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What is Britishness? Citizenship, values and identity

The legacy of the British state militates against democratic citizenship, says David Beetham. Any discussion of 'Britishness' that ignores this reality is bound to be incomplete

June 12, 2008
22 min read

David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit

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One of Gordon Brown’s first acts after becoming prime minister in 2007 was to publish a green paper with Jack Straw, The Governance of Britain (CM7170), outlining a ‘new constitutional settlement’ that would ‘forge a new relationship between government and citizen’. Part 4 of this paper, entitled ‘Britain’s future: the citizen and the state’, was focused on a set of concerns about what it means to be British, what are the distinctive British values, and what rights and responsibilities people should have as citizens, all of which were argued to be unclear or confused and in need of greater clarification.

So, for example, we read: ‘The government believes that a clearer definition of citizenship would give people a better sense of their British identity in a globalised world.’ (sec. 185). ‘A clearer understanding of the common core of rights and responsibilities that go with British citizenship will help build our sense of shared identity and social cohesion.’ (193). ‘It is important to be clearer about what it means to be British, what it means to be part of British society and, crucially, to be resolute in making the point that what comes with that is a set of values which have not just to be shared but also accepted.’ (195).

To this end the green paper promised a series of discussion documents – on citizenship, on British values, on a British bill of rights – as part of a wide-ranging national debate on the country’s future. The first of these was Lord Goldsmith’s Citizenship Review, Citizenship: Our Common Bond, complete with a host of accompanying research documents; others are promised shortly.

The first reaction of anyone reading this mass of material has to be astonishment that so much effort is felt to be necessary chasing a will of the wisp called Britishness, or even to defining a distinctive set of rights and responsibilities which are specific to British citizens as opposed, say, to long-term residents settled here from other EU countries, from Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland. A second reaction is how prescriptive, even hortatory, so much of the language is in which this whole enterprise is couched, as the above quotations from the green paper demonstrate. What exactly is going on here, and why is it felt to be so urgent at this historical juncture?

It may be that Gordon Brown’s longstanding preoccupation with Britishness has something to do with a certain vulnerability he has felt as a Scottish premier-in-waiting and now prime minister of a predominantly English country, with other Scots holding leading positions in his cabinet. There are, however, more general concerns which have coincided to drive this agenda:

· Following devolution of government to Scotland and Wales, increasing numbers of residents there declare that they think of themselves as more Scottish or Welsh than British, and the English are now following suit. A British identity seems to be losing its attraction, and the Union to be correspondingly at risk.

· The growing number of black and Asian Britons in our cities, many of them with their own distinct languages and cultures, and maybe identifying with their country of family origin, is felt to require the assertion of some overarching or unifying identity as a necessary counterweight to the centrifugal tendencies of ‘multiculturalism’. The discovery that the suicide bombers of 7/7 and 21/7 were British born and bred has been particularly shocking.

· There is widespread concern in government about the public’s alienation from the formal political process, and especially that of young people, whose participation in the elections of 2001 and 2005 showed a massive decline from 1997. Among the measures outlined to combat this in last July’s green paper was the idea of a Youth Citizenship Commission, which would ‘examine ways to invigorate young people’s understanding of the historical narrative of our country and what it means to be a British citizen, and to increase their participation in the political sphere.’ (190)

A historical narrative of Britain

A good place to start if we want to understand what is problematic about the government’s attempt to revive Britishness as a response to the concerns listed above is precisely with ‘the historical narrative of our country’. Of course there is no single narrative but many diverse, even competing, ones. However, one historical account which any discussion of this issue has to come to terms with is that by Linda Colley in her widely regarded book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707 to 1837 (Yale UP, 1992). Great Britain (as distinct form the United Kingdom), she argues, came into being with the Act of Union of 1707, and the British nation was subsequently ‘forged’ out of a number of components: through the project of Empire and the trading opportunities that went with it; from a common commitment to Protestantism; and by a monarchy at the apex of an increasingly interconnected landed ruling class. All these elements were reinforced by wars against Continental Europe and especially Catholic France, which served as the ‘other’ against which British distinctiveness came to be most clearly defined.

