Industry, Empire and Views of the Nation

In our interviews people were asked a number of questions designed to invite them to talk about ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’, questions which were about how they viewed the nation, how and whether they identified with the country or nation, and about their pride in being English-British (Mann and Fenton research; see ch. 1, p. 25). Such ‘trigger’ questions were aimed at asking whether they thought ‘this country is getting better or worse’, whether they were ‘proud of being English or British’ and what they thought constituted Englishness or Britishness. The aim was to get people talking on their own terms by asking open-ended questions; what was sacrificed by way of asking each interviewee the precise same question was balanced by the gain in fluency and openness of the interviews. Our approach also gave interviewees several opportunities to talk about national identity and national pride—if one conversational opening produced little response, another might inspire the interviewee to say more.

Mary was a woman in her forties, qualified as a doctor but not working as one, and separated from her husband. Her views reflect the fact that she and her husband had lived for some time in France. She compared England with France, English people with French people and the French with English holiday makers observed when she was living there. In this passage she is responding to a question about the nature of ‘being English’ or ‘what makes Englishness’:

Well for anyone to be a representative of their nation, to have a national

identity, they would have to have pride in their country and to have responsibility for, for the country, as a whole. How that happens I don’t know. I think a lot of the responsibility has been taken away. A lot of our national industries have gone and are going all the time____So we’re then immediately reliant on other countries to be, to be more self-reliant, and, err, take more responsibility for how the country’s run.

Some of the key references here are to ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘selfreliance’, and these have been diminished because a ‘lot of national industries have gone’ and we are reliant on other countries. This was from an interviewee who has not had any obvious connection to industry. Rather it is someone who sees ‘our own industry’ as somehow underpinning national identity. The sense of loss of self-reliance is coupled with a view of the ‘English’ as untidy, ‘unassertive’ and ‘sheep-like’ and not taking proper care of themselves. These attributes apply to the place and the people:

Oh, that the town’s filthy. Yeah. It’s something that we’re not used to in France for.. .similar sites are kept clean reg.. .or even if they were regularly clean and kept clean, even though our people chew gum and smoke just as much in France as they do in England but I mean it’s filthy.

And the people dress badly:

It’s just little things like that, you know and ahh.and the way people dress. I mean the French.dressing well quite deeply inherent in French culture and society but, but people dress so badly here [nearly u>hispering...[laughs sorry!...It doesn’t make you feel very proud when you see, you know, British holiday makers coming down, dressed shabbily, or dressed without, you know, bothering about their appearance or their behaviour.

This interviewee describes herself as English, but not with any pride: ‘

.well, yeah I’m English. Yeah. Yeah. Can’t get away from it! (Laughs) I’m not terribly proud to be English, but I am English, yeah. Yeah.’

There is in this interview a sigh for a lost industrial and industrious (selfreliant) England and a disdain for (other) English people for their shabbiness and untidiness.

Richard was a young man who worked as a trainee purchasing officer at an engineering works. He talks about how the area has lost a lot of local engineering works and ‘left this place a bit desolate of jobs really’:

‘X, one of the biggest employers in [town], has disappeared; L closed down, a lot of engineering works have moved.

He later speaks about immigration and expresses the view that one job for an immigrant is one less for an English applicant: ‘

I think England is a little bit too open armed letting other people into the country when they can sort out their own problems.’

But his general attitude towards pride in country, Englishness and English national identity is one of stand-offish indifference. Partly because of his parents, an English mother and a German father, he suggests he has little interest in ‘nationality’:

So I’ve got a bit of a mixed background anyway! Em, but if it boiled down to it I think it would be nice to turn around and say I’m English and proud of it, but I don’t see what there is to be proud about being English anymore. Em, I would much prefer to be proud to be a human than I would to being an English citizen.

And when he is pressed on whether young people in general think like this he says: [1]

Jane and Brian live in Northville, but Jane was brought up in Docktown, where her father was a docker. She and her then husband had emigrated to New Zealand but returned to England when he passed away. She and her new partner live in a council bungalow; she had worked as a typist and a cleaner, he as a chef, a catering manager for the city council and warehouse operative. They live in an area which is close to some industrial plants, but these are industries which used to employ a lot more people. The interview conversation focused on the topic of ‘the Englishness’ of the neighbourhood’, and the questions prompted a stream of angry talk about ‘coloureds coming in’ and how ‘they let anyone in’. At this point the woman spontaneously turns to the topic of industry:

All these industries being run down. Now we used to have shipbuilding,

car building, big steel industries____Also there were the mills for wool and

cotton and all that sort of thing. Well the whole lot as you know has gone. They’ve got rid of all of it. Now it used to be more or less a self-supporting country except, well, I know we used to import fruit, we used to import some meat and all that sort of thing, but basically we were a self-supporting country. We made our own shoes and things like that and exported them. And they were a very good quality. Now what’s happened to all those people who’ve been made redundant? Where are they? And yet the government tell us that the unemployment figures are down. Where? If it’s true.. .what’s happened to all those people because there aren’t the industries, not now. to give them jobs, you know, and to take care of them.

