NewStatesman: To save the Union, we need a new progressive national story

For people to recognise the value and potential of the United Kingdom, we have to craft narratives that capture hearts and minds in a way that abstract facts and figures alone cannot.

28 February 2020

By Katy Shaw

The future of the Union of the United Kingdom rests on winning a narrative battle for hearts and minds, not just for pounds and pence. Debates addressing the future of the Union often focus on doom-laden economic forecasts and fail to acknowledge, or sometimes even to identify, the defining role of culture and narrative in connecting our increasingly disunited kingdoms.

Through my front-facing role in British higher education I often hear questions about the Union. One of my students recently likened the Union to her warring stepfamily and asked “why is it called the United Kingdom anyway if no one gets on” and remarked that the entire concept of Britain “is basically bullshit”. The next generation are very much engaged in these debates, and their opinions are often voiced only in “safe” discussions about culture.

That question of “bullshit Britain” has preyed on my mind since because, at its core, is a query about the purpose of the Union, its status, power and potential. To put it in terms my students might feel more comfortable with: if the nation states were on Tinder would they swipe right or swipe left on each other today?

How has this happened?

One important factor is that we have started to revive stories about our nation states at the point at which we have stopped telling stories about the UK today. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, British identity has been a victim of our divorce from the EU. Historically, the UK has been shaped by ongoing battles between the people of its nations, but in recent decades the orientation of these debates has become increasingly framed around why Great Britain really isn’t so great anymore.

Identity is founded upon a self-narrative, a story about who you are, where you’ve come from and what you want out of life. British identity, by its very composition, is predicated upon cosmopolitanism, so why has it become so singular and exclusionary, so binary and objectionable to many contemporary residents?

Historian Linda Colley described Britons as having a “layered identity” – a kind of Neapolitan ice cream of English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish overlain with a layer of British. Surveys proliferate on this subject, with many producing statistics that suggest most people think of themselves as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish first, and British second (if not third after county allegiances). While there are clear narratives about why the Scots and Welsh should love their nation state, there is a comparative poverty of stories about why we should all love being part of the UK. As a result, we have seen the birthing of a new state patriotism at the expense of British identity.

The United Kingdom, like the north of England, is a victim of stock image syndrome. The Union Jack, the Last Night of the Proms, historic castles and galleries – google United Kingdom and these are the cultural symbols that define us to the rest of the world. Stock images are great – especially for lazy people or those working to deadlines. They offer instantly recognisable cultural reference points, snapshots that tell broader stories about our past and present, but they do not tell stories about our future.

An addiction to identity politics has fractured the left and the right, and wider society, into a mosaic of echo chambers and public shaming. Patriotism is diminishing with every generation. In 2018, research suggested that the majority of people felt as if expressing pride in the United Kingdom was a “social grey area that might leave them open to ridicule or abuse”. Seventy nine per cent said they felt patriotic about their birth nation, but only 22 per cent said they would not worry about being ridiculed for expressing this in public – only a fifth felt comfortable doing so at national events. One in seven had celebrated St George’s Day or the day of their nation’s patron saint. The research, commissioned by a gambling company seeking to understand and profit from betting around national sporting events, concluded that sport best “smooths over the harder edges of patriotism”. The allure of nationalism lies in its ability to cross and confound boundaries of class, gender and ideology.

We are telling each other lots of stories about why we need devolution, but not about why we need unity. Faced with such imbalanced storytelling, is it any wonder most people are not talking about the other side of the debate – the value of togetherness? The challenge is to tell stories of the Union that can resonate in the heart of every one of us. By imagining the United Kingdom only through the stories of its past, we are failing to articulate its relevance and potential as a blank page that can be authored by the next generation. The challenge is to empower citizens to write the U in the UK, to tell stories of the Union that can resonate in the heart of each and every one of us. By harnessing culture as a progressive tool, we might have a finite opportunity to reconsider and reframe what is great about Britain today.

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Narrative is the way we make sense of the world. Narrative holds the key to reorienting debates, to thinking about a new culture of storytelling as an empowerment practice for offering alternative futures of the Union. Through culture and narrative we need to ask: what will the Union look like in 2030, 2050, and beyond?