A number of points are worth noting from Colley’s account:

1. British nationhood came to be ‘added on’ to other identities, Scots, Welsh, English, or more purely local ones, rather than replacing them, or merging with them. Great Britain was ‘an invented nation superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties.’ In this respect being British has always allowed for multiple identities, though the English as the numerically and politically dominant element have always more readily regarded ‘English’ and British’ as interchangeable, rather than distinguishing between the two.

2. British nationhood was always more civic than ethnic, to use a common distinction from nationality studies. That is, it was a matter of commitment to, and identification with, certain common institutions, including of course the Westminster Parliament, rather than depending on ‘blood and soil’. There were certain exclusions of an ethnic kind, it should be said, such as Catholics and Jews, and the English language provided a significant unifying base. But it was the common institutions of political and civic life that defined what was distinctively ‘British’. And commitment to them, Colley insists, was always as much a matter of self-interest as of emotionally based allegiance or ideology.

3. The British nation was essentially an elite project, though identification with it spread downwards in the latter half of Colley’s period through a combination of military service in successful wars and popular mobilisations at royal events and anniversaries.

Not everyone agrees with Colley that the story of Britain began only in 1707, but nearly everyone who has commented on her work, including Colley herself, accepts that the defining elements of Britishness which she identifies all came to an end or were substantially eroded during the second half of the twentieth century, and can no longer form the basis of a distinctively British identity or nationhood. Here is how Colley herself puts it:

‘As an invented nation heavily dependent for its ‘raison d’etre’ on a broadly Protestant culture, on the threat and tonic of recurrent war, particularly war with France, and on the triumphs, profits and Otherness represented by a massive overseas empire, Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure…..We can understand the nature of present debates and controversies only if we recognise that the factors that provided for the forging of a British nation in the past have largely ceased to operate.’

To be sure, Colley’s own narrative ends with 1837, and there have been attempts by others to identify nation-wide institutions developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which have provided alternative bases for a distinctively British identity, and served as integrating elements. These include the Royal Mail and the Post Office, the BBC, the political parties, the trade union movement, and the various institutions of the welfare state created by the 1945 Labour government, from the NHS to a range of nationalised utilities and other bodies with ‘British’ in their name, serving the whole of the country. Whether these institutions could ever have provided the same resonance as the ones identified by Linda Colley is now irrelevant, since most of them have been decimated, if not eliminated, by the privatisations initiated by Mrs. Thatcher and continued under New Labour. Even the ‘Unionist’ Conservative Party ended Mrs. Thatcher’s period of rule as almost exclusively English, having lost virtually all Parliamentary representation in Scotland and Wales. And there is no doubt that her period of rule exacerbated if not started a trend towards the individualisation of economic and social life, which provides infertile ground for any wider social or political loyalty or commitment.

Two simple conclusions can be drawn from this history. The first is that to look to ‘the historical narrative of our country’ to find any basis for a contemporary restatement of what it means to be British, is to build on very shifting sand. The second is that a sense of nationhood cannot be forged from flags, from ceremonials, from statements of values or even from definitions of citizenship, but only from shared institutions of civic and public life which command wide respect.

But does it really matter if the constitutive elements of a distinctively British identity have worn thin? Is it any longer relevant in a globalising age, when many of the public values we subscribe to are ones we share with other western democracies, when our justiciable rights as citizens are drawn from the European Convention on Human Rights, and when the causes many of our young people are attracted to are international rather than national ones – the environment, fair trade, global poverty, and so on? Is a concentration on trying to define what it means to be British anything other than a rather parochial sideshow?

It is tempting simply to answer ‘no’ to all these questions, and to end this paper here. To do so, however, would be to miss the opportunity provided by the government’s initiatives, and the publicity surrounding them, to articulate a more progressive alternative to those contained in the recent documents. Sketching out what this alternative might look like, and what the obstacles are to realising it, will form the second part of the paper.

