Identity on the Rails

In their book ‘Understanding National Identity’ [1] Professors David McCrone and Frank Bechhofer explain that national identity can be best understood as the connecting ‘hinge’ between the system we exist within and our individual reactions to that system. Whilst the hinge does not determine our action it can in certain circumstances be the pivot around which we conceptualise issues. Politics and identity are often seen by the public as separate entities but the reality is that our own sense of communal attachment and belonging can be relevant to our political decisions in certain contexts.

In 2018 I got a lesson in how this sense of communal attachment is perceived to have worn away. I was getting a train from Winchester to London and was in a rush so mistakenly jumped on the slow service. The train rapidly became standing room only with at least 15 people squeezed into the vestibule between the carriages. Pulling into Farnborough an elderly lady boarded and as she entered she turned back to the platform and began to struggle with a large suitcase. A man in a tracksuit who was also boarding offered his assistance and lifted it on. She thanked him and, in a fluster, moved away from me to the very far end of the vestibule.

She was now surrounded by several people. On one side of her was a younger man in a suit, on the other a second older gentleman wearing a polo shirt. Under the cramped conditions she looked increasingly uncomfortable and eventually turned to the guy in the tracksuit who helped her on. “I’m dreadfully sorry, but this is my first time on a train. Do you know when we will be getting to Woking as I need to find the RailAir transfer to Heathrow”.

He shook his head and said he was sorry but he didn’t know Woking well enough to say. Much to the lady’s surprise the neighbouring man in the polo shirt interjected with directions to the RailAir transfer along with the location of a lift to help with her bag. During this exchange the younger besuited gentleman pulled out his phone and provided the lady with our precise time into Woking as well as the up to date RailAir bus times. Then a woman opposite the trio jumped in and said, “I’d be happy to scoot your bag over if it helps, I’m getting off here anyway so it’s no bother”. The lady was overwhelmed but appreciative. As the train pulled into Woking she began to visibly well up. Walking towards the door she turned back and said; “I’m sorry, I just didn’t think anyone would help”.

This feeling of separation and the belief that we do not share a desire to support one another plays a small part in a bigger picture of why issues such as Brexit and Scottish independence are now at the forefront of UK politics. National identity plays a role in this but a more profound sense of belonging and feeling supported within society is perhaps even more important. In my own interviews on identity in Scotland and England there was some evidence of respondents identifying this issue, particularly north of the border. Scottish respondents would often express that they did not feel a sense of commonality or mutual support between many of the goals of the Scottish people and their English companions. This was often framed towards the South of England and even more so towards the ‘English establishment’. Brexit was a consistent bone of contention in relation to this, viewed by many Scots as a decision taken against their will. The English respondents on the other hand often cited the absence of attachment to a common sense of European identity as an aspect of their desire for Brexit. In this sense a feeling of commonality, shared goals and identity are increasingly important to UK politics with ongoing issues in Northern Ireland and Wales only reinforcing this.

Perhaps if the specifics of our identity ‘hinge’ were reconceptualised then this sense of distance and its possible political consequences could be reduced. Evidence from the Common Ingroup Identity Model (CIIM) has suggested that attachment to a broader identity which binds different groups together serves to reduce negative views towards supposed ‘outgroups’ [2]. This may implicate the importance of a common sense of British identity. But more importantly it is the context of these identities which is vital rather than simple attachment to them. In this sense we need to imbue our national identity with a stronger sense of commonality, shared goals and mutual support. This may play one small part in helping to fuse together groups who feel increasingly separated and at odds with one another, such as the old and the young or the Scottish and the English. Whilst first-time train journeys may inspire the fear of neglect it is our fellow passengers who remind us that we are not alone. We need to work harder to recognise and support this shared sense of commonality across the political spectrum.

[1] McCrone, D. and Bechhofer, F., 2015. Understanding National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Gaertner, S.L., Dovidio, J.F., Phyllis, A., Anastasio, B., Bachman, A., and Rust, M.C., 1993. The Common Ingroup Identity Model: Recategorization and the Reduction of Intergroup Bias. European Review of Social Psychology. 4(1). pp1-26.