The plumage of Britannia
in Cultivating political and public identity

The people and the places to which the title ‘Britain’ have been attached have shifted and changed across time. The identity of Britain is composed of all the various identities of its members, and is orchestral or patchwork, not fractal. The identity of any particular inhabitant or group of inhabitants is not a microcosm of a collective identity, but a mixture of some, and necessarily only some, of the elements which constitute the identity of Britain as a whole in terms of clothing, food, language, or religion.

As a mobilised society moved towards democracy and the formal distance between elite and mass became both smaller and less mined with obstacles, the identity of rulers shifted in engagement with the shifting identities of the ruled and the growth of a culture of citizenship. Mobilisation was both from above cultivating subjects, and from below cultivating citizens. The changing public presentation of the people was complemented by a shift in that of monarchy, military, judiciary, legislature, church and executive.


The plumage of Britannia

The variety of British identity

In 1951 the poet Laurie Lee wrote a commentary for the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. The intimation of the pavilion's presentation was of a homogeneous British character, but Lee's Britain was diverse not monolithic, characterised by its variety rather than by some pervasive essence, and he observed that ‘the British do not simply leave the development of language to the professionals of literature’, and that the ‘Cockney has added a local vocabulary to the national one; and every British county has contributed a proverb, or a telling phrase’.1 It was not so much a case of the British language as of the languages of Britain. It needed a poet to make the sensible empirical point that the only meaning that can be given to the phrase ‘the British people’ is an account of the identities of all the people who live in Britain at the time to which the statement refers. Vocabulary and accent are not homogeneous, but are particular to place and not only to geographical but also to social location and character. And just as language changes from one part of the population to another, so it does from one time to another. Shaw's complaint that the ‘English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it’ rests on a misapplication of a correct observation.2 There is no single or one-dimensional English language, and even less so a single British one, but a rich collection of ways of speaking that, whilst in their totality constituting language in the British Isles, no more have a single version which is, could be, or should be used by everyone than a meal can be reduced to a single ingredient or an orchestra to a single instrument.

What applies to language applies to every other aspect of identities within the British Isles. Time is important because not only will the answer be different at different times, but so will the meaning or even accuracy of the term ‘Britain’ and the titles of the governed territory, from England at the beginning of the modern period, to the Kingdom of Great Britain in the eighteenth century, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century, and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the twentieth, each title referring to greater or lesser proportions of the islands of Britain, and to different combinations of those territories. During 400 years the geographical distribution of government within the British Isles has shifted many times, from two kingdoms with a single monarch under James I and VI after 1603, through a union of Scotland and England in 1707, and between the Scottish–English kingdom with a Welsh appendix and Ireland in 1800, to a territorial redistribution of government with the establishment of a new state in Ireland in 1921. The geographical extent of the various governed territories has grown and contracted, so that over three centuries a state centred on London has moved from England, Wales, and Ireland, to England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, to England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Nor have the shifts, expansions, and contractions been limited to the islands of Britain. Kings thought of as English have governed territories in continental France, and kings thought of as French have governed what is now thought of as England. Very shortly after John had confirmed what is frequently presented as the quintessentially English Magna Carta, in Latin, London and substantial sections of eastern England were under the control of Louis of France. So I do not apologise for telling a story from an early twentieth-century perspective; there is no fixed territorial foundation or vantage point, but nor is there a possibility of narrating from nowhere. I hope to avoid making any imperial claim for ‘England’ in so doing and, on the contrary, question the idea of a single homogenous English, let alone British, identity. That is not the only story that could be told, but any story has to be told from a vantage point, and the choice is just as contingent on circumstance as are the shifting combinations of governed territory about which, from one particular perspective, the story is told.

The fluid borders of hard territory are not the only shifting strands of the story. To talk of ‘the people’ is itself to use language which has meaning at one time but not at another, and to mean something quite different from the world alluded to if the adjective ‘common’ is added. The title which Bede gave to his history in the early eighth century is normally translated as ‘A History of the English Church and People’. But Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum could as readily be translated as ‘A History of the Church and People of England’, which has very different implications. A nation and a people are a perception of a relatively late time in the life of the British islands, and a perception of a nation which was equally represented by all its adult inhabitants an even later phenomenon, and one which was always a direction taken, rather than a point arrived at. A tomb to ‘A British Warrior Unknown by Name or Rank’ which was dedicated in Westminster Abbey in 1920 would have been puzzling or incomprehensible to the generation which celebrated heroism by means of grand memorials to military leaders in the wars against Napoleon. Even as part of an undifferentiated military mass, the common soldier had to wait for acknowledgment until after the end of the Crimean War in 1856, when regimental memorials first appeared in St Paul's Cathedral alongside the memorials which admitted only officers to the rank of hero.3 It is not that a word or a concept – nation, people -changes, or that the terms used to describe an unchanging human phenomenon alter, but that different concepts, terms, and perceptions are the currency of discussion at different times, and different human phenomena, people differently perceived, categorised, and evaluated, are similarly described at different times. The concepts and perceptions, and the people to whom those concepts and perceptions refer, are historically specific, and relate to specific worlds of understanding and meaning. Identity is a human cultivation, and meaning and narrative are not only accounts of identity, but components of it. Whilst there are continuities, they are continuities within flux, growth, and decay. An unchanging character of an unchanging nation is a feature of narrative, not of the phenomenon to which the narrative allegedly refers. Tradition, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, is invented.4 Such a narrative may characterise a time, a place, and a people, but it is the narrative, not the alleged object of the narrative, which is real, and present, and which is also a moment in a pattern of understanding which is always changing. The narratives of national character and national history are themselves components of identity, and frequently contribute a dimension of homogeneity and continuity which is lacking in the shifting world to which the imagined descriptions attempt to refer and which they claim merely to reflect.

Even if presenting an account of ‘Britishness’ were a simple matter of declaring who, legally, is British, and how nationality is in law determined, there would be changes over time, a history of frequent uncertainty, ambiguity, and disagreement. Not only has legal status moved from subject to citizen, but the conditions to be met for each status have been matters of contest and amendment. Women were not fully citizens in the basic sense of all having the right to vote until 1928, while simple legal equality between males and females in other aspects of public identity continued slowly to be approached throughout the twentieth century. Citizenship even in law was not necessarily blind to either parenthood or gender, and until the passage of the 1981 British Nationality Act, women, unlike men, did not enjoy the right to transfer their citizenship to children born outside the UK.5 Even then, there was an unsuccessful move by MPs working with Enoch Powell to distinguish between men and women when determining rights to citizenship.6 And beyond the law are perceptions which are brought to bear when the law is formed and when its rulings are contested, of ‘ways of life’, ‘national values’, ‘culture’, ‘origin’, and ‘ethnicity’. The alleged gasp of astonishment in the dining room of the Savoy Hotel when the results of the 1945 general election were coming through – ‘But this is terrible – they’ve elected a Labour Government, and the country will never stand for that’7 – may be apocryphal, but neatly illustrates the familiar specificity and insularity of perceptions of ‘us’, ‘ordinary people’, or ‘the country’. As greater and greater layers of the population became in one way or another part of a public social space, the distinctiveness, peculiarity, and separateness of remaining realms of exclusivity – imperial governance, and espionage in all its dimensions both at home and abroad – became more and more pronounced. In the case of parts of the government such as MI5 and MI6, these two worlds could be strikingly insulated from one another not only by the assumption that how one lives is how everyone else lives, but by the filtering and insulating screens of secrecy. ‘Pig sticking’, which was listed as a pastime by a surprising number of MI5 officers between the wars, was not a characteristic or common British weekend hobby.8 Different stories are not alternative interpretations of a single and independent historical reality, but are themselves different components of different realities, each of which is a dimension of something larger than itself.

While the character of the governed territories has mutated since the dual crown linked Scotland and England in 1603, so did the identities of the governed people, with a slow extension first of mobilisation and then of democratisation. Whilst not a transformation, or a disappearance of caste, class, or hierarchy, there was a slow shift in the relative weights of family origin as against other aspects of identity, and a narrowing, though not a vanishing, of the distances between various rungs in the social ladder and of the privileged and penalising differentiations of gender. If distinctions, exclusions, and privileges remained, they nonetheless increasingly, if unsteadily, did so within a common forum, rather than in a society rigidly even if not impermeably divided between the classes and the masses. At every stage, clothing, manners, speech, diet, and religion have been part of those identities. And so also are the accounts, claims, and challenges about these components of identity. A selective account of ‘Englishness’ by a right-wing movement such as the English Defence League, or a moral condemnation of social mores by a puritanical zealot, does not provide an accurate account of the world its advocates inhabit. But they do form a part of that world, and their ideology is a component of the shifting and variegated whole, of which a comprehensive account must take note. In seeking to give a dominant account of the world in which they live, such accounts do something very different: they add further evidence of that world's complexity. Challenges to an account of Britishness as no more, and no less, than the sum of everything and only at any one particular time serve only to sustain such an account by attacking it and providing immediate evidence of diversity. The retort that there is an essential Britishness, or Englishness, the essence of which is then delineated in terms of religion, taste for cricket, diet, household ethics and conventions, or skin colour, serves only to provide one more example of the contingency of any account of the world, British, English, or anywhere else, and the absence of a single homogeneous uniformity.

Whatever conclusions are reached about the identity of the population of the British Isles or parts of that territory, they will account for identities, and varieties of identity, which are continually shifting, changing, and argued about. Even if the territory and the population can stay still for a moment, the variety of terms to describe them refuse to settle in to a single agreed title, as Krishan Kumar has minutely demonstrated.9 Those identities are composed of both private and public actions, the latter comprising both organised and spontaneous or informal actions and events with a more or less ritual dimension. The twentieth century saw numerous public celebrations of national identity, but many of them were semi-unofficial or completely unofficial, or possessed of an identity-cultivating role which was not a part of the actions of planners of the event: the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Wimbledon, the Last Night of the Proms, but also the growing crowds receiving the coffins at Wootton Bassett of returning British dead from the war in Afghanistan, or throwing flowers at the funeral cortege of Diana Princess of Wales.10

The history of the population within the changing borders of the political communities of the British Isles is of continuous conflict and shifting relations between a democratic identity and a ruler's identity, with the latter slowly and unevenly distinguishing itself increasingly by its exceptional exemplification of the associative identity shared with those whom the ruler aspires to lead. It will illustrate the dual nature of identity cultivation, whereby on the one hand distinctiveness from other countries or nations is cultivated, whilst on the other the distinctiveness of groups, classes, or strata within the UK is formed by adopting or adapting foreign or other practices. And in all of this, identity is crafted and cultivated by what is done as much as by what is said, and with reference both to tradition, or how things are, and to rights, justice, and claims of how things should be. So a state and a political society about which it is frequently claimed that, unlike its continental neighbours, it enjoys stability and continuity, is at the same time characterised by continual fluidity, adaptation, innovation, and shifting variety.

The broader assumption on which an account of shifting national identity rests, and which is sustained by the plurality of identities both temporally and geographically in the islands of Britain, is that national identity can never be fractal, with each individual reproducing an instance of a universal character. The identity of a nation or a whole society can never be reproduced in that of any one of its members. The identity of the inhabitants of any governed area is, whether there is overall harmony or cacophony, still orchestral rather than fractal, though it will be fractured by fractal claims, both radical and conservative, about what a national identity should be. The description of any individual or group as ‘British’ or ‘English’, unless it is a description of legal status, can never be more than its locating as one component part of a whole, even though its character may have features which the observer believes to distinguish everyone, or most people, or a dominant group. Descriptions of English or British character can never be more than guides to aspects of identity which may be found in the islands of Britain. It is always possible to describe the character of a whole population because such a description is orchestral; it is never possible to describe the character of all the people who live in the islands of Britain because such personal identity is never fractal. The abbreviation of differences and the dramatic ordering and simplification which any description or narrative involves, can give an impression of a single English character. But even when religious uniformity was managed by coercive law, not each and every person could be fitted to a single template, whilst the islands of Britain throughout their history have been the recipients of invaders and immigrants from continental Europe to sustain and contribute to the varieties of faith, class, and culture.

