Blog post

“A radical, inclusive form of Britishness”—Owen Jones on British identity, nationalism and the disenfranchised youth

Kishani Widyaratna13 October 2011

In an insightful and personal piece for the Guardian, Owen Jones, author of Chavs, draws on his own family history to explore the plight of Britishness as a collective identity today. He argues that while Britishness may be suffering a crisis of nationalism that threatens to divide us, our common heritage of radical dissent points to a hopeful future in which we are stronger together.

Jones explains that while he largely grew up in the North of England, his family have roots in Wales also, with many settling in Scotland. Owen describes himself as instinctively identifying as British rather than English due to his sense of his family history. However, he contrasts with the position of his cousin, who despite being born to English parents is a strongly patriotic Scot. Owen argues Britishness is built upon the fraught legacy of empire, so is inherently problematic. As the empire was disbanded and a "virtual state-enforced amnesia about the era" was introduced, our revolutionary past was also forgotten. When the postwar class solidarity that filled the vacuum that remained was systematically dismantled by Thatcher's government, Owen proposes that there was a feeling of betrayal in Scotland and Wales, "a deep resentment at voting against Thatcherism in the 1980s but suffering its worst excesses".  

This betrayal, followed by New Labour's Thatcherite turn, contributed to an upsurge in nationalist movements. Nationalist movements co-opted the social democracy which was once the terrain of Labour, and the "unravelling of social bonds" particularly amongst younger generations continues to fuel their rise. Interestingly, Jones reveals that:

The most enthusiastic supporters of the new nationalisms can be found among my generation. Today's youth face a future of insecurity and declining living standards. With no coherent leftwing movements making sense of an economic crisis without apparent end, nationalism stands to benefit. 

An Ipsos/Mori poll in August found nearly half of Scots under 25 aspired to independence; less than a third of those over 55 felt the same. Crucially, separatism was strongest among those without work or who lived in the poorest communities. It's a similar story with Plaid Cymru, which draws most support not from the likes of my ageing relatives, but from those under 35. A new generation has no truck with Britishness. If Britain disintegrates, it will be at the hands of today's disenfranchised youth."

So what hope is there then to unify the disparate collective identities of the British Isles into an inclusive British identity, and stem the trend towards "founding ever-smaller countries increasingly at the mercy of globalised capitalism"? For Jones, the answer lies in reclamation of our socialist tradition and "a rejection of the discredited top-down model of Britishness". He concludes: 

"My socialist great uncle was part of a long history of collective struggle against authority that is common to all the peoples of this island. Our neglected history includes the revolutions of the 17th century; the Chartists, who were the world's first working-class political movement; the suffragettes; and the trade union movement. These struggles are not just part of our heritage - they helped construct a common identity. Here is a tradition that could form the basis of a radical, inclusive form of Britishness. The case is waiting to be made."

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Filed under: articles