Since the 1980s, the word ‘identity’ has come to feature in the titles of an increasing number of academic history books. With its radical connotations of subjectivising history, the word ‘identity’ is very much associated with the vocabulary of the postmodern historian.
It is refreshing then, that Robert Colls has made a serious historical study of the development of English identity based on objective examination and evidence. The Identity of England is a long, detailed investigation into the key historical factors that have influenced notions of ‘Englishness’.
Colls, currently at the University of Leicester, also co-authored Englishness: Politics & Culture, 1880-1920 (1986) with Phillip Dodd (now director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts). That book, it could be said, was one of the first to ignite the heated cultural debate about what it means to be English. The Identity of England builds upon Colls’ previous work as he traces the interaction between the formation of the English state and the emergence of a specifically English cultural identity.
He stresses the historical contingency of national identity in relation to the Act of Union and the racialised British Empire of the nineteenth century. These examples demonstrate Colls’ thesis that ‘Englishness’ has often been a convenient cultural construct, shaped predominantly by the ruling elite’s preoccupations. His characterization of the ‘English Gentleman’ gives us valuable insights into the mind of the Victorian elite, and more importantly, how this worldview disintegrated during the interwar years.
Colls makes the powerful point that the demise of the Gentleman coincided with the decline of elite networks, secret knowledge and shared value systems. Unable to continue, the old guard has been replaced by a technocratic elite of managers now struggling without its own coherent cultural identity to legitimate itself in the eyes of citizens. Whilst Colls concedes that English identity has always been contingent he also recognizes that cultural identity cannot be devised solely from thin air, but has a grounding in social and political reality.
His strongest point touches on how our identity is not an inherited product of our past, but more an illustration of our attitudes towards the future. Now that the British imperial project has come to an end, we have no progressive aims to give us a sense of our identity. As a result, multiculturalism and the proliferation of increasingly local identities have fragmented hopes for a collective project that might define the nation’s identity.
Colls’ book is a sophisticated and scholarly study of some breadth. However, he is also often too content to rest on description and not prioritise the importance of different factors on identity formation. His concluding remarks that England can yet find a new progressive identity based on the continuing trust of ordinary people smacks a little of New Left moralising about ‘community’. It also seems to be in denial about the sad reality that increasingly, people prefer to seek fulfillment in their local histories and cultures. As Colls’ himself recognizes, we cannot turn back the clocks and rely on a mythical past to create a collective spirit.
So, if the national project has been emptied of its power, perhaps we should turn our efforts to developing a new and alternative project for the future - a new internationalism perhaps?