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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Cultivating a sense of national identity

Visiting the Pantheon was one of the highlights of our recent visit to Paris, not just as an experience in its own right, but in how it got us thinking about how countries develop and sustain a sense of national identity. And not just 'how' but 'how successfully' and, crucially, to what extent these identities provide positive aspirations for the future.

Now before you think that I'm jumping on the bandwagon of Nicola Sturgeon's 'surprise' announcement of a second Scottish Referendum, I have been preparing this post for two weeks now. Fortuitous timing only!

But first, the Pantheon. This great French national monument took our breath away. It might look rather dark and gloomy from the outside, but that is because this photo was taken on one of the wettest days since the Flood. However, walk inside, and you are surrounded by light and space.














Yet for all its magnificence, the Pantheon is a very strange building. the first thing which strikes you is its 'emptiness'. All the interesting features are around the walls. What is it? Art gallery? Church? Temple? Museum? Mausoleum?

Well, it's all of these things. Like its impressive Roman original, the Pantheon commemorates great figures. However, these figures are not from the distant past, but of a past which was quite recent when the building was first constructed. And because it has continued to be used, it also recognises a few well-known figures of the twentieth century as well. 'Aux Grandes Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante' reads the inscription over the entrance: a grateful nation honours its great men.


The setting of the Pantheon on the Left Bank of the Seine is designed to be impressive, in line with its national purpose. It faces the matching classical buildings of the Law Faculty on the right and the Mairie on the left and looks down a long line of stately buildings towards the distant Eiffel Tower.











Interestingly, the Pantheon was not originally planned as a national monument, but as a church, Established by Louis XV in gratitude for his recovery from illness, it was supposed to replace the old church of Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. However, before the building was finished, the French Revolution of 1789 swept away the Ancien Régime, and with it the role of the Church in the social order of France. The Pantheon lost its religious identity. It only reverted to its sacred role in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte, alert to the church's contribution to social cohesion, arranged for it to be consecrated as the Church of Sainte Geneviève.

Thereafter the building changed from church to mausoleum and back again, depending on the political situation at the time. However, the Pantheon always retained its pre-eminent role in commemorating great figures in the national life of France. In the crypt are memorials to writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola and Dumas, scientists such as Pierre and Marie Curie and Second World War heroes such as Resistance leader Jean Moulin and citizens who saved the lives of Jews.

What interested us, however, was the national iconography on display. Despite the secularism of modern France, the frescoes nurture a sense of national purpose within a Catholic context. For example, in this depiction of Christ showing the Angel of France the Destiny of Her People.



The walls depict events from the life of St Genevieve as she protects and supports the people of Paris. Yet beyond the localised references, these images reflect and promote a national myth of a manifest destiny.



Other art works depict St Denis, the patron saint of France. He was Bishop of Paris in the third century and decapitated when he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and Emperor. On the left below, you can see him picking up his decapitated head. And, of course, Ste Jeanne d'Arc is also depicted in a sequence of eight paintings about her struggles against the English invaders.


Statues and sculptures continue the national theme, though with less religious fervour. Indeed, some of the qualities which they celebrate are anything but sacred, for example, the sculpture of vengeance on the left below. Other memorials record specific battles, such as Valmy, the Republican forces' first victory against Prussia, historic enemy of France. And of course there are the memorials to the dead of the First and Second World Wars.
























However, what most attracts the eye is the arrangement of sculpted figures which forms the focal point of the whole building: La Convention Nationale. The National Convention, 1792-1795, was the third and most sanguinary revolutionary government. It did away with the monarchy and proclaimed France to be a republic.

There the sculpture stands before the apse, where you would normally expect to see the altar. At the centre is Marianne, the revolutionary emblem of republican France, here acclaimed by soldiers and political representatives. Goddess of Liberty, in her idealised form she represents freedom and democracy and a rejection of all forms of dictatorship: political, religious and social.

It is a distinctly unified and unifying vision, this representation of France. Despite geographical areas with distinct languages and cultures, France is a centralised country, even to the extent of treating its colonies and territories as part of France, with few concessions to ethnic differences: a policy which has contributed to much disaffection, for example among those of Algerian origin. The principles of liberty, equality and fraternity have not always been evident in the way its colonies have been ruled. (Photos below from the Musée d'Orsay. Note the chains on the feet of 'Africa', to the left.) Not, of course, that Britain can feel any more virtuous about its colonial rule, though its errors, injustices and tyrannies were different.













Here in the Pantheon is France's national story as its citizens wish it to be told: idealised, selective and with a strange mixture of the sacred and the secular. Impressive without a doubt, and capable of inspiring intense emotion and loyalty. Does Britain or its constituent nations, arouse anything like the same feelings of patriotism? Should it? Would we want it to?


