Britain’s identity crisis: It’s stuck between nostalgia and an uncertain future

  • AFP, London
  • Updated: Jun 21, 2016 14:24 IST
With the June 23 vote on whether to stay Brexit in or quit the European Union, Britain risks finding itself isolated from the continental mainstream. (AFP)

First Scottish independence, now the EU: holding two potentially seismic referendums in two years reveals how Britain is wrestling with its identity, stuck between nostalgia for an empire lost and an uncertain future.

Even though the country has an open, cosmopolitan image -- and London is one of the most vibrant cities in the world -- Britain is suffering inside from an existential malaise, unsure of its place in the modern world, say historians.

Seventy years ago, Britain ruled an empire under which, at its zenith, a quarter of the world’s population lived.

Now with the June 23 vote on whether to stay Brexit in or quit the European Union, it risks finding itself isolated from the continental mainstream and with a just a few island outposts still in pink on the maps.

“A lot of the debate is about the inability to face the fact that Britain no longer has an empire,” said Michael Skey, a lecturer at Loughborough University, and the author of “National Belonging and Everyday Life”.

“There is a sense of, ‘we can get into this time machine and go back to the 1950s and start again’,” he told AFP.

“Mainly the older generation is tied to this idea: if only we get away from these damned Europeans, then we will be great again.”

Endless references to the past -- particularly to World War II -- are because it represents “the last time the British can say with some justification: we mattered”.

A 'Vote Leave' sign is seen by the roadside in Smarden urging people to vote for Brexit in the upcoming EU referendum on June 23. (AFP)

Europe viewed through WWII lens

It therefore seems quite natural that the referendum campaign has been peppered with references to the war.

More than 70 years after the 1945 Victory in Europe, the wartime heritage remains strong in Britain, where Spitfires are regularly used in flypasts.

At the 2016 European football championships currently taking place in France, England supporters sing “10 German Bombers”, revelling in how “the RAF from England shot them down”, plus the theme music from war film “The Great Escape” has accompanied the Three Lions wherever they have travelled.

Former London mayor Boris Johnson, a figurehead of the Leave campaign, has compared the EU to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in trying to unify Europe in one superstate.

“The British think more about it because they came out of World War II without any shame -- unlike other European countries,” said Robert Colls, the author of “Identity of England” and a professor of history at De Montfort University.

Patrick Bishop, a war historian and the former foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph newspaper, said World War II was the last time that the British population had a common identity.

“It has been an historical comfort blanket,” he said, for a people “feeling confused about their identity and their place in the world.

“There is a deep sense of insecurity. Reaching to the past and World War II in particular is a sign of that malaise.”

A boat flying a large "In" flag sails by the British Houses of Parliament to oppose a flotilla of boats from the group 'Fishing for Leave' (L) on the river Thames in London. (AFP)

1945 and 1066

For Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think-tank, the 1945 glory sentiment is directly at the heart of Britain’s troubled relationship with the EU.

After the war, Britain could still consider itself among the world’s top three powers, and viewed the European project from a distance.

Britain, with its empire, had “bigger fish to fry”, he said.

But the 1952 Suez Crisis rendered that a clear “misinterpretation of Britain’s global status”.

By the time the kingdom joined the European institutions in 1973, “it was less the thing we would have liked to joined”, he said.

Professor Robert Tombs, a historian from St John’s College at the University of Cambridge, added: “Because the British have far less traumatic memories of the Second World War than most of the European continent, they are far less attached to the idea of “Europe” as a moral project to unite Europe and maintain peace.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage leader campaigns for Brexit in Sittingbourne on June 13, 2016. (AFP)

“The British tend to consider it a purely economic and commercial arrangement and if this is not working to their advantage they are quite prepared to walk away.”

Even the Remain campaign is struggling to convey any enthusiasm for the workings of Brussels.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said the EU “can drive me mad, it is a bureaucracy, it is frustrating”, and almost always refers his case back to the economic argument for staying in rather than zeal for its institutions and pan-European idealism.

Katwala said Britain being an island that has not been successfully invaded since 1066 was “central” to its relations with the rest of Europe.

“You have a lot of euroscepticiscm in other European countries but that never really manifests in the question: are we part of it?” he said.

“Britain goes always back to that question.”

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