The View From Here – In light of changes in the UK, does our idea of national identity need revising?

by Tom Henihan

ndum, the outcome has been the prevailing topic of conversation and all consuming in the media.

The matter deserves serious attention as it has far-reaching ramifications and is symptomatic of a more general malaise, especially when looking at the US and Donald Trump.

Being from Ireland, I hoped that Britain would vote to remain in the EU, believing it would be best for British, Continental Europe and Ireland, as Britain is Ireland’s largest trading partner. Ireland also shares a border with the UK in Northern Ireland and in recent years, that border has been practically invisible, with people north and south crossing unimpeded.

That open border has immense symbolic importance and since the signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, it represents positive developments including the close, cooperative relationship that now exists between Ireland and the UK.

Of course, we love democracy as long as it delivers the outcomes we desire. When it fails to deliver, we blame our less enlightened, fellow citizens and indignantly declare that democracy has taken a wrong turn and urgently needs correction.

I must admit that my first response to the Brexit result was that the mob had triumphed over the more enlightened, liberal minded citizens of the UK. Maybe this assumption is understandable as some politicians on the “leave” side engaged in fear mongering, stoking the lowest impulses of racism and xenophobia.

But to jump to the conclusion that those who voted to leave the EU are represented by the mercenary ambitions of politicians would be to paint the majority of British people in an unjust light.

People in the UK have the democratic right to withdraw from an arrangement that threatens their autonomy.

They are also right to rally against a fifth column of wealthy elitists who are willing to ransom that autonomy for personal interests and to consolidate their power and influence.

For many in Britain, voting to leave the EU was a vote not just to regain political autonomy but also to preserve national and cultural identity. However, the principles of national identity were established when countries functioned in relative isolation and in that isolation molded the characteristics, customs, language and habits of speech that many continue to see as defining what makes their respective nations culturally unique.

Now that virtually no country exists in isolation, we may need to examine the wisdom of defining national identity by such archaic means. Today, we are not only exposed to outside influences, we are irretrievably immersed in them and need to devise a new means of identifying ourselves in these new circumstances.

All over the world, people wear the same clothes, eat the same kinds of food, listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and movies and have the same expectations, yet most wistfully cling to a notion of identity that existed in a more homogeneous, protected cultural reality.

In times of social and political transition, the worse kinds often gain power. I hope as the UK redefines itself outside the EU that it does not come under the sway of people similar to Donald Trump who incite hatred and promote a ghettoized and intolerant mindset.

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