A progressive alternative

I shall begin again with Linda Colley, this time with a millennium lecture she gave to Tony Blair and other dignitaries in Downing Street in December 1999, speaking as she herself says more as a citizen than as a historian. The lecture was entitled Britishness in the Twenty-first Century. Here she exhorts her listeners to stop ‘persistently asking agonised questions about the viability of Britishness’, since it would be difficult to identify core national values ‘in a way that commands broad assent, unless you descend to uttering platitudes … Instead of being so mesmerised by debates over British identity,’ she goes on, ‘it would be far more productive to concentrate on renovating British citizenship, and in convincing all of the inhabitants of these islands that they are equal and valued citizens irrespective of whatever identity they may individually select to prioritise.’ She then sketches out a conception of a revivified ‘Citizen Nation’ based on equality of rights and sovereignty of the people, shorn of rank and ‘antiquated elements’, dedicated to tackling racial and sexual discrimination, and involving a wider diffusion and decentralisation of power.

The contrast between this conception of citizenship and that offered by Lord Goldsmith in his Citizenship Review could not be starker. Where Colley seeks a more genuinely inclusive and democratic citizenship, Goldsmith is preoccupied with finding what distinguishes those who possess British citizenship from those who don’t; with using this citizenship to define a British identity; with rituals, ceremonies and other antiquated remnants; and with an extremely narrow definition of ‘active citizenship’ which is limited to voting and ‘volunteering’, rather than the range of activities in which citizens can and do engage to defend and promote their interests, improve their lives, influence public policy or challenge injustice. In sum, it is just what one might expect from a patriarchal Lord rather than a democratically minded commoner.

Linda Colley’s millennium lecture provides a good starting point for a more progressive conception of citizenship, and I would recommend people to read it. What it does not address, however, are what the obstacles might be to realising the more progressive conception that she outlines. It is surely no accident that many of these obstacles are to be found in precisely those foundational components of British nationhood which everyone assumes have now disappeared or lost their significance. Far from having disappeared, however, their inheritance remains deeply ingrained and persistently reproduced in the British state and public life, where they work to frustrate the realisation of a more democratic Citizen Nation based upon equality. Let me consider each of these components in turn.


The most obvious legacy of Empire is of course the multi-racial and multi-ethnic composition of Britain’s population itself. But the integration of these peoples as equal citizens continues to be hampered, not only by linguistic and educational disadvantage, but also by the attitudinal legacy of white superiority that was inherent in the British imperial project. This legacy is powerfully reinforced by latter-day versions of liberal imperialism, in which Britain seeks to bring ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ to benighted countries of the developing world, albeit now on the coat-tails of US military power. Far from being an aberration of Tony Blair, this mentality is continually reproduced within the British state, as witnessed most recently by David Miliband, who in a recent Oxford lecture outlined a ‘great progressive project’ of spreading democracy around the world, if necessary by ‘hard’ as well as ‘soft’ power.

What has this to do with the different progressive project of creating a more inclusive and equal citizenship at home? Colley’s history shows repeatedly how national identities come to be defined externally, through opposition to a foreign ‘other’, especially in war. In the contemporary world of multi-ethnic societies, however, this process of opposition can turn out to be as internally divisive as unifying. The invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have caused deep alienation among the Muslim communities of Britain, and the characterisation of these conflicts as part of a ‘global war on terrorism’ has reinforced the conception of a threatening ‘other’ in our midst which echoes the position of British Catholics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century wars against Catholic Europe.

If the persistence of the imperial mentality within society and state is one legacy of empire that works to hinder a more inclusive and equal citizenship, a second is the institution of the public schools. Although some of these predate the Empire, it was the 19th century that saw their greatest expansion and consolidation as a training ground for imperial rule. They now survive as a highly effective vehicle for reproducing social and economic privilege across generations, through the preferential access of their pupils to the most prestigious universities and into the leading professions. Yet the most fundamental requirement for equal citizenship is a common system of public education, which is shared by all, and through which they learn to recognise all sorts and diversities of future citizens as potential equals. Tinkering at the margin with the charity law for private schools only shows how far we remain from realising such a basic condition for citizenship.


