by Allison Abra
Last May, I wrapped up a course on the history of Britain in the 20th century with a class discussion on “Britain today.” Having covered the history of the European Union – and Britain’s often fraught relationship with it – earlier in the semester, I described the then pending “Brexit” vote that was set for June 23rd. In a referendum, citizens of the United Kingdom would decide whether to leave or remain in the EU. I closed the class by telling my students to “stay tuned” during their summer break to see how the vote panned out.
At the time, I was primarily thinking about ways to keep my students engaged in the history of Britain after our class had ended, and to encourage them to continue applying the historical knowledge they had accrued to current events. I didn’t think there was much of a chance that proponents of Brexit would succeed, and that the British would actually vote to leave the EU. Like many, I woke up on the morning of June 24th and was stunned to discover that the Leave campaign had carried the vote by a margin of 52% to 48%.
In the months since, the Leave victory has inspired a wide variety of responses – not the least of which seems to be a general confusion over how Brexit will proceed, or if it will proceed at all. Most recently, Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron after he resigned during the fall-out from the referendum, has repeatedly asserted that “Brexit means Brexit” and that her government will trigger the formal process of leaving the EU by March 2017. The future of Britain’s relationships with Europe and the rest of the world hangs in the balance, and the fate of the UK itself is in question given the ammunition that the Leave result has provided the Scottish nationalist cause. While signs point towards some form of Brexit taking place, I don’t think anyone – myself included – has a clear sense of precisely what will happen next. However, what I have been reflecting on in the wake of the referendum is how these events are just the latest chapter in a much longer story in which Britain has sought to define its national identity and place in the world in the decades since the Second World War ended in 1945.
How the British nation has been imagined at different points in its history is a fundamental question of historical scholarship in my field. Historians have argued that British national identity was constructed against a French Catholic “other” in the eighteenth century; in relation to an ever-expanding colonial empire in the nineteenth century; and by ideals of duty, service, and national unity during the two world wars.
Yet the British people emerged from the Second World War without a clear sense of who they would be as a nation from that point on. The country was victorious in war, but economically and physically devastated from years of bombing, rationing, and war-making. The gradual loss of the Empire as the era of decolonization began in earnest, and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s new superpowers took away the global predominance that had defined the country for centuries. So what did it now mean to be British? As my class and I explored last spring, in various ways Britain has spent the ensuing seventy years trying to figure that out.
On the domestic front, the establishment of the Welfare State in the late 1940s – the “people’s peace” that resulted from a “people’s war” – offered one vision of the nation defined in terms of collective welfare and social citizenship. In the early 1950s, special events like the Festival of Britain and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II each circulated competing ideas about nationhood built on an intersection of modernity and tradition. The Festival emphasized the belief that Britain was recovering from the war and would have contributions to make in the future, but it also celebrated heritage and history. Two years later, the Queen was crowned in a ceremony that was centuries old, but which was broadcast all over the world via the new medium of television.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a common enemy and with liberation movements flowering worldwide, it became less clear what now united the disparate nations of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – and Celtic nationalism surged. Waves of immigration from the Empire and Commonwealth constructed a possible national identity built on multiculturalism, but also prompted the assertion of a reactionary nationalism that affirmed Britishness as white. This was most visibly expressed in the racist anti-immigrant invective of Enoch Powell and the National Front in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the rise of the British National Party. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which played a central role in the Leave campaign, is Britain’s most recent incarnation of far-right political thought.
Like its opposition to immigration, UKIP’s Euroskepticism builds on longstanding tensions over Britain’s place in the world after 1945. Throughout its post-war history Britain has often seemed uncertain about which way to look in evaluating trading partners and military allies. Should it rely on the Empire and Commonwealth, or the United States with which it shares that “special relationship,” or the continent to which it is connected by geography (officially, if not physically, given the presence of the English Channel)? At different moments – within the broader context of decolonization, the Cold War, European integration, Thatcherism, and the post 9/11 world – British foreign policy, economic ties, and cultural exchanges have leaned one way or the other.
With respect to Europe, Britain resisted joining the EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community, when it was founded in 1957. Four years later, a change of heart led to a British application to the EEC that was denied by a French veto. Membership in the EEC finally came in 1973, but ambivalence towards Europe lingered in the policies of Margaret Thatcher, in the John Major government’s decision not to adopt the Euro when the EEC expanded into the European Union, and in the controversies over the number of people from member states, particularly from Eastern Europe, living and working in the UK as the EU expanded.
And so we come to Brexit, the latest manifestation of Britain’s efforts to define itself and its relationship to the world. Many of the debates and issues described above reared their heads once again in the lead-up to the referendum: Euroskepticism, certainly, but also xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom, and even the importance of the Welfare State to the nation’s sense of self, as demonstrated by the Leave campaign’s promise to re-direct funds currently going to the EU into the National Health Service. What remains to be seen is whether the aftermath of the Brexit decision will force a resolution to these enduring questions and uncertainties, and if a clear idea of what it means to be British in the 21st century will at last be articulated.
Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society, and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, her book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 will be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.
 See, for example: Linda Colley, Britons: Forging of the Nation, 1707-1837, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Nicoletta Gullace, ‘The Blood of Our Sons:’ Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
 Becky E. Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation:’ The 1951 Festival of Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar World, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, Race And National Identity, 1945-1964, (London: Routledge, 2003).