British identity once depended to a great extent on empire, so when the empire faded, so too did British national identity. This has been most distinctively argued by McCrone (1997) in his ‘unmasking Britannia’: ‘if we accept that Britishness was in essence an imperial identity, then the loss of empire eroded that identity at home and abroad’. Britain was, he suggests, really a state-nation, with ‘state’ being the primary term and ‘nation’ coming a poor second. In McCrone’s view this decline of Britishness was perceptible through much of the twentieth century. The Second World War brought a degree of respite for British identity since the population for the most part entered the spirit of national solidarity in the face of both a common enemy and common hardship. As we shall argue in Chap. 5, the Labour government sought to draw on this sense of commonality in building a welfare state and a National Health Service, both of which asked citizens to pay as individuals for their own futures but also for the futures of others whom they did not know personally— fellow citizens. For many people there was a sense of identity and solidarity which was not to be repeated. The time after the war was a period in which were formed people’s attitudes towards government, the state and the nation. Among working-class people it looked like a new world in which educational provision was extended, great state enterprises were launched—or continued from the war period—and for the first time free health care was available to all, including many who remembered not being previously able to afford it. This sense of both obligation and entitlement was a source of a sense of national belonging. Tilly referred to ‘a sense of entitlement to welfare, health care and unemployment compensation long thought to be ineradicable perquisites of citizenship in Western countries’ (Tilly 1995: 3). The relationship of citizen to state was a kind of exchange: ‘
In essence the modern state required the commitment of its citizens in exchange for the provision of services. As they became the appropriate instruments for guaranteeing the life chances of their citizens, governments became major actors in economic competition.....’ (McCrone 1997: 580).
A British identity based on empire, great industries and a broad consensus on the welfare state survived until the late 1970s. The ‘neo-liberal’ politics of the 1980s not only restated the prerogatives of capital and deregulated markets but also encouraged a general individualism. The conservative ranks of middle-class voters (and working-class voters who supported Thatcher) responded to Thatcher’s ‘appeals to prudence, to respectability and personal responsibility, to individualism, effort, and her defence of small scale private property found deep support among these sections of the middle class’ (Williamson 1998: 179). These changes initiated a reshaping of the relationship between state and individual, which in turn altered the bases of national identity and added to the weakening of Britishness.
So Britain shifted from a society in which the state was regarded as a relatively benign provider of security—in particular to working-class people—to one in which the state was viewed as a burden which had to be minimised in order to release the competitive ambitions of ‘individuals and their families’. In the longer run Britain was to see great changes in attitudes to welfare, even amongst those who had been its strongest supporters. By 2013 support for welfare payments for the unemployed had fallen significantly. According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes (BSA) Report, ‘in 1985, 81 % thought it was the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed’ (p. 33). Now only 59 % think so. Much of this change occurred when Labour was in power. As Haylett (2001) has demonstrated, the Blair years were marked by political attacks on those who were portrayed as taking unfair advantage of benefits payments.
Gordon Brown referred to ‘the hard working majority’ in a speech to the Labour Party conference in 2009. The same narrative continued apace under the post-recession Conservative-led coalition, with their endless repetition of the phrase ‘hard-working families’ (e.g. Cameron August 2014). Although the Labour Party remained in power for thirteen years from 1997 to 2010, its position during this period and after leaving power and during the coalition government weakened significantly. As we shall see later in this chapter, in discussing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the weakness of the Labour Party is connected to the possibilities of new nationalist and populist politics.