Britishness since 1870
by Paul Ward (2004)
A review by Joseph Hardwick
Britishness since 1870 is an academic history book which seeks to show how Britishness has been a more adaptable and resilient national identity than is sometimes thought. Paul Ward disagrees with those historians and commentators who have tried to define or capture the 'essence' of Britishness. Ward is not interested in the ways in which an 'unchanging Britishness, forged long in the past' (172) has been passed down from one generation to the next; rather, he is interested in how the meaning of Britishness has changed and evolved throughout the course of the twentieth century. He is interested in how 'people have been actively engaged in the construction of British national identity', and how this 'has made Britishness a resilient force' (9). His book attempts to rebuff those advocates of the 'end of Britain' who tend to assume that the inhabitants of the United Kingdom 'ought to be acting in particular ways, that they should be becoming more Welsh, Scottish or Irish' (169).
The book is organised thematically, with each chapter focusing on a particular theme to show how Britishness has continued to be redefined in a number of different contexts. The seven chapters cover the issues of 'monarchy and empire', 'gender and national identity', 'rural, urban and regional Britishness', 'spare time', 'politicians, parties and national identity', 'ethnicity and Britishness', and 'outer Britain' (which looks at the strength of Britishness among the unionist communities in the 'Celtic fringe'). Each chapter emphasises the resilience of the forces which have operated to ensure that the inhabitants of Great Britain continue to consider themselves to be - at least in part - British.
For the past two decades politicians and journalists have been predicting the collapse of the United Kingdom and with it the decline of British national identity. Ironically, these anxieties about the imminent end of Britain have stimulated historians to take a deeper interest in the history of Britishness and national identity. In general, historians have followed politicians and journalists in charting the decline of British national identity from a perceived heyday in the period between the two world wars. It is significant that the foundational text of British national identity historiography - Raphael Samuel's three-volume work Patriotism - was subtitled 'The making and unmaking of British identity'.
Paul Ward's Britishness since 1870 is an example of a work which attempts to emphasise the durability and longevity of British national identity. In the introduction and conclusion to the book Ward points out that there has been a tendency in the existing scholarship to view Britishness as a static and fixed identity which was imposed on the Celtic fringe (or 'outer Britain' as he calls it) by the English state. Scottishness, Welshness and Englishness, by contrast, have been wrongly seen as organic or bottom-up identities which are somehow 'more real and permanent' (7). There has also been a tendency for scholars to follow in Linda Colley's footsteps and see British national identity as defined through the monarchy, the established Churches, the experience of war, and loyalty to the empire. When seen in these terms it is not difficult to chart the decline of Britishness since the end of the Second World War. By contrast, Ward argues that to search for a single and definite definition of Britishness would be to miss the ways in which Britishness has been continually redefined and refashioned through history. Alternative constructions of Britishness have always existed alongside one another. Ward's book charts how a more flexible, inclusive and pluralist definition of Britishness has gradually replaced the static and fixed conceptions of British national identity which existed in the first half of the twentieth century. In recent years new arrivals to the UK have begun to lay claim to Britishness and have called for the adoption of a civic, rather than cultural, Britishness that was not coupled with whiteness (139). Rather than being a sign of the imminent dissolution of the British state, these changes suggests that Britishness will continue to evolve as a collective identity.
Each of the chapters focuses on a particular theme to show how Britishness has continued to be redefined in a number of different contexts. Chapter one emphasises the integrative role played by the monarchy in bringing the Scots, the Welsh and the English together, and chapter two shows how women have been as willing as men to participate in the life of the nation. This was in spite of the fact that the relationship between women and the nation was ambiguous: until 1948 women marrying aliens were, in Ward's phrase 'dispossessed of their Britishness', and it was not until 1983 that the children of marriages between British women and foreign men were defined as British. Chapter three downplays the links between Britishness and the rural idyll, while chapter four argues (perhaps controversially) that spectator sports have reinforced, rather than diminished, feelings of national identity in Britain. Chapter five argues that the emergence of political parties with a national reach and appeal have served to reinforce a sense of unity among the inhabitants of the Britain and Ireland. Chapter six, which looks at the relationship between ethnicity and national identity, shows how the belief that Britishness is a fixed identity (revolving around ideas of respectability, the home and the 'quiet' suburban neighbourhood) was steadily developed during the course of the twentieth century. Ward argues that immigration has challenged this closed and fixed idea of national identity, forced the British to reconsider 'who they are', and opened up space for the articulation of a civic, rather than cultural Britishness that recognises and encourages diversity. To what extent these ideas or the Britishness issue is a concern of non-white and white immigrant communities more generally is not addressed in any depth. The final chapter argues that Britishness was never an English imposition, but instead it has been a positive identity which those on the 'Celtic fringe' have held simultaneously with other regional identities.
Britishness since 1870 therefore encourages us to think about the instability of British national identity. What he is most interested in is showing how people have been engaged in the construction of British national identity, and how this has 'made Britishness a resilient force' (9). The fact that many immigrants and their descendants desire what Tariq Modood calls a 'hyphenated Britishness' (i.e. to be black-British and black-Indian), indicates that Britishness will continue to be re-imagined and reconstructed into the future.
- Keith Robbins, The English Historical Review, 120:488 (2005), pp. 1096-1097, http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/120/488/1096