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Being British used to be so easy. They were one of the most identified peoples on earth, recognized by their manners, their clothes and the fact that they owned one fifth of the planet . It is much more difficult now. Britain?s pride, the British Empire has slowly diminished since 1945 as a result of two world wars and nationalistic movements in occupied territories such as India. Some even suggested that Great Britain lost its greatness and hence should only be referred to as Britain. Even the political invention known as Britain has come into question, after all it is a union of England, Scotland and Wales, or is it? Ireland was glad to gain its independence in 1922 and form the Republic of Ireland (there is still the question of Northern Ireland). More recently, in 1999 devolution was handed over to Scotland and Wales handing power from Westminster to those regions in a process known as devolution. Arguably, as Britain becomes more divided the more it loses its sense of identify and culture. To complicate the matter, the process of European integration has a large section of the population worried about losing British sovereignty and ultimately being part of a much larger European super state . In this essay I aim to argue that Britain has lost and is currently losing its sense of identify.
?To be born English was to have won first prize in the lottery of life?God is British? Affirmed Cecil Rhodes. Those were the attitudes at the time when the British Empire was at its greatest, most notably in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is difficult not to blame them for being so patriotic. After all, just in 1900, half of the ships on the high seas were registered in Britain, she controlled about one third of the world?s trade, one fifth of the total landmass that accounted for one quarter of the population of the world . The British Empire was thus the biggest empire the world had ever seen. The Empire gave the British the chance to feel blessed and the greater its success, the more blessed the British felt. British power and influence went beyond earthly dominion. ?We were all born in a world made in Britain,? was the way one academic put it. After all, just in the domain of sport they developed the current forms of football, rugby, tennis, boxing, golf and horseracing . More importantly, the British initiated the unstoppable process known as the industrial revolution that ultimately changed the world with inventions such as the railway, steam power and electricity . Perhaps the greatest gift the British could have given to the world was the English language. Three quarters of the world?s mail is written in English, four fifths of all data stored in computers is English, and the language is spoken by 650 million or so people as a first or second language .
Arguably, the greatness of Britain is all in the past. Britons often ask themselves, what makes them great (today)? The great Empire has long been replaced by the 51 states of the commonwealth . With it, Britain is no longer a great trading nation, a leading industrial power, nor a significant military power . The great Empire ensured that Britain remained the most prosperous country in the world. Between 1820 and 1870 Britain was the richest country in the world with an average of US$2400 (per capita) per year followed by the United States with US$1800 per year . Nowadays, Britain ranks 11th out of the 200 or so countries in the world, with US$23,590 per year, behind former colonies such as, the United States, Canada and Australia . In light of these facts, it is safe to say that with the loss of empire, there has been a loss of wealth and most importantly to a certain extent, a loss of identify. The idea of the British as a chosen or specifically favoured race has not survived the loss of the empire . In another words, God has seized to be British. Another way in which the British used to identify themselves was through religion. For hundreds of years, England (Scotland has its own church) has been a Protestant state ?ruled? by the Church of England. There are now more practicing Roman Catholics then Anglicans in the country, and half as many Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus as Protestants. Ironically, Protestants often looked down religions such as Judaism and Catholicism only around one hundred years ago .
Speaking of Catholicism, Ireland, which is mostly Catholic, became part of Britain with the Act of Union in 1800 . Resistance from the Irish Catholic followed for a long time until in 1920 when Ireland finally gained its independence; forming a parliament for the 26 counties to the South of Ireland and another parliament to the 6 counties to the North of Ireland. Ireland would form a republic while Northern Ireland would remain under the crown (complications of course followed this action) . This was seen as the first step toward the division of the United Kingdom. It was a very drastic division because roughly two million people in Britain today have Irish roots, so in one way it was a loss of British identity. More recently devolution has occurred in Scotland and Wales. Devolution is defined as ?the dispersal of power from a superior to an inferior political authority .? With devolution, Scotland and Wales would receive more control over their own affairs, especially Scotland that formed its own parliament while Wales received its own Assembly with more limited power. Conservatives argue that devolution will lead to the eventual break-up of Britain and with it, its identity. Furthermore, the role of the queen as the one that unites all of the different nations in Britain into one single Great Britain will become outdated because with Scottish and Welsh sovereignty, there will be no more Britain to unite under the crown .
On a larger scale, the question of British integration into the European Union is proving to be a difficult one. Many Britons, most notably Conservatives (known as euroskeptics), believe that any association politically and economically with Europe will be costly. The cost will be cultural, political and economic. Culturally, many Britons believe that integration has resulted in a loss of identity. The British have always had a mistrust of the continent. The reason why can be easily illustrated by attempted invasions by the Spanish armada in the 16th century as well as constant warfare with the French for hundreds of years. Most famously, was the attempted invasion of Hitler?s Germany during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 . Not to mention the thousands of British soldiers that died fighting for their country against European powers most notably during World War I and World War II. Naturally, there has always been an attitude of the continent being ?a place of nothing but trouble and that Britain?s greatest security is behind the thousands of miles of irregular coastline around their island home. ?
Politically, British integration into the European Union has meant that Britain has lost some of its sovereignty. Sovereignty is defined as, ?The ultimate legal authority in a state. ? In 1973 Britain joined the European Union and ultimately ever since Britain?s political system has become increasingly interlinked with, and affected by, the institutions and policies associated with the European integration process. Conservatives argue that by losing Britain?s sovereignty Britons are actually losing their ability of self-rule and therefore their identity. Identity is also linked with economics and the question of the common European currency, the Euro. Britain has always been proud of its currency, as it is one of the oldest and strongest currencies in the world. This issue is still pending as the Labour government predicts a referendum in 2005. One thing is for sure, if the referendum were today, most Britons would not want to see their pride and identify, the pound, ?scrapped,? as the Conservative Party puts it.
All in all, Britain has slowly lost its identify through time. It once was the richest and most powerful country in the world. Now it is merely a central power. First the loss of empire, especially since 1945 has meant that the Britain do not have the empire to make them feel great anymore. Devolution to Scotland and Wales has meant the break-up of the political invention called Britain. Regarding European integration, many argue that it will lead to more of a loss of identify for Britain, especially if it loses its pride, the pound sterling. Regarding globalisation and the European Union, Britain has a terrible dilemma with no easy answer. By ignoring Europe, Britain would inevitably keep its culture and identify. On the other hand, if they do not, Britain might lose out on the benefits of being part of European integration.
BibliographyJones, B., Politics UK. (Harlow: Longman, 2000).
Paxman, Jeremy., The British: A Portrait of a People. (London: Penguin, 1999).
Raphael, Samuel., Patriotism: The making and Unmaking of British Identity. (London: Routhledge, 1987).
Robert C. Martin, President World Book., World Book Millennium 2000 Encyclopedia. (New York, 2000, Information gathered on December 5th to 12th).
Webster?s dictionary. http://www.webster.com. ?devolution?
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