Exploring the myths of British identity that emerged during and after the Second World War and how they often fail to fully acknowledge the wider realities of that conflict and life in postwar Britain. Failure to acknowledge the contributions of African, Carribean and Asian men and women during and after the Second World War (not to mention the First World War) sets the stage for the current mistreatment of the Windrush generation in Britain, including deportation and discrimination, by the Home Office, Government and wider public.
Header image: Edit of “The Jamaican Home” by Jim Grover, from Windrush Portrait: Celebrating South London’s Caribbean Community, on Culture Trip.
Myths are often depicted as mysterious relics of a human society or strange curiosities. A sign of past ignorance before the enlightening science provided relevant explanations for natural and social phenomena. Yet human societies still have deep connections to certain myths about themselves and what appear like crude figurines to one person are another’s priceless treasures. These myths serve a range of purposes. They simplify the intricate and innumerable versions of the past, they bond an insider group or community, or teach a lesson about what we still choose to value from the past.
Families retell those potent stories which bond us together by symbolising a collective character just as nations do. Some are outright success stories – rags to riches, escaping the run down town, and so on. Others distill decisive moments of conflict, danger and transformation.This holds true for larger communities: religious groups, cities, nations, even continents and species.
In my family we endlessly begged to hear the tale of my great grandmother’s rebellious escape from school after being canned by her teacher. She scales the fence, kicking off some bigger boys with her hobnail boots before running off to find her father drunk in the pub. He marched her back to school to threaten the teacher. Meanwhile, my grandmother (her daughter) went on to become a very kind and nurturing teacher. For me the morals of the story were numerous, including that we ought to stand up for ourselves and would be supported and believed if we did so.
Those positive or proud legacies can be used to overshadow shameful and selfish moments. In my case the awe at my grandmothers escape overshadows her fathers days in the pub. A story of shame and physical humiliation, becomes a point of pride. This is not to critique myth inherently or suggest no truth and value can be found here. But myths always need to simplify, redirect and elevate (or alternatively denigrate) in order to inspire, but they cannot serve to replace realities we ought to face, nor the empathy we owe those experiences falling outside of its golden glow. The meaning still derived from many modern myths, can lead to a painful awakening if anyone attempts to disturb those dreams.
The Insider Myth: Britain and the Second World War
The collective memory of the Second World War remains amongst the most, perhaps the most, influential British national narrative. It is a patchwork myth with hundreds of sources: film, advertising, propaganda posters, family reminiscences, documentary films, history lessons and so on. It is undeniable that British people made significant sacrifices, many risking or giving up their lives, in support of the war effort and wartime government. However the persistent through line reflects my grandmothers story: the plucky underdog (my grandmother/Britain) honourably defies the brutal violent power (the cruel teacher/Nazi Germany) and comes out on top with the help of a bigger brasher friend (her drunk father/ the United States). Jokes aside this notion of the plucky and exceptional defender of liberty and democracy has a habit of ignoring the pertinent political and economic realities of the past, which had a direct impact on
Plucky – Whilst the memory of major conflicts repeatedly cast Britain as a ‘plucky underdog’, a story we still repeat for the national football team. This was especially the case for the Battle of Britain, one of the few conflicts to occur over Britain itself (see History Extra’s article unpacking why this was not the case during the Battle of Britain). However, Britain’s control over the world’s largest empire somewhat undermines this narrative. The pivotal contributions of the empire, from which Britain drew heavily to provide supplies and personnel have been widely emphasised by historians and appear clearly in a wide range of online resources. Nevertheless, they are not part of the popular imagination and we usually see unsettling and complex events related to the use of empire (like the Bengal Famine, 1943) being downplayed or even left out when it comes to historical epics, biopics, and TV shows.
Above: Pilots of No 610 Squadron RAF stage a mock scramble at RAF Biggin Hill in 1940. Via:
Above: The Battle of Britain Memorial, Victoria Embankment, London. Via: The London Helicopter.
Exceptional – Whilst each nation had a unique role to play in this global conflict the notion of Britains exceptionalism simultaneously denied and acknowledges the wider global picture. British exceptionalism is often cast in that same underdog mode, in which Britain is charmingly disorganised in the face of extreme fascist discipline. This is paired with an acknowledgement that this exceptionalism was also found in the form of maritime and economic power, the former of which helped to secure an empire, the later of which was largely drawn from empire, whether due to the exploitation of labour, cheap export of goods, or investment of profits into domestic industry. The use of the underdog narrative becomes more clear in this respect, because it allows us to cast British sea power and economic clout as almost incidental, a national characteristic, a result of natural industriousness, rather than directly related to the exploitation of other peoples and their resources. In turn that maritime and industrial exceptionalism is used to justify that dominance rather than being understood as inextricably linked to and drawn from it.