In a recent New Statesman review of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, Nicola Sturgeon claimed: “I still love and marvel at the power of the story to lift us from our own reality.” Storytelling can do this – it can remove us from economic imperative and political turmoil and reframe focus on hearts and minds issues that offer emotional resonance instead. It can make people vote for things they know will damage them, economically, politically, because they “believe” in a narrative of a greater good. Brexit has proved that economic rationales are no match for a powerful narrative that wins the hearts and minds of citizens in these isles. The fight for the Union cannot be conceived as a purely economic social or political concern – it is also a cultural quest.

The United Kingdom is conceptualised in the popular global imagination through its cultural iconography. The Union is held together by shared cultural institutions – such as the BBC and the British Council – organisations which are now being threatened with budget cuts and questions of bias. Post-war complacency about, and post-Brexit contempt for, these foundational British institutions is a real problem. The Cummings vibe of the moment seems to be that they, like the Union itself, have gone undefended for too long because they are regarded as eternal unchanging foundation stones that have been and will be around forever. If there is a need to speak effectively for the national Union – to support it and defend it with the same credibility, relevance and noise levels as those that seek to detract it – then we will need to defend these foundation stones as a priority.

Cultural power is often termed “soft power”, but culture and education are our greatest tools in carving out a new Union, one fit for purpose in the 21st century. We need to recognise the power of art and culture, not only in the economic vitality of the UK, but the innovation of our creative and cultural industries and their potential role in reconceptualising the narrative of a future UK. The government has spent too long promoting global Britain without paying attention to the health of its brand. The art, film, music, museums, galleries and theatre of the UK have a huge global appeal, we are cultural world leaders. In publishing we are the biggest global exporter of books in the world. Our arts and culture offer a heady mix of social, economic and political goods and returns for a union of collaboration.

Through such shared cultural organisations, events, representations and celebrations lies the way forward to reaffirming the “United” in the UK. The stability and reputation of the Sturgeon-led SNP cannot last forever, and as the party approaches a significant change, the opportunity presents itself for a new persuasive set of narratives about the Union to emerge. British identity must find the international legitimacy that Scottish identity has claimed, and in doing affirm the power and purpose of unity through culture and storytelling.

The UK is the cultural capital of the world, yet the “problem of the Union” is often framed as a culture clash that emphasises difference, rather than the many points of connection across our cultures. Culture offers unique points of connectivity, shared experience, dynamic interactions, safe spaces where different people with different points of view can be made to think about ways in which things could be otherwise, or the consequences if they go this way or that.

Each Union nation has a proud identity that is expressed primarily through cultural manifestations. The rise of devolution can be mapped through culture and cultural policy, but culture also offers a vital pathway to cross-nation working. The burgeoning value of culture and the creative industries to the Union is a case in point – publishers, film crews and touring artists move across a UK fragmented by differing cultural policies and programmes. Where is the incentivisation for the Union? How can we offer a coherent cultural offering to the rest of the world that celebrates both the British and nation state flavours of the creative talent we have to offer on these islands?

These are the pressing questions that our generation must confront head-on through a cultural conversation about connectivity and points of union. A future UK identity project must not seek to restore a formerly cohesive sense of what it means to be British, but create a new plural identity, one accepting of and celebrating difference, as well as a shared sense of connection and trajectory.

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Nobody would get in a car with three other people without knowing where they are going, or who is driving, or why they’re going in the first place, or even who these people really are. And yet every time we engage people in debates about the future of the Union these core questions remain awkward and unresolved.

We can begin to address them at last by mobilising new stories of identity from across the people of these islands as an expression of embodied experience, listening to a diversity of identities, and valuing the fictional and the emotional as much as the economic and the political. We need new stories about identity, integration, movement, opportunity and innovation. A decade of division must now give way to a decade of connection through culture to heal divides in our Union and empower people as citizens to identify, celebrate and cultivate cultural points of connectivity.

