Throughout most of modern history, Britain enjoyed the relatively privileged status of being able to take its national culture for granted. Compared with most European countries, there was little flag-waving or outbursts of patriotic fervour in the UK. Indeed British intellectuals frequently derided the ‘unhealthy nationalism’ of their European counterparts. They extolled the kind, restrained and tolerant sense of British nationhood that was said to characterise their culture. Writing in the early 1960s, the Oxford-based colonial commentator Margery Perham boasted of the special qualities of British nationalism due to ‘our exceptional unity, our island position, and the confidence arising from our power’, which ‘may have bred in us an unconscious kind of nationalism, one that seldom needed to assert or even to know itself’. In one sense Perham was absolutely right. A powerful sense of racial, moral and national superiority based on legacy of imperial achievement dominated the selfimage of the British elite. Unlike their insecure continental counterparts, the British elite did not always have to remind the world what defined their nation. Britishness did not need to be spelled out.
By the time of the 1976 Race Relations Act, it was difficult to argue that that Britain possessed an ‘unconscious kind of nationalism’ that did not need to be made explicit. At the 1964 by-election at Smethwick – two years after Perham penned her words – the Labour MP, Patrick Gordon-Walker, lost to a Conservative candidate who coined the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. Immigration had become an important issue and race relations were thoroughly politicised. Understandably during the next two decades, the focus was on immigration and on race relations. And despite the diminishing sense of a shared national identity, relatively few observers asked ‘what does it mean to be British?’ And when they did, the question was often stated in a hesitant and round-about way. When, 16 years ago, Norman Tebbit posed his famous ‘cricket test’, it was interpreted as a statement about the questionable loyalties of immigrants to the UK. ‘Which side do they cheer for?’ asked Tebbit, as he observed that ‘a large proportion’ of Britain’s Asian population failed to pass the ‘cricket test’. However, the very fact that he demanded such a statement of loyalty betrayed a sense of insecurity about the status of Britishness.
Questioning the loyalty of immigrants has assumed an even more intense form in the early twenty-first century. However, such questions actually can be interpreted as an attempt to evade answering the far more difficult problem of what it really means to be British. In previous times, a legacy of imperial confidence spared the Establishment from asking that question. Today it is a sense of insecurity and confusion which encourages Britain’s political and cultural elites to constantly talk about it. In retrospect it is evident that the debate about race relations and immigration was less about ‘them’ than about ‘us’. Inventing cricket tests or citizenship tests for others is driven by the imperative of giving some kind of meaning to being British.