Image result for Westminster abbeyWell, of course Britain also commemorates its great figures, though there is no building like the Pantheon which exists for no other purpose. Westminster Abbey has memorials to individuals from all the constituent nations, including a number of Scots - Robert Adam, Rabbie Burns, Walter Scott and Lord Reith to name a few - and groups such as the UK Armed Forces. Obviously, there are also memorials in churches in each of the constituent countries and statues everywhere. However, these are rather different from having one place which serves a unique purpose.




Is there a distinctive iconography, though, like there is in France? Well, there's no patron saint of Britain. However, the individual nations within Britain all have a saint. Both St Patrick and St David have clear connections with the countries they represent. But St Andrew and St George? Their connections with Scotland and England are tenuous to say the least, so it is hardly surprising that they do not feature as strongly as St Denis of France.

What about national anthems then? France has one of the most stirring national anthems in the world: the Marseillaise. However, its words are disturbing, to say the least. Here is an English translation.

Arise, children of the Fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
Against us tyranny's
Bloody banner is raised
Do you hear, in the countryside
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They're coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions
Let's march, let's march
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!


Yes, very worrying words when you realise that right-wing demonstrators chant them with gusto when they march through immigrant areas. Impure blood? No, not a sentiment one would wish to emulate.

Britain, in contrast, has one of the dullest and least inspiring national anthems in the world: God save the Queen. It says nothing about the country, its people or the values by which its citizens should live, and the tune is just plinketty plonk. [And PLEASE, Scottish friends don't point to the third verse about 'rebellious Scots'. English people have never heard of it and it hasn't been sung for two hundred years. Slightly ironic that it is perversely being kept alive, indeed revived, in Scotland, for mischievous reasons, of course.]

What about replacing God save the Queen, though? What with? Rule Britannia? Remember the chorus: Britons never shall be slaves? No we were not slaves ourselves, but the British did spend a good bit of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enslaving other people. We tend to focus on our more admirable role in stopping slavery. I cannot believe that Rule Britannia is still sung at the Last Night of the Proms, to the waving of Union Jacks by pretentious adults in silly hats.

What about I vow to thee my country, sung at Princess Diana's funeral and with music by Holst? 'All earthly things above'? I don't think so. People are 'earthly', and should not be sacrificed to some nationalist idea.

My favourite alternative is Land of Hope and Glory, because, like the Marseillaise, it has a great tune (by Elgar). The words are colonial, however, mirroring the values of Cecil Rhodes: 'Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set'. It's no good: the Poet Laureate would have to write some new lyrics. All in all, God save the Queen probably remains the most innocuous of these musical offerings.

Image result for Welsh daffodilThe constituent nations all have 'unofficial' national anthems sung, to a greater or lesser degree, at sporting events. The most notable is Wales' Land of our Fathers, which is positive and celebratory, like the daffodil its national flower, and has a great tune.

Image result for english roseImage result for scottish thistleThe English, emblem the rose, have had a bit of trouble finding an anthem and tend to use God save the Queen, which is not appropriate as it is British. At test matches, they sing Jerusalem, words by William Blake and with a lovely tune by Parry. However, nobody seems to realise that Blake was being ironic and that the tenor of the words is that England is NOT the sort of country one would wish to live in!

The Scots would have a great tune and some very positive words and sentiments if they sang Scotland the Brave. This they used to do, but it has now been replaced by the backward-looking and lugubrious dirge Flower of Scotland. (The Scottish flower is a thistle.) Why do I hate Flower of Scotland? Because it defines Scotland only in relation to its ancient conflict with England, and keeps alive resentments from more than 700 years ago. Surely Scotland could find something positive say about itself! I also dislike Flower of Scotland because of how I first heard it, but don't wish to write about this again. If you are interested, you can find the relevant post from 2014 listed below.

Couldn't Scotland learn from the Welsh who could so easily have chosen the anti-English Men of Harlech as their national anthem but decided to focus on the positive instead? Highland Cathedral is wonderful, but needs some new words. I assume that most Scots are not so insular that they would object to an anthem with music written by Australians!

What about great national figures, then, the equivalent of the symbolic Marianne or the real Napoleon?

A very dated British emblem is John Bull. In the cartoon on the left from 1904, he is turning his back on Germany and going off with Marianne of France! Winston Churchill is a more modern figure. You could also argue that the Queen or Royal Family might serve as national figures.