Subjects, citizens, and human resources

Social bonds and group identities will not always and in all places sit neatly within the borders claimed by governments, and may either divide the inhabitants of a territory or sustain bonds across territorial state boundaries. When they have corresponded to territorial boundaries in the islands of Britain it has been in part because the sea has provided a permanent and enduring frontier which has enclosed human communities and made difficult, though not impossible, the generation of such communities across political boundaries, though even the sea has not prevented just such refusals to be accommodated within governmental boundaries, a refusal which has divided the island of Ireland.

Whilst the identity of government and governors is one part only of the identity of an entire population, it is government which, through its command of territory, sets the context within which it is possible to speak of a people, a society, or a population. The relationships between rulers and people are a major ingredient of who those people, and those rulers, are. Governments create nations, rather than vice versa.

Identity is never restricted to an individual, and if there is not a desire to secure others to share an identity's components, there will be a contrary desire to ensure that other identities, either by subordination or appropriate contrast, sustain an individual person's identity. In either case the identity of an individual is sustained by the auxiliary identities of others. When one of the parties to that engagement is an elite, dominant, or governing person or group, the identity of the other party will again and again need to be asserted, worked for, and cultivated in order to resist or limit domination. And whilst elites may circulate, the very exceptionalness which legitimates an elite in a democratic society fortifies the distance between elites and the populations within and beyond which their identity is cultivated. For leaders, the dilemma is as ever whether to see where the people are going in order to lead them, or to see where they ought to be going in order to direct them. For the people the problem is how to cultivate the identity they wish for against elites who are constituted by their advantages in material, social, and political resources and whose identity agendas, whilst they may correspond, so far as their distinguished version of identity permits, with the aspirations and aversions of the rest of the population, cannot be relied upon to do so.

Within the shifting territorial boundaries of the islands of Britain, a series of transformations have moved the population from one divided between an aristocracy or lordship and a subordinate mass, through a population increasingly mobilised and included in the interests of both economic and military ambitions, to one which, in its formal political life, was steadily more democratic. The move to mobilisation and then democratisation presented choices to governing or dominant elites. Once a substantial section of the population had a public and political status, there was a new and enhanced need to define who, legally, they were. Once citizenship became a dimension of adulthood, questions about, for instance, the status of prisoners or of those in receipt of public relief, which had not existed before, required answers. Prisoners or the poor, in an unmobilised society, needed no further designation. But as either recipients of public benefits, or objects of punishment or restraint, those who had previously been occasional and anonymous subjects became active ingredients of a mobilised society whose status was both public and recorded. Once they were part of a mobilised society, and even more once they were part of a democratised one, individuals had, or had potentially, legal and constitutional identities which required clarification in the light of other accounts of who citizens were. Individuals were increasingly both human resources and active and hence unpredictable participants in the life of the political community, so that the multifaceted debate over the political rights of prisoners was one of many which continued unresolved into the twenty-first century.

The move through mobilisation towards democracy was neither neat nor harmonious, unimpeded, or steady. The public and legal identity of persons living in those parts of the British Isles governed by the Crown was in the first place simply a distinction between those who were and those who were not subjects. National identity as distinct from subject identity was a further step, and citizenship a step further still. It was not until 1914 with the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act that the statutory definition of nationality was set out. But the measure was passed not in order to either accord or recognise an element of the identity of adult inhabitants of the country, but to enable aliens to be defined with the approach of war. It was not so much a declaration of who was British, as a declaration of who was not, though its wording and effect was to proclaim both. The qualifications and entitlement to citizenship were still being clarified at the end of the century when, for the first time, tests of familiarity with various aspects of British life were incorporated in the tests of fitness for admission to the body of citizens.

Civil society as a public dimension of life outside the household or the workplace but below government can be seen not so much as changing, as coming into existence. But while a progression from people as human resources to people as subjects and then as citizens can be sketched, no changes are either simple or incremental and irreversible. People, insofar as they had a public identity as distinct from a private or economic one, were to begin with identified by the person of whom they were subjects, and their public identity was an aspect of the identity of royal government. Identity in relation to a nation or a territory came later, and citizenship, in relation to a political community of equal persons, later still. A population is mobilised to make it a more effective human resource, and the treatment of persons as resources does not disappear with their emergence as democratic citizens. It may even develop in new forms, and by the end of the twentieth century both public and commercial organisations felt no sense of irony in renaming their personnel departments ‘human resources’. It is not only prophets who care for their people as shepherds care for their sheep.

A society generated by the mobilisation of a population, and a civil society, have been ones in which varieties of identity which previously had been obscured or private gained greater and greater public presence. These identities could either be suppressed in an active policy of cultural uniformity, or accepted as an aspect of a society which, whilst it might be equal in its political laws and to that extent uniform, was in its culture varied, many faceted, and unequal. The unsteady progression through mobilisation towards democracy involved both proliferations and erosions of visible and evident difference. Conspicuous consumption ceased being the defining feature of a relatively small segment of the population and became, if not democratised, then popularised. And whilst more and more people had access to clothes and goods which those selling them declared were the marks of great distinction, the signs of wealth, privilege, or good fortune became increasingly subtle, as the heel colours of royalty had been in previous centuries. When the poor no longer go barefoot, the mere possession of shoes is no longer sufficient to proclaim superiority, and brand names, stitching, colours, and the smallest detail of construction become the heralds of identity. The styles and manners which are part of the public identity of an elite continue as one model for wider and wider circles of consumers in an increasingly popular – though not necessarily or incrementally democratic – society. But there is a contrary development, in that the more segments of a population develop their identities as part of public society, the more possibilities there are for plural or multicultural identities, which may be simple alternatives to prevailing identities or, like punk in the 1970s, a deliberate eschewing of expensive or dominant style. There was a movement from a horizontally diverse to a vertically diverse society, a development with several possible consequences. One possible consequence is that resentments arising from dissatisfied emulation which previously would have been against ‘society’ or ‘the system’ will now be more parochial, and will be felt against a community or subculture. This in its turn can make resentment either more or less likely to lead to violence, insurrection, rebellion, or unrest. Witch-hunts were local, parochial, neighbourhood events, as were the ‘paedophile’ vigilante episodes of the twenty-first century.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, most people would recognise someone with whom they were not in daily or frequent contact solely by their clothing, equipment, and bearing. By the middle of the twentieth century, photography, cinema, and television meant that the face was as important, and the proclamation of rank or profession by clothing was of declining relevance. Whilst the privileged and the powerful still proclaimed and cultivated their status by clothing and cars, much presentation became a statement of allegiance or membership, rather than of what Veblen called the invidious distinction of superior wealth.

As a mobilised society became more democratic and the formal distance between elite and mass became both smaller and less mined with obstacles, the identity of rulers shifted in engagement with the shifting identities of the ruled and the growth of a culture of citizenship. The changing public presentation of the people was complemented by a shift in that of monarchy, military, judiciary, legislature, church, and executive. The identity of government from London moved from monarchy to constitutional monarchy to representative government. As each element changed, the balance between them changed also. The components of the polity were very different in 2010 from those in 1700. Not only were there different components which were not present before, but even when there was continuity, the character of a component, and its relation to other components, had changed.

The economic, social, and legal subordination of women meant that what appeared to be the creation of a public society of adults was initially a society of males, and this exclusion was only slowly and incompletely altered. The place of women in public life (as opposed simply to activities outside the household) and the development of a distinct, independent, or autonomous female dimension to the public sphere in deportment, dress, and speech grew more slowly than those of men. Under the 1914 nationality act, whilst men conferred their nationality when they married, women lost theirs. A man with British nationality conferred it on a non-British wife. A woman who married a non-British male forfeited her British nationality. Although women had consistently been engaged in the movements and campaigns which had slowly and with difficulty and delay grown mobilisation into citizenship, the acknowledgment of gender equality lagged behind the pursuit and cultivation of democracy, and whatever their contribution to democratic advance, the gains to women themselves were consistently less substantial. Those who sought a fractal account of the identity of the inhabitants of the British Isles could still speak of the typical Englishman.

Rulers and elites, political, governmental, and social: the monarchy – Tudors to Windsors

The relations between privileged and unprivileged, rulers and ruled, government and subjects, have moved from an unmobilised population with a ruling monarchy and aristocracy to a mobilised population moving in a democratic direction. In this process the governing functions of monarchy have steadily shifted to career politicians and administrators. But whilst monarchy is no longer a central component of government, its changing character illustrates the wavering path through and beyond mere mobilisation. Paradoxically for an institution whose defining claim is that it is not representative, but autonomously authoritative, ‘Dieu et mon droit’, the narrative of monarchy represents, or at least draws attention to, the narrative of the nation. As the population became more mobilised, and slowly democratised, so too the identity of the governing elite mutated as upper and lower levels of public life became more engaged with each other. By the time that Ireland had been added to the legal state of Great Britain in 1800, government in the British Isles had already moved away from rule by monarchy in a constitutional frame towards parliamentary negotiation and ministerial collaboration or coexistence with a monarch who, whilst still exercising power, did so with decreasing prominence in the government of the country. As the monarchy became less of a political pinnacle, and ministerial government encroached on the governing functions of royalty, whilst a society outside the world of monarchy and aristocracy grew in public prominence, so the monarchy developed a new role as a social pinnacle, contributing more to public identity as it contributed less to the exercise of government. And whilst the domestic political role of monarchy continued to decline, its formal and rhetorical role at the head of an empire survived into the second half of the twentieth century. This transition was supported across the principal political parties, and accepted by left and right, so that in 1947 Stafford Cripps, chancellor of the exchequer in the first majority Labour government, was able vigorously to defend expenditure on the monarchy, albeit by suggesting that the ‘pomp and ceremony’ in Moscow was ‘vastly greater’ than in London.11

Britain has a complex history of monarchy (though not an instance, since history is not simply a series of expressions of universal essences) not only because its geographical extent has fluctuated, but because it gradually acquired, and then lost, an empire. The pageantry of empire, and particularly the pageantry of Indian empire, was distinct and spectacular. Between the two world wars Edwin Lutyens created splendid architectural images for the British Empire in India long after the imperial crown had ceased to exercise political rule. At the same time, a relationship between government and governed which for most people most of the time had been local and parochial was slowly shifting to engage a state which had been largely remote with a public social life which was becoming increasingly active and evident. As the governing role of the monarchy faded, its public presence grew.

The change had been neither simple nor steady, but the distances traversed both in the identity of the monarch and in the identities of the governed population, as they were cultivated, qualified, or changed in engagement with the monarchy, were substantial. The first audience for the monarch had been the monarch, and beyond that the court. The identity which was cultivated and expressed was one of lordship, and any challenge to the incumbent of the throne was an attempt to seize lordship. Richard III was ousted in 1485, like many of his predecessors, in a struggle for dominance and spoils. Religious leadership had engaged secular rule when its other involvement in the life of the population was limited. The irruption of religious dispute into government in the sixteenth century at a time when secular rule was itself being extended gave a dual dimension to the identities of monarchs. In the tumult of reformation and counter-reformation, monarchs identified themselves not solely in terms of royal splendour, but, as they had always done, in terms of religious faith. When the population was largely unmobilised, the cultivation and maintenance of religious orthodoxy had been the principal regular involvement of government with the lives of its subjects. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation conflicts within European Christianity merely intensified this involvement. A young Henry VIII, before he broke with the papacy, earned the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the pope in recognition of his tract against Luther. Religion still followed the monarch rather than vice versa, but though there was no novelty in religious dispute under Henry and his successors Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, a conflict between the religious identity of the sovereign and that of subjects would frequently be resolved by imprisonment, death, or exile.

