Should National Identity define who we are?

I recently went to see the play Albion at the Almeida Theatre in London, written by Mike Bartlett and directed by Rupert Goold. Albion is a timely organic play that takes us right to the heart of the identity crisis and subsequent division and strife that Britain is currently experiencing and it is a play that inhabits within you for a long time after you see it. The aim of this post is not however to write a review about Albion, which so many before me have done so accurately and eloquently, but rather to reflect on the issue of National Identity which seems to be one troubling this nation acutely these days, to the point of threatening to fracture this marvellous island into two or indeed three, four, dozens of small islands, as so many different ethnicities who are just as British and even people of other nationalities living, working and paying taxes here no longer feel welcome but despised, ostracised, even fearing for their life.

National Identity is an incredibly hot topic right now not just here in Britain but in other parts of the world too. I am currently binge watching the Netflix series The Crown. Another wonderfully crafted, well thought-out and brutally honest piece of art which puts across the two oppossing views on national pride, identity and heritage. As a Spaniard, indeed also a Basque person who grew up witnessing the terminal cancer that radical nationalism is to a community, I have grown very weary and suspicious of those who see their nationality as a source of pride and the foundational pillar of who they are and how they see others.

Can any of us really put our hand on our heart and say that we are proud of our country, our nationality? Can we truly let our nationality define who we are, warts and all, or rather do we choose to be temporarily amnesiac and base our national pride solely on the note-worthy achievements and pretend all the horror, the massacres, the abuse, the savagery and sheer arrogance and pride never happened? I am a Spaniard who has lived in the UK for the last 27 years and I can think of quite a few skeletons in Britain’s closet over the course of its history, indeed in most countries’ closet, which some choose to forget when they wave their flags and make references to the great exploits of British people as justifiable ground to defend their discrimination, backward insularity, racial abuse and utter inhumanity towards other human beings.

The thing is that we have always thought these kind of behavioural patterns belong to the far right, neo-nazis and the like, but the cyclone that Brexit was has lifted the veil of how large the collective amongst the British population who share these nationalistic views truly is, perhaps not as radical, but certainly opening the way that so deceivingly leads to racism, fanaticism and ultimately dehumanization of those who don’t pass muster. My own parents in law voted for Brexit without giving a second thought to the fact that their own daughter in law would be deeply affected by such a monumental 360 degree turn in how Britain wishes to define itself from here on. Brexit sure revealed that this nostalgia of times past, the British pride of old, stinking of imperialist arrogance and superiority, stinking of a sense of entitlement and God-given privilege is truly alive and well and it is not restricted to a bunch of fascists who don’t know how to be anything else, but is deeply rooted in what so many see as the essence of what is truly British. Who knew? I sure never saw it coming. As I said before I have lived in UK now for almost 27 years and though I have always felt welcome here and loved by many as one of their own, I have to be honest and say that I have also always been regarded by most as this exotic animal that is interesting to observe and befriend but best to be kept at arm’s length, just in case.

Truth is if years in a country defined whether you belong in it, which sadly is not the case, I would be more British than Spanish and/or Basque. For all the years spent here, the roots planted and lovingly nurtured, the hard work, the sacrificial giving of oneself to the service in the community, the going against once nature to please, fit in, and be hospitable, I now have so little to show for it, because despite all the years of sowing seeds in a land that was not my own, it very much feels like I am just another piece in the machinery that has contributed to move this country forward. The moment you no longer wish to or are able to offer that service, be it in a local church, the neighbourhood or the community, its economy, one becomes invisible, forgotten, insignificant and with every day comes a stronger feeling that you have deceived yourself for all these years and were never truly accepted or wanted in a land which you have loved as your own.

I have digressed and I need to rein it in as this was not going to be where I wanted to go with this post. The reason I have shared my own journey here is because this concept of national pride and national identity totally fascinates me, in the sense that we live in an era where there are so many evils threatening the world’s equilibrium yet again, and instead of being intelligent and seeking what unites us, our flawed nature is intent on being selfish, proud, and greedy. We continue to use our national pride as an excuse to relieve ourselves from the global responsibility to care for others as we care for our own, because deep down our national pride dictates that they are less deserving of the plentiful lives that most of us have done little to deserve or earn.

I was absolutely appalled the other day on the train on our way to London to yet again hear another person remarking on how regrettable it was that so many people do not wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. I am one of those people and I take deep offence to legalistic attitudes which impinge on other people’s freedom of choice to express or keep their convictions to themselves. Can Britain really be on its way to becoming another nanny state where not only the government but the population acts as the Gestapo ensuring we are all kept in line and displaying which side of any given argument we are sitting on? I mean, really? My heart truly dropped to my stomach when I read a tweet of a celebrity apologising profusely because she was not wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day; when hearing well-known journalists bordering on slander about another journalist for exercising his freedom of choice not to succumb to peer pressure. There is such a fine line between being proud of our ancestors and the amazing sacrifices that they made and using that as a springboard to destroy the very liberties they gave their all to preserve. And there lies the irony. Will the veterans want to be remembered for their sacrifice or will the poppy or any other outward symbol which echoes national pride eventually become a symbol of tyranny and oppression?

There is so much more to be said on this very complex subject, I fear I will need to retake it on a future post but I leave you with this thought. Will National Identity and National Pride be the ultimate cause of the world’s demise? It certainly is looking that way from where I am sitting with the USA currently taking a step back on fighting Climate Change and Global Warming, North Korea intent on using lethal weapons of mass destruction as child’s play, innumerable nations and parts of countries fighting for independence and isolation creating bigger walls, more insurmountable impediments to make conducive the cooperation between nations to bring forth a more stable, safer, and longevous planet. Can human nature be so utterly blind that so many rate their national identity as truly relevant in this day and age? Have we honestly come this far technologically, scientifically, emotionally, to regress to our warm comfortable cocoons having a complete and utter disregard for the misery, the need, the desperation, the risks that ultimately will bring all our downfall?

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or as the accurately perceptive actor Richard Armitage succinctly put it when summing up his impressions on Albion the play: ‘Humanity’ with all it’s jagged edges and heartbreaking absurdity’.

2 thoughts on “Should National Identity define who we are?

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  1. Great read Mercedes. Many parallels for me as a South African now 22 years in the UK. I think it’s best when we all focus on the values that bind us together than on the relatively little things where we may differ. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your comment Dave. I often get a bit more of a reaction to my blogposts, so the fact that you are the first one, maybe the last, proves the very point I am trying to make. I clearly have rubbed some deeply rooted personal sensitivities with this topic. We give far too much relevance to our national identity and we feel far too much pride about what our countries represent when in reality history shows us many countries have more things to be ashamed of than to be proud of. It is concerning to me that we all seem to be retreating back to our familiar, safe and comfortable patriotic fortresses at a time when globally we desperately need to find ways to draw from what we have in common in order to ensure everyone’s rights, survival, safety and dignity, not just ours and the country we happen to have been born in. Patriotism is short-sighted and ultimately unrealistic in a world where each nation, like it or not, has a DNA made up of multiple nationalities, races and cultures. How quickly we forget how nations are formed and at what cost.

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