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The British Problem

Questions to prepare for the seminar:

  1. What is your national identity, and what does this mean to you? Do you even identify with a particular nation or is your primary identity framed by something else entirely, such as ethnicity, region, gender, class or sexuality?
  2. What does the 2016 EU referendum (and subsequent events) tell us about national identity in Britain?
  3. Historically, what processes have turned populations into nations and how might this have changed in the twentieth and twenty first century?
  4. Why did the Britishness of British history come to be regarded by historians as increasingly problematic in the final decades of the twentieth century?

      Core Reading:

      • Linda Colley, ‘Britishness and Otherness’ Journal of British Studies, 31:4 (1992), 309-29.
      • Satnam Virdee and Brenda McGeever, 'Racism, Crisis, Brexit', Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:10 (2018), 1802-19.


      Further Reading:

      • For short reflections on Brexit immediately after the event: Bhambra, Gurminder K. July 2016. ‘Brexit, Class and British ‘National’ Identity’, Discover Society
        Shilliam, Robbie. July 2016. ‘Racism, Multiculturalism and Brexit’, Robbie Shilliam Blog,
        Will Davies, ‘Thoughts on the Political Economy of Brexit’, Political Economy Research Centre Blog,
      • For the forging of populations into nations there is a vast literature, for instance: B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983); E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1990); A. Smith, National Identity (1991); Peter Mandler, ‘What is “National Identity”? Definition and Application in Modern British Historiography’, Modern Intellectual History, 3 (2006), 271-97
      • On ‘Britain’ as an historical problem: D. Cannadine, ‘British History as a “New Subject”: Politics, Perspectives and Prospects’, in Grant & Stringer (eds), Uniting the Kingdom (1995); D. Cannadine, ‘British History: Past Present - and Future?’, Past & Present, 119 (1988); J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47 (1975); K. Robbins, ‘National Identity and History: Past, Present and Future’, History, 245 (1990); A. Burton, ‘Who Needs the Nation?: Interrogating “British” History’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 10 (1997), 227-48.
      • For a national history which addresses the problematic nature of the nation in British history: K. Robbins, Great Britain: Identities, Institutions and the Idea of Britishness (1998); and focusing on a shorter period: R. Weight, Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 (2002).
      • You might want to consider how successfully these issues are handled in what was one of the first attempts to write the history of twentieth-century Britain as a whole: P. Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (1996).