By Luke Owain Boult
Family members that no longer speak to one another. A nation’s reputation tarnished. The evocation of an imagined past and a society seemingly more divided over history and ideals than at any point in living memory. These are elements that I am sure a good many American readers and those of other nationalities will relate to, but here I am writing about another country that is seemingly in the eye of the storm of a particularly divisive identity crisis. I am writing about the increasingly inappropriately named United Kingdom. It is a division whose roots were first planted millennia ago but can essentially be summarized through race, class, and nationality.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BRITISH ANYWAY?
It is impossible to understand the reasons for the divides in the modern UK without understanding its roots as a nation of nations. In fact, interpreting the UK as a single country would lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes it so divisive.
What the UK actually is remains an immense source of confusion for many, even for those who live there. Today, it refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and is, in essence, a union of four countries, namely England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, it once referred to a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, namely the two largest islands in the British and Irish Isles, until 26 counties in Ireland seceded to become an independent republic while six in the north remained in the UK.
In short, the UK is confusing, to say the least, and even living there until the end of your days is no guarantee you’ll understand it. To some, it is a country in its own right with a shared culture, while to others, it is a collection of countries with as many cultural similarities as the Nordic countries have between each other. And therein lies the problem, how can the country stay united if it can’t even agree if it’s a country?
So where to begin in explaining this mess? After the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Great Britain, like much of Europe, was in turmoil with migrating peoples seeking out new lands. The natives of the island of Great Britain were generally Brythonic Celts south of Edinburgh and Picts north of Edinburgh. They were invaded by people from Ireland, including a Gaelic Celtic group called the Scots, and people from around Germany, including the Saxons and Angles.
Over a period of hundreds of years, the native Britons were pushed out of many of their lands and eventually into what is modern-day Wales and Cornwall as Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes conquered what went on to become England. Meanwhile, the Scots joined with the native Britons and Picts of the north of Britain to form what would then go on to become Scotland. By the 10th century, the three groups of English, Scottish, and Welsh had more or less formed, with vastly different cultures, languages, and histories. Oh, and the Vikings did their fair share of invading too, leading to a significant Norse influence in the region.
Over the centuries to come, the English kingdoms united and, after being conquered themselves by the Normans, they successfully conquered Wales and Ireland, although they maintained their unique identities.
When England and Scotland both moved away from Catholicism and the influence of Rome in the 16th century, the two kingdoms moved closer together before eventually uniting in an initially rather unpopular union, both in England and Scotland, in 1707 as the Kingdom of Great Britain. The divide between Catholics and Protestants is still deeply felt in many parts of the UK and has played an essential role in the formation of identities in Ireland.
With the union of England and Scotland, a new British identity was formed, with some in Scotland describing themselves as North Britons instead, while “forward-thinking” English and Welsh people may have defined themselves as South Britons, with the older national identities perhaps being seen as somewhat provincial. Indeed, in much of England today, defining oneself as English rather than British is sometimes seen as closed-minded, a phenomenon once ridiculed by George Orwell who wrote about an ancient embarrassment of Englishness.
In 1800, the Kingdom of Ireland was united with the Kingdom of Great Britain, with Ireland being seen as an unruly place with a markedly different culture and religion to Great Britain. Despite this, there were indeed some Irish people who were keen to participate in the new British identity, seeing themselves as West Britons. “West Brit” remains an insult in Ireland.
Over the next century, the British Empire would grow, something in which many English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish people alike participated in. It became the largest empire the world had seen and helped to forge a “progressive” British identity that would be based on a sense of “civilizing” the rest of the world.
In contrast to the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish identities, the new British identity was often seen as inclusive and forward-thinking, and this identity was built upon during the First and Second World Wars in which the UK came to see itself as a defender of justice and a “winner” in contrast to the “losers” of mainland Europe.