The civil wars of the seventeenth century revealed how far a clash of religious identities, and the other aspects of identity with which religion was interwoven, could threaten the loyalties of powerful subjects and the lordship of the sovereign. The dispute in England (and Scotland and Wales) in the seventeenth century over the monarch's religion was not simply a matter of what went on behind the windows into men's souls. It was in fact not about that at all, but about the structure of authority which corresponded to different conceptions of the church, and of authority and structures of government within both the church and society. Protestantism was not necessarily either tolerant or egalitarian, but Catholicism was – not necessarily in essence, but in that time and place – hierarchical, absolute, authoritarian, and paternalist. So while the royal presence of Henry VIII had been composed of kingship as a unique identity sustained by no characteristic other than royal grandeur and divine sanction, with purple and cloth of gold denied to all but the royal family and with a richness of dress which set him apart,12 that of Charles II after the English Civil War and the execution of his father had a religious dimension which engaged, or attempted to engage, with the demanding religious aspirations of at least the mightier of his subjects. For Charles I to flirt with Rome was to flirt with absolutism. For James II to do so was to attempt an absolutist coup and risk rejection by powerful subjects. The restored monarchy after 1660 operated in a kingdom where the religious identities of subjects, or of powerful subjects, were a constraint on the public identity of the king. Charles II tempted Louis XIV with the possibility of his own conversion to Roman Catholicism and a return of Britain to the Roman church, but could do so only in secret, whilst the increasingly evident Catholicism of his brother, James, was an identity clash which threatened the regime in a way it would not have done for the Tudors. Charles found it expedient to instruct uncharacteristically fervent attendance at communion by whole swathes of his court and household in order to display the pious adherence of his regime to the Anglican church and the security of at least his powerful subjects from the threat of Rome.13 The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was indeed a revolution if it marked the transition from cuius regio, eius religio, to cuius religio, eius regio.

Attempts by monarchy to, if not mirror the identities of its subjects, then at least to modify itself in such a way as to appear recognisable even if not familiar, could sometimes dismay as much as they reassured. George III's perambulations around Windsor in the undistinguished country dress of the upper classes or even the gentry was the subject of some ridicule. Nonetheless, a king who attempted to place himself if not on an even level with his subjects, then at least within reach of them, was very different from one who, like Charles II, touched thousands of suppliant sick in the healing ritual of the king's evil, an identity which, if it did not claim a divine dimension for monarchy, claimed powers beyond the capacity of ordinary humanity. By the reign of Charles's niece Anne, the numbers touched were only in the hundreds, and the practice was not continued by her successors. The fading of any magic or mystery other than social and political distinction in the monarch was a feature of the shifting of the monarchy's expressed identity from divine ruler to leader of the ruling class, and to the epitome of an ‘Englishness’ which was ostensibly classless but became increasingly class and culture specific in a society which was more and more diverse.

In this process monarchy was active in the invention of its own identity, and in cultivating its presence in this way it has been ingenious, imaginative, and ambitious. George III's perambulations as a rural gentleman may have jarred, but his granddaughter's appropriation and transformation of rebel attire was theatrically successful. The tartan, which in the eighteenth century had been associated with Jacobitism and the rebellion of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and was hence banned, became in the nineteenth century an expression of royal affinity with the monarchy's Scottish subjects. When in her northern kingdom, Queen Victoria chose architectural and human surroundings which were visibly and distinctively Scottish (figure 10). When Victoria and Albert visited their northern kingdom, they wore a courtly Scottish fancy dress with as much dedication as Marie Antoinette played the role of picturesque peasant around the Petit Trianon in the previous century.14 The long reign of Victoria was a transitional monarchy, creating new forms of both public presence and privacy, a public presence which, after the death of Albert, was demanded from a monarch for whom privacy was a sought-for response to personal loss.

The accommodation of royal identity to a public, popular one could engage all aspects of royalty. Names not only described character, they could compose it, and the change of the royal family name from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor during the First World War illustrates how the monarchy had come to be defined by the nation, rather than vice versa. The monarchy drew its identity from the culture, language, and names of those whose state it symbolised, and so if its name associated it with a hostile nation, it was the name of the monarch, not the character of the nation, which had to adapt. A monarchy which attempted to amend the religion or dress of its subjects to its own tastes transmuted slowly towards public concessions to what was seen as the culture of its subjects.

The move from a ruling monarchy, whose rituals were principally for the governing elite, to a social and symbolic monarchy in an open and mobilised society was slow and fragmentary, but steadily proceeding through to the stage which Frank Prochaska has described as the ‘welfare monarchy’15. Royal weddings, unlike coronations and royal funerals, continued throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century to be important contracts of state, but of a state which stood above and apart from the mass of the population, and what was necessary was that they be contracted with appropriate solemnity in the presence of representatives of social and political power and privilege. As David Cannadine puts it, ‘great royal ceremonials were not so much shared, corporate events as remote, inaccessible group rites, performed for the benefit of the few rather than the edification of the many … not so much a jamboree to delight the masses, but a group right in which the aristocracy, the church and the royal family corporately re-affirmed their solidarity (or animosity) behind closed doors’.16 Not until the wedding of Prince Albert, later to be George VI, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923, was a royal wedding staged as a theatrical event for public appreciation, and therefore held not in the secluded elegance of St James's Palace, but in Westminster Abbey. The groom's father, George V, though not a radical monarch, was aware of the claims that a democratising society might make on the family which provided its formal headship, and of the benefits for public satisfaction with the social and political order which might flow from the pomp and glamour of ecclesiastical and state theatre. Royal weddings thus followed the example of public spectacle already set by royal funerals. But it required the growth of swift and easy transport by rail, followed by the dramatic expansion of communication with radio and cinema, together with a steady shift of population from country to town, to make possible a degree of familiarity with the public face of monarchy which an earlier local and face-to-face society could not provide.17

The changes in the cultivation of monarchical identity both reflect and are part of changes in government and politics within the British Isles, and in the composition of the public identities of both subjects and political participants. Monarchy in a mobilised society is a different institution from monarchy in a merely ruled society, whilst developing aspects of democracy are accompanied and either sustained or obstructed by the changing identity of monarchy. The audience for the presentation of monarchical identity has changed from the small and elite occasions of the middle ages, through the grand and festive coronation of George III, to the popular festival of the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.18 The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, would have been inconceivable even half a century earlier.

The transition since the Stuarts has been from the king's evil to the welfare monarchy. The relics of the former survive in the rituals of the latter, but nonetheless the essential move is from enchantment to secularism, and from divine right and grace to feudal or patriarchal care and philanthropy. The move from a reigning monarch to a caring monarch, from ruling splendour by right to a monarchy which donates time and resources and encourages others to do so, parallels the development of a representative rather than a hereditary power in government, despite the perseverance of a hereditary power in legislation.19 Such a monarchy presents an unceremonial public face rather than an enchanted one. It is not only more on public display, but can perform that function more conveniently, less stiffly, and with less difference of identity between itself and its subjects. It is easier for a patron to visit a hospital in more or less ordinary clothes than for a divinely touched sovereign to do so. But the transition over the years has often been difficult, and the coils of protocol have tangled the path to a monarchical culture less alien to the culture of subjects and citizens. Bridging the divide between the life of royalty and the life of more ordinary subjects and citizens could frequently be a negotiation by means of minute and prosaic detail. One issue which the debate over the monarchy became contained within or diverted to, following the coronation of George VI in May 1937, was whether or not MPs could wear lounge suits to royal garden parties20. Tom Nairn has presented an account of the monarchy as exercising a residual and unobtrusive power, not to intervene in society or politics, but to sustain its hierarchies. In a mobilised society that power is exercised at every point of royal contact, just as much as it was when monarchs cured the king's evil, and so the importance of lounge suits lies in the fact that they can be thought to be important. In that case royal garden parties can be seen as a minor instrument of class dominance, a small burnisher of deference.

Insofar as the identity of monarchy contributes to the identities of its subjects, that contribution can range from a confirmation of distinction and privilege to a confirmation of loyal-subject status in a legitimised hierarchical society. The circle of people for whom the monarchy provides an element of their identity has extended as the governmental power of the monarchy has shrivelled. The extension of a citizen public has been met by a monarchy which, whilst it still performs to small and privileged audiences, increasingly does so in a private capacity, while its formal activities are on public display, and to a public which all may join and consider themselves a part of. The shift came late, and whilst it followed the slow increase of mobilisation into democracy, it lagged behind it. The presentation of young women to the sovereign as the starting gate of an upper-class ‘season’ had ended well before the close of the twentieth century. But at the start of the twenty-first century the British monarchy still practised male primogeniture.

The transition from dressing room and private life to stage can be a feature of any kind of regime, but its character is part of the regime's character, and so different regimes can be observed to have different relations between back and front of house, and different styles of identity in each place. Politicians in the United Kingdom, certainly since the advent of television, do literally step from the dressing room onto the stage, being made up before they perform in front of the cameras, and this can be true of any form of government and politics where television is used. But the freer or more democratic a society, the greater the openness of private lives – even the lives of rulers, presidents, and monarchs – to public scrutiny. A democratic politics, requiring a degree of representativeness in its rulers, and unfriendly towards too great a visible distance between the lives of monarchs and presidents and the lives of ordinary people, will pressure monarchy to close the gap both between its front of house and its back of house, and between both of these and the perceived identities of ordinary citizens. As the monarchy loses power, its members become, in that respect, more like other members of the population. But at the same time the symbolic role of their office continues, and so there is a potentially growing tension between their public and their private lives. The monarchs of Britain by the nineteenth century had a front of house and a back of house. Royal progresses, both within the country and around the world, are difficult for a monarchy which rules a centralised state, but are a feature of one which is on display. So what matters is not only how the monarchy displays itself, but to whom it displays itself. It may be the case that the Wizard of Oz scenario, prosaic behind the curtain and flamboyant in front of it, is more frequently found in purely formal roles than in effective ones, in monarchies where the monarch is merely a constitutional symbol than in monarchies where the monarch rules. In that case, one strand in the cultivation of the monarchy from Tudors to Windsors will be the move towards a responsibility to display in public which, because it is liturgical, places fewer constraints of coherence on private life.

The monarchy, like other institutions and other persons, has cultivated its identity under the two justifications of tradition and change, appealing to and often creating ancient precedents for current practice, while adapting existing forms of identity to perceived changes in the society within which it lives. Prince Charles crafted a subtle harmonisation of these two justifications when he made known his intention to be not ‘Defender of the Faith’ but ‘Defender of Faith’, adapting a 500-year-old title to a contemporary variety of religious practices and loyalties.21 The royal family associated the monarchy with faiths beyond Anglicanism and Christianity in the celebrations of the Queen's golden jubilee, and its members, including the Queen, visited a wide range of faiths throughout the year.22 The service commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation in Westminster Abbey in 2003 was attended by representatives of the Baha’i, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jewish, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths, in addition to those of the principal Christian denominations.23 The royal identity was crafted both by association with a religious community wider than traditional Anglicanism, and by distinction within that community in fulfilling a special role of responsibility and guardianship.

The slow transition from a feudal and governing to a social and public monarchy has been the subject of much description and interpretation. The role of the monarchy in public life has been critically and closely examined, its contribution to national or public identity dissected, praised, and condemned. Nairn's account of monarchy sits alongside Bagehot in arguing that it maintains social order through rituals and rhetoric which, whilst they do not involve the exercise of power or privilege by the sovereign, mask and maintain the work of those who do in fact govern or enjoy social, political, or economic domination.24 But there is perhaps another function of monarchy in sustaining a particular British identity. Monarchy can be regarded not as a model of decorum and taste, or an expression and justification of deference and hierarchy, but as a distinctive and eccentric feature of a nation which can thereby mark itself off from others who can, by contrast, be portrayed as lacking tradition or venerable features of public life. None of this means that those, like Nairn, who condemn the monarchy are mistaken in a way which would cancel their antipathy, but it does mean that the consequences which they oppose are not sufficiently described in the account which they give of them. If events such as the 1953 coronation can be seen, as Shils and Young have described them, as occasions when common values are ‘re-affirmed and fortified’, it is not necessarily the case that those values are ones of deference or subordination.25 Coronations have provided an occasion for street parties as well as collective watching of still far-from-universal television, a peaceable parallel to Hegel's going to war in associating people with something broader than their isolated identity, and owing at least as much to the radical and subversive traditions of carnival as to loyal address, and not at all necessarily subservient to class hierarchies. Both for conservative supporters and radical opponents of the government, politics, and privileges of Britain, the monarchy plays an important part, so that simply to describe that part is, without further aspirations or aversions, neither to approve nor condemn it. The crowds outside Westminster Abbey who applauded critical comments within the building at the funeral of Princess Diana were not evidently being cultivated in class subordination. When, in 2012, the year of the Queen's diamond jubilee, IPSOS/MORI asked people what aspects of the country's life made them most proud to be British, 28% named the monarchy, but 37% named the National Health Service.26 It might be as accurate to see even that 28% as supporting a hereditary republic as much as inherited privilege.27

Officers of state

The changing of the balance of power and functions within government has been accompanied by a shift of public political attention from monarchs to prime ministers, while the interest in the public and private conduct of monarchs as social phenomena has grown. As power rumbled from monarch to ministers, so it moved too from the Lords to the Commons. Lord Salisbury, the last prime minister from the Upper House, left office in 1902. As political attention shifted increasingly to ministers, so their public identity developed, from councillors to statesmen, and from statesmen to public figures – politicians representative of an increasingly democratic society. But at the same time there was a countermovement of identity. The move towards equality was matched by a reaction in the contrary direction in order to distinguish leaders from led, and if leaders were more ordinary, they were ordinary in a way which still marked them off from those whom they represented and led, out of the ordinary in their distinguished representativeness.

