The personification of the British “nation” in daily life as a subject with a soul, a mind and a voice through language has fascinated me for years, particularly when this personification is articulated through the first person of the plural (“We”, “us” “our” and “ours”).
“We love drinking tea.”
As opposed to using the third person, for instance “The British people” or “The English”, “We” and its variants create a stronger, yet less wordy, sense of belonging and attachment. The use of We often implies the existence of an homogeneous national community. This is one of the main points of contention. There is not such a thing as a culturally homogeneous England, never mind Britain, even if we exclude migrants arrived here in the last 60 years and their families from “the English”. Nations, as Anderson explains, are “imagined” communities. They are the product of a networked narrative. We shiuld always differenciate “nations” from communities (the people of Leeds, the people of Yorkshire, the people of England…). Communities are made of living people, they do have a physical and sociological existance indeed. They are quite a complex groups, often overlapping, and they are impossible to comprehend in few statements. These groups of actual people do not lend themselves to mythical and literary generalisations. Just think about class divisions, levels of literacy or musical tastes, to name just a few cultural differences. That is why “nations” are such a popular tool for political manipulation. The definition of what constitute “the nation” is in the hands of an elite.
Obviously, the National We is a phenomenon that is not exclusive of Britain. Statistical and qualitative research would be needed across languages, contexts and sectors of the population to have a deep understanding of different National We’s. Research on the use of the National We, in comparison with other formulae of national self-expression, would also require careful consideration of the historic and political contexts in which it occurs, with attention to the rise of nationalist movements and pre-national uses (According to many historians and politologists, “Nations” are a modern phenomenon) . Cross-language and cross-national influences would also had to be studied.
However, despite the lack of well-known research, (or precisely because of it) the National We is something worth talking about, particularly in the light of the differences with other languages: it is obvious to anyone that in Spain the use of the Spanish National We is less frequent (Perhaps this is not the case for the Catalan National We. Any lessons to be drawn from that?).
As foreigner in Britain I am more likely to notice the use of the National We. The pronoun “We” has been the subject of some of the explanations I have received from others when I questioned or proposed something for whatever the reason. “We are reserved, Antonio”, I have been told to justify the lack of interpersonal engagement in public spaces.
This particular use of the “We” excludes from the national imagined community of the “We” those extrovert people who would say hello to you or smile to you for no reason in a square in Leeds, for instance. It also makes it clear that I am not part of that “We”. Nevertheless, I don’t get upset about this because often this type of statement is made in good faith and under the assumption that I still need a bit of cultural induction to Britain, even nowadays, after having lived in England for 21 years (!).
The slightly different problem arises when the National We is used to win an argument (this something I call normative cultural nationalism, as opposed to the previous case, which is merely descriptive). I remember, not long ago, I wanted to organise a Christmas gathering with no sandwiches, just coffee, tea, cake, biscuits and sherry. Someone who really was not happy with my suggestion said to me: “We don’t do Christmas parties like that, Antonio, people expect sandwiches”.
This form of cultural nationalism, which in effect amounts to an appropriation of the nation in order to impose one’s will on others, is not so innocent when it transcends the micro-level of interpersonal relations and expands into media and in daily parlance. This form of cultural nationalism involves the use of the National We to disseminate, naturalise, legitimise (and impose) political views that are only shared, effectively, by a section of the national population. The use of this linguistic strategy often goes unnoticed (Please indicate to me any study or article on this question). Many uses of the National We as a historic We fall well under this category:
“If there is one word in the political lexicon guaranteed to make the eyes glaze over, it is sovereignty. We have fought wars over it, executed a king in its name, shared it, pooled it and stood alone in our finest hour in its defence;”
Suddenly, people who were only born only few years ago see themselves as protagonists of events they never were part of, and feel proud of their fictional involvement.
There are interesting twists of this linguistic strategy. A couple of times I have been told: “Well, you (The Spanish) conquered America”. Also, relatively frequently I have heard “You (The Spanish National Team) played well last night”. Let me assure you that I have not been to America in my life, never mind conquered it, and that the Spanish national coach would be daft to count on me.
The use of the national “we” followed by “as a nation” is quite extended amongst wider sectors of the population, and supported by apparently less political statements by historians, journalists and marketing writers:
The UK has a thriving SME community making up 99.9% of the private sector. However, for the majority of companies, the key problem continues to focus on how companies scale in order to grow to their full potential. The purpose of this list is to showcase the UK companies succeeding in doing this, as well as identifying those that we as a nation need to be aware of – they are a triumph.
Of course, the national nature of the use of “We” sometimes is questionable: In this article “25 reasons why we love the Queen”, does the author mean that The Telegraph loves the Queen or that We all (the British people) love it?
When the National We is used in the future, it presents a desire or an expectations, is in my view far less problematic. At least there is no explicit deceptive generalisation built in it.
As I suggested, the National We is not the only strategy to use the “soul of the nation” for partisan political purposes. Here is a recent example of an exercise of national mind reading or soul reading by Michael Gove, in reference to what Brexit means:
“The British people have issued an instruction to revive the British spirit of enterprise and community in every corner of the nation – in effect, to redesign politics for the 21st century.”
In this statement, Gove assumes that
- all the people who voted for Brexit did so for similar reasons,
- that there is a British spirit of enterprise and community (somewhere floating in the air) which is specifically British (not German or Chinese or Mancunian) and that somehow coincides with every British person inner values, and with Gove’s ideas, of course,
- that the reference to that “spirit” is a fair way to encapsulate the reasons of the voters,
- and that the views of the 52% who voted in favour of Brexit are actually the views of the British People (Almost 30% of people did not vote and 48% voted in favour of remaining).
When I criticised this statement of Gove in social media, someone said to me that this was just Gove’s opinion. Fair enough, but so is anything that anyone says. That doesn’t make Gove’s assertions irrelevant, innocent or acceptable.
Why else, apart from being deceptive, are these type of “national” statements problematic?
In my personal experience in some discussions in social media the voice of Brexit is being portrayed as the voice of the nation, on the basis of many other statements like the one made by Gove. Linguistic strategies to personify the nation are common place. As “national unity” is important in these times of self-inflected turbulence, I sense that the message of some supporters of Brexit is that:
a) we all have to work, quietly and loyally, in the national shared endeavour of leaving the EU.
b) we have to stop criticising the disaster brought about by this ill-planned and ill-founded Brexit Vote.
Otherwise, we will be accused of rocking the boat with unpatriotic, inflammatory comments that subvert “the will of the nation”.
I find this message extremely dangerous. We may be sleep-walking into totalitarianism. I hope this interpretation of what Brexit means for those who did not support it does not spread.
In my opinion, the personification of the nation through language plays an important role in disseminating and strengthening ideology and must be challenged in cases in which a “deception” is blended in, particularly when this form of linguistic embodiment is aimed at imposing the views of somebody over others and deterring freedom of expression. I have nothing against “We love tea”, or even “We are reserved”, but beyond that, we should all mind our words. It is through language that we construct, and destroy, our political and cultural reality. Politicians like Gove may represent the people (their constituency) when it comes to passing laws in Parliament, but they cannot extend their role as representatives beyond that and embark upon risky statements.