As this post-war British identity developed, the much-older English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish identities evolved too. And as the world changed and the ugly reality of much of the British Empire emerged, it became apparent that there were diametrically opposing contradictory British identities depending on one’s own identity: a liberating oppressor, a forward-thinking imperialist, and a civilizing tyrant. To many, the British identity has negative connotations of oppression while to many others, it has positive connotations of the defender of the oppressed.
RACE AND THE BRITISH EMPIRE: A PROBLEMATIC LEGACY
On paper, the UK is often mentioned (rather depressingly perhaps) as being the least racist place in Europe. However, racism and imperialism can be seen as built into the fabric of the UK’s past and the racist legacy of the empire is becoming harder to reconcile in the modern age.
From the discrimination against the Irish to pogroms against Jewish people, there is a long history of racial conflict in the UK. In the same sense, arrivals from the British colonies often experienced discrimination, racism, and aggression due to a mix of fear and a belief in superiority instilled by the British Empire.
When increasing numbers of people from countries like Jamaica, India, and Nigeria started to move to the UK in pursuit of a happier life in what was presented as the idyllic “motherland” of Britain, they were often disappointed with the reality they found. They were often turned down from jobs and targeted by the police, with many British people being unwilling to rent or sell their properties to them. Many immigrant groups subsequently moved to poorer areas, taking worse-paying jobs, and experiencing poverty.
However, as the decades passed, immigrants from the former British Empire became part of the new, modern Britain and have had an undeniable impact on its culture. In parts of the UK, there has been something of a sense that being British is inclusive, an overarching term that includes the very different English, Welsh, and Scottish identities, and now immigrant identities from all over the world.
In essence, there is a conflict evident between the ideas of Britishness with regard to race and the empire, adding to the question of what it even means to be British. As in Dutch and French society, there is also an uncomfortable truth about British society that seems to have been ignored by many, namely the history and impact of the British Empire, with a significant share of the British public seeing the British Empire as ultimately a force for good. This is the same empire that traded slaves with zeal and slaughtered the natives of Australia, to name just a couple of “problematic” episodes.
There seems to be a willful ignorance of the evils of the empire, while the likes of slave traders, colonizers, and arguably those who have committed genocide have often been publicly honored in the UK, with statues built for them and buildings named after them. This honoring understandably has its critics, unsurprisingly including the descendants of those who were oppressed, with such monuments being a major target in the recent Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, inspired by the protestors in the USA.
The dispute over the statue of the slave trader and Member of Parliament Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol is a good example of this. Edward Colston was celebrated for his philanthropic actions and brought wealth to the city. However, he was deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade and undoubtedly profited from the unimaginable suffering of countless innocents. In a series of BLM protests in Bristol in 2020, after years of calls to remove a statue of the man were ignored, the statue was torn down and thrown into the sea.
This prompted widespread reflection on many other figures celebrated in British history, with statues of colonial imperialists like Cecil Rhodes, a man who promoted the colonization of southern Africa and said “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race” possibly being removed. Many incredibly influential British figures have also been targeted for their racist and colonial attitudes, including Winston Churchill.
Churchill is widely celebrated in the UK as a symbol of British resilience during the very difficult years of the Second World War. However, the man’s attitudes and many of his actions around the world have shown something of a hypocrisy to this worship as a defender against terror, running counter to the widespread veneration of the man.
From Churchill’s imperialist record in India and racist remarks about Indians, to promoting the feared Black and Tans in Ireland, he is a figure of destruction and hatred for many, the very evil that his supporters view him as having fought against.
Churchill symbolizes the complexity of the empire’s legacy in Britain, with impassioned arguments over whether he and the empire were a force for good or evil. In truth, like most matters, it is complex and what both sides share is a sense that their history is being insulted and attacked. The divisiveness over British history and the empire’s legacy mirrors the divide in the British identity itself, with deep-rooted beliefs on both sides.
THE BRITISH CLASS DIVIDE
It is not race that seems to be the largest divide in the UK, but class, and as Orwell wrote, Britain is the “most class-divided country under the sun.” While class issues are by no means unique to the UK, it may be one of the strangest places in the world for its obsession with class. It is a land where supermarkets are secretly divided by class and visiting the wrong one may get you accused of being a class traitor.
