parts of the UK people have regressed to a more tribal version of Britishness — ‘the cocky Brits versus the rest of the world’, but this usually gets in the news for all the wrong reasons: xenophobia, and mistrust.
By the end of the 20th Century British ‘toleration’ had been rolled into a kind of liberal multiculturalism — ‘the Empire had come home’. British restraint had given way to the boastful and vulgar showiness of conspicuous consumption. Britain was a nation of different ethnicities, and religions: its armed forces, Police, National Health Service, composed of men and women from different ethnicities, and religions. They drank Italian cappuccino, Indian style curries, French lager, drove German cars, and watched US television shows like Homeland and Game of Thrones. It was a world of living and breathing liberal internationalism.
But the global economy and markets have not worked for everyone. Now British identity is a story of division — unable to agree on its role in the European project, divided by an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and challenged by the rival narratives of Irish and Scottish identity. Britain has played with post-war socialism, Thatcherism, and New Labour — what’s next?