Saturday, February 04, 2006

National Identity

Our Chancellor of the Exchequer has been trying to convince us all of our Britishness recently:

I think that we can do a little better than vague aspirations to principles that can hardly be claimed as our own. Liberty, fairness and responsibility are universal ideals. My opinion is that we can draw upon an older tradition to find another ideal for Britain. Shakespeare offers the following (ignore references to Englishness, he is clearly referring to the entire island nation):

"This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their earth"

This is similar in nature to the image of the Shire presented by Tolkein. While the Shire is not an island it functions like one; as a home secure from the troubles and travails of the wider world and a base from which adventures are launched. This implies a role for the UK as a sanctuary. That the greatest writer in English and the author of the UK's favourite novel have created such similar images founded upon the geographical reality of the UK suggests that this view is present in the national consciousness and need not be created from the top down. This is also an inclusive identity as it suggests that accepting those requiring the protection of the island nation should be welcomed as part of our historical purpose.

As to whether we need a national identity. Identity and a feeling of common purpose are the main means for societies to overcome group sensitivities and encourage the small sacrifices which allow for common goods such as free speech and transfer payments.


Dave Cole said...


If you're going to avoid accusations of being a little jingo, you shouldn't selectively quote Shakespeare.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!


Matthew Sinclair said...


The part I didn't quote is his lament for the sorry state of England as he finds it. The part I did quote was the expression of an ideal. The ideal is clearly the relevant part in a discussion of the British national identity.


Dave Cole said...

I don't think that, in the context of the play, you can have the one without the other.