During the nineteenth century, political leaders could be given an elevated status which at the same time strengthened the status or identity of the person who conferred it. Mugs and plates celebrating politicians such as Gladstone with images and exhortations were both saying that the user or owner supports or admires Gladstone, and that he or she is a person who is to be associated with Gladstone, a Gladstonian. The cultivation of identity was two-sided. But by the end of the twentieth century, such a form of identification was rare for domestic politicians, jarring as it did with a suspicion of deference and an equation of democratic politics with sceptical distance from political leaders. Such hero worship was limited to international politics and, ironically, to radicals who spoke the language of transformative equality. Che Guevara was a more familiar face on tee shirts and posters than was Margaret Thatcher.

Securing a convincing harmony between representativeness and distinctiveness was never easy, and a visible excess in either direction could lead to ridicule. Michael Foot, when leader of the Labour Party, was criticised for not dressing sufficiently formally at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and Tony Blair was considered by his critics to be overdoing his play-acting vernacularism in claiming to be ‘a pretty straight kind of guy’,28 whilst his lord chancellor Derry Irvin was ridiculed for the opposite, the alleged grandiose ambitions in his material surroundings and his choice of wallpaper.

But whatever the balance between ordinariness and extraordinariness, a public identity becomes a far greater dimension of a politician's life with the development of a public. One account of this describes a theatrical division between public life and private life, even if the latter is generally difficult and frequently impossible to veil entirely from an inquisitive media. Tony Blair, whose public image was that of ‘a pretty straightforward guy’, religious but not excessively so, an ordinary family man with ordinary family interests, took steps in 2007 to remove from the published diary of his former press aide Alastair Campbell passages which portrayed him as bad-tempered and foul-mouthed, and further fine-tuned his popular identity by avoiding wearing spectacles in public.29 Harold Wilson's preferred nicotine was not from a pipe, but for public visibility a pipe was his preferred image;30 the Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron might cycle for public consumption, but could not conceal the fact that with friends and colleagues he preferred stirrups to pedals.31 Even so, the distance between the two identities was in each case qualitatively different from the gulfs which made tales of princes disguised as paupers plausible. Each instance suggests a publicisation of the hitherto private aspects of political leaders, or rather of a public version of the private. This was a style possibly first employed by Attlee in the presentation of him as the man next door.

The entanglement of private and public, and the continual leakage of the one into the other, was neatly encapsulated in the function of Number 10 Downing Street, a house where the prime minister might not live, so that there is a house which is not a house where the prime minister acts out his public role (but not in public) and a flat in the house next door where he is the private person who happens to fill that role, though where he also conducts business relevant to that role. An awareness of the confusion, and a willingness to accept it, is breached only if the politicians themselves fail to perform as the duality of roles requires. The offence caused by Andrew Mitchell's alleged description of police officers as ‘plebs’ was not that he held himself, if he did, above ordinary voters, but that he was believed to have said that he did.

The ‘private’ lives of public figures are relevant in a democracy in a way they are not in autocracies, and ‘private’ actions and tastes are taken as an indicator of distance from or closeness to either the people, or the assumed character of the people. The more a population is mobilised, the greater the relevance of private lives to public office, since the greater and more widespread the desire that rulers and leaders be both typical of the population and distinguished within it.

The military

Before government does anything else, it wages war. It wages war even before it becomes a government, and does so both against other communities and against those over whom it seeks to govern. Subject populations are the first to understand this foundation of ruling, and soldiers have consequently been frequently and persistently regarded with a mixture of suspicions ranging from scepticism to hostility. One strand in popular sentiment has been a hostility to a standing army as an instrument of excessive state power, another a suspicion of soldiers, and particularly soldiers, as potential troublemakers when on leave and on the streets. This was the sentiment described by Kipling in his poem ‘Tommy’, with the sting in its tail against a public view which turns its sympathies and antipathies through 180 degrees when national security is felt to be militarily threatened.

For it's Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it's ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;32

The presentation and perception of the army, navy, and air force have been part of the presentation and perception of themselves by the various strands which make up the population. Kipling's polarity recurs again and again, and ‘Saviour of ’is country’ has many versions, from Kipling's, to Churchill's ‘Never in the history of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’ When the security and safety of the population are felt to be threatened then armed bodies with whom ordinary people can identify are looked on with solidarity. But whilst armed forces may in those circumstances be seen as a special part of the community of ordinary men and women, that perception, whilst strengthened by external threat, needs other sources as well. Before the mobilisation of the population, armed bands were no more likely to be welcome because they fought for the king than if they fought for one of the king's rivals, and could be seen as at best an incursion or a pest, at worst a menace to life and property. Identification between warriors and citizens can be strengthened by real or supposed enemies, but it requires some prior perception of common identity, some sense of common participation and membership of a governed community. Soldiers of the king may not necessarily be regarded as anything less alien than soldiers of invading warlords, and whilst the successor to the Royal Flying Corps in the twentieth century has a monarchical prefix, it was known only as the ‘RAF’, an acronym which relinquished any claims to aristocratic or monarchical legitimation.

If there is there a real move from soldiers of the king to soldiers of the country, it depended on a move in a democratic direction sufficient for not just generals and admirals, but ordinary soldiers and sailors, to be regarded as citizens, spouses, parents, or children in uniform. Once that happens, and the population as a whole is involved in and affected by a war, hostility can be replaced by a benign scepticism, and cartoonists such as Bruce Bairnsfather can mock the military life with the recommendation that ‘If you knows of a better ’ole, go to it.’33 When that happens, a heroic construction of fighting life can no longer enjoy a monopoly of public sentiment, but suspicion of members of the armed forces can transpose into sympathy and support.

The celebration and commemoration of the military parallels the history of deference in the rest of society. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, kings were commemorated in public display, and aristocrats in private memorials, but the celebration of military prowess stopped there. The Napoleonic Wars, despite the fact that they were fought under the banner of king and tradition against not only tyranny but also revolutionary equality, were marked by a slight move away from war being expressed as the king's alone. Admiral Lord Nelson was given a state funeral with rituals adapted from those used for royalty, and although in the celebration of heroism in the war against France no one below the rank of captain in the Royal Navy or major-general in the army was represented in funerary sculpture, though ordinary soldiers were displayed around their podiums in various poses of admiration, nonetheless the monopoly of single leadership had been eroded.34 The first regimental memorials were placed in St Paul's after the Crimean War, and by the time of the Great War, the common soldier was precisely the person who was represented on war memorials, and the names of all those killed were listed, the only order in which they were ranked being alphabetical, the public successor to the former celebration of hierarchy in both life and death.35

The public identity of the armed forces of the crown increased both as the mobilisation of the population increased, and as the country was seen to be threatened by outside violence. But whilst mobilisation and democratisation eroded the remoteness of armed forces, they did not do so in any single or uniform way, and the nature of perceived threats and the extent and location of danger were a component of popular perceptions, responses, and degrees and character of identification with fighting men and women. During the Second World War, when the threat to life and security was felt by the whole population and all adults could be regarded as part of the conduct of the war, members of the armed forces were family members on special duties as much as they were members of a distinct and separate set of organisations. If on the other hand fighting was limited, involving the armed forces but not the population as a whole either as producers of war materials or as conscripts, then whilst popular support for the armed forces might be as strong, it was support for a distinct and separate element in the national community, rather than solidarity with men and women who were part of a single national mobilised war effort. In the case of the returning soldiers, sailors, and air-force personnel from the Falklands War, it was celebration of a popular assertion of identity against an attempted alien incursion; in the case of respect paid to the returning dead from Afghanistan, the popular response had the added element of sympathy for men and women who were being sent to a conflict for which popular support was rapidly being replaced by sceptical bewilderment and anger as to what British armed forces were still doing there and why their lives continued to be placed at risk. Armed forces can be seen as a constituent part of a nation and its identity when the bulk of the population are not involved in war or when the fighting is geographically remote, but only once the population has moved substantially in the direction of mobilisation or democratisation. Before that, ‘the King's wars’ are no more than a remote tale, like dragons and mermaids.

Toffs and the survival record of hierarchy

‘Society’ as an object of public interest, admiration, and gossip was replaced during the second half of the twentieth century by performers and entertainers and sportspeople, with the retention in the public eye of members of the royal family and growing attention, though not in the front rank, paid to politicians. This did not necessarily mean that society, with a lower-case ‘s’, had levelled out or become more egalitarian, but it did mean that the character of the peaks had changed, as had their relation to ordinary people and distance from or closeness to them, and the possibility, or perceived possibility, of ordinary people scaling those peaks. It took a very elaborate set of expectations to see oneself as king or queen, but only energy and talent to aspire to the top ten or the premier football league. The public images with which ordinary people could identity and about which they could listen, watch, or read were simultaneously accessibly ordinary, and aspirationally different.

The markers of hierarchy and the character of hierarchy can change without a society becoming any more equal. Language, which used to distinguish sharply a socially and economically privileged minority, did so less and less after the first half of the twentieth century.36 George Orwell had assured ‘the sinking middle class’, fearful of the proletariat below, that ‘we have nothing to lose but our aitches’.37 But very shortly afterwards the upper classes began acquiring their consonants. Whilst a single accent lost its privileged dominance and found itself mildly ridiculed instead, varieties of speech became components of a popular identity which, whilst it was not egalitarian, was not formally hierarchical either.

The common people: subjects and citizens

When Bede in the eighth century wrote his history of the church and people of England, the protagonists were kings, princes, and priests, and their actions, decisions, successes, and failures were presented as sufficient evidence of the history of all. The normal invisibility of the greater part of the population changed little over the following centuries. Popular irruptions into the world of secular and ecclesiastical lordship in the middle ages were just that, invasions from outside or below which might shake or damage the structures of political, social, and religious order, but were not part of them. By contrast, an account of a mobilised society, and even more an account of a democratising society, cannot pause at the borders of the elite, but must describe the culture which exists beyond those limits and which encroaches on those boundaries, and hence stretches and thins them and renders them more permeable. Each move in a democratic direction makes it more difficult to sustain accounts which either describe a uniformity of identity or, by not transgressing the boundaries of domination, give no account of the identity or identities of the mobilised. The greater the progress along the serpentine road through mobilisation to democratisation has been, the greater the potential variety of identities, and the greater their potential public salience. The social and political emergence of the mass of the population has been uneven, contested, and partial. The advance has taken many forms and has ascribed many titles to the participants: the people, the public, the working class, and, as the electorate has expanded, the voters and, more selectively, taxpayers. Each of these terms is more than simply a label, since it has contributed, by shaping perceptions, to shaping the things perceived, a broad-scale instance of dynamic nominalism.

A distinction of fundamental importance in this uneven process has been between mobilisation from above and mobilisation from below. On the one hand, governing and controlling elites have mobilised as human resources for economic or military ends those who previously were marginalised or anonymous. Such mobilisation has involved not only the enrolment of those who previously were excluded from or socially invisible in the exercise of political, economic, or social power, but, in the act of recruiting them, the creation of new or amended categories whereby the identity of the mobilised is itself amended, cultivated, or created. Mobilisation creates the raw materials for a public world. But whilst that public world is mobilised, it is not democratised, and the initiatives from above are to enrol rather than to enfranchise, to modify the identity of the population as a whole, but to do so in a way which maintains its subordinate position. On the other hand, demands from outside the governing elite, by no means all of them from the least privileged, have slowly and with mixed success increased the numbers of those who, by extending their identity into social visibility or social power, cultivate and become a public society.

