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The question of National identity has gained increasing traction in recent times. This question has led to the formation of three camps: those who claim that national identity is primordial, those who argue that it is an artificial creation and finally those who argue that it is a myth. In order to answer this question terms need to be defined. A ‘National Identity’ could be defined as the sense of a nation as a cohesive whole with a shared set of values, political institutions, culture and religion. Specific traits need not be ascribed as these will inevitably change as time passes but what must be identified is whether they were shared. Britain need also be defined and this will include the countries Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England.
The empire is not included in this as Britain can be defined as the countries brought into the fold with an Act of Union or that have representation at Westminster and so therefore the empire cannot be included in this. It does appear that while in areas there does appear to be a degree of shared identity this should not be over-exaggerated and on the whole, Britain was not united in a shared National Identity from 1830-1951. Culture is perhaps the best way to illustrate whether or not there was a national identity and within all countries it appears that there were great divisions. In Scotland, there appeared to be three main divisions: the Highlands, the West Lowlands and the East Lowlands. In the East lay a more rural way of life with Edinburgh which was the home of the Scottish Enlightenment and early on in the period this led to a dominance. In contrast, the Western lowlands were industrialized as evidenced by the fact that of 7. 4 million tons of coal were produced in Scotland and 76% of this was produced in the Western Lowlands.
These two very different environments produced two conflicting cultures with the former tending towards conservatism and the latter more radical ideas with the rising city of Glasgow eventually outgrowing Edinburgh. The Highlands too had its own culture with a tendency for un-anglicised traditions such as kilts, but it should be noted that their population size fell to 8% of Scotland and its traditions were incorporated by the two Lowland areas. In South Wales a more British culture was adhered to whilst in the Northern part native Welsh was commonly spoken and so this led to a clear split between the two areas as one clung to a more Gaelic outlook. In Ireland the split of culture was on more religious lines with the North Protestant and Anglicised while the South strongly Catholic. In England there was also a clear distinction between the South and the North. In the north cities like Manchester and Liverpool were heavily industrialised which juxtaposed the south in which rural estates were dominant. This created two separate cultures one where non-conformists like Samuel Smiles thrives while in the South Disraeli’s appeal to rural life found a greater audience.
Looking at Britain as a whole it seems that there seems to be a spreading of ‘Britishness’ throughout the period with parts of all nations sharing similar values but, in all cases, there were significant divisions with areas looking more towards their national heritage and this suggests that there was a lack of a shared national culture. In terms of religion Ireland must invariably be focused on when looking at differences. Two key groups can be identified the Protestant Ascendency (Presbyterians and Episcopalians) in Ulster, and the Southern Catholics (the majority of the population). These divisions became prevalent during the Great Famine as due to Protestant affiliations the North was able to industrialize with 75% of workers living in the North East and create a more diverse diet and this enabled it to avoid the worst of the potato famine whereas the South suffered huge amounts of death as it remained rural and viewed as outliers so were forced to rely on potatoes for the majority of their diet. These religious differences impacted the cultural differences with the North becoming more Anglicised whereas the South clung onto more traditional ways of life. Furthermore, simply the existence of such a large group of Catholics within Britain suggests that there cannot have been a unified national identity in terms of religion. Not only does the existence of such a large set of Catholics pose a problem to the idea of a national religious identity but there was also division among Protestants.
In Wales and Northern England non-conformists were the dominant force and in Scotland the Disruption led to 470 ministers leaving the established Church splitting the East and West Lowlands further. The established Churches in Wales and Ireland were also dissolved and although the Church of England remained the number of dissenters in England was so large that uniformity was a thing of the past. The number of not only Catholics but non-conformists and different Protestant denominations mean that it is impossible to suggest that there was a shared National Identity in terms of religion. Politics need also be considered when discussing National Identity, and in this category, there is a degree of shared national identity and yet this is also an area of huge differences. The main area of shared identity is found in the constitution as a result of the Whig interpretation of history. This taught that British history was one of progress and it was essentially one that generated increasing amounts of liberty which was embodied in the English Constitution. This interpretation was widely taught throughout the country and this led to a fervent dedication to the Constitution. Not only was it evident in England but also in the Scotland and Wales as their heroes could be brought Whig history with men like William Wallace being painted as being in line with the ideas of the constitution and so them and their countries could share the same values and support the same ideals. However, this was not something that could be done with Ireland as the Catholic majority was generally opposed to the notion of the UK and even Protestants like Parnell became prevalent in the movement for Home Rule.
This was not even one-way with many people in England viewing the Irish ‘outlandish’. The aforementioned issue of Home Rule is perhaps the central political issue which shows the polarisation in Britain during the period. This was an issue fought by Liberal Gladstone and was ultimately the reason for his downfall. Irishmen like Parnell and O’Connell also fought for Home Rule, attempting to split the union. This attack on the union provoked a backlash that split the Liberal party with the Unionist moving to join the Conservatives and in Ireland led to the creation of the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union in 1886. The Union is such a central political ideal that fundamental disagreement over it means that it is hard to claim that even in terms of politics there is a united National Identity. One key area that has not been discussed as of yet are the two world wars of the period. From 1914-1918 and 1939-45 it is fair to argue that the nation was in fact united in identity. This unity is demonstrated by the fact that 300,000 Britons signed up in the first month of the war, the fact that the economy was entirely focused on the war effort with all groups such as trade unions or the suffragettes and suffragists being brought together to create national cohesion as almost all people were committed to the ideal of winning the war. Even in Ireland, where, in 1916, there were riots, there was a general commitment to the war. This was once again repeated again in the Second World War where the state mobilized the population on a scale that was unprecedented. There were also unprecedented levels of inclusivity and it the war was said to be won by the ‘ordinary people’.
The role of Churchill should also be noted as his radio addresses were able to galvanise the nation to work towards a single purpose and create a united identity as the people viewed themselves as fighting together against tyranny and oppression. This perhaps suggests that in the context of the war Britain was able to find an identity that its people that could perhaps unite behind. The effect that the wars had is perhaps even further advanced by the fact that from 1919-1921 Ireland became engulfed in a civil war that had been building for some time over the issue of home rule and so it perhaps suggests that the war had been able to prevent this for some time due to the powerful cohesion it created. Ultimately, what appears clear is that throughout the period 1830-1951 Britain was not united by a shared national identity. Although there were periods, the two world wars, evidence suggests that in the factors (culture, politics and religion) that comprise a National Identity there were divisions not only between countries but also within countries. The notion of a united National Identity is Britain may have existed at points in the period but ultimately there was more disunity then unity.
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