One reason for writing history is the hope it will help answer contemporary questions. It rarely does. In the much-quoted words of the then US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role”. Acheson’s question of post-imperial identity was addressed to the ‘British in Britain’. But he was not directly asking what being British then meant.
Stuart Ward in his recent Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain (Cambridge University Press) clarifies such questions in a scholarly book equipped with enough footnotes for several Ph.D theses. Ward’s almost five hundred pages of text focus in detail on shifting identities in the 1960s and 1970s. He writes in a thoroughly readable style making stimulating and unexpected connections, meriting Fintan O’Toole’s blurb on the cover: “essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the long slow waning of Britishness”.
Those living in Britain at the height of imperial outreach assumed that the inhabitants of that swathe of pink in my old school atlas, Victorian “Greater Britain”, shared, willingly or unwillingly, in their own imperial version of Britishness. But the peoples of the Empire were already at work making their own history and forging new national identities.
Identities are created by relationships, by cultural and material interaction and sometimes by appropriations. So how did the historical fate of ‘overseas’ Britishness - which we often forget - influence the different expressions of being British over the years and bring us today to this post-imperial island kingdom with its four less than cohesive nations? And is the government’s post-EU aspiration to adopt a world role, ‘Global Britain’, a fig-leaf barely hiding a ‘Little England’ wrecked by populism but hoping for the best?
Never losing its central focus, Ward’s book highlights two other features that accompanied Britishness in the 20th century. First is the persistence of what he calls ‘patrimonial racism’, cultural and inherited, shaping White relationships with different peoples fostering social exclusion, behind immigration bills. Second, addressing the wave of de-colonisation in the 1960s, he discusses the telling transition from appeals by the colonised to values perceived as British to appeals based on universal human rights and directed at the UN as a world forum.
But the diverse patterns of change encountered in the then Dominions, West Indies, India, Africa and Asia defy any simplistic analysis of changing allegiances. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remained passionately committed to Indian national identity after the huge inter-religious massacres attendant on Independence – strangely not mentioned anywhere in the text - and, of course Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa was ruthless. By way of contrast, advocacy of a strong British identity by Australians and New Zealanders persisted into the 1970s, only partly related to threats to trade triggered by Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973. Another revelation – at least to me - was how much Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s catastrophic Suez adventure may be attributable not just to his ill-health but also to pressures at the time from a significant right-wing faction of the Tory Party. The populist nationalism of Tory Brexiteers comes to mind.
Ward is adept at providing detailed examples illustrating his main themes particularly the racism beneath the asserted British values. In Vancouver in May 1914 there were mass protests when the Komagata Maru carrying 200 Sikhs, fellow subjects of the Empire intending to settle in Canada, attempted to dock. The ship, chartered by the enterprising Gurdit Singh, after several months at anchor was forced to return to Calcutta. In June 1948 the aptly named Empire Windrush brought 492 West Indians to Tilbury docks on the Thames. Trusting in British values they had expected to be treated as fellow Britons. Some 70 years later, hundreds drawn from what became known as the ‘Windrush generation’ - arrivals from the Caribbean 1948-1973 – were detained and 83 deported to the West Indies, their legal rights denied.
Ward also makes much of the sad story of Sagana Lodge in the Nyeri district of the Kenyan Central Highlands, to illustrate the mystique of royalty in delusions of fading imperialism. When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip married in 1947, the Colonial Government of Kenya built them a rustic lodge as a wedding present. If royalty could have several residences in Britain why not one in Greater Britain as an expression of the throne’s supranational character? The answer was that the Mau-Mau soon became active in the area. The Lodge was only occupied once by royalty - at the handover during the couple’s visit to Kenya in February 1952.
The transition from Empire to Commonwealth got underway with Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1944. India refused to join a body called the ‘British Commonwealth’ so the Queen came to preside over ‘the Commonwealth’, a de facto loose association of disparate but notionally equal countries including at that time Dominions with Governors-General appointed by the Crown.
Britain’s formal name, the UK is an abbreviation of the clunky ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. It used to be ‘and Ireland’ before the Irish Free State became a self-governing Dominion in 1922 and then in 1949 an independent Republic outside the Commonwealth. UK has turned out to be a useful name as it gives British diplomats a seat near the USA in international gatherings.
If you hold a UK passport, you have ‘British nationality’. Though Scotland’s nationalist Independence movement has scarcely been dented by the SNP’s financial shenanigans, and Wales has a strong national identity expressed in the Welsh language. There is no doubt you are ‘English’ while watching the Ashes, or, listening to John Major in 1993 quoting George Orwell while struggling with his Tory Eurosceptic rebels and evoking a fantasy unchanging England: a ‘solid breakfast and gloomy Sundays...old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’. The changing add-on ‘and Northern Ireland’ across the Irish Sea has given British governments an almighty identity problem both pre and post BREXIT.
Ward tackles the ‘Troubles’, the resurgence of the IRA in the 1960s, within the wider context of human and civil rights, de-colonisation globally, and protest against different forms of exclusion and discrimination. He describes the way the police force of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) repeatedly treated peaceful Catholic, nationalist, civil rights protests with excess force. And how protests were dogged by Ian Paisley’s followers, opening the door initially in 1970 to retaliatory IRA violence followed by 3,500 deaths in years of sectarian violence and terrorism.
Today the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded and led by Ian Paisley in 1971, shares Gibraltar’s unbending stance from 1964, ‘British we are, and British we stay’ (the caption on one of those stirring old British Pathé news items). But as the history of waning Britishness charted in Ward’s book indicates, it is not easy to describe what being British means in 2023. It remains an important contemporary question. Cambridge University Press ought to send the DUP’s current leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, a copy of Untied Kingdom to review. And perhaps we might find out the answer.
See TheArticle 21/06/2023