By Lana Ahmad and Julie Ulven
We asked some people in London one disarmingly simple question: what makes you think you’re British? Philosopher Ernest Renan said that “a nation’s existence is… a daily plebiscite”. We did not have time to ask every single person in the country, nor do we intend to do it every day, but our short interviews were conducted on the basis that individual British citizens might offer some noteworthy insights. In the process, we took photographs of the interviewees before and after asking the question, to see if it provoked a noticeable physical reaction. This “before and after question” photography method was inspired by a project by Turkish photographer Mehmet Genç.
The criteria for being part of a nation are fuzzy, mutable and seemingly impossible to agree upon or define. This difficulty encountered in establishing a definition inspired the interview question. Objective criteria, according to the historian Hobsbawm, can include a shared language, culture, history, territory, economic life and psychology. But these factors are shifting sands, and do not by any means amount to a definition. Other criteria are subjective, the voluntary desire to be, or to become, part of a nation, on the part of the individual or group. A historical account of nationalism has numerous sources to draw from among establishment figures such as leaders of governments or prominent members of nationalist movements. However, the view from below, the view of ordinary people on how and why they are British, is only a relatively recent addition to the historical primary sources.
Interviewee One said being British meant ‘being open and tolerant’. To hang national identity on the peg of a cultural value in this way seems to veer sharply away from any form of objective criteria for national identity, transforming British identity into a subjective and voluntarist concept. Another interviewee agreed: Interviewee Eight posited ‘I think it’s accepting other cultures that makes people really British’. At first glance this seems to be a new phenomenon, since most attempts to define nationality include some objective elements such as shared language or territory. Indeed, two interviewees referred to their places of birth as the principal criterion for their Britishness, one stating ‘I think it’s the fact that I’ve always been here’.
Being born or brought up in Britain as part of the criteria for being British certainly implies an element of a measurable standard, involving territorial, linguistic and cultural commonality. But do these ideas contradict or complement each other; do the definitions offered by the interviewees overlap or undermine each other? Perhaps we must accept a degree of ambiguity if not outright incompatibility in the answers given.
Interviewee Four said ‘I think it’s rubbish. We’re just part of the world’. This outright denial of nationalism may sound flippant, but Hobsbawm reminds us that a serious historian of nationalism cannot be a political nationalist, because “nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so”. The question of ethnicity in national identity was raised by Interviewee Six, who answered ‘You just need to be a British national. You’re British. You’re not English, you’re not Scottish, but you’re British’.
Interviewee Nine said ‘I always struggle with that. For me, being British Indian, I’m not really sure what that is’. Our final interviewee introduced the concept of visibility in identity by saying ‘I don’t really define myself as British. I don’t think you need to be white to be British’. By visibility we mean the outward appearance of the individual and its symbolic meaning to that person and those who see them. For British citizens whose family history includes being part of a colonized territory in the time of the British empire, visibility and ethnicity have been linked to concepts of colonial ideologies. However, the overwhelming majority of our small number of interviewees had a positive view of the question of national identity.
Our “mini plebiscite” may have failed to define Britishness, but it did show what a selection of people think about it when you put them on the spot. The photographs captured people’s physical reaction to the question of what makes people British, and showed some smiles, some furrowed brows of concentration, and perhaps some awkwardness – how very British.
Al-Saji, A. (2010). The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy & Social Criticism, [online] 36(8), pp.801-922. Available at: https://philpapers.org/rec/ALSTRO-2
Hobsbawm, E. (1992). Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Interviewees: Interviews were conducted by Lana Ahmad at Kings College London’s Guys Campus on October 25th 2017. Participants of this project preferred only their photographs and not names to be published.
Renan, E. (March 11th 1882 ) “What is a Nation?”, text of a conference delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris: in Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation?”, Presses-Pocket, 1992. (translated by Ethan Rundell) Available at: http://ucparis.fr/files/9313/6549/9943/What_is_a_Nation.pdf
Smith, A. (2013). Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Wiley
*Special Thanks to A. Mahdaly and D. Sabbagh for their generous help in photographing and developing the images.
Featured image: OCSI
Lana Ahmad is a final year International Relations Student at King’s College London and is interested in Comparative Identity, Social and Economic Policy, and Global and Imperial History.
Julie Ulven is a Norwegian third year International Relations Student at King’s College London and has a keen interest in Gender, African History and Politics with particular interest in the Democratic Republic of Congo.