The trading supremacy which came with the British Empire is of course long since at an end, but its legacy persists in one of the world’s most open economies, in which finance capital through the City of London holds the dominant position, nurtured by successive governments. The enormous and ever-increasing inequalities generated by this ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism have been well documented and commented on by others. Two consequences have followed, however, for the ‘rights and duties of citizenship’ that are the direct responsibility of government, one at either end of the economic scale.

At the top end is the enormous system of tax avoidances and evasions which enable wealthy corporations and individuals to escape their citizenship obligations. On the very day the Goldsmith review of citizenship was published we were reminded of the tax rules that have allowed British citizens to spend up to 270 days a year working in Britain, while avoiding paying tax by claiming residence in tax havens such as Monaco. This is only the tip of a very large iceberg. For example, Goldsmith’s account of ‘recent changes in citizenship’ mentions an exotic-sounding list of places, from Anguilla and Bermuda to the Turks and Caico Islands, whose citizens now qualify for British citizenship under the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002. What he does not mention, of course, is that these remnants of Empire include a roll-call of tax havens under British jurisdiction, where international companies and billionaires can escape their citizenship responsibilities, and deprive governments around the world, including our own, of vitally needed revenue. And this list does not include the Isle of Man or Jersey, the latter of whose citizens, we recently learn, have now to be charged a food tax to pay for the reduction of corporation tax to zero.

The other side to this open and deregulated economy is the determination of successive British governments to demand opt-outs from the EU treaties from Maastricht to Lisbon, which would guarantee workers the same rights in employment that are enjoyed by the citizens of other member states. Given this record, it comes as no surprise to find that the one item that the July green paper explicitly excludes from a future British Bill of Rights and Duties is any incorporation of economic and social rights into British law. Labour’s ‘common bond of citizenship’, in short, will continue to allow the evasion of responsibilities by the wealthy, while limiting rights to economic security for other citizens.

The monarchy

Of all the components contributing to the forging of Britain since 1707, the monarchy is the one that has remained relatively unchanged, despite various vicissitudes. In doing so it has not only consolidated the remnants of an aristocratic social order, complete with titles, ermine and ceremonial, but perpetuated the self-definition of the people as subjects rather than citizens. The first action of those acquiring British citizenship through naturalisation is to swear an oath that they ‘will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors’. Lord Goldsmith now proposes that this feudal relic, which has no intelligible meaning in the modern world, should be extended to all young people in public citizenship ceremonies to be attended at the end of their schooling. His reasoning seems to be that, since those holding public office have to swear the oath, it is ‘evidence of the duty of allegiance owed by all British nationals’, and should therefore be publicly acknowledged by all.

Not surprisingly, this proposal aroused the strongest opposition in the consultation process commissioned as part of the Citizenship Review. However, the fact that it could be entertained at all shows how deeply ingrained in the British state is the idea that the monarch, not the people, is sovereign, albeit in practice the government through Parliament now exercises that sovereignty on her behalf. And the attitude of deferential subordination to those representing that sovereignty which the whole idea conveys is deeply corrosive of any democratic conception of a Citizen Nation, confident in itself as the only source of legitimate political authority, and ready to challenge and hold accountable those who temporarily exercise it on their behalf.


Unlike the monarchy, Protestantism has long since ceased to be a defining marker of being British, since the Catholic emancipation of the nineteenth century and the removal of lesser civil disabilities from members of other religious minorities. However, what it has left as its legacy is a wholly disproportionate place for religion in the formal public sphere, given that we have one of the most secularised societies in the world in terms of religious observance. The point where this most impinges on citizenship, again, is in the school system, and in the continuing proliferation of ‘faith’ schools paid for from public funds. I should say here that I myself come from a deeply religious family, and I am no militant secularist. But I believe that religion belongs in the sphere of civil society, where it has an important role and an honourable tradition, but not in the formal public sphere, whether this be through guaranteed places in an upper chamber of Parliament, or in segregated schools paid for from taxation, whose curriculum, ethos and selection of both pupils and staff is subject to religious criteria and influence. The necessary educational basis of a common citizenship does not rule out diversity between different schools and their curricula within a common system, but it is inconsistent with exclusivities of access and membership based either on wealth or parental religious belief or occasional practice.

