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As the United Kingdom winds itself up for the Queen's Jubilee year Richard Weight's Patriots: National Identity in Britain, 1940-2000 is a timely survey of the forces uniting and disassembling Elizabeth II's dominion. Weight's book takes up where Norman Davies' eye-catching The Isles (1999) left off, and where Tom Nairn's brilliant Break-Up of Britain (1977) gave up. He traces the demise of the self-confident British nationalism of the Victorian age, and its replacement by a multiplication of identities--Celtic, regional, generational, ethnic--all of which have undermined the white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism of 'our' ancestors.
The book is particularly good on the 1940s and 1950s, the author's own area of expertise, showing how the British establishment slowly and reluctantly came to terms with the end of empire and the rise of the welfare state, and failed miserably in its attempts to "police" national identity. Elsewhere, although the book is always provocative and studded with diamonds of detail--on tourism, sport, pop music, films and TV--it becomes too much of a social and cultural history of the recent past. The balance between polemic and analysis is lost, and some of the subtler intricacies of citizenship, devolution, and sovereignty get discarded in the race for the finish. Weight concludes with appropriate ambivalence: few traces of the old jingoism remain amid so much diversity, yet there is considerable life left in the nation-state. As essayists ever since the age of Defoe have realised, debates over the "true Englishman" (and woman) are always interesting, necessarily opinionated, and seldom definitive. This big sprawling book is no exception.--Miles Taylor [via]