“British identity was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other.” (Colley). To what extent did the decline of empire result in the destruction of British national identity?

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. “It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland”. This is a quote from the Roman lyrical poet Horace, which was subsequently incorporated into “Dulce et Decorum Est” by the famous war time poet Wilfred Owen (Owen, 1965). Appropriately, from this one can identify similarities with Britain’s Roman Imperial equivalent. Like Britain, as McCrone argues: it’s identity is “a supranational identity deriving from its imperial past”, one strengthened by its contact with the ‘Other’ (McCrone, 1997), or a multinational political union where negotiated power is delegated by governments of member states. This, for many is the source of British national identity; international conflict and imperialism; the extension of power by the acquisition of foreign territories, or more contemporarily cultural export and international business. For many, this retains its cogency, and continues to unite the ‘nation’ in its shared history and identity, or the sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, binded by distinctive traditions, culture and language. However, in recent times, ‘the fatherland’ has come into question; most notably by those firmly confined to the shores and provinces of ‘Britain’. According to a 1992 poll, 12.5% of Scottish people consider themselves, British, 33% in Wales, and 50% in England, while these figures are replicated in surveys today. (Dunleavy, 1992). Thus, with the absence of empire and seemingly perpetual war with Europe, Britain’s supranational identity “deriving from its imperial past” has weakened. The international aspects, reputation and distinctiveness of Britain; empire, the uniqueness of Britain’s parliamentary democracy and Britain’s international economic prowess have been degraded or lost. This has highlighted to many, though not all, that “Britishness” was a political tool born in 1707, as Colley argues: “superimposed over an array of internal differences” (Colley, 1992). This unity thus, helped to forge a nation in its spasmodic fit of internationalism.

Whether British national identity ended with the fall of empire, is a complicated question to answer, primarily because the question must be raised whether British national identity ever existed, as class cleavages have always divided Britain, or whether British national identity has indeed declined. Moreover, one must consider whether Empire was responsible for the apparent decline, or another factor. Thus, the question must be posed, to what extent have the various facets of the modern world eroded British national identity, and resulted in the re-emergence of regional identities? To answer this question, we must consider the various factors at play, such as the decline of Britain’s international prominence and empire. Poggi referred to the union as a ‘convenience’ (Poggi, 1987) that now has lost its attraction (I), but also the decline of Protestantism and the identity this created among the British during Britain’s wars with France, and their fight for survival. (Colley, 1992) (II). Nevertheless, we must also consider the effect of Britain’s general decline in terms of distinctiveness, not relating specifically to empire or Protestantism, but it’s uniqueness and individuality that at one time helped to define what it was to be British.  (III). We must also question the extent to which a ‘Britain’ ever existed, given class divides, which have led some to question the unity of the nation. (IV). Therefore, to understand the decline of the British national identity, we first must understand it’s rise; a rise we find in a range of different areas.


It would not be incorrect to say that Britain was forged, not in the British Isles, or even by the 1707 Acts of Union, but in the fields of Waterloo, the waters of the St Lawrence, or the Plains of Central India.  Thus, as Poggi points out (Poggi, 1978), the British state was a ‘convenience’, while McCrone (McCrone, 1997) regards it as ‘externally orientated’ so as to manage its territories and facilitate their defence. The British Union thus was a constructivist solution to the ethnic essentialism found within England, Scotland and Wales. Thus, While the British Union was advanced by the state to forge various identities together, continual foreign expansion, international extraversion and international conflict with an ‘other’ cemented British identity firmly in the minds and psychology of the once predominantly Scottish, Welsh, and English quite efficiently of its own accord. For much of Britain’s international expansion, it’s progress was plagued by the competing force of France, along with a large variety of other nations and actors. Thus, Colley says “wars with France brought Britons, whether they hailed from Wales or Scotland or England, into confrontation with an obvious hostile ‘Other’ and encouraged them to define themselves collectively against it.” (Colley, 1992). Not only was such international conflict consolidating of the British identity, but the expansion of empire, which by 1820 allowed Britain to claim dominion over 26% of the world’s population, and a century later authority over a quarter of the world’s land mass, also psychologically united the British, and indeed regular international conflict often led to the increase of this empire. Indeed, Edward Said points out, “The Orient…helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.” (Said, 1982). Therefore, Colley argues, possession of such alien lands “encouraged the British to see themselves as a distinct, special, and often superior people.” (Colley, 1992) This then greatly helped to shape and consolidate the British identity. Thus, regardless of background, Britons could join together to engage in the heroic act of conqueror and civiliser. “Whatever their own differences, Britons could feel united in dominion over, and in distinction from, the millions of colonial subjects beyond their own boundaries.” (Colley, 1992) Indeed, this British imperial take-off, according to Colley expressed itself, among other things, in the formation of a unified British elite, for the first time. “Rich, landed and talented males from Wales, Scotland and England became welded after the 1770s into a single ruling class.” (Colley, 1992) Niall Ferguson emphasises the extent to which the empire was British, rather than English. “By the end of the 19th Century, around three-quarters of the population of Britain lived in England, with a tenth in Scotland”, though throughout the empire, “the English constituted barley half of colonists.” (Ferguson, 2004). Many argue it is thus in the light of the decline of this once uniting behemoth that the loss of British national identity is cast. Indeed, mass-war in the 20th century served to hasten this death-knell to the British, the practicalities of the union forged principally by external forces, to the harsh realities of modernity, its contradictions displayed for all to see. McCrone points out, for example, “Scotland had joined the union in that year on the basis it would continue to run its own institutional affairs. This ‘low’ politics could only operate if the British state confined itself to ‘high’ politics – especially the imperial variety”. (McCrone, 1997) The loss of the empire, and the ensuing pressure of war forced Britain to integrate its institutional arrangements, and thereafter the strains began to show. “If we accept that Britishness was in essence an imperial identity, then the loss of empire eroded that identity at home and abroad.” (McCrone, 1997).


