I first became interested in identity studies through my work and studies in folk music, I am a fiddle player from the Shetland Islands and I based my masters thesis on the part that music plays in creating the Shetland identity. Where I grew up, our traditional music is a large part of our identity. As a musician, this tradition is close to my heart and I began to look at the ways the community as a whole uses it to form an identity. Originating from such a tiny island gives me an easy way to differentiate myself from others in Britain, but when abroad, there are few who know that Shetland exists. I have to become British. Exploring the connotations of what this label means lead to
my interest in National Identity and the benefits and problems that arise from it. – Cathy Geldard
The study of identity is a relatively new field of research but an ever more important one as our society becomes more globalised. Theories of identity range from examining the individual to include much larger groups, whole continents even. In this essay I will be focusing on ideas surrounding National Identity and how this affects the individual and the wider world. Discussions surrounding national identity were revolutionised in the 1980s by political scientist Benedict Anderson who theorised that large communities, such as countries, where the members do not know each other personally cannot be based in fact, but must be imagined to some degree. In other words, we think our community is real and therefore it is.
Individual identities are constructed by amalgamating elements of our lives, our nationality being one of those factors. But what does that nationality say about us? It gives us a geographical location, but a country is much more than that. When I define myself as British, it declares connotations other than just a location. We are immediately interconnected to people’s perception of that country and a generalised notion of its inhabitants, much of which, when talking globally, is viewed through the press, which cannot be a true and accurate representation of a people.
We analyse who we are based upon real experiences and our place in the world. We have a real physical connection to each of the elements that make us “us”. It could be said that our individual identity is based on fact, or at least our version of it. But in order to declare who we are to others, we create symbolic masks that display the parts of our identity we wish others to perceive us by. We remove our identity from the “real” and create an abstract that we can adjust to suit different social situations. For example, at work we perform a selective image of ourselves that is not synonymous with the mask we present at home or with friends. We have control of our projected identity.
We do not, however, have control over the projected image of our nationality.
Benedict Anderson described nationality as imagined communities, which formed the title of his book published in 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. People are bound together by perceptions of place and ideology, not fact as our individual identities are. Countries were once contained areas where people within strict boundaries shared the same language and the same traditions from which it was easy to form an identity and differentiate between nationalities. In our heavily globalised world, we no longer share these commonalities and our identity must now be created from imagined symbols. Even in Britain, where our geographical boundaries could not be clearer, its inhabitants have very little authentic common ground. Instead, our identities are based in fictions.
What is “Britishness”?
I, as a Brit, struggle to find a concrete answer. Even within our relatively small country, communities and individuals do not share the same cultures, traditions or ideals. It is impossible to define what makes us British, just as it is in any nationality.
It is not difficult however, to see the image Britain would like to project to the world, and the symbols that create it. We only have to look back to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony to gain an idea. We portrayed our artistic talents through music old an new; our architecture with pictures of Big Ben; our sporting heritage by parading cyclists around the arena; our personalities through the character of James Bond; our technological contribution through the story of the industrial revolution; and perhaps most importantly our influence on the world through the Spice Girls’ long awaited reunion. According to this imagery, Britain is a unified country at the forefront of the arts, science, sport and the soap opera. These represent the Great British identity.
People adhere to these symbols, no matter their background. They give us national pride, makes us fight for our country and cheer on our teams, even when they are unsuccessful. They unify our society under a positive image and inform our own individual identities with a sense of place and origin. An allegiance with them make us British, even if we do not agree on what that means.
This appears to be a good thing. Bringing communities together, a common goal. However, in creating a mask for the many to adhere to, it creates a division between those under it and those that not. In attempting to define what British is; it also defines what it is not. The “other” is born.
What do you do then, when your country’s mask of national identity becomes at odds with your own? When your country becomes a place that no longer shares your ideals? When you do not agree with the choices and statements your country makes? What do you do when you become the “other”?
As a Scottish national my own personal relationship with “Britishness” is complicated. My ideals and cultural symbols do not match those of Britain as a whole. As a musician I travel and meet people from around the globe. In my experience “British” is actually viewed by most as “English” under a different name. My conflict can be highlighted through the “British” decision to leave the EU. 62% of the vote in Scotland, including myself, was to remain in the EU, 53% of voters in England voted to leave. This has left my relationship with the notion of Britishness in juxtaposition; I belong, but British does not represent me. The priorities of England and Scotland are conflicted, yet the English vote prevails taking Scotland, unwillingly, with it. Although I believe that my country will suffer in many ways due to Brexit, its effect on the world’s perception of us and vice versa that I would like to concentrate on.
I recently travelled alone to Russia. I was wary of going by myself, my family doubly so. I was unsure of whether I would be safe travelling alone, whether I would be accepted there or whether I would feel alien in a country that I believed to be so different from my own. In hindsight, this was senseless. I very quickly came to realise that the Russian people were no different from myself. Friendly, accommodating, funny and I felt safer in Moscow than I have done in many British cities. Why then, did I feel such apprehension? I realised that this connection between individual and perceived national identity was the cause. I was viewing individuals through a mask of national identity chosen not by Russia, but by my own country’s press. A picture of a nation built up of the little I knew of their history and government as told by a western press. That is the method that I myself am viewed internationally, through a national identity interpreted by the press core. Masks of national identity are problematic to the individual, but when a third party distorts that mask, intentionally or not, the problems grow exponentially.
The referendum has been all over the international press and as such Brexit was a hot topic in discussions with those that I met in Russia. People wanted to know why we had voted out and how I felt about the decision. Most importantly, they were not surprised at the result. In my experience Britain is often seen as a xenophobic nation from both sides of the borders. Brexit has firmly solidified this into our national identity, helped along by the press. This is now an undertone that is synonymous with Great Britain and one that I cannot remove myself from. It is now concurrent with my own identity, even though I oppose the decision, just through my residency in this country.
So what is my choice as someone who finds myself abashed of my national identity? What is my choice as an “other”? If I do not affiliate with the symbols that create my nationality’s identity, am I even part of that community? I cannot be an island and denounce my heritage or deny where I come from, it has helped shape me into who I am. On my visit to Russia, I realised the extent of the British reputation on the international stage and I felt uncomfortable. I now refer to myself as Scottish. Not British. Even this does not completely comply with how I wish my identity to be viewed, but it is closer than under the British flag.
The politics of identity are becoming more and more prevalent in the modern world. Unions and countries are shattering all over Europe and further afield; the UK leaving the EU (Brexit), Scottish Independence (Indyref), Catalan independence (nickname to follow) to name a few. I believe that the problems of national identity are part of the cause. Countries are finding it harder to define and differentiate themselves and are fighting back the only way they know how, by drawing harder borders. In the attempt to regain a sense of self, we are erecting barriers and becoming insular. Is this just the thin end of the wedge? Are we heading back to a world of small, independent countries incapable of uniting under a common goal? This may have been an unachievable goal to begin with, but it seems even more impossible when the rifts between communities are getting deeper. Perhaps we have communally decided that globalisation is not for us. That isolation is a fair price to pay for defining an impossible concrete national identity. I, for one, fear it will prove too costly. For Britain, it already is.