Mobilisation from above

Elites in a society whose population is becoming mobilised begin to accommodate their identity to the growing presence of the wider population. But they do so both by increasingly including that population in the community by association with which they identify themselves, and at the same time by distinguishing themselves as exceptional instances of that community's character. Evolution of identities has accompanied evolution of the relations of leaders to subjects, and to subjects who were increasingly becoming citizens. The mobilisation of a population from above has been carried out to serve taxation, production, and war, and has involved both a greater public presence and identity for the mass of the population, and an extension of the institutions of government which regulate them. A major aspect of identity, religion, while it has always been a concern of government, has not been treated from above in a way which increased the public identity of the mass of the population, but rather in a manner which cultivated, with varying effectiveness, their docile compliance. Attempts to regulate, promote, or prohibit the various forms of religious observance, whilst they required government to engage with the mass of the population, did so in a way which maintained and strengthened the gap between rulers and ruled, and constrained rather than promoted a greater public identity and presence for the mass of the people. Taxation required people to pay, production required them to work, and war required them to arm and train, but religious compliance required no more than silent presence in churches. In the interests of taxation, production, and war, by contrast, government not only extended its regulation and organisation of the population but, by this action, shaped the social contours of its territory and cultivated and created collective identities.38

New or enhanced public identities had many aspects, but one of the most immediately apparent features of greater social visibility is the actual visibility of dress. The mobilisation of the population, or sections of it, created or enhanced public roles which acquired a distinctive dress that indicated the public function as distinct from the social status of the person filling it. But the boundary between clothing as indicating public function and clothing as indicating social superiority has frequently been permeable and imprecise. Ecclesiastical, judicial, and military dress have long, though not unbroken, histories of distinctiveness, but ones which moved from individual distinction to collective identity as government expanded and the population was increasingly mobilised lacked such a clear resource of traditional costumery. Medieval warriors distinguished themselves with heraldry, but they also disguised themselves, if kings, with duplication, an early response to the lethal or potentially lethal consequence of the extremes of identity distinction. Heraldry says who you are, uniform, like livery, says whom you serve. There have been times when senior clergy dressed not distinctively as clergy, but distinctively as rich and powerful members of a superior layer of the population. Uniforms are a feature of societies where identity is validated by association with a group, person, or institution. As long as a society is uniform and hierarchical, with a recognisable elite, livery serves to cultivate the identity of those outside the elite who serve its members and draw a part of their identity from that service. The role of uniform is different from that of livery in that only subordinates wear livery, whilst leaders can and do wear uniform, even though they do so in a way which indicates their elevated status as distinguished individuals within the broader association. Whole sections of society move into uniform as a public space becomes created and occupied by the adult populace. The mobilisation of a population from above moves from an elite which has put its servants and supporters in livery, to a state which puts its population in uniform. Livery is part of subordination to an employer, uniform of both subordination to a state or eminence in the exercise of the state's power. There is a wide range of public functions for which a mobilised or mobilising society may provide uniforms, but the two functions which involve the greatest numbers and in the most visible way, are the police and armed forces.

The slow shift from an agricultural to an urban and industrial population was associated with a new salience of the identity of this population, not only or principally because of the different ways of living and working which this involved, but because new ways of living required definition, organisation, and identification in a way which existing ones did not. As a categorised resource in the social planning and management of industrial reformers – Owen, Salt, Lever, and Cadbury – ‘the people’ or ‘the working classes’ were given a new prominence in towns and suburbs built to model and cultivate a social order. This was not a neat or uniform movement and has had uneven and fragmentary progress. The incorporation of ‘the people’ into military consciousness became a part of government with the introduction of conscription in the First Word War from 1916, and the celebration after it of all adult combatants as equal in the anonymity of the unknown warrior. Incorporation into ‘Britishness’ develops with passports in something approaching their contemporary form from 1855 and in a more standard produced form with the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act in 1914, before further mobilisation into citizenship.

The shift of power away from the monarchy enhanced the public status of those, however limited as a proportion of the adult population, whose electoral mandate supplied the members for one of the two chambers of parliament. The move to add an active and public dimension to the status of ‘subject’ drew a society in its wake, and is accompanied by a growing public identity of people outside the circles of the political and governing elite.

Whilst changes in public identity and the emergence of a slowly expanded and diversified public have had a multiplicity of causes, government has been active in the process. In late twentieth-century Britain, the ascendancy of market and economic liberal ideology was accompanied by a further twist in identity cultivation from above, with the renaming of a clutch of previously distinct roles as ‘customers’, a title eclipsing the specific and distinguishing descriptions: clients, patients, audiences, passengers. The linguistic strategy of narrowing the scope of politics and widening the scope of commerce as far as it was possible to do retained only two designations beyond the embrace of cash transaction: voters, and worshippers.

One aspect of the cultivation of an identity of customers rather than citizens meant that identity by association and by distinction redefined the associated population in such a way as to marginalise substantial layers of it, heightening the distance in identity between those people and the distinguished minority. If the customer is always right, the customer is also always to blame since all outcomes are the result of free consumer choice, and inequality is simply the result of lack of aspiration or lack of determination. Whole sections of the population could be stigmatised as chavs, an identity which Owen Jones has presented as serving to justify inequality.39 But it functions also to maintain the identity of the more privileged as rooted in their association with the population as a whole, while at the same time sustaining their distinction and difference from that population by marginalising a section of it.

Mobilisation from below: economic discontents in the public arena

The slow, irregular, and obstacle-strewn progress from a mobilised population towards a democratic one was constituted by the emergence first of subjects, then of civil society, then of citizens. Whilst a formal political identity has grown for wider and wider sections of the population, a converse desire to control and limit the vigour or potential vigour of citizen politics – cultivating a quiet, orderly, and uncomplaining citizen identity rather than an active, unpredictable, and assertive one – has been a persistent feature of government and politics. It is feature of citizen identity which, conversely, has been continually challenged, and principally from below. At the same time as the political identity, through citizenship, was slowly extended, so too the economic identities of the population, which if they had impinged on government had done so in an invasive manner with riot, sabotage, or disorder, became a part of the political public world, and the concerns of ordinary workers became a part of their enhanced public identity.

By the eighteenth century, a new or greater public identity for sections of the adult population had been achieved sporadically and outside the established rubric, by demonstration as in support of Wilkes, or riot as in support of Lord George Gordon. But in the nineteenth century there were also movements of a more sustained nature, on the one hand advocating political reform and campaigning for the Charter, on the other demanding improved conditions and wages for employees, not only – as with Luddism and protests by workers in such domestically based forms of production as weaving – in defence of old systems, but increasingly by those employed in the new expanding factory-based forms of production. Whereas the first was a contribution to the cultivation of a purely political and constitutional element in developing public identities, the second was an extension of the identity of sections of the population from an economic world which still remained private, into a public dimension of economic claims and economic grievances.

The movement towards democracy has never been completed. A democratic constitution requires a democratic society to give it substance, and the degree to which this has been achieved has been uneven if democratic politics are to extend beyond freedom at election times. A population with a limited franchise had few peaceful entries into politics beyond demonstrating, lobbying, and heckling. The carnivalesque possibilities of the last of these at election hustings where candidates were nominated, and at the election meetings where politicians met not only the electorate but those who were excluded from the electorate, were frequently vigorously exploited not only before but after the extension of the franchise towards formal democracy. As late as 1959, Robin Day, standing in Hereford, had his platform taken over and his microphone broken by not always sober citizens.40

Carnival is never something leaders welcome unless they have already tamed and organised it. When it is unpredictable, uncontrolled, or spontaneous, even in well-established democratic polities, professional politicians resent and resist such democratic inroads from the population outside. In London in the twenty-first century, Brian Haw, a single protestor camped on the grass outside the Houses of Parliament, caused unusual annoyance to professional politicians, and provoked laborious attempts to remove him wholly out of proportion to any actual political impediments his posters and placards caused.41 The prodigious legal and political energies directed against Haw were a striking illustration of the thinness of political skins. A similar sensitivity was revealed at the 2005 Labour Party Conference when a cry of ‘Rubbish!’ from Walter Wolfgang, an elderly party member, during a speech on Iraq by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw resulted in a rush of security guards and the forcible expulsion of the dissident pensioner from the hall.42 Lack of predictability or uniformity is a component (which is much stronger than an indicator) of democracy and civil society. It is both the necessary vital energy of democracy, and a phenomenon which can flourish only in a democratic state.

The slow loosening, though not disappearance, of the divisions between the terrace levels of a relatively homogeneous social hierarchy has been associated not with growing uniformity of identity, but with greater diversity. The horizontal divisions of an earlier mobilised population have been complemented by vertical ones. The identities of class have been joined by, amongst others, more substantial and numerous identities of religion. At the same time there has been a decline of a popular or working-class political identity – no more banners or brass bands; the miners’ dispute of 1984–85 was the last grand occasion for this instance of political celebration and collective ritual proclamation. But the assertion of citizen identity from below, in however fragmented ways, has persisted as both an active contribution to and an active component of the identity of a democratic demos.

Mobilisation from below: clothing

The mobilisation of the population from above was conducted in part by putting people into uniform. The mobilisation, and democratisation, of the population from below was similarly conducted in part by the cultivation of styles of clothing and of uniforms which challenged explicitly or implicitly the monopolies of the state and the hierarchies of fashion. This was done in two ways: by adopting the modes of dominant groups and hence transgressing social borders and challenging the monopolies of stylistic identity, and by ignoring dominant conventions and dressing in ways thought, at least from above, as improper, slovenly, or stylistically subversive. In the case of the first challenge, a common complaint about the clothing of the lower strata of society had frequently been that they sought to dress like their ‘betters’, often with cast-offs or cheap imitations. This was a matter of alarm for the more privileged at a time when clothing could be an immediate sign of social status and a swift way of distinguishing between acceptable or admissible, and unacceptable or inadmissible persons. But whilst innovation or disruption might come from below, elites were able to develop their own refined versions of the vernacular, dealing with the challenge by assimilating it and raising it to a level of expense or sophistication where exclusivity was re-established. In the course of the eighteenth century there was an apparent shift from the lower orders seeking to dress like the upper, to elite fashion following and glamorising the popular in a mode at least as widespread as, and perhaps more so than, Marie Antoinette and her entourage dressing as peasants in the Petite Trianon.43 Similarly, in the twentieth century the paper clips as earrings of punk were assimilated by the gilded, plated, and bejewelled versions of the prosaic interloper.

Dressing in defiance or simple disregard of convention could, if nothing else, cause great disturbance with little effort. Political and constitutional democracy had still advanced to include only a minority of the adult population by the beginning of the twentieth century. Social democracy was similarly restrained. Class remained a physical and sartorial dimension of visible public life, and whilst by the 1920s the boundaries were being breached, those who breached them risked being seen, at least by those into whose territory they climbed, either as ‘impostors’ or as hooligans. The Times reported with outrage that the participants in the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932 were a ‘mob of young men and women – hatless, raucous, yellow jerseyed, slung with concertinas’.44

But in a class society which recognises but does not admire horizontal divisions, there can be a radical politics which makes a point of dressing in ‘King's couture’, if that is the equivalent of the King's English. In the 1930s there were radicals who took care to avoid the kind of appearance which had so shocked The Times on the occasion of the Kinder Scout trespass. The Communist Party allegedly instructed its sometimes bohemian members to adopt ‘smart’ dress, so as not to give the impression of being outside the social pale.

Gillray's cartoon of George III traumatising an agricultural worker by dressing across social borders illustrates the sartorial cultures of the eighteenth century existing within horizontal divisions of class. Those of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries do not have such clear distinctions. The change was slow but substantial. Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, Richard Hoggart was able to observe that:

Cheap mass-produced clothing has reduced the immediately recognizable differences between classes, but not as greatly as many think. A Saturday-night crowd leaving the cinema in the city centre may look superficially one. A closer glance from an expert of either sex, from a middle-class woman or man particularly conscious of clothes, will usually be sufficient even nowadays for them to ‘place’ most people around them.45

Anthony Crosland, at the same time, was able to argue that:

different social classes can be instantly distinguished by their dress (especially men's clothes; though only a very insensitive person can share the now popular view that one cannot tell a woman's background by her clothes), eating (and even drinking) habits, taste in furniture, type of house, style of entertainment, sporting tastes, and leisure activities generally.46

But by the 1960s class no longer existed as an immediately visible physical and sartorial dimension, although there was a range of subcultures. Teddy boys had already presented an image which seemed to have little to do with class, either as a snub to convention or a flamboyance of expenditure. Duffle coats, initially associated with naval heroism, illustrated the flexibility of the meanings attached to dress, as they were adopted as the costume of frequently politically demonstrating radicalism. As the twentieth century progressed into its second half, Britain increasingly moved from a society stratified by dress, demeanour, and physique to a variegated bazaar. Extravagance in dress or appearance continued, indeed flourished, but was no longer the expression of class or caste, but only of either eccentricity or flamboyant wealth.

