Demos Daily: Britain

Many argue that there hasn’t been enough international cooperation throughout the pandemic. Concerns that coordination with the EU has been hampered by politics especially prompts questions around our ability to work successfully with other countries. In these times of isolation it’s easy to forget that whatever we do domestically also affects how our nation is seen on the world stage, as will how we come together to rebuild – both as a country and as part of an international community. There comes a chance to rethink how we want to be perceived, and the values we want front and centre when the world begins to open up. There was another time when a rethink like this was needed, albeit in very different circumstances. Back in 1997, our landmark paper Britain™ started to set the course of re-imagining Britain’s identity and brand through its core values, as a ‘democratic and free society in an interconnected world.’

Read the conclusion of Britain™ below, or the full publication here.

Conclusion: re-imagining Britain

The multiple inventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are a useful reminder that national identities are neither unchanging or natural. They are invented – and reinvented – over periods of time, in response to changing demands and opportunities. Today, if we are living in the shadow of an older identity, it is not because this identity is somehow more authentic than any other. It is rather because the original invention of Britishness was so successful – providing a framework for Britain’s rise to empire and industrial predominance – that it has proven extraordinarily difficult to update it.

Only one recent leader has been interested in thinking about national identity, Margaret Thatcher saw herself as a descendant of Boadicea and Queen Elizabeth I. She wanted the nation to take pride once again in its trading strength, its enterprise. And she sought, in the traditional way, to define the nation through identifying its enemies – from the liberal establishment of institutions with ‘British’ in their name to working-class miners, from immigrants to General Galtieri. For a time her sheer charisma seemed to be recasting the nation in her image. Britain’s stock around the world certainly rose. Yet in retrospect we can see that she largely failed. Her image of Britain was too nostalgic, too bound up with empire, too exclusive and, little more than five years after posters proclaimed that the great had been put back into Britain, a survey showed that half the population wanted to emigrate.

Some will argue that identities are still as much about who you are against as what you are, and that it is impossible to have an identity that is open to the world. But today identities are worn more lightly than in the past – we may play at hating the French and Germans, but we are happy to eat their food and buy their products; we are comfortable cooperating with their governments and doing business with them. In fact the world is ready for new forms of identity and will not tolerate the exclusive nationalism of the past.

Renewing Britain’s identity does not mean inventing a completely new image of Britain or doing away with its heritage and tradition. It means regalvanising excitement around Britain’s core values – as a democratic and free society in an interconnected world – and finding a better way of linking pride in the past with confidence in the future.

The time is ripe for action. There is a real sense that Britain is entering a new era. Its identity took shape during the long summer of the empire that lasted from 1851 to 1914. There then followed an autumn of slow decline until the 1960s and something more like a winter during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s with industrial conflict and the collapse of old industries. Throughout that period we clung on to our old identity as a reassuring certainty and a source of pride, at a time when Britain’s power and influence were in retreat.

Now that period is over. Britain will never again be a superpower or an empire. But its position has stabilised as a major industrial and political power. It can never be a ‘young country’ in a literal sense, but it is bursting with the energy and excitement that young countries enjoy. Britain is now ready for its spring, a period of renewal and increased self-confidence.