My countries right or wrong?

I was surprised by the strength of emotion when my Irish passport arrived. I had never particularly thought about national identity before; in a rather unconsidered and snobby way, I probably felt myself to be beyond such atavistic notions. But the EU referendum, and the eddying and fractious national debate that followed, put paid to that.

The prospect of long queues at passport control, and loss of rights – to live and work abroad – that I have barely used, spurred me (like thousands of other Brits) to apply for an Irish passport. After some weeks, and very helpful discussions with the Department for Foreign Affairs (my family background is complicated by adoption), my passport arrived with a picture of me that somehow looks about five times more Irish than I ever have in the flesh. And I suddenly felt a forceful sense of attachment, a spark of connection to a country that I visit regularly but have never lived in. Did I feel Irish? Not really, but I felt something.

I’ve been turning this over in my mind since, as the debate over the future of nations and unions after Brexit has intensified, trying to assess my own perceptions of national identity, and considering how these might be affected by possible futures. My first conclusion is that we use the term ‘national identity’ too broadly. We treat it as one thing, when in fact the term covers quite distinct and potentially divergent affiliations. They don\’t overlap or compete (though they can do both of those), but rather describe different types of relationship. I can count three (but I\’m sure others have undertaken a more sophisticated analysis): cultural identity, personal identity and political identity.

My cultural identity is probably split between England and Ireland. I’ve always balked at the Shamrock ’n’ Shillelaghs sentimentalism of plastic paddies, but I do feel cultural affinity with Ireland. Sure, some of my favourite poets and writers are Irish, but some of my favourite singer-songwriters are Canadian so there must be more to it than that – a shared sense of humour perhaps, a love of wordplay, a dank melancholia, a complicated relationship with rain and catholicism. This identity has strengthened – or possibly felt able to ‘come out’ – in the past decades as Ireland emerged from the dour shadow of Eamon de Valera’s insular conservatism, to become highly internationalised and socially progressive.

My personal identity is more clearly English. I have lived in England all my life, and it is England’s urban and rural landscape that seems familiar and homely to me. To be fair, this is probably concentrated in southern England – between the Cotswolds, the Chilterns and the South Downs, with towns and villages of red brick, golden stone and steely flint. But I have lived as far north as County Durham, have a partner from Scarborough and holiday every year in the Lake District, so my tendrils of attachment stretch across the country.

Do I mean British by this? I really don’t think I do. I have enjoyed visiting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they are clearly distinct places – the shops, the language, the beer, even the banknotes are different. They may not feel as distinct as continental European countries, but they are not ‘home’ either.

And to be honest, devolution has deepened this sense of difference. If part of citizenship is knowing how to secure your rights from and undertake your duties to the state, then my citizenship feels increasingly limited to England. I no more understand the Scottish criminal justice or social care system than I do the French.

Which raises the question of political identity. Here my affiliation is to the United Kingdom. I vote for a UK government, carry a UK passport and pay my taxes to the UK state (while I was in favour of remaining in the EU, I\’ve never really felt like a \’citizen of Europe\’). But that affiliation feels more and more contingent, and unrooted in any of the deeper affection that I feel towards England or even Ireland. I have none of the passion for ‘the Union’ that is ritually expressed by politicians. When I see Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians arguing for independence, I find it hard to argue against them, and hard not to think that I would do the same in their place.

There are downsides to the calls for independence of course. Politically, loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland would tilt the English and Welsh rump further to the right: the Conservatives would have won a majority in every election since 2005 without Scotland and Northern Ireland. But then again, as a Scottish Nationalist MSP forcefully pointed out to me some time ago, it is not Scotland’s job to counterbalance a conservative majority in England and Wales.

It feels to me quite likely that calls for Irish reunification and Scottish independence will grow over the next Parliament, and it is hard to see how they can be resisted over the long term. Whether I carry a passport from the United Kingdom of England and Wales, or – who knows – the United Republic of Ireland and Scotland, may affect where my taxes are paid, who governs me and how easily I can travel abroad, but it won’t make much difference to the way that I think of myself and my countries.

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Magic and loss

Tread softly when you tread on a childhood.

I surprised myself, when I read reviews of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and when I saw the trailer. I felt angry, let down, even personally affronted.

