In a referendum, citizens of the United Kingdom would decide whether to leave or remain in the EU. At the time, I was primarily thinking about ways to keep my students engaged in the history of Britain after our class had ended, and to encourage them to continue applying the historical knowledge they had accrued to current events.
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In the months since, the Leave victory has inspired a wide variety of responses — not the least of which seems to be a general confusion over how Brexit will proceed, or if it will proceed at all. However, what I have been reflecting on in the wake of the referendum is how these events are just the latest chapter in a much longer story in which Britain has sought to define its national identity and place in the world in the decades since the Second World War ended in How the British nation has been imagined at different points in its history is a fundamental question of historical scholarship in my field.
Yet the British people emerged from the Second World War without a clear sense of who they would be as a nation from that point on. The country was victorious in war, but economically and physically devastated from years of bombing, rationing, and war-making.
So what did it now mean to be British? As my class and I explored last spring, in various ways Britain has spent the ensuing seventy years trying to figure that out.
In the early s, special events like the Festival of Britain and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II each circulated competing ideas about nationhood built on an intersection of modernity and tradition. The Festival emphasized the belief that Britain was recovering from the war and would have contributions to make in the future, but it also celebrated heritage and history.
Two years later, the Queen was crowned in a ceremony that was centuries old, but which was broadcast all over the world via the new medium of television. Meanwhile, in the absence of a common enemy and with liberation movements flowering worldwide, it became less clear what now united the disparate nations of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — and Celtic nationalism surged. Waves of immigration from the Empire and Commonwealth constructed a possible national identity built on multiculturalism, but also prompted the assertion of a reactionary nationalism that affirmed Britishness as white.
Throughout its post-war history Britain has often seemed uncertain about which way to look in evaluating trading partners and military allies.
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Four years later, a change of heart led to a British application to the EEC that was denied by a French veto. What remains to be seen is whether the aftermath of the Brexit decision will force a resolution to these enduring questions and uncertainties, and if a clear idea of what it means to be British in the 21 st century will at last be articulated. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account.
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Overview Imagining Home offers a unique examination of ideas and images of home in Britain during a period of national decline and loss of imperial power.