In the Helen we had invented, we were defending everything that we no longer had.
And the more it faded the more real we had to say it was.
Christa Wolff, Cassandra
A recent survey found that, whereas in Germany, France and the USA, less than 10 % of respondents said that Britain of all the wartime allies contributed most to the defeat of the Nazis, from British respondents the figure was an alarming 47%. 
It is clear that war frames Britain’s self-understanding to a considerable degree, but the war which is remembered is a war rewritten and reconceived. It is a war which is remembered for bringing a nation together under a common cause (which it did, but contrary to the common understanding, at the same time crime soared). It is a war which lends itself to triumphalism because Britain was on the winning side. But perhaps more profoundly it is a war which can be idealised because (with the exception of the Channel Isles) UK territory was not occupied, which means its inhabitants were not faced with the complex ethical dilemmas that occupied peoples were. As Rab Bennett puts it in his study of moral dilemmas of resistance and collaboration in Nazi-occupied Europe, writing of the different WW2 experience of the UK and USA as compared with other countries involved in the conflict:
Because our countries have not been invaded and garrisoned with enemy troops, we have not had to confront the uncomfortable problems of life under enemy occupation and brutal dictatorship. 
Towards the end of his study, Bennett addresses the question as to what would have happened if mainland Britain had been invaded, and cites Madeleine Bunting’s study of the Channel Islands under Nazi occupation:
The islands’ experience flatly contradicted Britain’s dearest and most complacent assumptions about the distinctness of the British from the rest of Europe. Under occupation, the British behaved exactly like the French, the Dutch or the Danish. 
This is not a condemnation but an acknowledgement that so-called “British exceptionalism” is a myth, one which the nation’s experience in two world wars has fuelled but which ultimately is an illusion.
However, the myth lives on and has received new life in the context of the ongoing debate about Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe and even in its response to the current Covid 19 pandemic.
War & National Identity
Nearly thirty years ago, Danish scholar Ulf Hedetoft published an article comparing “National Identity and Mentalities of War” in the UK, Germany and Denmark.  A “basic assumption” of the article is that ‘the history, symbolism and mentality of war … constitute central elements in the make-up of national identities.’ 
In relation to the UK, Hedetoft cites the (then relatively recent) experience of the Falklands War in 1982, and goes on to suggest that
It is in war and warlike circumstances that the “home fires” really start to burn, that the British appreciate national togetherness. 
In an interesting observation on 1980s political rhetoric in the UK, with disturbing resonances to our own time, Hedetoft observes that:
Throughout the 1980s, the Thatcherites and the New Right tried to keep the people in a state of … war-like emergency, by constantly projecting images of enemies (“within” as well as “without”). Thus strengthening the symbolic putty that keeps the British together more than anything else. 
It is from around this time that the declining observance of “Remembrance Sunday”, with its accompanying red poppies, began a resurgence which continues to the present time.
Can it then be any coincidence then that military metaphors abound in the UK’s approach to Covid 19 ? Although the UK is not alone in making use of metaphors of war and combat in relation to Covid 19, it is in stark contrast to one of Hedetoft’s other subjects, Germany, where they are hardly used. 
Related to the use of military metaphors is the language of heroism. A number of commentators both in the UK and US have critiqued the use of the term “hero” to describe health workers and others, often working without sufficient protective gear. As Charlotte Higgins writes in the Guardian newspaper:
The danger of using the language of heroism is that it mutes critique and debate: heroes aren’t supposed to complain, or speak out about inadequate protective equipment or lack of testing capacity, or to point out what damage years of austerity have done to healthcare provision in the UK. 
And Adina Wise in Scientific American:
A wartime mindset demands death, suffering and sacrifice in the service of one’s country. But a global pandemic should not demand the same of its medical workforce. 
The easy use of the language of heroism is particularly disturbing because it enables “us” to evade our own responsibility for, in this case, supporting successive governments that have reduced funding for essential services. This blog post from 2011 neatly sums up what is going on in this misuse of language:
What if we considered that heroes are scapegoats for bad social behaviour? By calling people heroes for surviving homophobic societies and wars, among other unnecessary circumstances, we create a bit of relief from responsibility for our reality, don’t we? 
