How does someone define themselves? Is it by what you do, what you are able to accomplish, or by who surrounds you and the history you inherit? As I’ve been traveling over the United Kingdom, I have reflected on the issue of definition as I have seen it played out in this country.
The U.K. is a divided place. I’ve had Scotsmen tell me about how they hope for independence, Welshwomen about their distain for Westminster, and many more stories like those. On top of regional divides the divide between Labour and Torry is stark as well. One periodical I picked up described the Torry party as “The most brutal political party in the world”.
In the midst of these tensions the questions seems to be about definition. Are you A Scot or a Brit and can you be both while remaining loyal? Can you forget the fact that Wales was conquered and suppressed? Should the U.K. look inward for their definition, or embrace a multicultural future? These questions circle around the conversations I’ve had with locals, and the way they approach and cherish their history seems to have a significant impact.
In Scotland the castles and monuments of faith stand to remind the people of where they have come from and who their ancestors are. Stirling Castle displays the grandiose royalty of the Scots, while Iona displays the deep spiritual heritage of an independent people. These sites help ground the culture in and of itself. You can see what they cherish by how much energy they put into preservation. On a tour, a rather opinionated tour guide discussed the Scottish heritage as unique and independent, and he used the monuments as evidence to his claim that Scotland should stand alone as it had for centuries.
In Wales the history has a different feel. The castles we visited were almost all put up by Edward I, the English Norman king who conquered Wales. These castles are large, imposing, and also stunningly beautiful, but they say something different than those of Scotland; they remind the citizens of a conquest. This conquest, though 800 years ago, is still fresh in Welsh people’s mind as they only regained the right to teach and speak Welsh a few decades ago after a tightening of regulations in the 18th and 19th Centuries. This sentiment is so strong that some towns held votes to see if the castles should be torn down.
England itself is dealing with its own past in a postcolonial age. Visiting Portsmouth Harbour, I was able to see some of the flagships that had spearheaded English expansion into distant lands and seas. I got to go into a 18th Century warship that had been part of the famous naval battle of Trafalgar. The museums were amazing, and the boats were magnificent, but I was intrigued by how the symbols of English greatness were displayed. There was no hiding a great pride in what had been done. England had created the largest empire the world has ever seen, and to see the maps they had was intimidating, but even some of these exhibits seemed conflicted. The naval history discussed the navy as part of suppressing revolts in India and around the world, and it seemed like the exhibit didn’t really know what to do with that.
All of these tensions seem just under the radar, and it is hard to guess what will happen next. A feeling of nationalist identity brought the U.K. to a Brexit vote, but what is a U.K. identity? It seems like the people here will have to engage in this discussion further to flush out who they want to be, and who they have been and look to work out the tensions between the two. I hope that Americans can do the same.