Exclusiveness and Inclusiveness in the British National Identity

Hassen Zriba


The issue of identity has been a fundamental one in virtually all human societies. The binary questions “who are we?” and “who are not we?” are constitutive of the meaning of any identity formation. Identity is an elusive concept that generates more questions than answers. Multifarious challenges face identity formation and consolidation which makes those two processes hard multidimensional tasks. In Britain, the concept of identity is central given the complex multinational and multicultural character of the nation. In their contact with different nations and peoples (the imperial experience), the British found themselves constantly negotiating their identity. They defined themselves with what they are and with what they are not as well. The British national identity or what is widely known as Britishness, has been a fuzzy and a difficult-to-define concept. It has been defined in different ways by different political sociologists each focusing on a distinctive aspect of the concept according to one’s perspective. It is a legal and political notion for politicians, an important cohesive concept for sociologists and a major source of identity for cultural critics. However, we propose in this article to broach the concept from an historical race-related perspective. We argue that the concept has been a useful index of the changing character of post-war race-related British politics. Historically, British race politics can roughly be divided into two major phases: the Assimilationist phase (starting from 1945 till the end 1970’s) and Multicultural phase (1980 till now). The assimilationist Britishness was based on a racial definition that excluded the different “other” (the alien, the immigrant) whereas the multicultural Britishness has been more tolerant and inclusive of difference. This article attempts to trace the ups and downs of the British national identity (Britishness) within the context of contemporary multicultural British society. This allows us to show how the same concept is capable of excluding and including the same set of ideological assumptions according to changes in the “structure of feeling” of those who believe in it.


Britishness; Identity; Exclusion; Inclusion; Assimilationism; Multiculturalism

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18415/ijmmu.v5i2.184


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