Wars against continental Europe

The most powerful element in forging the British nation, according to Colley, were the wars against continental Europe, first against France in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and then against Germany and its allies in the 20th. Thankfully, these have now ceased, but they have left perhaps the most persistent legacy of all, in a population that is readily influenced by the caricatures of a Europhobic press and a government that is scared of making an honest case for the European Union and our role within it. This is particularly relevant to the issue of citizenship, since arguably the most progressive feature of the EU lies in the common rights it offers all citizens of its member countries. If we leave aside the rights enjoyed under the European Convention of Human Rights through membership of the Council of Europe, these rights include the right to reside and work in another member country of the EU, to stand for election and vote in European, local and devolved elections in another member country, to enjoy a range of social benefits there linked to work, incapacity or retirement, and so on. In addition is the range of rights in employment guaranteed by the social chapters of EU treaties that the UK has opted out of.

Given the background of Europhobia, it is perhaps not surprising that the Goldsmith documents do nothing to emphasise the positive aspects of European citizenship, but rather try to find the increasingly diminishing content exclusive to British citizenship in distinction to it. In the context of our existing membership of the Union, however, this conveys an extraordinarily parochial impression, and suggests a major lost opportunity to offer an outward- rather than inward-looking account of citizenship, and one that is appropriate to the realities of the contemporary world. The democratic conception of a Citizen Nation outlined by Linda Colley could best be anchored in a wider European citizenship, including its economic and social rights.


The argument of this article, then, is that the key elements that went into the forging of the British nation after 1707, far from disappearing, as is widely assumed, have left a distorting legacy that continually militates against the realisation of a fully democratic conception of citizenship. This is one where we are truly citizens rather than subjects, enjoying a common system of education without privileges or exclusiveness, divested of imperial pretensions and superiorities, fairly sharing rights and responsibilities in economic life, and outward looking towards a common rights-based European citizenship. Any discussion of the citizenship agenda, or of Britishness, which fails to address this distorting legacy will necessarily be incomplete.

There is naturally no mention of these issues in the mass of Goldsmith’s documents on citizenship. Consideration of them might give a more realistic dimension to the citizenship education on which the government sets such store for instructing future citizens in their rights and responsibilities, and encouraging political participation among the young. Goldsmith’s own commissioned research reveals that many pupils lack enthusiasm or respect for the subject, perceive their teachers as disengaged, and consider citizenship classes as a ‘doss lesson’. The government’s preachifying approach is hardly likely to alter this perception. So, for example, the July green paper lays the blame for the massive decline in voting by young people on ‘their lack of appreciation of the democratic process and of the need for active citizenship’. There is no recognition that people will not vote if they cannot see any difference between the main parties, or any chance of representation for those that might more closely reflect their views and interests.

The lack of any self-critical element in these documents is striking. No one would guess from them that Parliament and its membership stands at an all time low in public esteem. This is not just a matter of Parliamentary expenses or cash for honours. As any parent will know, ‘do as I say not as I do’ is quickly seen through by the young. I recall the massive outburst of civic activism by young people, including many Muslims, leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when they participated in protest meetings, marches, demonstrations and school walk-outs. This was the first generation of students that had been exposed to David Blunkett’s new civics curriculum. In the classroom they may have learnt about the importance of the United Nations, the need to resolve disputes by peaceful means, and the values of representative democracy. What they learnt in practice was that Parliament and government can defy the UN and invade another country when they choose, and that they give more weight to the views of a foreign president than they do to the voices of their own people. A frank acknowledgement by government of the failings of our own democratic process would seem to be a precondition for any credibility in encouraging the young to participate more fully in it.

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David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit

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