(This is a piece for a forthcoming issue of Cub, the Queen Mary Students’ Union magazine.)
Here’s a challenge: define ‘Britain’. Outside of legal or geographical distinctions, what makes us un-French? Culturally, politically, socially, psychologically, sexually – even hypothetically – there is nothing that can be defined as ‘British’. If you design a new technology, or write a book, that product is British because of the legal factors working upon it. Likewise, we are British if we are born in the United Kingdom or any of the little island bits we pinched years ago, but this is pretty much just good admin sense. What does it mean to be ‘British’? What does ‘Britishness’ even mean? In short: absolutely nothing. And we should fight it.
There is no such thing as ‘Britishness’. If our ideas, art, music and politics are ‘unique’, what is ‘British’ about them? The location they were created in? Fine. But is geography all you define yourself by? British territory is just land secured by blood many years ago. If creations are defined by the attitudes that shaped them, what makes those attitudes British or American? And so on and on and on.
The notion of the state is wholly constructed and arose out of a need for international legitimacy and protection for capitalist expansion across the world. Merchants needed state protection and military backing to trample all over the New World for profit and the idea of nationality began to dominate political discussion in the early modern period. Since then, we’ve been happy to claim x or y as British without ever engaging with the true problem: the nation is a hollow construct that has no meaning.
As a helpful way of dividing groups of people across the world, the state works. But sovereignty for each state merely divides vast swathes of people off from others purely on the luck of where they were born. Are French and German values really that different to our own? The distinctions at work are determined by us. We don’t identify as strongly with the town or street we were raised in, yet we supposedly feel a connection to sixty million other people we will never meet. And why stop at the nation? We don’t particularly define ourselves as ‘European’. Go, northern hemisphere! If the nation is just the right size for us to feel both community and autonomy, it says a great deal about what we think of those two concepts. That we are comfortable to separate ourselves from other humans via redundant expressions of ownership is problematic in that it enables, at the very least, needless rivalry between other members of our species and, at worst, open war. A world without nations and national boundaries would not see fighting between its countries for economic gain or nationalistic hate. Dewy-eyed it may be, but a federal constitution of international governance would limit the pain of globalisation, of economic crises and of trade rivalries. International rule would suffer no tyrants who abuse human rights or who reap war on other regions. Pooling our resources, sharing our ideas and values, our money, politics, systems, culture, languages, freedoms and aspirations could end poverty, could counter environmental disaster and have genuine world peace. ‘Britishness’ and bullshit ideas of nationality only stop us from achieving equality and happiness.