The Shift in the Sense and Constitution of British Identity

Based on the Books "How to be an Alien" (George Mikes) and "Empire of the Mind" (Iqbal Ahmed)

Essay 2009 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


1. Introduction

In the course of this essay the two books, How to be an alien1 by George Mikes and Empire of the Mind2 by Iqbal Ahmed, shall be carefully examined by placing an emphasis on how the sense of the British identity has changed since the end of the British Empire. The primary focus lies on the imperial and industrial decline, thus, due to the scope of this essay, other core issues that co-form the British identity, such as multiculturalism will not be considered. Mikes’ depictions are based on the English society of the beginning of the twentieth century, a time that was directly influenced by the decline of the empire. Ahmed’s experiences, on the other hand, are of a much more recent nature. This essay, therefore, presents the link between Britain losing its empire and the modern Britain of today.

Firstly, the effects of the end of the empire will be examined by presenting two opposing post- war theories, which will then be applied to Mikes’ How to be an alien. In order to picture the impact of the end of the empire, the role of cricket shall be investigated as well as the shift in social structures. Furthermore, the industrial decline, as a ‘fellow traveller’ of the imperial decline, is analysed by means of Ahmed’s Empire of the mind. The last part of this essay is dedicated to tracing the remnants of the empire on the basis of Ahmed’s journey.

2. The Impact of the Empire’s Decline

The decline of the British Empire, as a significant factor that provoked a shift in the nation’s self-portrait, entailed various post-war theories about its impacts on the British society. The Minimal Impact Thesis, on the one hand, claims that due to the improvement of living standards, resulting in altered attitudes of the middle class, the public mood towards the end of the empire was dominated more or less by apathy3. The theory argues that, while the Mikes, George, How to be an Alien, (London: Penguin Books, 1966). Ahmed, Iqbal, Empire of the Mind: A Journey Through Great Britain, (London: Constable, 2007). Ward, Stuart, British Culture and the End of Empire, (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2001).

eminence of the empire was replaced by a welfare state, the public concerns evolving around the British colonies were rather regarded as being a nuisance than important. This theory is challenged by historians, who bespeak the sense of British identity being substantially marked by the empire. The conception of the empire, according to post-war theories, proved identification of the British nation itself and was a major aspect in recognising the country apart from the rest of Europe (Ward, 2001).

On the grounds of such claims, one cannot neglect that the end of empire must have left any trace. I do agree with the before-mentioned historians that after such a kind of a loss people are not able to view themselves in the same way they had before. There must have been an enormous shift in the nation’s sense of identity. Part of this identity, as raised above, is the importance for the British of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the world, especially from continental Europe, and preserving their very own national ideology. This is underlined by Mikes in the section A Warning to Beginners where he claims that ‘in England everything is the other way round’ and juxtaposes the differences between continental Europe and England (Mikes, 1966, p. 14). At this point it shall be mentioned that while some statements about the English society are not up-to-date anymore, many do still prove valid for today’s Englishmen. Due to the British yearning for differentiating themselves as extraordinary, thus, after the loss of supremacy in the world, it must have been an immense burden on the British to see their country’s place in the world being questioned. The book’s surprisingly positive perception by the British themselves might have emerged from the idea that the British felt confirmed in their desire to be seen as a unique people.

In order to further elucidate the aftermath of the empire’s decline, an example of the role of cricket shall prove purposeful. In the earlier mentioned chapter Mikes states that ‘many continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game’ (Mikes, 1966, p. 16). By comparing life with cricket the author hits the mark because it symbolises the importance the game had.

