Updated: Mar 21, 2022
The Identity Myth: National Identity in a Changing World
National identity does not exist. It is an abstract concept; a myth, the same as Robin Hood or King Arthur. As with these stories, our identities are closely tied to our surroundings. Robin Hood, for example, is identified as an English story because the characters and locations are consistently associated with Nottingham, England. Yet King Arthur is also claimed as an English hero, despite his origins in Welsh/Breton traditions. So, what defines their identification with a nation? Is it the people who shout the loudest? Is a man more Welsh because he shouts louder than the Welsh person next to him? Is Robin Hood English just because he comes from Nottingham, and nothing more? Is King Arthur solely a British legend, or a medieval romance propagated by French poets? The answer may be more obvious for some than others, and everyone will have an opinion. My view is that nationhood is a vacuous concept. There is nothing tangible which you can point to and say, ‘if you have this, then you are this nationality’.
Britain is the personal union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, although it is commonly used interchangeably to refer to England only. Great Britain conjures images of empire, of ruling the waves, of the sun never setting on a global superpower. Fast forward to now, and it’s only been a few years since Scotland considered disuniting itself from the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland remains delicately balanced between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists after decades of violence at the end of the twentieth century. Wales has a language all to itself which it tries to maintain, although it is still rare to hear it further away than the border counties. The only thing uniting the United Kingdom is the historic domination of England, always the most powerful state. The fact that ‘British’ is used interchangeably with ‘English’ is therefore understandable, and hardly discouraged. Although we are told that Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English cultures are part of a unified identity, the truth is painfully contrary. English, not British, is the language of Britain. Theresa May performs on the world stage, not Arlene Foster. Holyrood controls the Scottish fire service, but Westminster decides where Scottish soldiers die.
Obligation is what unites them, which is why popular votes have been so dangerous for keeping them united. As I mentioned before, Scotland narrowly voted to remain part of the UK in 2014 (55% to 45%). Nobody in Westminster seriously considered that Scotland might leave, which led to a last-minute scramble by politicians to encourage unity. Northern Ireland’s government is required to share power between unionist and nationalist parties as part of the Good Friday Agreement, yet they have also been without a government since 2017 due to conflicting interests between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Whilst apparently all the same domain, divisions this deep go to show how fickle identity can be, without even mentioning individual identity.
As an Englishman, I am defined as such by my passport, my language, where I was born, and because I’m able to vote in local elections. Even so, I may not necessarily be properly English. I might not be English enough for some, if an argument called for it. Identity could very easily be a scale, ranging from disillusion through to jingoism. But these don’t necessarily equate to nationality as a quality, positive or negative. Nationality is a descriptor. As such, it cannot be gained or lost. You can lose your citizenship, for sure. Whether you lose your national identity in the process is a matter of perspective. Other people may have never identified with that nationality in the first place. Someone from Syria won’t really care if an old lady complains that she can’t read the Arabic written on food labels. The earth doesn’t care that someone feels less connected to a patch of ground than their ancestors did.
Nevertheless, national identity is necessary for society. Unity, and the protection that comes with it, is very comforting. Whether that manifests as national pride or revisionist history or a political philosophy is besides the point. The will to belong is innate to humanity: we are a social species and are fundamentally cooperative. Some may be selfish, some may be hostile, but civilisation itself is proof that humanity mostly wants to work together. However, nation states are a modern invention, compared to the entire history of civilisation.
To illustrate this, let’s take an example from our shared human history. People think of the Battle of Thermopylae between Greece and Persia as a national epic, one which showcases the unity of the Greeks in the face of impossible odds. Except, we don’t say 300 Greeks stood against Xerxes, we say 300 Spartans, for that is who we remember (despite the fact there were thousands of other Greeks present besides). Leonidas was the King of Sparta, not Greece. Greece did not become a political entity until 1821 when it declared independence from the Ottoman Empire. It was only internationally recognised in 1830, more than two thousand years after Thermopylae. To place the modern nation of Greece and the Greek resistance in 480BC as a linear continuance of people and culture would be disingenuous. Spartans and Athenians may both have been culturally Greek, but neither would never have entertained peaceful unification. There is a distinction between the socio-linguistic region of Greece and the nation state of Greece, just as there is a distinction between the English-speaking world, the United Kingdom, and the constituent states of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Yet national identity is important for a nation state to function. If you don’t identify as part of a community, you will look elsewhere, or to yourself, for representation. Poor integration and strong local unity encourages independence. A good example of this would be the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, specifically certain branches of the Ruwallah tribe. Some members pass through Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia as part of their yearly wanderings, and don’t identify as part of any country. They simply wander between borders herding livestock. In this case, national identity would only hinder their meandering. It would be a hindrance, an inconvenience of bureaucracy, one which would tie them to historical narratives and prejudices that they may not have been involved in otherwise.
Nevertheless, national identity is important for governments, even if individuals remain disillusioned. If everyone at home thinks themselves to be in common, efforts can be focused on dealing with the ‘other’; those that do not. If there is no unity, there can be no progress, some might say. Therefore, it is best to assimilate where possible, and reject when impossible. Where the distinction lies varies from person to person.
