The stories of national identity, and self

National identity, that eternally tricky subject: the pride of belonging, the silly clichés, and humorous stereotypes — the euphoria of a nation victorious: the anguish of its humiliation. The stories surrounding national identity have it all; from romantic love stories set against the backdrop of civil war, to invaded nations seeking heroic saviours.

The outward expressions of national identity are most obvious in cultural traditions: language, dress, food, sports, religion, ways of behaving, social customs, and so on. Many of these occur ‘in the background’, almost unnoticed. Instead, the superficial badges of membership are pushed to the forefront: the national anthems, flag waving — chanting sports fans.

How should one make sense of the ‘British’ national identity, beyond the cliché of tourist merchandise, the ‘I Love London’ t-shirts, and the plastic ‘Made in China’ Big Ben key rings? Being ‘British’ means different things to different people; even defining identity through basic keywords like, ‘tolerance’, ‘decency’, and ‘fair play’, leads to different interpretations.

The stories of national identity are complex, bubbling cauldrons of associations, and interpretations that involve multiple strands — so imbued with resonance, they are integral to our personal identity. Who controls these stories?

Often proudly defined by what it aspires to be, national identity more frequently reflects exclusion of one kind, or another. Scottish identity is partly defined as: not being English. English identity is partly defined as: not being Continental.

The mirror of who we think we are, is part of the mirror of how others perceive us — a complex web of associations, and memories. But, we are more than passive mirrors, reflecting constructs of national identity; we also define national identity, because the decisions we make define us. We figure out the ‘opportunities’ from the ‘threats’ — the basis of these decisions refer back to culture, peer pressure, history, education, financial circumstances, and whim.

The stories that surround national identity, like other stories, are shared, and embellished, the emphasis changing along the way. The two main story types — celebration, and warning — are reflected in national identity. Much of Russian national identity is defined by the perceived threat of Western Europe (a warning), and the resilience of the Russian people (a celebration).

National identity is a shared identity, but it breaks apart when people within the ‘tribe’ reject the narrative. People in the North of England feel ‘left out’ of the economic success, of London and the South East. When people no longer feel part of the story, they look for another one. In Northern Ireland some people argue that ‘Britishness’ never reflected them, they want to be part of a different story, the story of Irish national identity; in Scotland people want to belong to the Scottish story.

At best, a celebration of national identity feels like a light, romantic comedy, or musical; everyone is happy, enjoying themselves, and in love with their nation. At worst, the story of national identity is a tragedy — a dark place filled with fear, and loss.

National identity has traits, much like a fictional character. Usually the classic hero exemplifies this persona. We empathise with the heroic qualities of our nation, standing up against injustice and wrongdoing. The hero can’t just sit around, and do nothing, they must be active, or watchful. This usually involves fighting a monster, or keeping an eye out for one.

In traditional myth the monster could be a dragon, but today, it can be anything identifiable: a rival nation with advanced technology, a culturally mysterious people across a sea, an oppressive political system, a society based on opposing beliefs, the threat of migration, being open to migration, or an idea like ‘freedom’. Faced with (what they believe to be) a monstrous threat, people react accordingly: they go into a fearful, monster-fighting mode. They focus on killing the  monster, whatever the cost.

For intellectual, and emotional reasons, people need to believe in something beyond themselves. When the national identity fails to convince them, they: try to change it, they undermine it, they give up and despair, or they join a more convincing story. When new national identities appear, they arrive with new stories, new heroic characters, new scapegoats, and new distortions.

And, while people can, and do, dream of a world without borders and boundaries, the fences and walls keep returning — because, national identity, like a city wall, is as much about intellectual and emotional reassurance to the people within the walls, as it is a defence against those outside.