This is probably why Hedetoft observes that heroes are ‘socio-cultural constructs, paradoxically more useful to the cult of nationalism dead than alive’ 
But the language of “heroes” presents other dangers too. Those unwilling, or unable, to offer themselves up as “heroes” risk being branded “cowards” – or worse. Newspaper headlines in the UK speaking of medics and unions “preventing” teachers from being heroes because of their insistence on proper protection and precautions from Covid 19 seem to be missing the point – teachers shouldn’t have to be heroes, and if they are, we all share the blame for putting them in that position.
Still Looking Back
This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. 
Nearly forty years on from Hedetoft’s article, it would seem that the UK has moved on very little from his analysis. As he concluded:
Hence, it would seem, the future of war (mentalities) in Europe is less a question of the survival or death of nationalism than of whether or not the European nations will be able to construct a kind of national identity which is truly ‘open to the world’ and independent of the imagery of sacrifice and heroism. 
Events of the past few years seem to have proved that the UK is as yet unable to construct a national identity that is “open to the world”, and that “imagery of sacrifice and heroism” continues to inform British national self-understanding and identity.
On the part of a substantial number of people, there would seem to be no desire to work towards a reconstructed national identity, where openness and co-operation replace myths of war and national heroism. So entrenched is a national self-understanding rooted in myths of wars fought and won that any questioning of the nature and purpose of remembrance is seen as akin to treason, witness the annual outcry over public figures not wearing a red poppy, or the fact that it remains disturbingly easy to evoke the so-called “Blitz spirit”.
Myths, Symbols and National Identity
There had been countries, and borders. It was hard to explain. 
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Many of the stories which are told about a nation’s history are in essence myths, stories we tell because they help us to understand who we are – or, perhaps more accurately, who we think we are. For many in the UK the Dunkirk retreat in 1940, indeed the whole of WW2, continues to be thought of and spoken of in mythic terms. In the same way, many aspects of a nation’s life are seen as symbolic of the nation even if they are in reality little more than accidents of history. Hence rightwing commentator Madsen Pirie can restate (rather than defend) the UK’s adversarial culture, manifested in parliament and legal system, under the heading “We are an adversarial culture” , without offering any arguments for why such a culture might be preferable to the alternatives.
Both myth and symbol operate at a deep level, beyond conscious realisation. Therefore, powerful (and often subliminal) messages can be communicated by evoking them. Furthermore, because they operate at such a level they are in many ways invisible, which is why they lend themselves to manipulation. Some commentators have observed how the NHS has been used during the Covid 19 pandemic as a symbol of national sacrifice to such an extent that the slogan “Save the NHS” has come to overshadow the accompanying slogan “Save Lives”.  Here again we are thinking in terms of symbols, where the NHS is seen as a national symbol, like the flag, and as such something for which one should be prepared to make sacrifices.
The popularity of the wartime “Keep Calm & Carry On” slogan, seemingly ubiquitous on everything from T Shirts to tea towels, is a fascinating example of this dynamic at work. In reality, the slogan was never actually used during the war itself, being viewed as too upbeat. Posters bearing the slogan were printed during WW2 but never officially displayed. Those who did see them at the time were not impressed and it appears that they ended up being pulped.  Yet the slogan has taken on a life of its own and its true history is hardly acknowledged. Ironically, therefore, a slogan that was never used at the time because of fears that public opinion would have found it distasteful, is seen as exemplifying Britishness during WW2 ! Again, what is important is not what actually happened but the ways in which the myth or symbol help us to feel good about ourselves now.
Coined by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) the term “cultural hegemony” refers to those things which people take for granted as common sense even when they know little about why it is common sense or even what the viable alternatives are. As one commentator puts it:
The power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility. Unlike a soldier with a gun or a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us. It doesn’t seem “political,” it’s just what we like, or what we think is beautiful, or what feels comfortable. Wrapped in stories and images and figures of speech, culture is a politics that doesn’t look like politics and is therefore a lot harder to notice, much less resist. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it becomes “common sense” for the majority of the population. 
