Cosmopolitan Britain

As well as my published output, I’ve over the years drafted, started and even half-written a number of books and articles I never got round to completing. This is the draft Introduction to one of them; a book to be called ‘Cosmopolis’, which was actually accepted for publication, before I gave up on it five or six years ago. I’m not sure why; it may just have been life-time exhaustion, or incipient CFS. I find I have a couple of further chapters of it on my new computer, mercifully saved on iCloud, after my original laptop was stolen. I very much doubt whether I’ll go back to the project now (I still have my Essex one); but I thought this was worth posting, for a more limited readership, here.

Maybe if I’d persisted with it at the time it could have taken a few votes away from Brexit.

Britain is both less and more than a nation. Of course, one can probably say this of most countries; but in Britain’s case it is a particularly important aspect of her people’s ‘identity’. That identity is far less ‘national’ than in other cases. This is why modern politicians and commentators find it so difficult to define a form of ‘British national identity’ that everyone can subscribe to, now, when one is suddenly felt to be needed. There isn’t one. This is because Britain has always been, in modern times, far more divided than united, socially, culturally and in every other way; and far more connected with other parts of the world than self-contained. This is what I mean by ‘cosmopolitan’. It is Britain’s main national characteristic – if the weakness of a sense of nationality can be properly called that.

This goes against some conventional wisdoms. There will be many Britons who think they know what ‘Britishness’ consists of; unfortunately, if they look around them, they will find that there are also others who have a completely different idea of it. This came out once when Prime Minister John Major characterised ‘typical Englishness’ (something different, of course) in terms of village greens, cricket, warm beer and district nurses riding bicycles; only to be met with a torrent of very different clusters of images from other English people: featuring northern industrial cities, for example, soccer, fish and chips, and trade union banners. Chalk and cheese: but both equally ‘English’. (Widen it to ‘British’, and the task becomes even more difficult.) Some foreigners may also be surprised by this view of a more complex and porous Britain than they are familiar with. In particular, they will probably be sceptical of the idea, to be developed in this book, that Britain has been significantly less nationalistic than other countries. This however is because of the way Britain has presented herself – or been presented – to them. Foreign views of countries always differ from domestic ones. Anyone who knows the present United States well must be aware of how very differently its people regard themselves, and really are (thank God), from the way they are perceived abroad. Countries come packaged, usually quite simply, for foreign consumption. ‘Nationality’ is part of that.

Look inside the package – better still, live there – and the complexities will become clear.
One of Britain’s particular problems is that she comes packaged as an island – or, more strictly, a group of islands: one-and-a-bit major, and a lot of little ones. Islands are supposed to be insular. Surrounded by sea, Britons were bound to be inward-looking. This was one of the reasons why they managed to fix their external boundaries (with one exception) earlier than most other states. This will have coalesced them as a nation. But did it? There are two reasons for doubting this. One is that the seas that surrounded Britain were arguably more significant as highways than as frontiers. They were one of the factors that enabled her to connect with other peoples. (‘No man is an island’, wrote John Donne famously. No island is an island either, in this sense.) The second reason is that her insular situation may have made her achievement of national unity – those boundaries – too easy. Clearly enclosed by her cliffs and beaches, there was no pressing need for her to define her nationality in any other, deeper, way. Britain’s literal insularity, therefore, neither cut her off from other countries – just the opposite; nor helped significantly to unite her. It merely gave the impression that she was cut off and united; no more.

Obviously I am not the first to notice either of these two things – Britain’s internal divisions, or her outward-lookingness. No present-day historian of Britain, for example, can be unaware of the fact that Britain is made up of at least four literal ‘nations’: the English, Scots, Welsh and (Northern) Irish – though this was a charge often levelled against arrogant English historians in former times. (For them, the other three nations were just addenda.) Nor have they any excuse for not knowing about the divisive influence of class in Britain, though this has become a somewhat unfashionable idea recently. Anyone reading EP Thompson’s classic study of the English working classes at the time of the industrial revolution, for example, must be aware that they constituted a whole different nation (metaphorically speaking) from the middle and upper classes of that time. Nor – turning to the other side of the equation – have Britain’s relations with the rest of the world lain unstudied: her foreign policy, wars and trade probably never; her imperialism since the end of the 19th century; her emigrant and immigrant history from a little later; and her more informal connexions with other peoples – travel, intellectual contacts, cultural influences and so on, all in both directions – more recently. This has all been written about. What is not generally credited is how important these two circumstances were to the historical identity of Britain. They were not just marginal. They were crucial aspects of her development; far more so, I would say, than any other, more coherent, set of national peculiarities. That is what I shall be arguing in this book.

This of course is not the only way of regarding the sweep of British history over the past two centuries (the period covered here), but I hope it will prove to be an interesting and enlightening one. It will certainly make several quite familiar aspects of British history appear differently. Immigration will be central, and not just since the 1950s. So will emigration, and to countries other than the United States and the British Colonies. ‘Imperialism’ will take on a new complexity, as a two-way process, not just ‘Britons’ exploiting ‘native races’. Key developments in Britain’s domestic history that are usually explained in mainly indigenous terms – Parliamentary and social reforms, for example, and ‘Thatcherism’ – will be placed in an international context that may make more – or a different kind of – sense of them. Britons will find themselves sharing many characteristics and qualities that they thought were peculiar to them with other peoples. That may be because Britain was influenced by developments abroad more than she realised; or vice-versa (Britain affecting other countries); or because all these countries were subject to the same underlying and global trends. At the same time, Britain’s really distinctive characteristics – the ‘public’ schools, perhaps, suet puddings, and philistinism: these are just tentative suggestions at this stage – will stand out more. As well, of course, as her cosmopolitanism; which is not found in any other modern nation to the extent and in the ways it was in 19th- and 20th-century Britain.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Personally I should say at the outset that I’m rather attracted by it: by the multifariousness of British society, even if that means frictions and conflicts; and the reaching out to the world, so long as that is not done arrogantly. An inward-looking and homogenous country would bore me. I hope that does not lead me to exaggerate or idealise these factors in this book. They do have their disadvantages. A multifarious society is more difficult to govern, of course, than a united, consensual one. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you stand for as a nation, it is also difficult to decide what you should require of immigrants, or indeed any of your citizens, in terms of ‘loyalty’. Loyalty to what? It was much simpler before Britons became ‘citizens’ (in 1983), and were simply ‘subjects’, so the only thing you had to agree to was to be loyal to the Queen (or King), which meant nothing – and most of us weren’t even asked to promise this. Foreign influences always give rise to resentment and resistance. Foreign influence in the form of substantial immigration – especially when the immigrants come with powerful belief systems of their own – is always difficult for a people to handle.

Hence recent British governments’ desperate attempts to construct a sense of ‘national identity’, to unite us all, native-born and recent arrivals; right against – I would say – the whole trend of British history over the past 200 years. Other countries have common cultures to fall back on, or a set of founding ideals (the USA), or ‘race’ (if they are falling back very low). Britain has none of these things. That leaves her vulnerable in many respects. On the other hand her cosmopolitanism has contributed to her national life in many positive ways, some of which will be detailed in the following pages. And it is certainly appreciated by others; including for example the International Olympic Committee, which awarded the 2012 Olympic Games to London for apparently just this reason – the city’s vibrant ‘multiculturalism’. For those who may be looking forward to that event, that must be a plus for cosmopolitanism. For the rest of us, it is unlikely to put us off.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Cosmopolitan Britain

  1. Pingback: Decline, Fall and Brexit | Porter’s Pensées

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