Defender of Liberty and Democracy against Fascism – Whilst the value of defeating the Nazi regime in Germany is self-evident to us today, it is often casually implied that British people fought WW2 to defend certain moral values. History text books, scholarship and primary sources on the other hand do not tend to suggest this. Although there are a wide range of explanations offered, most emphasise the need to maintain the balance of power in Europe by limiting German expansion, in this case honouring Britain’s guarantee to support their ally, Poland. Meanwhile, public responses to a Mass Observation questions immediately following the war indicate high base levels of antisemitism and hostility to Jewish refugees in the general population, a fact more dramatically highlighted by several prominent fascist groups active during that period. Internal variation is inevitable within a nation but it chafes against a fantasy not only of national unity but of the virtuous sacrifice that validates the pain and suffering endured in the name of the conflict.
Outsiders and Others
If most myths are crucial to develop an inside group to whom the story applies (my family are hard-working in the face of adversity, my country is exceptionally polite etc…), they can just as easily be used to ‘other’ outsiders. This is most effective when a myth about the inside group and outside group are combined, setting them off against one another in allegorical contrast.
One of many examples might be the religious myth of the ‘Generations of Noah’, which was used not only to explain racial differences across the continents but later to reinforce racial hierarchy and difference. This myth held that following the devastation of the great flood (in Genesis chapter 6-9) the sons of Noah – Shem, Ham and Japheth – were the original ancestors of the various races of the earth. An interest in Noah’s genealogy dates back to the early medieval period (see Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century etymological encyclopaedia Etymologiae / Origins, which was used as a textbook throughout the middle ages). However, in the 18th century race became a crucial part of this story when scholars from University of Göttingen used the story as the basis of a myth that the races of man were descended from the sons of Noah.
The ‘Semites’ referred to Jewish people, or those who spoke Hebrew and Arabic languages who were supposedly descended from Shem because his genealogy included Abraham and therefore the Israelites more generally. Those adhering to Abrahamic religions or later white people generally were termed ‘Japhetites’, supposed descendants of Japheth. Whilst, the ‘Hamites’ referred to North African people, and were claimed to be the descendants of the cursed son of Noah, Ham. The abundance of long and complex genealogies and religious intricacies in this historical narrative indicate the marginal place of history in university education in this period, as it usually was only included tangentially alongside rhetorical and theological studies.
The origins of an academic history in Europe can be seen in this myth, rooted in the desire to unify religion and science to produce a coherent and simplified narrative that could account for the variety of cultures and peoples. This myth was further used not to emphasise a shared origin for all people (i.e. Noah) but to suggest a racial hierarchy.
For instance, it was used in the 19th century by those wishing to explain and defend the slavery of black people by white people. Amongst the most horrendous examples is Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843) the extremely racist tract written by Josiah Priest an American creator of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical literature (1788-1861) who used the “curse of Noah, upon Ham and his progeny” (black people) to explain and justify the fulfilment of that prophecy by the descendants of “Japheth, or the white nations” in the form of brutal enslavement. Priest was amongst the most racist voices of his era, contributing directly to the violence of the Civil War and setting the stage for the ‘Trail of Tears’, the forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americans who were displaced from their ancestral homelands and died in their thousands following the passage of the 1830 ‘Indian Removal Act’.
The curse of Ham is used by Priest to contrast with the blessing of Japheth in a black vs white. This extreme example is part of a wider dynamic of hierarchical contrast found throughout European art and poetry during the early modern (see: images of white mistresses with small and very dark skinned black pageboys) which has found new expression in the modern era in stories large and small that seek to classify and differentiate us from them. From a British perspective those ‘others’ are often those who were elided from narratives of national heroism and glory, imperial subjects whose domination also relied on racial hierarchies and biblical precedent.
For example, in his article ‘Racial thought in early colonial Australia’, H. Reynolds has indicated that by the 18th and 19th centuries the theoretical emphasis of some enlightenment philosophers on universal equality had been overtaken by the notion of the ‘great chain of being’. A hierarchical chain topped by European men, moving down through the supposedly lower races, finally through the animals. As Reynolds shows many “colonists placed the Aborigines on the lowest link of the chain” presented as a “connecting link between man and the monkey tribe”. This was further developed through various ‘scientific’ racial theories that used skulls taken from Aborigines to dubiously prove their inferiority and atavism. Whilst phrenology may seem ridiculous to us now it was highly popular in Britain during the mid 19th century, whilst lecturers toured Australia to speak on the subject until the 1860s. Racial harassment and slurs regarding the connection made in this period between the black person and the monkey remain a common way in which to degrade and dehumanise and altogether ‘other’ non-white people.
