Britishness in the Early Twentieth Century

The shared imperial identity of Britishness was complex and multilayered. Thanks to the entreaties of J.G.A. Pocock, historians now conceive of the United Kingdom as encompassing four distinct nations, while Linda Colley reminds us of the coexisting local and regional identities within those nations: a person could be a Highlander, Scottish and British simultaneously.10 However, these distinctions were not always readily acknowledged in this period. In particular, it often appeared that the English had completely subsumed their identity within Britishness such that Englishness and Britishness were almost indistinguishable.11 This is revealed by the way in which the vocabulary of identity in the early twentieth century could slide unselfconsciously between English, British and the British Empire.

The study of the migration of people from these intertwined four nations throughout the British Empire has revealed the existence of a ‘British World.’ Once overseas, these ‘neo-Britons’ found meaning and familiarity in a shared culture of Britishness.12 It provided a kind of umbrella identity across the empire that could incorporate other identities, as illustrated by Alfred Deakin’s 1900 description of his countrymen as “independent Australian Britons.”13 At the core of this identity was an Anglo-Saxon race nationalism, which perceived the relationship between Britain and the colonies in terms of a mother country and her children.14

But there were tensions within this as distinct national identities within the empire began to emerge. In Australia, there were two strands to this—there was the imperial patriotism of upper middle-class British culture, but there was also a working man’s identity that emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, shaped by Australia’s vast interior. The hardy independent bush worker was celebrated in art and literature, and the new distinctive priorities of a more egalitarian society were reflected in economic gains such as fair wages.15 Yet, as Richard White and Hsu-Ming Teo argue, this radical nationalism was “created against imperial culture and was determined by it,” and moreover “could be surprisingly compatible with a loyalty to Empire” nonetheless.16

Another source of tension within Britishness before the First World War related to Ireland, which had a much more troubled relationship with British control. Again, distinctive—and indeed world-leading avant-garde—art and literature was being produced around the turn ofthe century, at the same time as Home Rule was being sought.17 The constitutional question of Ireland’s relationship to Britain had brought Ireland to the verge of civil war before it was overtaken by events in Europe. The vexed nature of the relationship between Irishness and Britishness meant that there are no direct comparisons with Deakin’s Australian phraseology, but there were nonetheless plenty of vociferous unionists in the north and south ofthe island who felt an allegiance to the Crown, the empire, and a shared culture.18 In this sense, Irishness and Britishness were compatible for some at the outbreak of the war, even whilst others vehemently rejected English or British influence.

New Zealand presents a considerable contrast to Ireland, in that its predominantly English and Scottish settlers felt a strong allegiance to the empire. Returning to Colley’s point about multiple identities, as Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich explain, “in New Zealand one might be an Aucklander, North Islander, New Zealander and Briton.”19 In this and in other regards, New Zealand is thus more comparable to its trans-Tasman neighbour, Australia, and yet significant differences remained. If there was an equivalent to Australia’s “working man’s paradise” in its status as a “social laboratory,” which had been the first to extend the franchise to women, this progressive strain came shorn of the Sydney Bulletin’s brash popular nationalism. Furthermore, New Zealand was significantly more progressive in its race relations and had previously extended the vote to all Maori men.20 And whilst New Zealand, like Australia, was ripe for an understanding of its settlers as better Britons—stronger and more resourceful—in New Zealand this idea had long since been tested in war through the experience of the New Zealand Wars.21 The commemoration of the Boer War also suggests it was a more national experience in New Zealand than in Australia. As the First World War broke out, New Zealand was therefore in some ways more firmly established in its nationhood.22

The nature of Britishness in the early twentieth century, particularly Britishness beyond Britain, was, then, extraordinarily complex. The shared experience of war had both centripetal and centrifugal effects. It meant that the rhetoric of the shared bonds and duties of empire was put into action, but the war prompted Ireland to break violently with the United Kingdom. Australia, as Joan Beaumont argues, “emerged from the First World War in many cases more independent and self-consciously Australian but still proudly British.”23 The war thus provided the launch pad for Australia to steadily and proudly develop its own distinctive national character over time. Only New Zealand remained wedded to its imperial Britishness in the early post-war years. In order to better understand these subsequent trajectories, this chapter offers a comparative survey of some rhetorical and commemorative responses to the Gallipoli campaign in which the shared cultural bonds are highlighted.

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