09 June 2016
The national British identity was as resolutely Europhobic as it was anti-Catholic
One thing that both sides in the EU referendum debate seem to have in common is the absence of any deep attachment to the notion of a shared European identity. As a cultural dividing line, a moat to an island fortress, the English Channel seems to be as wide as ever. And in that cultural divide there is a religious element, without which the present debate would be very different.
The historian Linda Colley explored in her 2009 book Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 how the idea of a common British identity was invented in order to sell the German Hanoverian successor, King George I, to the disparate peoples of the British Isles. The idea was that he had been divinely chosen to make the British people a Protestant bulwark against aggressive threats from Catholics at home and abroad. The threats were from the warlike Jacobites, mainly but not wholly in Scotland; and from militaristic France, which, by the start of the eighteenth century, had taken over from Spain as England’s chief overseas – European and Catholic – enemy.
This British Protestant national identity was superimposed on an earlier English Protestant identity, which dates back to Henry VIII’s break with Rome. That drew on Thomas Cromwell’s clever notion, embedded in the Reformation statutes of the 1530s, that England was, and had always been, an “empire”. By which he did not mean a country with overseas possessions, its later meaning, but a country that was totally self-sufficient. It had all it needed, including its own religion.
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