‘The notion of ‘othering’ in sociology (and now numerous humanities subjects) describes this process of ‘us and them’ thinking that has been enshrined into many myths. Colleen MacQuarrie in the Encyclopedia of Case Study Research (2010) writes that:
“Broadly speaking, the term othering is understood as an undesirable objectification of another person or group. In these social processes, othering is a process of stigmatization that defines another in a negative manner. This comparison of the other is often made in the service of one’s own positive alterior identity.
Objectification and stigmatization are both dehumanising, not only transforming a human being into an object but into an undesirable, unclean or somehow unwholesome object. When these two processes are taken to an extreme that ‘other’ can suddenly be violated in horrifying ways. These ideas are central to notions of ‘ethno-nationalism’ (i.e. citizenship based on race, ethnicity or sometimes religion) and related notions of racial ‘science’ and eugenics as illustrated in the ‘Generations of Noah’. However, such ideas rarely appear as starkly and obviously as this and it is often more useful to consider how myths shift and compete for prominence as values change.
Whilst the story of Noah’s sons has been used in extreme ways and represents a particular form of religious and pseudo-scientific mythology it is always important to be aware of how myths that bond and benefit insiders tend to exclude and encumber outsiders. Whilst myths of belonging serve many useful emotional purposes their effects can be especially harmful when the inside group is a majority that holds most political, economic and social power. Power through which the overt as well as the subconscious imbibing of certain myths is expressed with harmful results, often against a highly abstracted group.
As john a. powell (sic), director of the UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute, states:
The stories we tell, and live, are not about facts but our values, fears and hopes – all of which, to a certain degree, are malleable. Our narratives don’t just reflect them, they also shape them. While anxiety about change is natural, Othering is not. Othering is socially and culturally constructed.
British National Identity – Who’s in and who’s out?
Stories of underdog heroism, exceptional valour and stoic sacrifice are no doubt one part of the immense range of experiences and actions that made up this global conflict. However, the sidelining of the use of the empire and the contribution of colonised people in this pivotal conflict lay the groundwork for racial conflict in Britain through the second half of the twentieth century.
The British Empire and Commonwealth Map from the Library and Archives of Canada. Via: Northern Postcolonial Network.
The contributions of the colonised (see map above) during the Second World War were famously recognised by the Nationality Act of 1948 (read in full here), which granted British citizenship to the subjects of colonies and the Commonwealth. I have chosen to focus here on West Indian people who moved to Britain in this period because they formed a particular focus of attention in the mid-20th century and at present especially given the hostility of the Home Office to West-Indian-British people.
As many people know, in 1948 the famous Empire Windrush (whilst travelling from Australia to Britain) docked in Kingston, Jamaica to pick up servicemen to travel to Britain in anticipation of the Nationality Act passing. In June of that year it arrived at Tilbury Docks, carrying 1,027 passengers, approximately 400-500 of whom were West Indian. The majority of Caribbean immigration to Britain was concentrated between 1955 and 1962 (see table), and the period from 1948 – 1970 usually covers those considered “the Windrush Generation”, named after that symbolic voyage.
Immigrants from the Caribbean arriving at Southampton in 1962 ©Popperfoto/Getty Images. Via: FT.
(Right) House of Commons figures, via Osgerby, p.118
This movement of people to Britain was accelerated by the McCarran Walter Act of 1952, which effectively ended Caribbean immigration to the United States, making Britain an increasingly popular destination, especially as so many West Indian people had been brought up and explicitly educated to see Britain as their mother country. However, as Nicholas Deakin noted in 1969 the transformative effect of this act was widely overemphasised by right wing groups and figures like Enoch Powell who presented it as the act as allowing new and unrestricted movement from the colonies to Britain. As Deakin indicates, during the period of imperial expansion there was no “rigid code of citizenship demarcating the British and non-British”, instead both groups were unified by loyalty to the crown.
The vestiges of this royal-centric version of imperialism can still be found in the wording of the 1948 act, as part 2, section 20, subsection 3a states that “the Secretary of State may by order deprive any citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies” their citizenship if that citizen “has shown himself by act or speech to be disloyal or disaffected towards His Majesty”. Arguable the 1948 act and subsequent backlash emerged as nationalism authoritatively replaced royalism to become the new default system within which citizens moved. In this new nationalist landscape the terms of citizenship were open to remoulding, and many figures in this period ardently promoted a ethno-nationalist version of Britain based on racial characteristics. Whilst their language ranged from the highly racial to the overwrought and classical (e.g. Powell) they were all highly focused on immigration policy, which they depicted as the way in which to best control the racial makeup of Britain.
This emerged in the context of a hostile reaction to the changing demographics of Britain in the fifties and sixties filled with numerous racial prejudices and stereotypes. These included unofficial ‘colour bars’ which involved limiting:
- Work – Purposefully not hiring Black or Asian people for certain jobs (see famous case of the colour bar on Brisol’s buses), leading many to work below their skill or experience level.