On one side are some of the richest places in Europe and the world, with London being an example of an extremely wealthy city. On the other side, Wales and Cornwall are the poorest parts of Western Europe and are significantly poorer than even many former communist nations in the center and east of Europe.
The class divisions in the UK are deep-seated and based on a social hierarchy that much of Europe once shared. However, unlike many other European countries that went through revolutions to dispossess their ruling classes and establish republics, the British never really did so and restored their monarchy and aristocracy in 1660, albeit with limitations enforced by parliament.
This led to a demonstration of a preference for “stability” evidenced by a monarch in contrast to the violent republicanism in much of Europe as the British establishment looked on in horror and disapproval of the French Revolution, perhaps remembering that the spark that ignited the anti-monarchist movement was lit in England when King Charles I was executed in 1649 for treason following the English Civil War.
As much of Europe was forced to reflect on itself and try to somewhat restructure its hierarchal societies, the UK did not, and although class mobility is still easier today than perhaps a couple of hundred years ago, the UK remains a rigidly class-based society. To this day, the UK has the second-largest unelected political body in the world in the House of Lords, a symbol of the upper-class, only surpassed by the Chinese Politburo.
Class is not just about one’s money, education, or job in the UK. It is possible to be very wealthy, well-educated, and in a managerial role and still be seen as working class, while the opposite is also true. It is ultimately not just a social status, but also a cultural one that remains a symbol of pride and identity for many. It is these cultural identifiers with class, both in the lower and upper classes, that make it difficult for British society to move on, even with social welfare programs.
The difficult social ladder inherent in the British class system also makes it hard for many immigrant groups to get ahead, facing race and class-based discrimination as they are trapped in a vicious circle of living in poorer areas, then receiving worse quality education, getting poor-quality pay, and being unable to move to a wealthier area. This cycle is the same for many working people in Britain, regardless of their ethnic background, yet it can exacerbate tensions between minorities and communities.
The class issue has also stoked separatist sentiments in parts of the UK. Wales, for example, was once famed for its industry and wealth in resources, with people from all over the world moving there for its coal, slate, and steel industries. However, the attitude has generally been that the money did not stay in Wales and many people feel taken advantage of, and now the industry has mostly gone with the closure of the mines in the 1980s, it has been as if this wealth never existed.
A NATION OF NATIONS
While race and class divisions permeate British society, these are exacerbated by the reality that the UK itself is something of a union of four countries, each with its own histories, languages, cultures, and issues, and further aggravated by a general lack of understanding between the nations. It does not help matters that the shared history of the nations is often one of conflict and conquest.
While many may be able to brush aside age-old historical grievances between the nations of the UK as just that, “historical” grievances, and believe that the breakup of the UK is unthinkable, part of the UK has indeed already broken off and did so a century ago with the creation of the Irish Free State, which followed a brutal war of independence.
Today, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales each have their own parliaments that control issues such as education and healthcare, while England does not have an independent parliament other than the general UK parliament in which England controls the majority of seats.
Independence has largely, up until recently, been something of a fringe movement and in 2010, only some 30% of Scottish people and 5% of Welsh people supported full independence from the UK. By 2020, this had risen to 58% and 35%, respectively. Support for English independence is at around 33%. With increased support and aggravating difficulties, never has the breakup of the UK looked so likely.
This increase in support is not just because of a belief that the countries should be independent due to cultural and historical reasons; these reasons existed and were given by supporters of independence a decade ago. The increase is largely due to a change in what the British identity is.
A new British nationalism seems to have emerged, one that is less outward-looking, less inclusive, and less tolerant not just of Europe but also of the cultures and right to governance of the Celtic countries. In short, it is seen as a form of Anglo-British nationalism, while many English people are also finding that they do not identify with Britishness or the British government. The existence of devolved parliaments is a threat to this centralized British identity, which openly attacks the rights of the Welsh and Scottish to govern themselves, and so this British identity is seen as a threat to the Scottish and Welsh identities.
