Monday, 12 December 2011

No thanks, I'll keep my identity!

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.'
They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."
Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women's Own magazine, October 31 1987


Whenever issues crop up regarding European Union treaties and Britain’s level of involvement, my mind backtracks to my days at University. There were two core modules I took at two different universities and both explored the definition of Britishness and British identity.

The Unanimous slant of the modules was the UK prides itself on being a sovereign nation and will kick against any measures that appear to erode its autonomy. The language was always ‘we can’t hand any more power to Brussels’.

Equally, in the media, British identity has been widely discussed and the overall perception is that Britain is losing its identity to Europe.

(Poll by Guardian newspaper UK, 2008)

So when British PM, David Cameron, vetoed a new EU treaty aimed at tightening fiscal policies in the Eurozone it came as no surprise to me. During a summit held last week (8th-9th December, 2011), 26 countries signed up to a treaty that sets out tougher budget rules. It is aimed at preventing a repeat of the current Eurozone crisis.

New rules include:

• a cap of 0.5% of GDP on countries' annual structural deficits

• "automatic consequences" for countries whose public deficit exceeds 3% of GDP

• a requirement to submit their national budgets to the European Commission, which will have the power to request that they be revised

Cameron’s decision to opt out of the treaty has elicited much criticism and commendation.

Critics say the UK has placed itself in a precarious position where it can be easily marginalised, while supporters believe the UK is better off without the EU.

Only time will tell if Britain has made the right decision. However, in my opinion, PM’s reaction highlights issues of nationality and perceived identity.

I will compare countries' identities to an individual's identity. There are many components that make up an individual – some fixed and some variable. For instance the colour of a person’s skin, his/her gender and physical attributes such as height, are fixed.

Other things like financial status, nationality and even personality are subject to change.

Now it is the prerogative of the individual to set out the parameters of who he/she is. Therefore a person is who he/she imagines him/herself to be.

The same goes for nations.

In his book, ‘Imagined communities,’ Academic Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an ‘imagined political community.’

It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them. Yet in their minds they carry an image of shared affinity and sense of belonging between them.

The UK has a population of 62 million. Each British person imagines him/herself to be part of a wider community of Brits, even though he/she has never met them.

What the community provides for its members is a sense of identity and belonging.

Kathryn Woodard in her book ‘Identity and difference’(2002) argues that we build identity through difference. For instance, flags, uniforms, colours can be used to represent our difference.

Hence one way of defining Britishness would be: we are British because we are NOT European. That means not being part of the single currency. It also means limiting the amount of power the European Commission can exercise over British financial institutions.

Attempts to further integrate with Europe would threaten the nation’s definition of who it is. Just like an individual that has drawn the parameters of who he/she is, the person will fight hard to maintain the status quo.

Britain is not an exception. Haven’t you found yourself wondering sometimes why German Chancellor Angela Merkel never speaks English? Or why French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks French unfailingly at international conferences? That sheds light on the parameters of their identity as people and countries.

Former Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, throughout his presidency stuck to a native dress code. Again, that said a lot about his sense of identity.

What I’d like to know is if we are better off with these distinctive identities.

Is it necessarily a bad thing if the world becomes homogenous? Would it be detrimental if we did away with national flags, passports, native languages, territorial barriers? Okay, that would be extreme. But how flexible should a country be in maintaining the parameters of its identity and accepting change when due?

How far would you go to defend the definition of you?

A poem:

Becoming ‘Me’

Wheels are rolling, the train rattles on

Charging down the slope with full momentum

Ebbs and tides of memories,

Conversations from the past

Rebound like echoes in my head

Memories of the past rear

Their head

They run after me; tear at me relentlessly

I am thousands of miles away but I can’t run away from me

I cannot run away from home

The place where I became me

Home is the taste on your lips that won’t go away

Home is the laughter that regurgitates in

Your head

It is the place a carefree boy frolicked in his underpants

Where he climbed the mango tree

And unhinged ripe juicy mangoes

It is the place he ate roasted corn off the cob

It is the place soldier ants attacked his

Sweet sticky fingers in bed at night

Time flies by dreams multiply

Hunger, thirst, starvation

Mosquitoes, malaria

Suffering, suffocation

Corruption, disruption harum-scarum,

Cackling laughter, clapping hands

Effusive expressions

Lives merge

Privacy’s submerged

Please take me away from this dizzying mess

Take me to a safe haven of rest

Destiny collides with fate

Life fades into an apparition

Pink pouting lips, cascading hair,

Self-deprecating demeanours

Get me out of this crazy dream

Democracy, refreshing reliability

Efficiency, opportunities,

What on earth is this dream?

Counsellors, commercialised compassion

Lost humanity

Come be my countryman

Don’t be my countryman

Come stay with me

Run away from me

We are silent trees swaying on the underground

We are mute objects hurtling though the streets

We are crazy creatures denying

One another’s existence

I matter to me

I am somebody

But matter to nobody

I want to hate you and

I want to love you, so

I love you because I can’t hate you and

I hate you because I can’t love you

I strive to be somebody

But end up becoming nobody

I am caught up in an endless stream

I become nothing but a flag, a figure

A colour

A name on paper

I am everything

I am me

(by Lydia Oluchi Ugwu)


  1. A writer and a poet. Only few have such 'double' talent. Anyway, the poem says it all. No matter how hard we try, we can't completely run away from our identity. Even pretence makes one's whole sense of identity glaring. Take late MJ for example. No matter how white his skin became, friends, relatives, partners and fans knew him as a black man. Nice post. I'M A NIGERIAN, but I love English wear anyway.

  2. Thanks a million, Lanre. I was beginning to wonder if the post was utterly off track, with no comments.

    I think defining a person's identity sometimes is elusive. But like the poem suggests, it is the place you identify with most...loving English wear is highly permissible. Mixing cultures, traditions etc is what makes the world interesting.