My personal preference for emblematic British figures would be those with standing both in their own countries (Scotland, Wales etc) and in Britain as a whole, such as great reformers like William Wilberforce the anti-slavery campaigner, the prison reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, social reformers like Robert Owen, political reformers like Thomas Muir and Keir Hardie or campaigners for women's rights like Millicent Fawcett or Mary Wollstonecraft. A good case can be made for Charles Dickens or Edward Elgar.

Image result for ShakespeareIn England rather than Britain, the pre-eminent national figure would have to be Shakespeare, though you could make a good case for the now nearly forgotten King Arthur (shared also with the Celts). There hasn't been a specifically English monarch since the death of Richard III at the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth I who cultivated her own image as Virgin Queen of England could have emblematic significance, though the Tudors were basically Welsh.

After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, England was ruled for 100 years by Scottish kings, the Stuarts, beginning with James VI of Scotland and I of England and ending with Queen Anne's death in 1714. Though in 1640, Oliver Cromwell led a Revolution against the Stuarts, it was not because of their Scottishness but their luxurious excesses and tyrannical behaviour. It was a revolution by the gentry in favour of Parliament and against the autocratic rule of aristocrats and kings. Anyway, the English Revolution failed despite the beheading of Charles I. The Restoration of Charles II brought the Stuarts back in all their awfulness. (You may have gathered that I am not much of a monarchist!) No royal emblems there for the English, though years later Bonnie Prince Charlie acquired a romantic status for the Scots.

After the Act of Union in 1707 and the death of the Stuart Queen Anne the British royal family became German: the Houses of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. And that is how it remains, though the name changed to Windsor during the First World War. Almost all royal spouses have been European, though predominantly German. Our current Queen, like her forebears, married yet another member of a German royal family, Prince Philip of Greece. I suppose you could say that her own mother, Elizabeth of Glamis, reintroduced Scottishness into the royal line, but there hasn't been any Englishness since the Tudors.

Reflecting on our royal family with its varied - indeed, multi-national - origins I think they are a pretty good representation of Britishness. We have a Prince of Wales who becomes Duke of Cornwall or Duke of Roxburgh, depending on where he happens to be. A royal palace in Edinburgh, just round the corner from where we live. A Queen whose favourite home is in the Highlands. And a strong European element. We cannot turn the clock back nor should we want to. Our complicated royal family is a pretty good symbol of modern Britishness and a powerful antidote to 'blood and soil' nationalism.

As for the Welsh, if any of the constituent nations got a hard deal, it was the Welsh, the first to be stamped on. Let's hear it for Owain Glyndŵr! Oh, and Dylan Thomas.

Emblematic Shamrock Stock Photo - 38102740I scarcely dare mention the Irish, as what could one possibly say about that exploited and downtrodden nation? Colonised over centuries by the English and Scots, their heroes arise from a mythical past, like the legendary hero Cuchulainn. More recent figures such as the leaders of the Easter Rising are too closely associated with one side or another in what has been until recently a very fractured society.

Which brings us to the Scots. Who are their great figures? Well, they would have to be Robert the Bruce, a Scottish lord of French Norman extraction who led the field at Bannockburn, and William Wallace, the leader of the Scottish army at the battle of Stirling Bridge, who was put to death by the English. And it is that struggle against Edward I's army that is the subject of Flower of Scotland:

But we can still rise now,
And be the nation again,
That stood against him,
Proud Edward's Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.


It is also the subject of that wildly inaccurate Hollywood film Braveheart, the least of whose inaccuracies was presenting Scotland as an occupied country when, in fact, it had only been invaded the year before the events in the film. For several months after the film was first shown, I had the bizarre but upsetting experience of Scottish acquaintances demanding that I 'justify' or 'account for' the actions of Edward I. Clearly, having an English accent meant that I had to accept some responsibility for the actions of an English king and army 700 years before.

What can one say? What did I say? Mediaeval warfare and punishments were brutal, no matter what side you were on. Scots kings, like English kings, tortured and executed in the most cruel ways imaginable, including their own people, not just rivals from across the 'border'. Our modern European concept of the nation state with established borders didn't settle down until some time in the nineteenth century, and in regions like the Balkans more recently than that. Before then, noble families and monarchs across Europe, not just in the British Isles, struggled for power among each other. These conflicts eventually resulted in unitary states like France or federations like Germany. Some countries like Spain claim in their constitutions to be unitary, but also present some aspects of federalism. Italy and Greece set their borders very recently.

Nevertheless, there are compensations. The concept of William Wallace as national hero has given rise to the amusing sight of grown men attired like gigantic toddlers in fancy dress and face paints, shod in the Timberland boots which were de rigeur for the best dressed clansmen of the 14th century. Given the impressive thinkers, scientists and political economists of the Scottish Enlightenment and more recently, couldn't Scotland identify someone more positive and inclusive? In the meantime, Flower of Scotland continues to be sung to make those of English extraction feel particularly uncomfortable.