The state of clothes by the end of the twentieth century

The assertion of public identities from below, or from outside the circle of elites, has regularly caused concern and sometimes attempts at regulation from above. The more mobilised a society, and the greater the potential variety of associations and of possible conflict between them, the greater the likelihood of attempts to regulate, restrain, or prohibit livery. The livery of servants to the wealthy, the aristocratic, or the powerful does not threaten social peace or social cohesion. The livery of mass political organisations may, in contrast, challenge existing hierarchies or the peaceful coexistences of public life. The 1936 Public Order Act asserted and enforced the state's monopoly of uniforms, save when they could not be conceived as challenging political or public uniforms – the Salvation Army, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts.

There is the possibility of a less obvious but more substantial dilution of government initiative and control through the fading or erosion of distinctions as a result of the proliferation of uniforms – armed forces, post office, police, fire brigade, prison service, transport staff, traffic wardens, community support officers, or private security staff – in a way which partly dissolves the boundaries between the crown and society, so that a uniformed person may be a constable, but is nonetheless recognisably also an ordinary citizen and householder, and may be a private security guard either under contract to the crown or displaying the authority of his or her uniform for a profit-seeking commercial organisation. The more people are mobilised, the greater the possible blurring and fading of the differences between livery, uniform, and fashion. But the resulting distribution of clothing between livery, uniform, and fashion is both flexible and malleable. In a state where the dominant, or aspiring, ideology places a high value on markets and profit-seeking, the authority of dress may be extended well beyond the frontiers of public service and public office. A regime which replaces a variety of functions – passenger, audience, client, patient – with the single title of ‘customer’ has also been marked by a privatisation of uniform, whilst livery has become a mark of corporate rather than of domestic employment. At the same time, the service role of the liveried servant in domestic employment has been transferred to service roles in the market and in the collective provision of service roles. Road sweepers, coffee-shop assistants, and postal-delivery workers will wear company livery; their managers will not. Rather than assert its monopoly of uniform, government has cultivated a gradual progression from the uniform of public service to the uniform of private employment, diluting thereby the unique authority of public service, but potentially enhancing that of profit-seeking. This is a shift of emphasis, not a unique or novel innovation. Those employees of railway companies who dealt directly with the public wore company uniform in the nineteenth century. But with a shift of public functions to profit-seeking organisations, exercisers of coercive functions which had formerly been the monopoly of government were marked by uniforms which on the one hand laid claim to governing authority or public service but on the other marked a loyalty not to the state but to commercial organisation: prison officers, security guards, postal-delivery workers.

As clothing became less and less effective as a way of proclaiming privilege, extravagance by the end of the twentieth century was increasingly expressed in jewellery and cars, rather than in clothes. When affordable clothing was not available, the mere fact of having anything more than the functional minimum of ‘ordinary’ dress, with the possibility of Sunday best for special occasions, could proclaim wealth. Once mass-produced clothing makes the constituency of purchasers the larger part of the population, so that ‘Sunday best’ is universalised and diversified, distinction becomes a choice of style which indicates, not wealth, but dissent, or religious affiliation, or social group. Abstemiousness in clothing had always performed this function, and the sombreness of Puritanism was continued into the eighteenth century with Quaker and Methodist admonishments for the faithful to dress simply. But now not only simplicity but extravagance was widely available. In all these changes in clothing, the broader identity paradox flourishes. On the one hand it is a search for individual distinctiveness, on the other a cultivation of identity by means of association, the brand or label being more important than the quality or character of the product. The visible identity of dress proclaims both identity as part of a wider constituency and identity as unlike anyone else.


Lear's fool's advice never to walk if you could ride was aimed at social and political success and survival, not at weight reduction or health. The development of the railways and later of the public tram and omnibus created a society in which riding rather than walking was not something necessarily and obviously enjoyed only by a few, or by small numbers, of the privileged in an expensive carriage, but was, as the title omnibus indicated, a possibility if not for all then for large sections of the population. The device of retaining hierarchy within mass transport by the division into first, second, and third class did so within a system which nonetheless ended the privilege of the minority to be the only ones who habitually did not, or need not, walk. Nor is social distinction ever simply a matter of wealth or expenditure. In the early years of the twenty-first century, cycling flourished not as a cheap alternative for those who could not afford a car, but as a lifestyle choice. At the same time, privilege and the advantages purchased by greater wealth were in some areas concealed rather than flaunted. Whilst railways and airlines retained the complimentary title of ‘first class’ to reassure the fortunate of their good fortune, second-class and lower designations and facilities were veiled in titles such as ‘standard’ and ‘tourist’, ensuring that whilst the privileged were assured of their distinction, the less privileged were not stigmatised, since, whatever their lesser wealth, they were still necessary as customers. The use of titles in this way to assure the larger proportion of travellers that they were not discriminated against was an illustration at one and the same time of the techniques available for the maintenance of privilege, and of the need to avoid alienating the majority.


What was expressed in clothing and transport was expressed equally clearly in speech. Like visible appearance, audible evidence contributes to public identity, and so gives an impression of permanence, whilst being as fluid as fashion, and of as little significance in itself until combined with all the other aspects of identity. Playwrights have always been aware of this fluid power of speech, and have been adept at employing it in portraying the complexities of character and identity. Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear is able to move swiftly between one identity and another simply by a change of accent. At the start of the twentieth century, in Shaw's Pygmalion an East-End flower seller could, by no more than a change of accent, pass as an aristocrat. Pygmalion is a satire on both the importance and the superficiality and conditionality of speech. The transformation of Eliza Doolittle into an aristocrat was accomplished without altering one jot of the substance of what she said. The role of speech as a badge of social position continued long after Shaw's mockery of it, and at the mid point of the twentieth century Anthony Crosland could remark on ‘the most supremely unmistakable of all symbols of social standing – differences of accent and vocabulary. In no other country is it possible in the same way to assess a person's class standing the moment he opens his mouth.’47 Crosland goes beyond Shaw, in suggesting that whilst what is said may not change with class, not just the accent but the words used may. He was writing at the same time that Nancy Mitford, with tongue in cheek, was describing the differences between elite and popular words which she termed U and non U, and of the significance of saying napkin rather than serviette. But by then language had none the less moved a long way beyond the King's English of Shaw's 1912, and from his manipulative linguist Professor Higgins who, in the musical My Fair Lady derived from Pygmalion, and at the same time as Crosland and Mitford, demands in exasperation ‘Why can't the English learn how to speak?’ But the English – and the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish – had always known how to speak. What had already changed by the time of Crosland, Mitford, and Lerner and Loewe was that they had increasingly gained confidence in the manner in which they did so, as part of their public identity. This development marked the end of the King's English in the Queen's Britain, and the emergence of a multilingual and multiaccented populace. Localised language became a component of social decentralisation and the departure of any single national linguistic hierarchy. The growth of pride in diversity accompanied the public presence of a substantial range of accents in the British Isles. Nor is any one accent found, and only found, with other aspects of identity. People of different religions and ethnicities may speak with similar accents, and inhabitants of the same city with different voices. The proliferation of publicly established accents provides, in shifting combinations with other aspects of identity, a population which is far more diverse than the term ‘multicultural’ can encompass.

‘Posh’ remains as a national rather than a local style, and you cannot tell where a posh person comes from by his or her voice. Ross McKibbin has argued that a distinct upper-class manner of talking began to be eroded and dissolved after the First World War, being replaced under influence from the upper middle class by phonetic pronunciation which no longer ignored consonants or telescoped words.48 But whilst the tones of hierarchy might mutate, and even fashionably imitate or parody tones from other social regions, just as with Marie Antoinette in the pastures of the Petit Trianon an aristo dressing as a shepherd was still very obviously not a horny- handed daughter of toil, so a politician or a banker adopting an accent from the outer fringes of London still could not pass as a man or woman of the people.

Language as exclusion was not a preserve of those at the top of the scale of class, status, or advantage, and could be used with equal force and effectiveness by those challenging the social order from below or from the margins. Members of the Young Communists League in the 1930s reported how they sang songs on trains in German and Russian, not knowing what the words meant, but that it was ‘real sectarianism’ because the other passengers couldn't understand it either, whilst assuming that the young revolutionaries could.49 Distinction could work against existing hierarchies as well as in support of them.

Eating British, eating English, but also eating Scottish, eating Welsh, and eating Irish

Food is not only one of the principal components of identity, but an apt metaphor for its complex, contingent, and cultivated character. Cuisine is always a combination, mixture, and juxtaposition of ingredients, methods of preparation, ways of presenting, and modes of consuming. It cannot be reduced to some single principle or essence, and in this respect is like the identity of a whole society – the sum, consequence, and interaction of its parts. Like other dimensions of identity, food serves both to distinguish one population from another, and to distinguish groups and individuals within a population from each other. Food both unites and divides.

For an emerging professional and commercial middle class resentful of the restraints and inequalities it felt in a society which still retained heavy layers of aristocratic privilege, feasting provided far more than just sustenance. By the end of the eighteenth century, a ‘traditional’ celebration of Christmas by the middling classes who both honoured traditions and did their duty of hospitality towards the poor was being contrasted with the effete, dissolute, or negligent treatment of the festival by an aristocracy which failed in its obligations to charity and the less fortunate and to the honouring of a tradition of which its critics claimed, and ate to prove the case, to be the true maintainers and cultivators.50 So long before Dingley Dell or Scrooge, Christmas was being celebrated, and charity and entertainment dispensed, as an active contrast with the dissolute and failed life of the upper classes. Celebrating Christmas both within the family as convivial fellowship and outside the household as charitable social responsibility cultivated identity both by contrast with the irresponsible and less traditional privileged, and by the exercise of a culture of one's own which asserted distinctiveness and claimed the legitimacy of tradition. Food took its place in the assertion of public identity and the waging of class competition.

The ways in which people eat have changed and developed, and are the culinary dimensions of a population for whom the term ‘multiculturalism’ is inadequate or simply misleading. Multiculturalism suggests a range of autonomous and comprehensive cultures whose members will share common characteristics in all aspects of their identity. The condition of the people of the British Isles is far more complex, varied, and flexible than this and offers far more opportunities for the creative and innovative cultivation of identity.

Eating, like other dimensions of identity, cultivates both association and distinction through a range of practices which are, or are presented as being, foreign, traditional, rational, or esoteric. As with identity cultivation by other means, identification through food both associates with a broad category of others, and refines that same category to distinguish individuals within it. I eat, therefore I am. The upper classes, and those who cultivated a distinction from the mass, ate in French, or at least did so in restaurants and on formal public or corporate occasions. In the popular public sphere, away from the culture of the elite, foreign food, let alone foreign names, was disdained, and insofar as it was considered to display precise and excessive concern with the preparation and consumption of food, was contrasted with the plain fare and no-nonsense cuisine of the British Isles. Even the term for elite cuisine was foreign – haute cuisine not high cuisine. But a softening and diversification of social ranks in the second half of the twentieth century involved a change in the use of foods whose origin, or alleged origin, was in other parts of the world. The end of empire and the withdrawal of the British state to the British Isles was followed by the arrival of cuisines from around the world, and not only from places whose maps had previously been coloured red. Menus in French continued to signify a claim to distinctive refinement, but the arrival of Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Asian restaurants and takeaways was part of a growth of popular eating which eroded and transcended the former class distinction between eating in English and eating in French. Curry had had a place on some dining tables much earlier, but as an exotic sauce added to conventional dishes, initially in the homes of those who had brought the novelty back from India. Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had surprisingly little impact on this pattern. Curry may have represented the culinary lessons of India, but those lessons, or an appropriately processed version of them, did not become a significant part of eating in the British Isles until the end of empire was followed by the arrival of the children of former imperial subjects. Actual foreign menus, or versions of them accommodated to current popular tastes in Britain, were brought directly by those from whose cultures the cuisine derived. The new arrivals in British high streets sold both at their own tables and for takeaway, joining the prepared-food market at its most popular level, and sharing company with fish and chips. Foreign eating, which had previously marked off those at the top of the social and income scale, like clothes, no longer served to distinguish, or easily distinguish, privilege.

