British National Identity
PS: The Lion and The Unicorn is available at
Orwell is a committed socialist. He went to Spain at the end of 1936,
to write newspaper articles on the Spanish Civil War. The conflict in Spain
was between the communist, socialist Republic, and General Franco’s Fascist
military rebellion. He was astonished by the atmosphere in Spain: class
distinctions did not exist there and everyone was equal. He joined in the
struggle by enlisting in the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de
Unificacin de Marxista), which was associated with the British Labour
Party. For the first time in his life socialism seemed a reality. The Lion
and The Unicorn was written by him in 1941 in the period of WWII. He wrote
to the British public: “And above all, it is your civilization, it is you.
However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from
it for any length of time … Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it,
and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has
given you.” He wrote this to arouse national unity to fight against the
army in the war. Chris Waters is a professor of Modern European History.
His research area is “The Rise and Fall of the Therapeutic Ideal in
Twentieth-Century Britain.” Dark Strangers written by Waters, is about
discourses on race and nation in Britain from 1947-1963. Orwell thinks
class division would disappear after WW II and thus there would be no
division in society. Waters found, however, that although the class
division disappeared, a new racial divisiofn emerged. Although this new
division had a negative impact on racial minorities, it did foster a
unified national identity amongst nation born whites.
In The Lion and The Unicorn, Orwell describes the British characters
in geographical and cultural terms. Britain is a very class-ridden country
and it was very different in living condition between the ruling class and
the working class. Lower class people were used to the unfair wealth
distribution. However, Orwell believed that after World War II, the
difference between classes in Britain should be diminished and the even
condition should be made to all common people. The opposition and tension
between two groups of peoples should no longer exist. He is quite positive
on this aspect. However, there was a surge in the number of black
immigration to Britain after World War II. Due to the innate reluctance of
British public to accept foreigners’ assimilation, it led to a domestic
social dislocation crisis. In Dark Strangers, Waters points out that a
gradual erosion of national cohesion was being created because there was a
huge cultural difference between new black immigrants and native British
people. Black people lived in the quarters which were dirty and unsecured.
The fears of unlicensed Black male sexuality generated anxieties for the
Britain public about national safety. Even though government agencies tried
hard to gain national consent among different ethnic nationals, the country
would inevitably be split to majority and minority groups. His theory is
rather different from Orwell’s post-war social harmonious one.
Both writers suggest that social divisions would bring potential
crisis to the country. On the one hand, in The Lion and The Unicorn, Orwell
mentioned “But is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the
poor?” They lived in a completely different world but in the same country.
The habit and interest of the people from two classes were also different.
The huge isolation made the opposition between two classes which endangered
Britain to separate herself. Orwell reminded the British people that if the
nation’s people differentiated themselves, they were not able to defend
their country from the invasion of other countries. On the other hand, in
Dark Stranger, the division of the country is between white and black
people, from their living places: “The cohesiveness of the national ‘in-
group,’ to step into the ‘coloured quarter’ might indeed have felt
‘strange.’ But this rhetoric owed as much to Victorian representations of
the dangers of the city.” (Waters 226) Waters points out that the black
immigrant was frightening the British because of its strangeness. Some
women, they believed, had potential danger by insult done by black people.
Moreover, the new culture will corrupt traditional British culture and the
intermarriage between black and white was threatening because it breached
the eugenic of the white British ideology. However, Waters raises the issue
that “in-groups” and “out-groups” relationship could serve to cement the
bonds that tied British together – because of the external racial blending,
inner group people tended to distinguish themselves; hence, the national
identity could be sharpen neglecting the class division.
In the light of WWII, all classes of people had to be committed and
involved in the army to defend their country from the invasion of Germany.
The distance between the two classes of people were shortened. It was a
perfect chance that Orwell wrote in hope to appeal a unison of national
spirits among different classes. He believes that class division should not
exist after WWII, because small businesses tended to merge together into
large ones; more lower class people became owners to keep properties. The
peasantry was disappearing but more professional job functions had emerged.
The expansion of middle class was a tread: “The tendency of advanced
capitalism has therefore been to enlarge the middle class and not to wipe
it out as it once seemed likely to do.” The traditional class gap was
disappearing. However, the new racial division seemed not likely to vanish
as Waters mentions that immigrant is different from local people
genetically. People thought that racial mixing in Britain was leading to
“genetic chaos.” as “natural,” socially defined groups, again reproducing
notions of essential difference between groups of people based on their
skin color. In addition, native British people would not accept black
immigrants as British identity. There are three reasons: First, many
immigrants did not possess sufficient British cultural background to become
a British and the custom is very hard to learn. Second, people prefer their
culture to be honourable and distinguished. They feared that the currency
of national belonging would be devalued if it were made widely available.
Third, the norms that bound the national ‘in-group’ together were some
quasi-mystical qualities which are some wordless understandings. The
closely related group just had an inexplicable cohesion.
WWII changed the British character dramatically. Britain was isolated
from Europe and British people tended to be “xenophobic”. They did not
welcome foreigners and likewise, foreigners did not understand British as
well. Britain was a very strange place from other European countries. As
Orwell summarizes the repelling of British character:
The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners
seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time
to time … intellectuals who have tried to break it down have
generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality
in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the
Even thought he acknowledged that British dislike foreigners, he could not
predict the large population of immigration. However, after WWII, people
changed their attitude tried to accept foreign cultures. Much time was
spent by the government to research the racial differences and relations
for increasing the cohesion of a multi-ethnic country. Moreover, the
uniqueness of traditional British character has been mutated by foreign
culture influence after WWII. Orwell comments the speciality of British
When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have
immediately the sensation of breathing a different air … dozens of
small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer,
the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are
more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby
faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a
European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you
lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single
The change of national culture is discussed by Waters:
they did indeed possess a unique national culture. On closer
inspection, however, it seemed no more than a delusion: the only
distinctive national character the British possessed … was their
susceptibility to the illusion that they had one, and a very
remarkable one at that remarkable as it might have seemed during the
war, a pervasive sense of loss seemed to ensue at the war’s end.
Because the diversity of British nationality immigrants has created in WW
II, the binary opposition of ruling class and working class atmosphere was
converted. The traditional class division, therefore, also went away.
Race, observed from the course of history, could be a critical issue
to human peace. For example, Germany used the eugenic issue to unify the
people in the country to fight for their nation illogical. Britain also
applied Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory to create unequal status
between people which had deepened class differentiation. The
differentiation among different groups is inevitable. However, Britain used
racial issue as a tool to successfully unit all its own white people of
different classes by creating a new division to the foreigners. The
immigration functioned to highlight the British national identity.
Nonetheless the immigration has also changed Britain from a homogenous
society to a heterogeneous one, but it also victimized the ethnic minority
who became a group to be despised.