Great Britain has been forgotten before. Without a hint of irony, the world, academics, politics and most of its citizens called the UK “England” for most of its history. Even the great historian AJP Taylor recited his English History without the slightest embarrassment that the story he was retelling was much wider than the title would suggest. He did not receive angry complaints from Scottish readers. There were no book-burnings in Cardiff. It didn’t seem to matter. Everyone knew that England and Great Britain were one and the same. Theodore Roosevelt only ever referred to “England” in his memoirs. It was during the mid-twentieth century that greater sensitivities to Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh identities drove a determined correction from “England” to “Great Britain”.
No coincidence that it was in this era that the author was born and raised – ever careful to describe his nationality as British. England was a geographic description for the region of his birth – an identity reserved purely for sport, or more specifically, soccer. Without a moment’s thought for the potential alien consequences, the author joined a Scottish Bank and, as a boy, supported the Scottish football team in its doomed attempt to win the World Cup in Argentina in 1978. We were all British.
Similarly, no accident that this age of British consciousness coincided with memories, very much alive in older generations and repeated in Sunday afternoons TV movies, of ultimate and collective sacrifice across all the nations of the UK to win through against all the odds in two world wars. It was a matter of continued endeavour in a never-ending Cold War – national identities within Great Britain indistinguishable under the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud. In addition to the Americans, West Germany was a great ally; West Berlin a constant focus for liberty and democracy amid an ocean of tyranny. Our national story now also bound up in an economic alliance with the major economies of Western Europe in the European Economic Community (“the EEC” or “the Common Market”). Britain turned its back on the Commonwealth and all things imperial – no more shillings and yards, but litres and Value Added Tax. And the Empire? It had long since been liquidated to pay the seemingly-insurmountable debt of World War 2.
Our heroes flying Spitfires and seeking to escape Nazi Stalags had accents from all corners of the British Isles – no more and no less foreign than Scouse, Cockney or Geordie. All British, all united – one society. No debate over values or rights. England didn’t stand alone against Hitler; Scotland didn’t strain every sinew of every citizen to build the tanks and till the fields until victory; all Britain did. As Great Britain, our grandfathers and grandmothers awaited the dreaded invasion. As Great Britain, they rejoiced after six years of blood, toil, sweat and tears. And which flag flew? The Union flag has been the symbol of the nation in various forms since the original personal union of James upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 – a deliberate combination of the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland. Its final alteration completed with the union of the Irish Parliament with Westminster in 1801. As a child, the author would no more have recognised the Cross of St George as his national flag as the Stars and Stripes or the Tricolour. It was as if it had never been invented. When England won the World Cup in 1966, there was not a Cross of St George in sight. All flags, the only flag, were Union Jacks. To this day, April 23, St George’s Day, supposedly the national day of England is barely recognised; more celebrated for the birthday (and death) of William Shakespeare.
The rebirth of English nationalism is remarkably recent – 4 July 1990 to be precise. The Cross of St George and much English nationalism were re-invented in Turin that night when England lost to West Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup. The Berlin Wall had come down; the uniting of the nations required in the face of the Soviet threat had receded. And there was the injustice! England was beaten on penalties. All that was left was for West Germany to unite with the East and drop its irrelevant first name. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, modern Europe was born. The dinosaurs of the Cold War, Reagan and Thatcher, were no longer in power and even the first non cold-war-war in Kuwait was won in a few days.
Until the mid-1990s there were only four TV channels; the internet was an intriguing concept. The nation broadly shared the same experiences. Most of the population would have heard the same news programme, listened to the same breakfast shows on the radio and argue over whether to watch the big Christmas blockbuster film on BBC or ITV. Young or old, rich or poor, Scottish or English, chances are you all laughed at “Only Fools and Horses” and tittered at Terry Wogan’s derogatory observations on last night’s episode of “Dallas”. If you lived in France or West Germany, you would have had different experiences. Implicit in a common media were common memories and repeated themes representing common values – thus Great Britain as a nation was preserved.
Now, the dragons had been slayed, the citizens of the nation could look to themselves and the new European Union for their destiny.
Great Britain was effectively retired.
By the mid-2000s, an 11 year old British boy would have more in common with an 11 year old boy in Japan desperately trying to get onto the next level of “Minecraft” than the 11 year old boy across the street. The FA Cup Final could be watched at any time on iPlayer or You Tube. Every PC and tablet device included a media player – no more were families forced to share the same the living room fighting over who had the remote control. And a nation slowly dissolved.
In 2012 there was a brief resurrection. London hosted the Olympic Games and, to the surprise of most of citizens, it was a great success. The opening ceremony dispelled, briefly, the prevailing philosophy of the age – cynicism.
Team GB won a bag of medals – its best ever performance. The country was delighted. The phrase “Team GB” resonated across all parts of the country. Yet even here, the pride and patriotism were summed up in a logo that avoided actually saying “Great Britain”. During the desperate days of the Scottish independence referendum, Prime Minister, David Cameron made his speech from the now disused Olympic Park. However, by then, too much water had flowed under too many Scottish bridges. His appeal to resurrect the spirit of Team GB fell largely on deaf ears.
This is Chapter 2 of the author’s book The Betrayal of Britain