In Britain at the moment, things are a little bit all over the place.
Wealth inequality is the worst its ever been. We have a million job vacancies. Inflation. A cost of living crisis thanks to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The National Health Service isn’t fit for purpose and we have a controlling Conservative party that seems to have completely lost its identity with no real credible opposition.
Now all this has got me thinking about a particular sociological question: What does it mean to be British in 2023? I’m going to try and answer that question.
You see, for me, the British identity is split into four cultural paradigms and they are: Socialism, Conservatism, Capitalism and Multiculturalism and in this article I’m going to go through each one and explain exactly what I mean.
The first paradigm is concerning the socialist ideals of Europe and our attempt in the UK to make it part of our culture. This is something that has been happening all the way since 1945 and throughout the post-war period.
The creation of the NHS (the national health service) in 1948 — dedicated to free from the point of use healthcare to the population is a perfect example of a socialist practice.
You see, Socialism as an economic and political ideology has a long history in Europe.
To put it simply, Socialism is the idea that wealth and resources should be distributed as equally as possible among all members of society — and that’s done through government ownership and control of key industries, progressive taxation and social welfare programs.
The extreme of this would be pre-cold war Russia and the least extreme of this would probably be modern day Scandinavian.
However, in the United Kingdom we’ve had a much more complex relationship with the socialist ideal and that complexity is a big part of our national character.
You see, we do have a tradition of trade unions, working-class political activism and we also have an incredibly strong Labour party and Labour movement — but we also have a very strong conservative tradition (that stems from monarchy) that is constantly fighting against these socialist policies. It’s a gigantic tug of war between the two ideologies.
And it’s been like this since; forever.
This leads me nicely onto the next paradigm which makes up the British national identity; conservatism.
As I was saying, conservatism and in particular traditional British conservatism is something that is ingrained in the British psyche. It starts with monarchy. The crown is seen as a symbol of continuity and stability. From an American perspective, the crown is the closest thing that we have to a constitution.
British Conservatism is a political ideology that emphasises the importance of history, tradition, liberty and freedom. Think of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Windsor Castle. These historic structures are tangible realisations of these beliefs.
But with this you have baggage. The aristocracy — that’s all the wealthy old families who’ve inherited wealth for generations — the earls and the dukes. The House of Lords — an unelected chamber of lawmakers.
I describe these as ‘baggage’ not because I’m against them but because these are part of the British identity that struggle to remain relevant in modern society.
Nostalgia is another aspect of this. There’s a part of the British psyche that longs for the days of old. When Britain was the most powerful nation on earth. The aftertaste of that achievement is still in our mouths.
And with that we have on one side the conservative traditions tugging against European socialism.
What separates those two energies and acts as an equaliser — is capitalism and specifically American style capitalism.
You see, since the second world war, us Brits have always had one eye on the other side of the pond. Our American children have all grown up and — they’re making bank.
There’s a feeling, particularly since the Reagan-Thatcher years that us Brits have a special relationship with the US. Our support of the 2003 Iraq War was an exemplification of this.
Now this relationship has certainly faded over recent years and largely depends on the political appetite in the white house but there’s still an aspirational element that’s there.
And, to be clear, I’m talking specifically when it comes to capitalist ideology and the American dream. We want the UK version of the American dream.
We too are very entrepreneurial and inventive. We too aspire for a better tomorrow and a better life for our families. But, unfortunately, due to our population size and political strength, we aren’t able to have as much of that good stuff as America.
And here I reach my final point — multiculturalism.
The word ‘Multiculturalism’ has quite bad connotations in the UK. Really when I say multiculturalism, I’m talking about immigration.
Immigration is something that has been part of the British identity for centuries. And before immigration was even a thing, you had the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, the Saxons — all those invaders.
Despite this, immigration has been a contentious issue for many, many years and it was probably what tipped the dial for Brexit.
During the Brexit campaign, the idea was articulated that post-Brexit Britain would be able to reclaim control of its borders.
And to an extent, it’s correct, as membership of the EU granted free movement of people from Europe to the UK. Also, the other way as well.
Over 7 million people have immigrated to the UK over the past 10 years — that equates to over 10% of the population (gross).
A lot of people think that this figure is simply too high. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not.
The point I’m trying to make is that this immigration and the blending of cultures is actually a big part of the British identity and this dates back all the way to the Victorian era.
During the majority of the Victorian era Britain had an open door policy when it came to immigration and people from all over Europe immigrated to Britain during that period.
And modern day, there are millions of extremely successful individuals that come from an immigrant background as either first, second or third generation. It truly is part of our culture and our national identity.
Just look at our Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Both from immigrant backgrounds but both also quintessentially British and an exemplification of the four paradigms that I’ve mentioned in this article.
So, where does the future lie? Does Britain even have a future?
I think building up political ties with the commonwealth is something that is a necessity moving forward. Otherwise, post Brexit Britain risks becoming an irrelevant island.
And I think that would be a very bad thing, not only for Britain but for the rest of the world, as I still think that we have a lot to offer.