In the case of the migrant crisis, the consensus was that they were too different to us, and so we could not let them into the country. Then again, the public can disagree with the government on matters of identity too. The Windrush Scandal, where first/second generation migrants of Caribbean origin were deported as illegal immigrants from the UK, inspired a huge backlash once the facts were laid bare. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, resigned, PM Theresa May gave a public apology, and the UK is looking again at its immigration policies to stop this happening again.
If we were to compare the Windrush Scandal to, say, the European migrant crisis in 2015/16, the difference in representation of the people involved is astounding. Both events were occupied with immigration, and both encouraged strong responses from ostensibly ‘British’ citizens. On the one hand, the individuals involved in the Windrush Scandal, even as a passive observer of events, were clearly treated sympathetically and defended from the outrageous policies leading to such measures. The public rallied to their defence. They berated the politicians for consenting to such horrific legislation and condemned them for it.
On the other hand, refugees and economic migrants in 2015/16 were latched upon by nationalist parties as threatening the UK’s national identity (with a stress on England, as ever). Immigration ended up becoming one of the driving factors behind the EU referendum decision. In this case, the narrative of ‘taking back control of (their) borders’ appealed to a lot of people. They saw the potential influx of asylum seekers and economic migrants as affecting Britain in several different ways. You can still visit the Vote Leave website and read their arguments on immigration. People had different reasonings on the matter of immigration and uncontrolled borders. Some pointed to the government’s inability to deport foreign criminals under EU law. Others suggested that there simply wasn’t enough space to accommodate any more people.
The disparity between these two cases points to a different sort of racism, one which is not as obvious as the stereotyping of Farage or Hopkins. The Windrush Scandal shows that public stances on immigration can be very specific. People from former colonies in the Caribbean are an acceptable immigrant, it seems. They aren’t so far removed from British culture that the average person can’t find common ground. People prefer certain groups over others, and their politics reflect that. Immigration is fine if the immigrants share a similar identity and is unacceptable where there is disparity.
Since the referendum there has been a sharp rise in EU nationals applying for citizenship (a 23% increase in grants of settlement compared to last year, and the number of EU nationals seeking British citizenship almost doubled to 40,000). For one reason or another, they are in the process of becoming British citizens. One would think this would be enough to justify their national identity, but the Windrush Scandal suggests that anyone can be considered other when the circumstances call for it.
Yet even if we move away from geo-politics and focus on local politics instead, we can observe a different sort of discrimination and hair-splitting. Narratives, such as that of Thermopylae, are crucial for maintaining a national identity. The media and politicians play to certain narratives to push their agendas, and sometimes the idea of the ‘other’ plays to both classist as well as racial prejudices. Racial profiling is nothing new, and neither are classist undertones, but these prejudices can be played against each other to further specific interests. One group might hear that immigrants are taking all the jobs and council houses, impacting the wellbeing of working-class families in the area. Another group might hear that working-class people have started complaining about the influx of immigrants into their local area and view those people as racists, without looking into the reasons for their complaints.
Research is not convenient or interesting, so exciting misinformation spreads instead. Classist and racial prejudices are intrinsically linked, and one’s allegiance to a conceptual identity is determined by any combination of skin colour or background one may have. It is easy to feel British when you have benefitted from Britain’s Imperialism, but the diversity of the Commonwealth speaks volumes about how far a global, never mind national, identity can practically stretch before it breaks apart. Now Commonwealth citizens are discriminated against for trying to integrate into British society after hundreds of years under their influence.
Just a few days ago, Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian seeking work in Europe, climbed four floors of a building in under a minute to save a dangling toddler from falling to its death. He has since been given a medal of bravery, a job as a firefighter, and been fast-tracked towards gaining French citizenship. Just over a week ago, he was an undocumented economic migrant with no access to housing or jobs, and no legal right to remain in France. Without meaning to distract from his selfless act of heroism, (and really, what an incredible thing to have done) it gives another angle to themes of national identity. It’s probably fair to say that without this event, Mamoudou would have eventually been deported as an undocumented migrant. Only under truly exceptional circumstances was he effectively handed citizenship by President Macron himself. He was offered a new national identity as a reward for his actions.
Since identity seems to be so malleable, it could be argued (as indeed I have) that identity on any level is fabricated. National identity differs depending on the observer, or more accurately the individual explaining the representation. Stereotypes are caricatures of national identities at a glance, after all.
Fundamentally however, there is no essence of nationality, no essence of you. At risk of sounding like a Buddhist explaining Anicca (impermanence), people change, and so do their moods, their views, their politics, and their identities. National identity is not static, and as I have hopefully illustrated above, people change the definition of identity to suit their arguments.
If national identity was a pair of goalposts both teams would compete to move them until the pitch was muddied and unusable, and a million flags would be waving from the stands as the players fought over who had the right to representation. All the while, Robin Hood and King Arthur sit in the commentary box, asking each other what happened to their country, and wondering if there’s any common ground left for the players to stand on.
 There is in fact a Welsh-speaking area of Argentina, surprisingly:
 The BBC have published an article addressing precisely the things discussed above. It’s a quick read that provides a bit of background to France’s attitude towards migrants: