This is part II of a IV part series. Click here for Part I.
I think I’m quite British. I’ve been told as much.
I’m actually a foreigner; I was born on American soil, in the great state of Minnesota (go Vikings!) the son of a British mother and a Kiwi father.
I lived there for the first four years of my life before moving to south west London.
It is because of my joint US-UK citizenship and my paternal Kiwi connections, I get the great pleasure of appearing mildly interesting when asked “Where are you from?”
The fact of the matter is that my Mother’s an Essex girl and her family hails from both Newcastle and Manchester, the latter acting as the mutual root of my parents; my grandfather on the Kiwi side also being Mancunian, grandmother from Lincolnshire.
And I’m a suburban Londoner, blood of the first men.
I’ve always viewed adherence to a national identity as a choice, but if someone who was born in the UK and has lived there their whole life wishes to claim British dominion over me, who am I to say otherwise?
More prevalent in how I define my own national pride than my predominantly British lineage, something I’ve always found quite arbitrary when discussing quintessential ‘British-ness’, is my fondness for the culture in which I was raised. The electric atmosphere within the UK is underpinned by a sense of serenity, stemming from a nation proud of it’s identity and steeped in history. Therein is a palpable fighting spirit of a people who don’t take themselves too seriously but who can master the serious; A creative society with a bitingly dry humour — there’s a sense of connection on our little island that, despite it’s size, I have always believed to be a global bastion, in which all are welcome to enjoy and partake in the values we as the British hold.
I love the UK. I love being British. That’s not to say I have a rigid perception of the UK as some kind of utopia; far from it (trust me, I’m going to touch on that later). I do believe that clasping an idealised view of a national resolve is a very personal thing; not without question but, in a sense, sacred.
Fresh off the boat in Spain, I did not expect to have this concept challenged so immediately.
Early on in my Spanish existence, I became very close friends with two wonderful women; they were both originally from Bosnia but had moved to Sweden at a young age.
This reflected my own journey, with a rather large crack in the mirror; they departed Bosnia following the collapse of Yugoslavia and ethnic cleansing on a scale which hadn’t been witnessed in Europe since the Second World War.
I vividly remember sitting at the bar below my flat with them, as we would often do considering we were both neighbours and friends. We were discussing national identity, our relationships to the concept and the experiences which shaped our respective views.
British pride had been instilled in me from a young age, something I believe is strongly perpetuated by the state system I was educated in and raised a part of. Yet, it also stems from more subtle roots; memories of seeing the queen in bushy park during her jubilee, of having the London Olympics right down my road and rapping choruses of “Football’s coming home!” (followed by the inevitable bonding disappointment brought every four years by the World Cup).
Whether or not you take stock in the idea of national pride, the passion which drives it is propagated by the inherently relatable human necessity to belong; a double edged sword, used to both unite and divide.
Born to a family of Yugoslavians, in a sense, I feel that any semblance of a chance my companions had to attach to such idealism collapsed alongside their country. I get the impression that, in their individual ways, they do hold a deep love for their heritage and their cultural experiences, but the presence of zealous nationalism, both abstract and concrete, had a marring impact on the subject of national identity. It shone a spotlight on nationalist sentiment; a rationalised enlightenment that nationalism, not just in Bosnia but time and again the world over, has the potential to be used for great evil; why then rouse it from dormancy, irrespective of your good intent?
This stirred quite a bit of introspection within me; was it possible to maintain the grasp I held to my British identity without having it tarnished by the brush of nationalism?
‘My War Gone By, I Miss It So’ is the account of British photojournalist Anthony Loyd, a veteran of the first gulf war turned correspondent, who reported on the fighting which had erupted in Bosnia all the while combating a heroin addiction; an intriguing perspective to say the least and one which resonated with me, given his recurring sense of naive intrusion into a conflict with such deep seated and complex origins.
Despite this, I think Loyd summaries the sentiment very aptly; far more than I’d ever hope to, so I’ll defer to him:
“They were southern Slav brothers, pitted in conflict by the rising phoenix of long-dead banners raised by men whose only wish was power, and in so doing had created a self-perpetuating cycle of fear and death that grew in Bosnia, feeding off its own evil like a malignant tumour”
If you ever get the pleasure of meeting a former Yugo, ask them who started the war — I’m told it’s a common joke there.
I think that’s because there’s only one answer they can all generally agree on: opportunists.
The emphasis placed upon nationalism pervaded the leave campaign for the entire run up towards the vote.
Some in the country adopted a ‘John Bull’ approach, worried that the influx of foreign labour into the UK since joining the EU had been eroding British culture; a culture we had fought long and hard to preserve. You have to remember that Europe has been in a perpetual state of war for thousands of years — that animosity isn’t easily dispelled after a few decades of prosperity.
These feelings aren’t solely a British construct; they are echoed across the continent.
However, the gleaming ideals of a united Europe, represented by the four pillars on which the EU is built: freedom of goods, services, capital and labour, are only possible because of the sacrifice necessary in regards to national identity. Opposition to such progression is perceived as backwards; it is quite literally regression on an international scale and as such, it was branded as racism by those who oppose it.
Having said this, if you truly believe that racially charged nationalism is the the sole underlying factor as to why the British voted to leave the EU, well, as they say in Bosnia, “Nemoj da se pravis Englez”
don’t be as the English.