They return to the topic when talking about pride in England or Britain. This time the man is speaking: ‘ [2]

themselves any longer.. .and British rather. I still call it England or English, but it’s not called British anymore, which is such a shame. They’ve lost the greatness of it. Because, yes, England was a great country or great nation. But we seem to have lost that side.. .which is a shame.

The interviewee (male) is prompted to consider that some of England’s identity is bound up with national institutions like ‘Ascot or the National’, but he dismisses these as ‘small things’—‘

that’s only a few small things to what they used to have. You know like the industry and things to make it great’—

and adds that even some of the great national racing events are being taken over by foreigners. They speak of benefits being hard ‘for the English’ to get, and they have ‘got to fight for it’, whereas people ‘from Asian.coloured communities.. .they get it just like that’. They are the people who have contributed ‘and supported the NHS’—they ‘should look after the English more’. They apply the same sort of argument to cultural difference, complaining about the fact that (in their account) the Birmingham city council ruled ‘that our Christmas had to go as well’ or the ‘Muslims would be incensed’. So, they say, the pride has gone but they would love to rally round for England and the flag:

Well we did when the football was on, it was wonderful. That was when the nation was proud and everybody got together. It was bloody fantastic. Really. When I think of St George’s Day, which was, what, the 23rd, 24th, something like that.. .should be a national holiday and all the bunting goes up.

In all three of these interviews, the interviewees readily raise the question of ‘industry’ when they speak about pride in England or Britain, and they all see the loss of industry as a significant part of a ‘crisis’ in national identity. The country produced so many things that it gave Britain-England a place in the world as our ‘superior’ goods led in international trade and satisfied markets at home. So the loss of industry is a loss of a source of pride—the industry has ‘gone and people and basically the people of England themselves haven’t got the pride in themselves to make it great anymore’. But it is also a loss of self-reliance. Because the country must import goods, England must rely on other countries. This loss of (supposed) self-sufficiency is discursively linked to a loss of discipline and character. With the first interviewee—Mary—a discourse of shabbiness predominates; people don’t care, don’t take pride in themselves, they are untidy and the town is filthy. In the cases of Mary, Jane and Brian, their assessment of the nation means that they cannot fulfil their wish to be proud: ‘We would like to be proud, but what is there to be proud of?’ In the case of the younger man (Richard) there is a similar set of sentiments but more by way of a kind of resignation and indifference—‘nationality has gone.. .as far as the country.. .has died these days’.

The argument about industry occurred in many of our interviews. Len says that ‘Britain used to be a threat at one time but not anymore’. And he does not mean only or even primarily in a military sense: ‘

No. From everything. I mean because we built everything. We were selfsufficient at one time____We are no threat in any way to any other country


In this case the discourse about the loss of self-sufficiency comes along with a profound hostility to immigrants, and especially Muslims. When it comes to questions of tolerance of multicultural difference, he says,

‘They should go back to their own country and do it____Throw ’em out,

send ’em back’.

As well as indirect references to ‘our influence in the world’ and phrases like ‘once we were a threat’, there are also direct references to an imperial past. Matt (referred to briefly earlier) is a young man in his late twenties who had dropped out of university, done a number of jobs, been made redundant, freelanced as a proofreader and was now a mature student. In speaking of being proud of Britain, he says, ‘There’s a long rich history of trampling on other countries’. But he goes on ‘joking aside. there’s a rich cultural history.colonisation and that, you know a lot of good things done as well, you know I mean major trade, and opening up exploring the world and building new stuff, industrial revolution..that sort of thing’. Alan, a man in his sixties who worked for a printing firm, says he is ‘very proud of what we’ve done and contributed to the world.

what we’ve invented. We have’, he continues, ‘been nautically imperialistic.. .industrialised and made inventions’, and he was ‘very proud to be British’.

Industry, empire, inventions, world trade, and military power: these are the things to which many people refer when they talk about pride in Britain or England. And frequently they are spoken of as past glories to which the present compares very poorly. So they say they are proud of their country but by way of saying ‘they would like to have something to be proud of’. As Steve puts it, he is ‘English and proud of it’. When asked what sorts of things make her proud, the woman mentioned earlier replied, ‘I can’t think of one’, and the man says ‘what is there to be proud of?’.

  • [1] think that nationality, as far as your country has gone, has almost diedthese days. Eh, especially with the Internet and that. I mean I myself haveprobably got a good thirty contacts in other countries around the globe.I don’t view them any differently from the contacts that I have in thiscountry. Interviewer: Do other young people see national identity as important? I don’t think they do. I mean like I don’t know of anybody myself who’sproud to be British, proud to be English. As far as I am—none of themare un-proud to be it, it just doesn’t mean anything at all to them reallyeither way.
  • [2] think industry, too, it’s all gone abroad, you know, the great industries I’mtalking about. It’s all going to these foreign countries and people.’ He continues: Gone (the industry) and basically the people of England themselves haven’tgot the pride in themselves to make it great more. And that is the saddestthing. Because they haven’t got their greatness about them. Because I thinkso much has been taken away from them that they just don’t feel great in
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