Going back to the pre-war period, Cronin and Holt (2001) make clear, that cricket was not only a game as such; it united all the values that one associated with the imperial role of the British Empire4. Not only did it symbolise the central position of Englishness within the Cronin, Mike and Holt Richard, ‘The Imperial Game in Crisis: English Cricket and Decolonisation’, in British Culture and the End of Empire, Ward, Stuart (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2001).

realm, it also constituted a major part of the national identity and of the country’s solidarity. It represented ‘a style of behaviour and a system of values’ that were regarded as uniquely English (Cronin & Holt, 2001, p. 115). With the British Empire in decline, however, it is comprehensible that cricket’s supremacy towards other team sports had to face degradation. The post-war era, as seen by Ward (2001), was a time of welfarism that prompted a shift in the middle class values and aspirations. Therefore cricket’s hierarchic culture and imperial ideology was no longer appropriate. After Cronin and Holt (2001), the players in a cricket game were classified according to their social status. The so called ‘gentlemen’, actually amateur players, ruled the game and allowed the professional players, who were mostly from the working class, to join the elite game on several class-distinctive conditions. The public of the 1950s is claimed to have regarded the social hierarchy of the game as out of date. Furthermore, with the changes in the population’s daily life, recreation and sporting opportunities became much diverse, which made cricket fading into the background. Cricket was so profoundly connected with the spirit of the empire, that the imperial demise unavoidably altered the people’s sentiment towards the game (Cronin & Holt, 2001).

Clearly, the shift in cricket’s superior role, too, mirrors how the English ‘gentlemanness’ faced a downtrend since the two world wars. The domination of one social class was not appropriate anymore with a new youth culture opposing the hierarchical ideology of the empire (Cronin & Holt, 2001). This calls for greater exploration. Here again, How to be an alien offers some good examples. Mikes’ biography reveals that as a member of various gentlemen’s clubs, he had the chance to gain an insight into the life of London’s upper middle class. His experiences with this part of the London society have therefore influenced his writing about the English. In the Mayfair Playboy passage, for example, Mikes explores the way of how to become a gentleman. One senses that the entire ‘institution of the traditional gentleman’ has become faked. This tendency is underpinned by J.D. Scott who ascertains to what extent the class distinctions have faded5. On the one hand, he observes that the radical division between rich and poor has somewhat lost its significance. On the other hand, there still exists a clearly perceptible upper class, but one can climb up the ladder of class distinction much easier than in the time before the two wars. Taking the educational system as an example, where class distinction is widely maintained, nowadays public schools also Scott, J.D, ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, in Encyclopedia Americana, Danbury, Conn (New York: Americana Corporation, 1965), pp. 171-355.

educate children from newly rich families and ‘give them the outlook, manners and accent of the upper class’ (J. D. Scott, 1965, p. 261). The issues concerning class relations serve an important factor as they can have an impact on forming identities.

Speaking of class relations, it is crucial to analyse the post-war period in terms of changing social structures. The decrease of industrial significance, according to Woodward, had immense impacts on the field of employment which influenced social factors such as family planning6. All these components are indicators that define identities, but can also provoke uncertainties in people’s identities, since a ‘change in economic structure and in employment forces individuals to redefine themselves’ (Woodward, 2004, p.29). This has been absolutely the case in Great Britain since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The above examination manifests that the collapse o]f the Great Empire entailed profound shifts in the British society’s sense of identity and solidarity on several political, economic and social grounds.

Since the loss of empire and the industrial decline go hand in hand, the following part of the essay is dedicated to descriptions of Ahmed’s journey in Empire of the mind where the focus lies on exploring those places of the country that are mostly related to empire and subsequently to industrial decline.

3. The Impact of the Industrial Decline

Ahmed’s journey through Great Britain was prompted by his curiosity to see what had become of the Great Empire. Firstly, it shall be analysed how the industrial decline has affected Britain. Due to the author’s passion for architecture his main attention is to be found in depictions of the city’s architectural constitution. As the first city in decline, Birmingham shall be mentioned. Birmingham is a considerable example of how many of the English cities, being in industrial decline, struggle to recover. Ahmed cannot imagine that Birmingham had

Woodward, Kath, ‘Questions of Identity’. in Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, Woodward, Kath (London: The Open University, 2004).



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How to be an alien George Mikes Empire of the Mind British Identity Identitiy Studies Culture British Culture Cultural Studies Iqbal Ahmed British Empire Decline of the British Empire Minimal Impact Thesis Industrial Decline



Title: The Shift in the Sense and Constitution of British Identity