The popularity of Indian, Chinese, and Italian restaurants from the 1950s was paralleled, or at least accompanied, by a heightened interest in indigenous British cuisine, and the works of Theodora Fitzgibbon or Gary Rhodes were a small antiphonal response to the arrival of foreign tastes. The assertion of culinary identity responds to innovation, difference, and the challenge of the unfamiliar or the foreign. The English did not discover that they had a cuisine until the arrival of Chinese and Indian restaurants and French cookery books. And, paradoxically, the search for roots and tradition in the tables of the nineteenth century or the kitchens of the eighteenth or seventeenth, whilst recovering earlier ways of eating, recovered also the fact that menus are the result of choice, change, invention, and innovation. The Christmas turkey was an import from the United States, the Burns Night haggis a nineteenth-century invention rapidly exported south across the border.

For this reason the presence of ways of eating which have been imported does not signify that there is no indigenous cuisine. The cuisine is the whole complex, and is necessarily and always made up of distinct elements, many of which, taken by themselves, will be recent and foreign, or will appear to be so. Distinction depends on and is nurtured by contrast. It would not make sense to go to a café for a full English breakfast before the arrival of croissants. It is not chips, but chips with everything, that distinguishes a particular identity for both the observer and the consumer, and the celebration of the chip shop had to wait until rival food outlets were on the street. The history of chips illustrates the flexibility of meaning. Chips with everything could be regarded with horror from above as a sign of the cultural poverty of the masses. Fish and chips by the seaside could, at another time, be the elites’ application of the games of Mary Antoinette, or the cultural patriots’ celebration of the uniqueness of British popular cuisine.

Eating and drinking, both what is consumed and where it is consumed, have carried both assurance and stigma. A combination of consumption in public and consumption by people whose identity jars with dominant modes provides occasion for elite dismay and disapproval. Coffee houses in the eighteenth century provided forums for radical and oppositional politics, and coffee bars in the second half of the twentieth century attracted distrust as havens of loud music, unorthodox clothes and hair, and unpredictable juvenile exuberance. They were each seen, both by those who frequented them and by those who abhorred them, as part of a culture at one remove from the normal, for the frequenters one remove up or out, for the abhorrers one remove beyond. The coffee house, the pub, the fish-and-chip shop, all stand halfway between the privacy of the household and the publicness of the street. The human traffic of this public eating and drinking ebbs and flows, and by the start of the twenty-first century had spread to even more public and visible forms as urban midday meals were sold at a busy turmoil of temporary street stalls. Eating in the street, which had long been considered amongst the socially aspiring as the mark of the uncouth, became the lunchtime sophistication of busy workers of all kinds. Cuisine, like all the other components of identity, carried no inherent significance, but was flexible to the point of reversal in the associations and distinctions it announced.

Public and private spaces

An Englishman's home may be his castle, and an Englishwoman's commune hers, but public identity, whilst nurtured in the household, is cultivated and created in the spaces between households, the public spaces which architecture defines and which practice and custom can reinterpret. Public space, and the architecture which shapes and occupies it, is more permanent than clothing, or diet, or language, and rather more difficult to alter or remove. But its meaning is not solid and fixed in the way that its structure is, and even its most blatant or vociferous symbols and statuary can fade from the notice of later generations, or be seen by them in new and surprising ways.

The use of space is both an assertion of a right derived from identity, and the cultivation or announcement of identity. People who have access to a restricted space say both that their identity entitles them to the privilege, and that they are to be identified as people who occupy such a privileged space. Occupying the space is both an entitlement of privilege and a component of it, a claim to a privilege and a public display of a privileged identity. The use of space in a hierarchical or an unmobilised society is critically different from its use in mobilised or democratising ones. In an unmobilised society there is no public space. Space is the monopoly of the dominating elite, and the mass of the population has access to it only by permission, and in a subordinate role.

The absence of public space is not the same as the absence of any form of collective space. In an unmobilised society, or more precisely a population in which there is no society in the sense of a comprehensive collective identity, there will be social territories, patches of collective, private, space. These are spaces where private activities are carried out – streets, markets, bridges. But unless use is necessary to a particular purpose such as market-stall trading, an elite will claim privileged use whether by the actual exclusion of the majority of the population, or by the assertion of various forms of preference in use and access. Where members of the population at large do exercise rights of access and use, they will be most likely to do so as sharers in an association with local common rights.

Public space is more than space outside the privacy of a household or workplace, and the term ‘public’ indicates more than that the ground is simply in potential sight of other people; it indicates a dimension which is common to a whole population, or to a sufficiently large part of it to deserve being treated as comprehensive. In that sense, a social space outside households and workplaces which excludes children might still be considered public; one which excluded on the basis of gender, ethnicity, language, or religion not at all, or in only a limited and compromised way. The adjective ‘public’ indicates universality, the whole population, and not only universality, but equality.

Even where public spaces exist, there is continual negotiation and contest to define who are the public, and who are to be considered marginal or alien – who may properly be in public spaces, and who should be regarded as interlopers. There is a constant search for distinction, one aspect of which is the narrative of aliens – the excluded, the threatening, the rabble – contrasted with ordinary decent folk. The language of social hierarchy is never very far from the language of social demonology. Accounts in the early twenty-first century of chavs, whose dress and demeanour made them seem, to some, unwelcome and inappropriate in public places, were an instance of a recurring theme, and the alarms and disapprovals recorded by Owen Jones echoed the report by Mass Observation of the celebrations in Glasgow of George VI's coronation in 1937. There was a delicate hint of distant disapproval in the description of crowds:

running about with no aim or purpose. There are a great many drunks. Women in shawls and girls are rubbing their faces with ‘make-up’ that is used for branding cattle in the market. Streaked with blue or red they look like Maoris, or painted savages in a war-dance. They seem capable of anything.

Small gangs in side streets are lighting fires that may become definitely dangerous in congested areas like these. The atmosphere is electric. The people seem to feel that to-night the police are powerless. They can do what they like.51

A society in which all may in principle use public spaces will be, unless it is characterised by an unusual degree of cultural uniformity, one in which the consequent varieties of human public identity will forever provoke complaints, dismay, and attempts at regulation and exclusion. But such a society will be one in which identity, which might be regulated or constrained from above, will at the same time be asserted and cultivated from below.

Space is defined by the ways in which people use it, and by who uses or may use it, and who does not or may not. At the same time, people are defined by their use of space, and rights over space are a dimension of who people are. Whilst public space appears within a mobilised society, and expands in a democratic one, the boundaries between public and private are fluid and shifting. The enclosure of common land in Britain over several hundred years from the sixteenth century redefined both those who profited from enclosure and those who were excluded by it. To enjoy rights over land, to be a landowner, is to cultivate an identity which is marked in part by the contrast with those who enjoy no such rights. In the cities which grew with rational town planning and orderly squares from the eighteenth century, the status of householder and property owner was enhanced by exclusive access to the parks within the squares, land publicly visible but not publicly accessible. The key square followed into the new spaces of enlightenment cities the monopoly and exclusions of space which parks, grouse moors, and enclosed commons constituted in the country. In the use of space to cultivate identity, other dimensions contribute. Whilst access to space is itself a dimension of identity, it can be further regulated by stipulated forms of dress, so that one dimension of identity sustains another. Kensington Gardens in the eighteenth century, whilst open to ‘gentry’, were barred to those who were ‘meanly dressed’.52 Glyndebourne requires evening, and the private spaces at Ascot morning, dress. Space is occupied not only by those who are distinguished by their right to occupy it, but by the attire which both permits their occupation and enhances its distinction.

Common land, whilst never the property of those who enjoyed its use, was a resource used and a space acted in by particular agricultural communities. The enclosure of common land and its creation as private space illustrates how the creation of public spaces was not a homogeneous or unqualified linear progress. Whilst some forms of public space were emerging in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, others were being destroyed by enclosure. A public space precedes or accompanies or contributes to the creation of a public, so that phrases such as ‘members of the public’ or ‘the public’ have meaning only as a social category emerges of people who – whilst not part of a ruling elite – are, aspect by aspect and in a growth which is neither simple, nor irreversible, nor necessarily coherent, more than mere subjects. The emergence of the public, of civil society, of ‘the people’ is the result in part of the broadening downwards of the politically visible and active, and in part of demands upwards from the aspirant but excluded. This was not only a demand to join a world from which they had been barred, but also for the creation of a world in which they played an active, visible, and prominent part. The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1937 was an attempt, eventually successful, to shift boundaries and to make public what had previously been private, or what was seen as having been improperly appropriated as private. A claim for a new world could readily be married with an appeal to ancient rights of the people.53 The boundary between public and private remains mobile; the number of key squares has steadily fallen as they have become public parks, but gated estates have slowly appeared in British cities, as one form of privacy is succeeded by another.

The boundaries between private and public are equally mobile between government and people. By the close of the twentieth century, Buckingham Palace could be visited, as could, though only after decommissioning, the royal yacht Britannia. Members of the public were no longer classified as ‘strangers’ when visiting the House of Commons, and the new premises of the Greater London Authority had glass-walled passages which enabled the people to look down on their representatives. On the other hand, Downing Street, where the official residence of the prime minister is one of a short terrace of houses, was closed to the people, and in the early years of the twenty-first century the Blair government moved to limit public use of public spaces, in terms of both access and what might be done, in an extended area around the Houses of Parliament. Whatever the reasons for these measures, their effect was to visibly accentuate the distance between elected rulers and the populace.

Riot is the most evident incursion into public spaces of either new participants or participants behaving in new and disruptive ways. Disorder and destruction, frequently a mixture of spontaneous and organised actions, have occurred in towns and cities at all times, from before the Gordon Riots of 1780 to the poll-tax riots of the twentieth, and the riots throughout English cities in 2011 in the early years of the twenty-first century. The streets are the resort of those who do not or cannot exercise power or cultivate identity in legislatures, government offices, courts, or the media, and riot the actions of those who, by the very act or rioting, are excluded or outlawed. Riot is a raid on public space, not an occupation or extension of it, and is an incursion from outside the boundaries of the civil and political order. Riot differs, therefore, from another form of law-breaking in public and private spaces – civil disobedience. Theatrical law-breaking, with an intention and assumption that the law will be enforced and penalties imposed, identifies those who carry it out as placing themselves clearly within the existing political and legal order, whilst presenting their dissent from some of the policies pursued there, and at the same time challenging the existing conventions of both public and private space. When women demonstrating against the situating of American cruise missiles at Greenham Common entered the base and picnicked on the missile silos, they were both redefining governed space as citizens’ space, and using active satire to ridicule and call into question the identity and policy of those who deployed nuclear weapons.

Where civil disobedience employs the law against itself, other uses of public places to question policy and extend the public identity of the protestors remain within the law. The use by radicals and trade unionists of processions, banners, assemblies, demonstrations, brass bands, and the street theatre which these provided was not only a claim to inhabit an existing social space, but the creation of a new space. It was the assertion and cultivation of a public identity by those who took part, a vigorous demonstration of a claim not only to occupy an existing space, but to do so in a way which showed new identities of the population and new dimensions of the public space which it now used. The public space thus created or claimed was part of an authoritative, secure, and permanent change, in contrast with the temporary gesture of misrule in rioting. As Mansfield puts it, at a time ‘when radicals and others outside the formal political nation had limited access to the public sphere where permanent monuments were erected, banners provided an important means, not only of ideological declamation, but also of commemoration and memorial.’54

The protocols of public spaces are in this way a measure of the protocols of society. Who is seen in public spaces; what distinctions of class, age, and gender are visible; and how, if at all, these distinctions change are a part of who has a public identity, or claims one, or is denied one. The hostile responses of male politicians and journalists to early twentieth-century demonstrations by female suffrage campaigners was not only a disagreement with their policies or demands, but an attempt to deny their claim, expressed in the act of demonstrating, to be public persons and citizens on at least the same terms as men. Later in the same century, feminist campaigns to ‘reclaim the streets’ were similarly propaganda by the deed; the act of walking at night and in collective confidence in public places was an expression of a right claimed and exercised, and an expression more visible and forceful than the wording of a pamphlet or a placard. The dress which is thought appropriate or inappropriate in public spaces, the persons who wear it, and the identity which they thereby express, are important components of the identities by which society is constituted.

