Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 June 2008

National Identity: Ancient Frontiers And the Football Test

Watching the Euro 2008 football tournament has provided another occasion for me to ruminate on questions of national identity. I find myself being envious of the players and supporters of our European neighbours, whose countries are also their nations – injecting just that little bit of extra national pride into the efforts of the teams as they struggle not just for football glory but the (self-)esteem of their whole nation.

It’s hard to imagine the same sort of sentiments surrounding the England team, had they qualified; although, undoubtedly, the same passions would have been invoked in their respective countries by the participation of Scotland or Ireland. It’s not that a great many English people, including myself, would not be filled with jubilation if an England team won a tournament such as the European Nations Championship or the World Cup; nor that those who represent England in team sports don’t do so without a huge amount of pride. It’s just that it doesn’t mean quite as much as if your nation is also reflected and represented in every aspect of the public life of your country: politics, institutions, culture, the media, language, national traditions, a coherent sense of national identity, and a passionate attachment to a specific territory and its peoples. This is the case, in different ways, for all the nations participating in Euro 2008. But if England were competing, it would not be the case, in the same way, for her: we do not have an English Parliament or government; our national institutions are those of the UK, or else of England and Wales; there is widespread diffidence about, if not contempt towards, English culture; our media are officially ‘British’ (although in reality often English in all but name); our language is the global language and the official language of UEFA, even though no English-speaking nation is taking part in Euro 2008; many of our national traditions are ‘British’; English people still wrestle uncomfortably with their dual English-British national identity, and even with the very notion of national identity as such; and our territory and peoples – are they England and the English, or Britain and the British?

One imagines that the minds of players representing the likes of France, Spain, Germany or Croatia become filled with the historical facts and lore of their nations; and they see themselves handed the opportunity to symbolically defend and uphold the dignity, values and even territorial integrity of their nations as they represent everything their countries stand for and their nations’ entire histories, which have led to the existence of the national teams they themselves are a part of. By contrast, the great national achievements and struggles that an England player can call to mind are those of Britain, not – nominally, at least – of England: the British Empire; the democratic principles, rule of law and language that we have spread throughout the world; the victorious fight for freedom and justice in the Battle of Britain and the Second World War. The nation and the territory that were at the heart of these great convulsions of history were those of Britain. And this Britain is now falling apart and provokes considerable ambivalence in the minds and hearts of most English people and particularly, perhaps, in members of a sporting team for England, a country whose separateness from Britain / the UK only further calls to mind the break up of a once-proud Britain and the absence of an English nation state. Needless to say, this ambivalence can only be stirred up all the more as the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ boom out throughout the stadium before the match begins; while French hearts, by contrast, are filled with national pride by the tones of the Marseillaise.

This idea of the national football team symbolically enacting a defence of the nation’s territory is quite an important one, it seems to me. Anthropologists of the Desmond Morris school would say that national team sport is a peaceful way to act out aggression and rivalry between countries. Games between England and Scotland, or between Germany and the Netherlands, always have something of this character of re-playing ancient enmities and settling old scores.

This is, as it were, the football test of national identity, which is probably a more valid and universal indicator than Norman Tebbit’s famous cricket test, given the greater passions provoked by football internationals than cricket test matches, and given the fact that football – like so many other things – is something that England has given to the whole world. The reality of national identity, as an emotional and cultural thing, is for me demonstrated by football allegiances more than by any other phenomenon. It’s in connection with football that you immediately realise that England and Scotland are indeed different nations and that they’ll never be merged into a unitary British sense of national identity. Indeed, it’s because of this incontrovertible evidence of nationhood that no other countries seem to have any difficulty accepting that England and Scotland should have separate national football teams and football associations, despite the fact that their nations (plus Wales and Northern Ireland) are not also states – unlike every other nation with a football team.

And, as I indicated above, the England and Scotland that are represented by their respective football teams are, among other things, territorial entities. When we think of England or Scotland, or indeed any other nation, one of the things we always picture in our minds are the outlines of those nations’ territories as they appear on maps. These are boundaries hard won by the battles of the past, re-played in the football contests of the present. But they are in many cases also ancient frontiers stretching back through history to Roman times and beyond. France – occupying pretty much the same land as ancient Gaul; Spain – EspaƱa – Roman Hispania, minus Portugal; Germany – the Barbarian peoples of Germania; and Catholic Croatia, whose historic rivalry with its ethnic twin, Orthodox Serbia, reflects their location right on the divide between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the Western and Eastern Christian Church.