For much of modern British history, politicians have tried to carefully walk a tightrope to please the disparate interests of the nations of the UK, yet now, the interests of the Celtic nations have been flatly ignored by the current British government, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach with an apparent ignorance or lack of care as to how this is perceived in these countries. It is this disregard that is fueling independence support, with a perceived English disdain for the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish that echoes historical grievances and has led them to question what it even now means to be British. This conflict is also causing English people to ask themselves what it means to be British.
THE BREXIT CONFLICT AND COVID CATALYST
The question after considering all of these divisions over class, race and imperialism, and nationality may not be when will the UK break up, but how has it stayed together for so long in the first place? In a world of shifting identities, what place does the British identity and indeed the UK hold? Once seen as a forward-thinking, modern, and inclusive identity, the British identity for many no longer truly represents this and in a desperate nostalgic attempt to “restore” the Britain of yesteryear, the British identity has undergone perhaps irreversible damage.
It is an identity that many in the UK look to and feel nothing, instead feeling a greater attachment to their English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish identities. A new “inclusive” and “forward-looking” identity has also emerged, the European identity, that many who find themselves disenfranchised and opposed to the UK’s exit from the European Union identify with. With a government as divisive as the current British administration, it seems that the binds once holding it together have been loosened, now coming undone at the seam.
Fifty years ago, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Soviet identity, one supposedly built on modernity and inclusivity, was rather unimaginable. Yet it happened. Fifty years ago, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the independence of its various republics was rather unimaginable. Yet it happened. Irish independence. Indian independence. American independence. All of these were dismissed as non-issues at one point by the British establishment. Yet they all happened. With this in mind, the end of the United Kingdom has never looked so inevitable, especially considering the two-headed monster of Brexit and COVID-19.
Brexit is a complex topic but, in short, the current form of leaving the European Union is one that is only supported in reality by the Conservative Party, which holds a majority in England and, therefore, the British parliament. The Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh governments are staunchly against the move, citing a loss of support from the EU, a loss of markets, increased friction on borders, and a desire to impose the will of the British parliament on people who did not support it. It has created a constitutional crisis for a country that doesn’t even have a constitution.
The mess of the entire Brexit debacle and the potential economic fallout for the various economies of the UK have made the current British administration, perhaps a symbol of soured British delirious imperialism, unpalatable to many, stoking support for independence.
COVID-19, meanwhile, has provided something of an opportunity to the devolved administrations of the UK. Many in the UK do not trust the British government over COVID-19 and those in Scotland and Wales typically have more trust in their own governments than the British administration, showing a turning point in handling public crises in a devolved matter. As healthcare is devolved, policy on COVID-19 has been too, with a contrast between the British administration and their counterparts. It has shown people that people in Wales and Scotland, contrary to what they may have been told, are capable of self-rule.
All this is in a wider, worldwide context of racial reckoning, with it becoming ever harder to deny that the origins of the much-divided British identity are built on empire and exploitation as much as they are on spirit and ingenuity. Unsurprisingly in the modern age, this older empire and class-based British identity does not feel like it belongs and is one that many choose to ignore, leading some to question who they are at all. If the festering foundations of an identity built on outdated attitudes are not changed, will the identity remain standing or fall into a bloody swamp? ◆
Luke Owain Boult is a Welsh writer, editor, and translator. He studied for a BA in Japanese and Spanish at Cardiff University in Wales and has also studied at Valencia University, Spain, and Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan. After graduating, Luke became the award-winning editor of Buzz Magazine, Wales’ largest arts and culture magazine in 2015. Luke has a passion for the arts, language, writing, food, and travel and left Buzz to become a freelance writer, editor, and translator in 2017, following a digital nomad lifestyle with his fiancěe. He has since travelled extensively throughout Europe and Japan while translating books and games. Luke has written two novels and is currently working on his third.