If we want people to recognise the value of union, then we have to tell new stories about its value and potential, stories that capture hearts and minds in a way that abstract facts and figures alone cannot and will not. In a way that experts alone can and will not. Reconnecting the Union through narrative will craft not only a more creative, innovative, integrated and prosperous society – economically and socially – but also foster new relationships, with cultural cooperation as a model for wider dialogues of connectivity and convergence.

The goal in a relationship is to be close but still maintain identity as a separate person. When people are in an individualised state they are happier and more optimistic. Having a stronger sense of yourself and having that recognised and accepted is key to having a sustainable and successful relationship with another. The UK needs to stay compatible by allowing its composite nation states to be themselves. This can begin when we stop idealising the mythic past of the United Kingdom and also stop denigrating it as a concept that is outdated and monolithic. The UK has become, for some, an unhealthy relationship, haunted by histories, unresolved tensions and power brokering that has moved from the passive aggressive to the outright blatant, on all sides.

Focusing on what binds and distinguishes, using culture as a basis for unity and identity, we can build on the symbolic resonance of the “value” of British identity internationally. We need a national celebration about what it means to be British today – whether that is a festival of Brexit or, better yet, a cross-nation festival of union – from which can emerge the themes and concerns, the creative ideas and inspiration, to shape and frame wider debates going forwards. By stimulating and sustaining a cross-nation discussion about what the UK is, and what it could be, we place creative innovation and narrative agency back in the hands of the great asset of these islands: its people.

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After many years of being in a relationship sometimes it’s good to ask “why are we still together? We both look different now – how can we reinvigorate what’s good between us and understand and overcome what challenges us?” This involves listening and accommodating a plurality of voices. The story of the UK cannot be monological – it has to be the product of many, a wonderful chorus that sometimes jars but is fundamentally connected as part of an ongoing story about the journey of four self-defined countries engaged in a meaningful relationship that is not passively inherited but renewed and refreshed with every generation.

Any relationship is a choice, not a given. And you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your identity to be in a successful relationship. In an age of fake news, the power of narrative messaging has never been more important in the public sphere. By telling and listening to new stories of union from across these islands, we can harness culture to reframe debates about the future Union and enhance public engagement.

This is not an age to expel experts but to engage them in debate about the future of the Union. We need a new Orwell, a new take on The Lion and the Unicorn for the 21st and 22nd centuries to reclaim the unionist narrative from one of despondency, endism and declinism. If we are to have the Union Jack and reframe its power for future generations, we have to start telling new stories and listening to alternative narratives about what it means to live in these islands today. We can not create knee-jerk reactionary responses to these questions by imposing narratives onto the national consciousness. Instead we must listen – and facilitate spaces for listening – and invest in creative innovation that generates new understanding of the forgotten communities and voices that comprise the collective contemporary Union.

A contemporary unionist identity that is fit for purpose in the 21st century must be crafted by the experts as well as the people, through culture and connectivity as well as economics. It must reject conservative nostalgia and the replication of previous inter-nation relationships to represent the Union as it really is today – a glorious and continuous work in progress. At a time when the importance of nationalism is shaping the contemporary, the idea of a nation and narrative mechanisms can engender a profound sense of a timeless belonging, a shared sense of what our UK community is as well as what it could be.

Contemporary patriotism in the UK, a form of future-focused unionism, will not be called unionism, nor will it fly a flag, nor will it be concerned solely with economic rationales for togetherness dictated from on high by white middle-aged men in suits. It will not be a slogan on a baseball cap or a tagline on a government advert. Bottom-up tales of these islands can instead constitute potent tools capable of uniquely reframing debates and enhancing public engagement in a post-Brexit Britain.

If we want to be something more than “the kingdom formerly known as united”, we must facilitate a cross-nation discussion about what the UK is, and what it could be, if we place creative innovation and narrative agency back in the hands of the great asset of the UK: its people. We must speak for the Union through culture, otherwise it risks being past saving.

Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University and editor of the C21 Literature journal. This is the text of a speech delivered at These Islands: Our Past, Present, and Future on 21 February 2020. 

You can access the full article on the NewStatesman website here.


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