Nationalism is a weird idea to me. I mean, I understand the sentiment of being passionately devoted to your country, but it’s a feeling that has personally eluded me so far. I can’t imagine feeling particularly attached to my identity as a British person or like my national affiliation was a core part of my being.
I can’t say for sure why I feel totally detached from my ‘British-ness.’ Perhaps it’s because, legally, I am a woman of two countries. I have dual citizenship to the UK and Australia, though I have only ever lived in Britain. I do have numerous close family members living in Australia and am so fortunate to have visited many times, as well as having travelled the world generally. Of course, I know many, many people who also don’t feel much attachment to their British identity without being dual citizens or regularly jetting off around the world. But for me, these factors may well have contributed to feeling like my being British was just a small piece of the puzzle.
It would be remiss of me to discuss national identity without addressing the obvious privilege it takes to be able to broadly disregard your citizenship. Being legally British affords me a host of important social protections, a strong currency and the right to live and work in a country that is, so far in my lifetime, devoid of major conflict and offers a globally strong social safety net. If my British citizenship was revoked and I was given a passport to country full of war, poverty and lacking in good education or healthcare, I’d probably become a lot more invested in matters of citizenship.
The reason that I am afforded the privilege of not caring too much about my national identity is luck. I was born in the UK to British parents and am therefore entitled to spend my life eligible for all the services, support and opportunities being a citizen of a developed nation offers. I didn’t earn that. It was given to me by the luck of my birth. I am no more intrinsically entitled to the privileges of being a member of a wealthy nation than anyone else.
You wouldn’t necessarily think it, though, with the fervor that some people express that the protections of being British are something they deserve more than other human beings who are less fortunate, as if British-ness was an achievement rather than an accident or that the things that make British citizenship valuable are inherent to the UK rather than common features of rich, developed countries. The idea that being so globally, phenomenally fortunate would make you less empathetic to those living in significantly more challenging conditions is so foreign to me. If you earn the median UK income for someone with a full-time job (£28,677) then that puts you in the 0.71% richest people in the world. To be living below the poverty line in Britain (which is defined as 60% of the median income or less) means living on less than £17,206 per year – this still puts you in the top 2.82% richest people on the entire planet. Of course, relative standards of living and purchasing power do play a part and poverty and inequality in the UK remain serious problems, but broadly, it is better to be a poor person in Britain than almost anywhere else. From a global perspective, most British people are afforded an extremely high standard of living. I guess feeling like that’s not the case comes from a place of scarcity, of feeling like having your basic needs being met and then some could not possibly be available to everyone.
However, it goes deeper than just wanting the privileges of British citizenship for yourself. Many people talk about being proud of their British identity, or, conversely, ashamed of it. After the 2016 Brexit referendum, a lot of my liberal friends posted Facebook statutes claiming that they were ashamed to be British, despite having never said anything that implied feeling connected to their national identity before.
Pride tends to be associated with a sense of achievement based on your own actions or the actions of those closely associated with you. To be ‘proud’ of being British therefore implies that a) Britain has done brilliant things to be proud of and b) that you have contributed to those brilliant things in some way. Now, over the centuries, Britain has done some great things, including inventing the steam engine and the first prototype of the Internet. But we have also done demonstrably terrible things, like taking over most of the world by force and murdering and pillaging communities and people everywhere for the sake of growing and maintaining the British Empire. Why do so many feel proud of being part of group they didn’t earn entry to and to whose success they did not contribute? Conversely, why don’t those same people also feel responsible and guilty for all the terrible, barbaric acts committed in the name of Britain, not just historically but also recently, when xenophobic hate crimes like the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox happen?
It seems so arbitrary to me feel so deeply connected to your national community but then vehemently separate from your global community. Who draws that line? And where? It’s not as if you feel connected to your nation because you know every person individually. I assume that, in theory, you feel connected and invested in the success of your nation – and, inherently, the people in it – because you are ostensibly all working toward some common good and looking out for one another on an enormous scale. Why reserve that level of care for those who share your nationality? Why not extend the same level of concern and commitment to people all over the world? It is odd to me to feel so committed to your identity as a British person but so disconnected from your wider identity as a human being.
If you are invested in the success of your nation purely out of wanting to improve your own quality of life, then the global community has done far more for that than Britain on its own, like developing the vaccines for numerous deadly diseases, creating innovative agricultural methods and figuring out air travel.