However, the fall of empire is just a feature of this decline of British nationality. Arguably another extremely important factor in understanding the decline is the decline of religiosity throughout the western world. Tilley argues that Britain was constructed not only on its Empire, military and economic successes, but also on its shared Protestant religious and cultural traditions. (Tilley, 2007). Indeed, Protestantism not only united the Britons at home, but also in their conquests abroad in the expansion of empire. Protestantism for many British people, was thus arguably primarily responsible for creating this sense of unity that came with overseas expansion. “For the majority of Britons who believed that Protestantism was the one true faith…the imposition of British rule was divinely sanctioned.” (Abrams, 1997). Indeed, an important comparison between British Christianity and an ‘other’ was the ignorance of the ‘heathen’ which facilitated a huge number of overseas missions to India and Africa, part of the ‘white man’s burden’. (Peter, 1999).  Moreover, at one time, the gulf between Protestantism and Catholicism supplied an identity to the Protestant British, against the Catholic ‘other’, who to the Protestants were considered hostile. Colley describes the Catholic existence as “an omnipresent menace” to the British, who every November 5th “are reminded that it had been a Catholic who had tried to blow up James I and Parliament back in 1605.” (Colley, 1992). Catholicism held within the collective British, and thus Protestant psyche one of mystique, almost mythology. “While Britain continues to be a nation, she ought never to forget”, wrote one Scottish pamphleteer at the end of the eighteenth century. (Paterson, 1778).  Indeed G.H Jenkins has pointed out that Welsh language ballads were “shot through with the most vigorous anti-Roman animus.” (Jenkins, 1978). The British were thus urged to look upon Catholicism in a dim light, choosing to see them as superstitious and persecuting, in order to see themselves more clearly. (Colley, 1997). Indeed, right until the end of the nineteenth century, France was considered to be Britain’s natural, most dangerous, and most obvious enemy. Therefore, according to Colley, “they (the British) defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power.” (Colley, 1992). This clearly emphasises the importance of the Catholic ‘other’ to British national identity, and goes someway to explaining how the decline of Protestantism affected British unity and identity.


However, various academics argue that Colley’s emphasis on France as the Catholic ‘Other’ to Britain’s Protestantism is overzealous. One major change that Colley does not recognise is the French Revolution of 1793, and the effect this had on the constitution of religion within French society, as highlighted by Van der Veer. Colley therefore fails to recognise the emerging importance of the divide between the religious against the atheist. “After 1793 France was seen as primarily scoffing infidels rather than idolatrous Catholics.” (Van der Veer, 1999). This thus united Britain, and according to Van der Veer: “contrasted British seriousness with French frivolity, British rectitude with French immorality and British faith with French scepticism.” (Van der Veer, 1999). This is particularly cogent in the light of the religious reawakening Britain experienced after 1815. This argument thus serves to undermine the notion that purely Protestantism united the British nation until its more recent decline. Rather, a sense of British individuality, religiousness and uniqueness bound the British. This religiousness helped to define ‘Britishness’ in comparison to an ‘other’, which in this case, as was often the case throughout British history, was France. This is often the case with the formation of national identity. For a population to understand national identity, McCrone argues, it needs to understand first, what it is not. “It was, as it were, necessary to define ourselves in terms of who we were not – French, German and so on.” (McCrone, 1997). Thus, certain features of Britain that at one time defined them, particularly in Europe against their historic antagonists no longer do so. Miller therefore points out, “some of the factors that maintained a sense of British uniqueness in the first half of the 20th Century – parliamentary democracy, liberties and the welfare state – are no longer distinctive in the Western world, and no longer set Britain apart.” (Miller, 1995). Indeed, Tilley and Heath contemplate the direct correlation of this decline with the rise of ethno-nationalism, upon the essentialist foundation of shared hereditary and kinship, which has proved particularly resistant to modernising change, unlike the constructed British identity. “Perhaps not unrelated to this…there have been challenges from within, with the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism.” (Tilley; Heath, 2007). Thus, in this view neither empire nor Protestantism are solely or markedly more important in explaining this decline. It is simply the decline of Britain’s uniqueness that solves this conundrum.