However, too much emphasis on these ancient rivalries and awkward leftovers from the Middle Ages denies the fact that the populations of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom get on pretty well together. When I was growing up in South Yorkshire, hundreds, indeed, thousands of residents were Scottish, to the extent that even the bread in the shop where I worked was given Scottish names! Doctors and dentists were almost invariably Scottish. And the same would be true across many communities in England. I cannot remember any ill feeling or insulting language relating to this, though you might say, 'well she would say that, wouldn't she!'.

English, Welsh, Irish and Scots have intermarried and many of them have settled down some distance from where they or their ancestors were born, often across invisible borders. This process has increased as job opportunities have become available and transport has improved, to the benefit of younger generations. Until the Brexit vote, this freedom of movement extended to Europe and beyond.

Last year, we went to the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple on my mother's side of the family. The family originated in the south west of England, generation after generation working as gardeners in Big Houses in Somerset. My self-educated grandfather and his five siblings, however, moved all over the country in search of jobs, as enterprising people tend to do. At the family celebration in Manchester were relatives from Aberdeen, Edinburgh (not just us!), Essex, London, various parts of Ireland and, yes, Somerset. Those were just the ones who were able to attend. The only British country not represented was Wales, where my father's family originated, as none of our known relatives live there. If I added not just my father's side but also my husband's relatives, the guest list would have been even more diverse, though, oddly, still without anyone from Wales!

So, it is very difficult to say that any particular branch of our family is 'English', 'Scottish', 'Welsh' or, indeed, 'Irish'. We are a mishmash. We move to where the jobs are, settle down and bring up our families. And that is typical of the British. They have done it abroad as well for generations, though colonialism is not necessarily a matter of celebration. There are few enough people these days who live within a 30 mile radius of where they were born or where their families originated.

I can still remember the excitement of moving to Scotland when I was twenty one - 46 years ago, now! Needless to say, like most women of my generation, I was following a spouse. My parents were delighted as it meant they would have nice holidays in a prosperous, scenic and then relatively rural area, Aberdeen, which was very different from the grim industrial towns in northern England where they had lived since we were little. Not that there weren't grim industrial towns in Scotland, of course, it was just that we didn't live in them.

Most English people have very positive attitudes to Scotland, though that has diminished a bit over the years for political reasons. Their reactions have been a bit 'shortbread and tartan', largely because for years that has been the way Scotland marketed itself. My generation were brought up on the White Heather Club. More recently, comic figures like Rab C Nesbitt, all string vest and impenetrable accent, have been presented for our edification - a slightly different stereotype!

Of course, I have moved around within Scotland since those early days, and brought up a family who have also moved around, both in Scotland and elsewhere. For some reason, my accent has got stuck, probably because I have dead ears and a clumsy tongue, though English friends sometimes claim that I have Scottish intonation, a suggestion my husband finds hilarious.

So the whole question of 'national identity' is quite a complex one for most British families. We move around, we adapt, we learn to appreciate the cultural and other features of the places in which we live, we make friends wherever we go. Our children leave home and do the same.

So, there is a richness to being British which must surely be a matter of celebration. A pity it is not reflected in the national anthem.

Image result for ugandan flagActually, my favourite national anthem is Uganda's. Here is a country artificially constructed by the British out of warring tribes, rival kingdoms and mutually incomprehensible language groups. Indeed, Uganda was recently named as the most ethnically diverse country in  the world, far more so than Britain. Yet what do Ugandans sing?




Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our future in thy hand.
United, free,
For liberty
Together we'll always stand.

Oh Uganda! the land of freedom.
Our love and labour we give,
And with neighbours all
At our country's call
In peace and friendship we'll live.

Oh Uganda! the land that feeds us
By sun and fertile soil grown.
For our own dear land,
We'll always stand:
The Pearl of Africa's Crown.


Ugandans, who have suffered more conflict than most other countries, sing about the values of unity, peace and friendship. They put us to shame. For this reason, I have chosen to sing the Ugandan national anthem more often than I have done the British one. Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland could do worse than emulate Uganda as it cultivates - and celebrates - a sense of national identity.



NB. I have not attempted to deal with the status of Northern Ireland or Eire. It is far too complicated, I don't know enough and life is too short!

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Independence day, Masindi, 9th October 2010

Happy Independence Day, Uganda!

The struggle for independence in south west Crete

Making Scotland an inclusive nation again: the aftermath of the referendum




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