One has to put away childish things, but Susan Cooper\’s sequence of novels were probably the most important books I read as a child. Dad read me The Lord of the Rings (del capo, one hell of a job), and Narnia always looked a bit naff. But The Dark is Rising was perfect. It was about a child growing up near the Chilterns, where I grew up, and the books were rich, humourless and terrifying in a way that only a kid can appreciate.

The supernatural elements were prehistoric and portentous: mutilated sheep, horses\’ skulls and sad sea hags, not muggles, recidivist billy-bunterism and magic spells. They alarmed, but also inculcated a curious supernatural patriotism, educating the 1970s child about British folklore, and its casual and persistent horror, like a cross between The Wicker Man and the didactic monotone of Willard Price\’s novels.

Susan Cooper has been chillingly polite about the film, acknowledging the need for novels to change, but also questioning why an 11-year old English child had to be changed to a 13-year old American child in England. Others have also noted that an evangelical Christian director has reduced an essentially pagan world view to one that is reassuringly Manichean (anticipating the row to come over the films of Philip Pullman\’s novels).

Interestingly, she also reveals that she wrote the books as an exile in the USA, conjuring a vivid image of a distant Britain that is even more lost today than it probably was even then. I probably won\’t watch the film. But the books still grip me, and haunt me when I walk, and when I imagine I walk, in the old hills of England and Wales.

No time for heroes

Think tank ippr are arguing for a new national bank holiday for Britain, \’which would act as a national ‘thank you’ for community heroes and as a national ‘ask’ for people to give back to their communities\’.

I have nothing against another day off work, but this endless flailing around after a post-nationalist national day for Britain seems doomed to fail (I\’ll leave Northern Ireland out of this for the moment).

We are not like other countries: for nearly 1,000 years, we have consistently failed to be invaded (hence giving us the opportunity to liberate ourselves), to stage any proper revolutions or to execute our aristocracy. Other countries can celebrate these bloody triumphs, or equally arcane religious festivals, saved from guilt by the power of tradition.

Instituting a new festival is a lot more complicated: it\’s not easy to find an uncontroversial historical event that fits the bill since 1066 (and it\’s not clear whether \’we\’ won or lost then, or even who \’we\’ were). Waterloo? Trafalgar? Too bellicose. Patron saints? We have three of them, and there are other religions (and Richard Dawkins), you know. Welfare State Day? Too lefty. Diana Day? God help us.

So, we are left with the lowest common denominator, a fuzzily inclusive \’community day\’. Do you live in a community? The word is weasel-y, often used as a euphemism for \’poor people\’, as a hollow claim of legitimacy or as a vacuous affirmation – an attempt to create unity through its application to a disparate group of people. It is hard to imagine what depths of telethon schmaltz such a celebration would sink to.

The interesting thing about ippr\’s proposal is their choice of date: the Monday after Remembrance Sunday. Remembrance Sunday already serves as a curiously sombre national day, lent diversity by the contribution of the Commonwealth to the wars of the last century. It\’s a poignant, autumnal event, a mournful memory of individual and national loss. Rather British, when you come to think about it…

First post

Well, the London Olympics have shown their unifying force. With a great fanfare, the new London 2012 logo was launched last week, and the nation came together to take the piss.

Whatever the merits of the new logo, it has unleashed a torrent of creative abuse and mockery. Does it resemble a broken swastika? Larry Grayson in teapot stance? David Brent dancing? Lisa Simpson doing something lewd and quite possibly illegal? The UK\’s GDP must have taken a pounding last week: normal business was suspended, in favour of that Great British pastime, mockery.

Co-incidentally, Communities and Local Government Minister Ruth Kelly announced a desire for a British \’national day\’, another of the Government\’s fumbles at national identity (here). The trouble is, all assessments of what \’Britishness\’ means dissolve quickly into cliche: tolerance, rule of law, sense of humour, blah. Sense of humour gets nearest, but the reality is less cuddly than that. Our real characteristic is the ability to laugh at anything. Anything.

In his wartime polemic, \’The Lion and the Unicorn\’ (the source for John Major\’s much-mocked evocation of \’old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist), George Orwell argued that the goose-step would never have caught on in England: \”because the people in the street would laugh\”.

Our laughter is not gentle. It is scatalogical, harsh, unforgiving. It infects the engravings of Hogarth and Gillray. It has no respect for authority, and is ready to attack any trace of pretension or pomposity. It\’s not pleasant, but it is ours.