In his book The Most Good You Can Do, ethicist Peter Singer implores people to consider the greater impact they could have by making donations to organisations that work outside of the US or the UK. Many people feel strongly about donating to charities that work in their home countries, despite poverty in the US and UK being at a much lower level than in many other countries around the world. You can do so much good for other people who are fundamentally just like you, though they live in countries you may never have visited and whose living standards you might not be able to imagine. Why do those people not matter as much?
If I’m being kind, I’d say it comes from an inability to empathise with people who live such radically different lives. The answer could also, of course, tie together nationalism and racism in the neat bow they often occupy together. Many of those who do feel that being British is a key part of their identity are not invested in the success of all British people, only of British people who they deem appropriately British, which typically means people who are white and speak English as a first language. This is a patently inaccurate view of who makes up Britain and is the reason that nationalism and racism and xenophobia typically go hand in hand. It’s not really about British-ness. It’s about white supremacy.
It feels like Brexit has taken all this fear and nationalism a step further, to not only try to close us off from countries where people have different skin tones (ignoring the fact that people of all races live everywhere and are as much the citizens of wealthy, developed countries as anyone else) but now to close us off from Europe too. I honestly don’t know what it is that people think makes Britain great that Europe doesn’t also offer in some measure, or, perhaps more importantly, that Europe takes away from. Surely the things that truly make being British great – free healthcare, democracy, high quality public education and lack of major conflict – are clearly not unique to Britain? The things that do seem more unique to British culture – heavy tea consumption, a shocking obsession with the royal family and an unholy fondness for sarcasm, queues and Sunday roasts – are less crucial for ensuring a high quality of life and are certainly not under threat from our political and economic ties with Europe.
What does it mean to be British? What is it that nationalists are trying to preserve?
The answer is probably whiteness, which is awful, though unfortunately likely, with a spike in hate crimes being noted by the Home Office following Brexit. But I’d be interested to know how many of those who want people who look un-British (read: are non-white) to go back to where they came from also, even without realising, enjoy living in a Britain made up of a wide variety of influences. Many people love living in a country where you can find a wide variety of cuisines, watch American TV shows, buy cheap clothing made across Asia and take highly effective medicines manufactured in countries in Europe and across the world. I mean, roast potatoes are great, but how many people really see the existence of restaurants from a huge variety of cultures as a negative? Aside from the bigotry, the hypocrisy is staggering.
My experience of living in the UK in enhanced so enormously by the influence of other countries and cultures, in media, food, fashion, education, politics and a host of other industries. That’s because while I live in the UK, the UK is part of the world, and I guess I definitely fall on the global side of the national versus global citizen debate. I don’t see living in the UK as divorced from living in the world as a whole and it is such a different perspective to see being British as a core part of your identity but not have your global identity figure into the equation at all.
I mean, life in the UK is not divorced from other countries, try as many to might to say that it is. Modern life in the UK rests on trade with nations around the world and if we were truly self-sufficient then 21st century Britain would look starkly different. I mean, we have net imports to Britain from the USA, China, Germany, France and Spain, among many other countries. In 2017, we imported far more from the EU than we exported into the bloc, bringing in £341bn worth of imports but only exporting £274bn worth of products to the EU. It’s not just clothes, food and medicine that we import, but a vast array of energy sources, electronics, metals and vehicles to make our industries and lives stronger and better. All the things we receive from other countries, not just the EU but also the rest of the world, allow Britain to be the modern, high-functioning place it is today. To be British is to be connected to countries all around the world. To be British is to be part of nation that incorporates people of all different races, ethnicities and native tongues. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. To see or want Britain to be separate from Europe or the rest of the world is not only narrow-minded but almost absurd or even impossible. Borders are just lines in the sand or the sea (I mean, oceans never stopped us from saying another land mass was part of Britain before!). It ignores the profoundly positive effects that globalisation and industrialisation have had on the UK, that have made it into the place where many feel there is the potential for a bright, prosperous future. Britain has never been able to do anything notable alone, or at least not for a very, very long time. Looking forward, so many of the major problems of our time are not limited to one country or place and dealing with climate change, antibiotic resistance or rapidly increasing and ageing populations are going to be group efforts spanning the globe. We are all in this together. No matter how much we retreat and curl in on ourselves, we are still part of the world and citizens of the global community. We would do better to start acting like it.