However, some remain cautious to even argue that ‘Britain’ ever existed as a focal point for national identity. Indeed, the invention of Britain in 1707 went little way removing older loyalties, as mentioned earlier in the essay. Colley therefore argues: “both before and after 1707, London was ready to employ military force, parliamentary legislation and various kinds of indoctrination to limit the autonomy of a few, particularly dangerous regions.” (Colley, 1992). An example of this would be the Act of Proscription 1746, which sought to assimilate the Scottish Highlanders, ending the clan system and their ability to revolt, in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1746. Furthermore, much about Scotland and Wales was maintained all throughout this formation of Britain, and far into the future. “Scotland always preserved its own religious, educational, and legal structures and its own sophisticated network of printing presses and cultural centres.” Wales was not dissimilar. “In 1880, some 350 years after the Act of Union between Wales and England, three-quarters of all Welshmen still spoke their own language out of choice.” (Morgan, 1981). Moreover, as earlier highlighted by Colley, it was predominantly the upper classes of Britain, or England, Wales and Scotland that carried out the conquests of empire, and benefited from its bounty. Indeed, while many academics have presented empire as a fundamental part of the entire ‘British’ nation, critics of this view argue that empire was the reserve of only a section of society. Indeed, Stephen Heathorn has presented empire as: “part of a hegemonic nationalistic ideology” (Heathorn, 2000); others have argued that this was not the case. Jonathan Rose says that empire played no larger a part in the cultural intake of the working class than the Holy Land, or the USA. (Rose, 2001). Thus, in this light, we are led to question whether class divides jeopardise ‘Britain’ as a national body, both in light of the importance of empire for the formation of this nationality, which we are now led to believe was the product of only a fraction of society (perhaps only the upper classes are to be considered ‘British’ in this light), but also in light of the obvious class divided that plague the United Kingdom, and undermine its unity. Indeed, Potter argues colonial administration was the reserve of the upper classes. “Members of the upper classes occupied the small number of positions that were available.” (Potter, 2006). Furthermore, to consolidate this argument, Paul Rich argues that the British Public School was a major influence in the development of British Imperialism, in a system he describes as one of: “masonic cabalism, historical causality, and imperial clubdom.” (Rich, 1991).


Nevertheless, Colley argues, while Empire did not conceal from the British their obvious historical, cultural and ethnic divisions between the groups, it served as an effective distraction, providing a common identity that surpassed old divisions. “I am not, for one moment, suggesting that their shared imperial obsession…concealed from the Britons their own internal divisions – cultural splits among Englishness, Irishness, Scottishness, and Welshness, the gaps in experience and sympathy among different regions, social classes, and religious groupings and between the sexes. But empire did serve as a powerful distraction and cause in common.” (Colley, 1992) Indeed, it seems even class divides were also transcended by the temptations of empire, as Mackenzie highlights. “Imperial subjects offered a perfect opportunity to externalise the villain…facing a cross-class brotherhood of heroism, British officer and ranker together.” (Mackenzie, 1984) Furthermore, according to Mackenzie, working-class audiences, though lacking direct exposure, were equally psychologically invested in empire. “Working-class audiences took the bait offered…and bought into this imperial mind-set, even if they lacked a detailed knowledge of empire.” (Mackenzie, 1984). To reinforce this, Abrams highlights how Britons of whatever class, were more likely to find identity in common religion, language and history. Therefore: “members of the working class in Great Britain only rarely connected their subordination to the English ruling classes with that suffered by colonized peoples.” (Abrams, 1997). Thus, empire was indeed an effective distraction from the divides that Britain experiences, to temporarily patch up these divides and turn, now Britons’, attention away from these, and outwards towards the contextualising and self-defining British empire.


To conclude, we are therefore encouraged by the evidence, to exclude the notion of the British identity being false in its entirety. While such class and regional divides evidently remained, they were hastily forgotten in light of the imperial attraction. Moreover, as highlighted previously, the factor of Protestantism binding the British people carries great weight, though is undermined by the dilution of the ‘other’, after the French Revolution, again debasing a fundamental aspect of this argument; that Protestantism not only united people in the common history and traditions of the religion, but that it also united the British against it’s antithesis, Catholicism. With Catholicism significantly weakened as a foe after the French Revolution, this argument loses much of its cogency. Furthermore, the argument of Britain’s uniqueness specifically being a contributor to the formation of its national identity is an effective argument, though one could reasonably argue this distinctiveness from Europe continued with features such as the world-renowned NHS, along with Britain’s continued disagreeability and self-exclusion from Europe, and their eventual vote to leave.  Nevertheless, this vote itself highlighted the disunity on the island, which removes much of the strength of this argument, highlighting how even this distinctiveness has failed to unite the nation. Thus, we are left with the most effective argument; the decline of empire. Given the fact that the British identity was most notably forged during the rise of empire, it is not illogical to suspect that decline of empire may be its undoing. Thus, given the obvious facets of the British identity rooted in its imperial nature; the defining way in which Britain compared and contextualised itself against its wide-ranging dominions, helping it to most importantly understand what it is not, so as to better understand what it is, and uniting the Britons in their mutual task of civilising and profiting from empire ; along with their fight against the ‘other’, which in the context of empire includes not just France, but anyone who opposed Britain’s will, it is arguably correct to say that the end of empire, did indeed spell the end of the British national identity.




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