We continue the academic year with a series of blog posts by our new student intake on the MLitt British Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Our first blog post comes from Gabriella Cabassi, who joins us from Italy.
British identities to me represent the main traits, traditions and aspirations of the citizens of each one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. My concept of Britain has been shaped mostly by what I know about the history of Ireland, so I guess this is what brought me to identify it more with a place of conflict and dissent than a unity of fellow countries. But is it really so hard to find some common features between nations who share such an intertwined past and if I did, would that make it easier for me to understand what Britain is?
I am an Italian who has almost always lived in Italy, therefore I do not have any direct and personal experience of Britishness in everyday life. I am a supporter of the European Union and I feel a sense of belonging to Europe rather than to my home country. I should logically and readily accept that another and much more well-established union, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland still exists to this day. Yet it feels different. The English created their Empire by conquering other countries and annexing them to it. Wales and Ireland were the first targets of this colonization. Am I prejudiced against Britain because I feel the Union was violently imposed by the English and this makes it bad, an unfair intrusion? Well, no, because that is not what happened. The Union came about out of financial necessity for the Scottish government and to avoid further unrest in Ireland.
Is it because they were somehow forced to conform to the English way of life? The differences between the countries of the EU in terms of traditions, attitudes, habits, down to simple things such as food and clothing, are necessarily deeper than those of the British Isles. Surely their people tend to have similar characteristics and more in common than a Finnish and a Spanish. Yet they all distinguish themselves for their own peculiar features and strive to maintain elements that belong to their unique culture and heritage. An example of that can be that the three Celtic languages are still alive and lawfully given equal status as English, although they are not nearly as meaningful in the number of speakers. Or the fact that each national church represents a different Christian confession.
Maybe I feel that Westminster has too strong a grip on the other three countries and that England still rules when it comes to fundamental decisions. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were granted forms of devolution over time, but they are still not free to decide for themselves in important respects, such as foreign affairs or defense. The result of Brexit for example forced three nations, the majority of which had voted to remain within the European Union, to leave. As a matter of fact it was the United Kingdom as a whole which entered the EU, so it was only fair that the majority of the same league of nations could, given the possibility, decide to exit it.
I do not see a British identity, only British identities, those of four, interconnecting, yet separate entities. Four nations, with England being the most powerful and the receiver of much of the annoyance and blame. In his essay ‘Unravelling Britain, Samuel considers the term British ‘multi-ethnic and therefore more able to acknowledge the emergence of a multi-faith, multi-cultural society’ when compared to English. The Guardian’s article ‘Let’s not make a fuss: 10 things that sum up Britishness’ explains how its readers defined it as ‘an inclusive umbrella term to cover a multitude of backgrounds’. Probably that is the definition that will help me look for the unifying sense of belonging to Britain felt by many inhabitants of the British isles (and its citizens in the rest of the world).
In conclusion, I do not think I am currently equipped to comprehend what Britain is, apart from a geographical and legal concept, and I am not aware of how the British identities can unite British people instead of dividing and distinguishing them. What I like the most about the EU is actually how every country maintains its diversity while trying to build a common house; ironically I might find in the affinities, which I am currently unfamiliar with, the way to grasp the idea of Britain as the super-nation many people are proud of.