- Housing – Landlords, agents and neighbours made it more difficult for Black and Asian people to find housing, get mortgages and remain in their homes.
- Social Life – Either due to wary and rude attitudes or explicit hateful speech towards them many Black and Asian people were made to feel unwelcome in pubs, clubs, cafés and churches. When these communities formed their own social spaces to enjoy comfortably they could be criticised for ‘not integrating’ despite this wide range of barriers to their acceptance that were reinforced by white people either due to prejudice, self-interest (less competition) or complacency.
They also involved negative (an unsettlingly familiar) stereotypes about Black and Asian people that presented them as unclean, un-British, living off benefits, and stealing houses and jobs from white people and attracting white women away from white men. These ideas resulted in numerous violent incidents and bolstered the unofficial colour bars noted above, which were then recasts as attempts to counteract these unfounded myths.
At this crucial moment in British history prominent conservative and far right figures like Enoch Powell (who I will not quote) regressed to a mythic medieval vision of an all white, valorous, Christian Britain that ought to be sought as the empire collapsed all around. The fifties and sixties were a period of rapid economic, political and social transformation in Britain during which national identity was being remoulded and various forces sought to intervene to cast it in a particular image.
There is little value in feeling personal guilt about events that occurred beyond your control and before your time, but if you do feel guilty knowing that Britain was not so idealised during and after the Second World War it is especially important to be curious about why. Shame and guilt around these topics prevents us from facing the full magnitude of past events which has led us to this moment, to issues like the Windrush scandal. It is because so many of us are deeply emotionally attached to the myth of the plucky, exceptional and principled Britain, that those elements that challenge that comfortable story are often defensively rejected.
The comfort blanket of the myth can be as appealing as I found the story of my grandmother’s bold escape and her father’s defence of her. The realisation that Britain’s self mythology is flawed mirrors the universal experience of disenchantment with a parent as we realise they are not only flawed but that as a result we are likely damaged in some way. For my great grandmother there was the painful realisation that her father was not quite the hero who defended her on that day. For far more West Indian’s arriving in Britain during the twentieth century there was the brutal realisation mother-land did not offer the reunion they had been told to expect.
Lord Kitchener, London is the Place for Me. Available on ‘London Is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso In London, 1950-1956’, Honest Jon’s Records, 2003.
“London is the Place for Me” is a calypso song written by Aldwyn Roberts that was first performed (under his stage name Lord Kitchener) at the Tilbury Docks upon the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and was captured by Pathe newsreel cameras (see below).
- Stephen Bourne, The Motherland Calls, Britain’s Black Servicemen & Women, 1939-45. The History Press, 2012.
- Colleen MacQuarrie, “Othering,” in the Encyclopedia of Case Study Research, edited by Albert J. Mills, Gabrielle Durepos & Elden Wiebe. Sage, 2010.
- john a. powell, “Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them,” The Guardian, November 8, 2017. Accessed: here.
- Richard T. Vann, “Historiography, Johann Christoph Gatterer and the Göttingen scholars,” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 17, 2020. Accessed: here.
- Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017.
- James Holland, “The Battle of Britain: a brilliant triumph that involved far more than just the chosen few,” History Extra, 2015. Accessed: here.
- Marek Pruszewicz, “How Britain and Poland came to be intertwined,” BBC News, September 1, 2014. Available: here.
- Elliott Green, “Civic vs. ethnic nationalism in Britain: lessons from the UK Supreme Court,” London School of Economics and Political Science, September 20, 2019. Accessed: here.
- Nicholas Deakin, “The British Nationality Act of 1948: A Brief Study in the Political Mythology of Race Relations.” Race 11, no. 1 (July 1969): 77–83.
- Elizabeth Jones, “The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963.” Black History Month, September 7, 2018. Accessed: here.
- “Global Britons at war: from service to settlement.” Our Migration Story, https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/oms/british-servicemen-from-around-the-world
Other Relevant or Interesting Reading
- History: Amos Ford, Telling The Truth: The Life And Times Of The British Honduran Forestry Unit In Scotland. London: Karia Press, 1985 // Sam King, Climbing up the Rough Side of the Mountain. Upfront Publishing; New Ed edition, 1998 // Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington, We Served: the Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II, 2005 // Marika Sherwood, Many Struggles: West Indian Workers and Service Personnel in Britain 1939–45, 1985 // Stephen Bourne, War to Windrush, Jacaranda Books, 2018 // David Matthews, Voices of the Windrush Generation: The real story told by the people themselves, Blink Publishing, 2018.
- Fiction: Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, Penguin, 1956 // Andre Levy, Small Island, 2004 // Bernardine Evaristo, Mr. Loverman, Penguin, 2013 // E.R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love, Jove, 1990.