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Britain could be a model unhappy family

Like so many others, the history of my family straddles the nations of mainland Britain. My father’s north Wales relatives have been Welsh-speaking nationalists for generations. And yet my grandfather was a hero in his village when he joined Britain’s merchant navy at the peak of the empire. A proud Welsh identity meant something very different to my great uncle, who played for the Independent Labour party’s football team in the 1930s. He represented a passionate blend of Methodism and socialism; class solidarity had the edge over national allegiance.

I’ve rarely visited Wales, but I spent part of my childhood in Falkirk, an ex-industrial town in Scotland, and much of my extended family settled in Edinburgh. My cousin was born to English parents, but he is a patriotic Scot. His ancestry can be easily accommodated by the rise of an inclusive nationalism with no interest in bloodlines – after all, the SNP can even boast the first Asian MSP.

Though I largely grew up in northern England, my family background instinctively leads me to self-identity as British rather than English. But is it really possible to shoehorn my Welsh-speaking, rural-dwelling relatives and my proudly Scottish cousin into one category? Take other, starker examples: a supermarket checkout assistant on the minimum wage in Dundee and a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager in London may as well live in different universes. Applied to contrasting individuals, national identity can seem hopelessly abstract.

The problems with Britishness become a lot clearer when compared with, say, French identity. France’s revolutionary traditions are at the core of being French: the universal republican ideal is so entrenched that the government refuses to include questions of ethnicity and religion in the census. But Britishness was traditionally inextricably linked with empire. As a country, we are far from coming to terms with the horrors of colonialism, but it is over 50 years since Empire Day was scrapped, and there is virtual state-enforced amnesia about the era. And while we have a revolutionary tradition of our own – the 17th-century civil war between Parliamentarians and Charles I was the first great European revolution – it remains (again, intentionally) a largely forgotten episode.

With revolution and empire airbrushed from our collective identity, the vacuum was partly filled by the postwar settlement: above all, nationalised industries, a welfare state and a powerful labour movement. But Margaret Thatcher’s governments launched a dramatic assault on each of these pillars. The class solidarity my great uncle fought for dramatically weakened as industries collapsed, and trade union membership fell from half the population to little over a quarter in a generation.

In Scotland and Wales, there was a deep resentment at voting against Thatcherism in the 1980s but suffering its worst excesses. I remember the fury, as a five-year-old, when I marched with thousands of Glaswegians against the poll tax in 1990. That experience was a boost to nationalist sentiments, but New Labour’s shift to embrace Thatcher’s settlement was a game-changer too. Nationalism fused with the kind of social democracy once championed, and then ditched, by Labour. No wonder Plaid Cymru broadened its appeal beyond the likes of my Welsh-speaking relatives to Labour’s old heartlands in south Wales.

English nationalism too is partly a response to the unravelling of old social bonds. Growing up in Stockport, I remember the growing numbers of St George’s flags appearing in the windows of housing estates. English pride became more than an enthusiastic commitment to the national team at some point in my childhood. But, unlike its Welsh and Scottish counterparts, there is a disturbing, racially exclusive element to English nationalism. At its most strident, it is on the march in the form of the anti-immigrant, Islam-hating English Defence League.

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.

Is there any hope of preserving the strained bonds that link my Welsh, Scottish and English relatives? I hope so: my own family is proof of how intertwined we all really are, and there is something perverse about founding ever-smaller countries increasingly at the mercy of globalised capitalism. But the new assertive nationalisms cannot be simply wished away, and a looser association is inevitable. I do believe a common identity can be forged, but it will mean a rejection of the discredited top-down model of Britishness.

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.

This article first appeared in the Guardian.

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