The various uses of the street are mixed and muddled, and real events do not fit exclusively into one category to the exclusion of all others. The unruliness of the coronation crowds in 1937 was a middle point between the misrule of riot and the authoritative assertion of marches, banners, placards, and demonstration. But whatever the character of the actions and behaviour in streets and places public or private, they will both declare and cultivate the identities of those involved, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of those who, with reactions ranging from enthusiasm to outrage, will observe, hear, and report on them. If homes are people's castles, streets are their terraces and pleasure grounds.

Religion, churches and faiths; the return of God, and of religious controversy

In 1750 Charles Edward Stuart travelled incognito to London and received Holy Communion in the church of St Mary le Strand.55 Five years earlier, his Jacobite army had been massively defeated at Culloden Moor, after he had failed to raise any significant or effective support for his claim to the throne once he had crossed the border into England. The political opposition to a Roman Catholic on the throne had been given legislative expression in the 1701 Act of Settlement, and the monarch was required to be in communion with the Church of England. So Bonnie Prince Charlie was maintaining an option, however precarious, on the crown which his grandfather James II had relinquished or been expelled from. The sacrament of Holy Communion was an instrument of dynastic ambition alongside the secular weapon of highland armies. The course of most forms of identity in Britain has, whilst never approaching uniformity, moved away from rigid and ostentatious distinctions of rank, class, or wealth. Religious identity has moved in different directions, and whilst there was never uniformity, equality in variety was only approached in the twentieth century. It might be responded that religious identity is something occasional, active at the passage rites of birth, marriage, and death, but dormant for much of the rest of life or the rest of the week. Yet a decline in regular attendance at Sunday worship in Christian churches has not been paralleled by a decline in the salience of religious identity in public life.

The Vicar of Bray is a much more important figure than suggested in the satirical song which records a succession of opportunistic changes of theological and liturgical loyalties. Changes in the character and prevalence of religious observance which had, for much of the twentieth century, been dismissed as of little public importance, had returned by its end to be treated as an essential strand in the social weave. And approaching religion from the human rather than the divine side, it is the cultivated identities which are most salient. But the other significant fact about the Vicar of Bray is that he is untypical in the severance of religious actions from other aspects of his identity. For much of the period being reviewed, the intractability rather than the fluidity or mere convenience of religious faith and religious identity is what is striking. But whilst religious observance is a component of identity, its relation with other aspects of identity is flexible and unpredictable; in worship and religious practice and ritual, people may parallel, challenge, reject, or transcend other aspects of who they are.

Religion is the ultimate identity by association with another or others, since it is identity with the ultimate other, an identity which has the potential to deny all self-interest. It therefore has a continuing power in relation to other aspects of identity, and the twentieth century, insofar as it can be described as a secular century, was untypical, and the revival of religion, or of awareness of religion, by the century's end is a return to a more usual human practice.

The severity of puritan dress was an expression of a larger identity, but its casting off, and the reaction against it, after 1660 was not simply and solely a symptom of something else. It was itself part of, a dimension of, a cause and a reflection of, a fuller, more many-textured set of actions. People rejected drab because it was Puritan, but they at the same time rejected Puritan because it was drab. Severity of dress was not a reflection of an inner Puritanism, but a part of what it was to be Puritan. It is for this reason that ‘external’ actions and expressions are as much constituents of identity as are ‘internal’ values, thoughts, aversions, or aspirations. What is significant is not simply how people construct their public, social, political selves, but what differences, if any, there are between the constructions in one circumstance and another. There is a further dimension to Puritanism: it followed from the priesthood of all believers, in that any one of the faithful could, and should, express his or her faith through appearance.

The eighteenth century, whilst frequently seen as a time of fading religious enthusiasm whose character was simply emphasised by the contrary zeal of Methodism, began with legislative assertion of religious identity at the pinnacle of public life. No one could ascend to or occupy the throne who was a Roman Catholic, and the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England. To be English was to be Anglican, and below the monarchy communion with the established church was a condition of admittance to the universities or the professions. This legally maintained uniformity of national identity became more difficult to sustain the greater the number of the country's inhabitants who were included as part of its public life. Within an elite, uniformity is more readily achieved than with larger numbers of the population, where the two most accessible alternatives are either toleration and diversity, or coercive orthodoxy. The more a population is mobilised, the greater the potential diversity of religious identity. At the same time, greater mobilisation increases the likelihood of mobilisation within any particular faith. The authority of priesthood is not undermined of necessity in a mobilised society, and can survive and flourish there. But the possibilities of its being qualified by greater lay participation are increased, as are the diversity of forms it may take. In the eighteenth century, as Methodism set out to increase the numbers of those incorporated in the life of the church, it began to assign to the newly mobilised a role which had previously been reserved for the priesthood. Local preachers were laymen and laywomen, who extended their public identity from their existing familial and occupational roles to include that of the preacher and leader of a congregation in worship.

But whilst religious belief and practice may be intense at the start of the twenty-first century, it is both fragmented and a series of minority identities, rather than a comprehensive national identity. The disputes which took place in the sixteenth century over religious identity took place in a society where religious practice, in its smallest particulars, defined a whole people and where government sought, and needed for its own security, orthodoxy of religious practice enforced by law. Cuius regio, eius religio was not only a description of general European practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but a recognition of the dependence of government on agreement between the religious loyalties of princes and those of their subjects. Hence not only physical behaviour, but the meaning to be attached to that behaviour was a matter of deep concern and controversy. The so-called ‘Black Rubric’ of the 1552 and 1662 Books of Common Prayer described what people were doing, and what they were not doing, when they knelt to receive Holy Communion. The controversy surrounding the comings and goings of this descriptive paragraph was part of a society whose identity was cultivated by religious actions and religious beliefs in the smallest particular.56

The diversity of Britain was presented as regional rather than as class or cultural in the official handbook to the Festival of Britain in 1951, which nonetheless told its readers, ‘Britain is a Christian Community. The Christian Faith is inseparably a part of our history. It has strengthened all those endeavours which this Festival has been built to display.’57 But the identity of the population was neither homogeneous nor unchanging. On the one hand distinctive tastes in working-class life may have been slowly eroded by the greater availability of films and lending libraries, but at the same time cultural and regional diversity became more pronounced.58 Heresy makes sense only in a uniform population, and the charge of blasphemy is a feature of a homogeneous society, or of an attempt to create one. Although the last blasphemy trial in the United Kingdom was as recent as 1992, and blasphemy was not removed from the criminal law until 2008, religion in a democratising state no longer created homogeneity. On the one hand was a growth of indifference, on another a move within patriarchal Christianity towards greater lay participation, with lay participation in the Roman Catholic Mass. The tension between patriarchal churches and a society which was edging towards gender equality further broadened the range of beliefs and practices within the population, and the diversity of religious, and non-religious, identities. Within other faiths, particularly Islam, there was both a reassertion of patriarchy and a questioning of male privilege and of the orthodox relations between the sexes.

By the twentieth century, clothing had long ceased to be significant for religious identity in the Christian churches. Different conceptions of church and faith were still cultivated in part by differences in dress, which not only distinguished between genders, but assigned different roles, responsibilities, and duties to them. A priest in clothes indistinguishable from those worn by ordinary members of the public creates an identity distinct from that of a colleague wearing a cassock, whilst a biretta contributes to yet another identity. But by the end of the century the importance of clothing within elements of Islam had become publicly apparent and a matter not just of personal identity but of collective doctrine and controversy. Where in the vestments controversy of the sixteenth century it was the clothing of priests that was the issue, in the twentieth century controversy within and beyond Islam, the clothing of laywomen was the issue, both for Muslim women wishing to wear distinctive clothing and for Christian women wishing to wear distinctive ornaments. The identity of the ordinary faithful in a mobilised and democratising society had achieved an importance which in less mobilised times was most heavily evidenced in concern over the identity of the religious elite – priests, ministers, and pastors.


Appearance may not be the most important aspect of identity at times of revolution, uncertainty, and transition, but its importance is most frequently discussed at such moments. The French Revolution throughout its course was the occasion for intense discussion of everything from hats to sashes, from playing cards to crockery. The course of events in the British Isles has been less churned about by revolution, but the role of appearance in constituting that change has been no less important, if not always so evident. At times of transition and uncertainty, the concern for presentation and display can be intense, demanding, and uncompromising; in settled periods it is likely to be assured, confident, and resistant to change. By the final quarter of the twentieth century in the British Isles, uncertainty had intensified both the assertion of varied identities and the demand for at least recognition, and at most auxiliary status, in others. At the point furthest away from governing elites, this took the form of the demand for ‘respect’ in teenage gangs. A mark of the uncertainty with which identity is cultivated can be the ferocity with which demands are made on others to acknowledge it. And while debates over the place of religion in public life and over the identities which doctrine and tradition required or made possible were not violent, they were conducted with intense and divisive passion.

One contribution to the passions which were aroused in the politics of identity was the fact that familiar comprehensive packages, while they had never been as universal or as neat as some hoped, no longer provided easy keys to identity. Whilst the smallest aspects of identity may be taken as indicative of an entire personality, there was increasingly no simple, rigid, or universal correspondence between one aspect and another. It is a measure of the fragmentation of identity by the end of the twentieth century that these apparently predictable correspondences were dissolving, and that following the hounds said nothing about views on nationalisation or nuclear deterrents, or tweed suits about knowledge or ignorance of contemporary pop.

What the experience of the British Isles illustrates is that the ways in which identity is cultivated shift and mutate, and that a dimension of identity which is important at one time can be marginal at another. Clothing can be more important than language, language than clothing. But the shifting and turbulent course of public identities also undermines any account of social character which argues or assumes that change is linear, simple, irreversible, predictable, or along a single track from which no deviation occurs. Even the attempts to reverse changes or impose allegedly traditional uniformities bear witness to the certainty of continual flux.

The British Isles contain a vertically diverse as well as a horizontally stratified population. There is ironic truth in Margaret Thatcher's remark about the abstractness of the idea of ‘a society’, for a single homogeneous culture, ‘society’, was exactly what she valued, but not only had this never existed, but ‘society’ at the time of her remark was moving towards growing cultural and individual variety and unpredictability. Voices protesting against multiculturalism, whether in Olympic ceremonies or varieties of faith, as alien to British tradition illustrate, by their own particular narratives, the prevalence of that very cultural diversity which they denounce, and the role of constantly asserted and innovated identities in its creation and cultivation. The identity of the people of the British Isles has always been shifting and vigorously varied; by the start of the twentieth century it was flourishing, a full orchestra of identities producing both polyphony and cacophony.


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2 Shaw, Pygmalion, p. v.
3 Hoock, ‘Nelson Entombed’, p. 134.
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5 Randall Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Post-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 212.
6 Paul Rich, ‘Patriotism and the Idea of Citizenship’, in Ursula Vogel and Michael Moran (eds), The Frontiers of Citizenship (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 101.
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13 Anna Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power (London: Continuum Books, 2008), pp. 160–5.
14 Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition.
15 Frank Prochaska, Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).
16 David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”, c. 1820–1977’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, pp. 101, 116.
17 Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning’, p. 110.
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19 Prochaska, Royal Bounty.
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26 IPSOS/MORI, ‘Britons are more proud of their history, NHS and army than the Royal Family’, IPSOS/MORI, 21 March 2012,
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36 McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, p. 36.
37 Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 203.
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50 Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), pp. 5–6.
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54 Nicholas Mansfield, ‘Radical Banners as Sites of Memory: The National Banner Survey’, in Pickering and Tyrell, Contested Sites, p. 81.
55 Paul Kléber Monod, Jacobitism and the English People, 1688–1788 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 154.
56 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 525–30.
57 Conekin, The Autobiography of a Nation, p. 118.
58 Robert James, Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930–1939: A Round of Cheap Diversions? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).


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