It is the same with England and Scotland: a territorial divide so ancient that the landscape of Northumberland still carries its traces in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Wall. With one difference: Roman Britannia did not extend to the whole island of Britain; so the territory we now know as Britain (unlike in the cases referred to above) is an extension beyond the original Roman and pre-Roman territorial boundaries. Ancient Britannia referred pretty much to the territory now known as England and Wales; while Caledonia – Scotland – was a separate territorial and political entity.

These ancient divisions run deep. ‘Divisions’ is not the right word: ‘distinctions’ is perhaps better. These differences in culture, history, traditions and institutions – linked to an attachment to a specific land, and to a way of life which, in the past, was very much more dependent on the land – are what gives us our national characteristics, and defines us as a distinct national community. In this way, the nations of England and Scotland can trace their differences – their distinctions – along a continuous historical and folkloric thread that leads back to pre-Roman, indeed pre-historic, times; such as when the Celtic Britons were distinct from the Caledonian, non-Celtic Picts.

There was no integral, Celtic Britain that was somehow broken up by the Anglo-Saxon invasion – unless, of course, by ‘Britain’ you mean the territory of England and Wales (Roman Britannia). And that division between Celtic Britain and non-Celtic Caledonia has been carried over to this day in the division within the Celtic linguistic domain between ‘Brythonic’ Celtic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and ‘Goidelic’ (Gaelic in both its Irish form and its imported offshoot that is Scots). And these ancient divisions and distinctions within the island of Britain have been very much carried forward from history through to the present in the much closer institutional and national links that still exist between England and Wales, compared with the historically more recent and looser – and ever more loosening – ties between England and Scotland.

These ancient historic distinctions – demarcators of national territory and identity – suggest an illuminating perspective on the conflicting English and British identities of the English people. Beyond more transient considerations of 18th-century political union, ideology and imperial ambitions, the formation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain by the 1707 Act of Union expressed a more primordial, territorial logic. As people inhabiting a comparatively small island, it was natural that the instinct of the English to defend their national territory should extend beyond the border with Scotland to the whole of Britain, especially as trade and technology led to both many more dealings and rivalries with our continental neighbours – and consequently, many more dangers of assault and invasion by sea and later by air. This thinking is still very much alive in one of the key rationales that is brought forward for preserving the United Kingdom today: that we share a single territory, whose defence and security is best assured by preserving a political union.

For these expedient, but also vital, reasons, the political dominion of England was extended beyond England and Wales to encompass Scotland, and thereafter Ireland. Or, putting this another way, the national and political entity (England, incorporating Wales) that was the inheritor of the ancient Roman / pre-Roman Britannia was extended to Caledonia, i.e. to the whole island of Britannia. This has led to the two Britains that we have today: the political Britain, the UK state, that in so many ways is in practice the English state in all but name, even to this day; and the territory of Britain, where the distinctions between England, Scotland and Wales are increasingly being marked by separate institutional and cultural expressions of national identity. One Britain that really is England: the product of English history, difference, and the defence of her independence and territorial integrity that extended to the whole of Britain. And another geographical Britain that encompasses the two nations of England and Scotland (if you include Wales and Cornwall – historically, Brythonic Celtic entities – within England / Britannia); or four nations if you regard Wales and Cornwall as nations that are seceding more from England than from a Britain which, politically, was always already only England.

But what we have, and what we have ever had, is certainly not one Britain. We do, or at least did, have a United – English – Kingdom of Great Britain, maybe; but this has never been a single, united nation in the territorial sense, and hence in all the other senses that really matter to a people that identify with a land.

And when England can once again celebrate and affirm its distinction from Britain, and take pride in all that it has achieved both under the guise of Britain and in its own name, then maybe the English football team, too, will see itself as the defender and inheritor of a great English nation: of its history and its future.

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