The messages of the myths and symbols referred to above have, for many people, been simply taken for granted, and so (with the assistance of press and powers that be) a “national identity” is formed. Indeed, it could be said that the very concept of a nation is itself an example of cultural hegemony. Michael Billig speaks of what he terms “Banal Nationalism”, by which he means the myriad ways in which national identity is daily formed in us unawares, for example:
In routine practices and everyday discourses, especially those in the mass media, the idea of nationhood is regularly flagged. Even the daily weather forecast can do this. Through such flagging, established nations are reproduced as nations, with their citizenry being unmindfully reminded of their national identity. 
Another way in which national identity is subtly formed and assumed is by claiming cultural preferences as national traits, as in the then BBC Director-General Tony Hall’s conference speech in 2019:
… PSBs [Public Service Broadcasters] are strongest in the content that UK audiences love. Stories about them and about their communities. British passions and British concerns. 
What exactly these passions and concerns are, and how different they are from those of other nations, we are simply not told.
Such language is hardly surprising if, as Benedict Anderson puts it, a nation is essentially an “imagined community”. This is so, he suggests, for the simple reason that
the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. 
A nation is an imagined community because imagination is the only way in which one’s consciousness of being part of the whole can be nurtured and reinforced. Hence the importance of the many taken-for-granted expressions of belonging which Billig terms “Banal Nationalism”.
So, even the idea of the nation state is an example of the cultural hegemony of which Gramsci so perceptively warns us. This isn’t to say that such a self-understanding is necessarily unjustified or illegitimate, but it is important to be aware that to a quite considerable extent one’s national identity is manufactured by those in control of the myths and symbols.
From a theological perspective, in his early work The Presence of the Kingdom (1948), lawyer and lay theologian Jacques Ellul put his finger on the illusion at the roots of western society and observed how women and men are effectively manipulated in their view of the world:
Our contemporaries only see the presentations which are given them by the press, the radio, propaganda, and publicity. … [and] … modern man, submerged by this flood of images which he cannot verify, is utterly unable to master them.
Therefore, women and men all-too-readily take on board the prevailing “explanatory myth”:
But what is evidently very serious is that modern man has no other means of intellectual coherence or of political investigation than this myth. If he abandons it, he cuts himself off from the world in which he is living … [Furthermore] Modern man has a good conscience because he has an answer for everything; whatever happens to him, and whatever he does, depends on the explanation which is provided for him by the myth. 
For many of our contemporaries the “explanatory myths” of Britishness are indeed “common sense”, it is, quite simply, “who we are”. Furthermore, there are certainly many in whose interest it is to maintain the status quo and for the UK to continue to root its national identity in war and heroism coupled with exceptionalism and an adversarial culture. But it doesn’t have to be like that !
Beyond “Common Sense”
No culture, however, is completely hegemonic. Even under the most complete systems of control, there are pockets of what Gramsci … called “counter-hegemonic” cultures: ways of thinking and doing that have revolutionary potential because they run counter to the dominant power. 
One of these “pockets” should be the Christian community. After all, the parables of Jesus are largely counter-hegemonic. Many of them shock or disturb us because of the way they appear to defy what we have been brought up to think of as “common sense”. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, for example, is disturbing and annoying for many people because it seems unfair that those who have only worked for an hour get paid as much as those who have worked for a full day. The same applies to much of Jesus’ teaching. His teaching on nonviolent resistance, though more complex than might be thought from a face value reading, again defies what many would regard as “common sense”. In a similar way, much of his life would seem to subvert the “common sense” of his time – eating and drinking with the disreputable, mixing with “undesirable” or “unclean” women, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. From all these examples, and more, it would seem clear that Jesus embodies, in his life and teaching, an example of a counter-hegemonic culture.
What then is the role of the Christian community in offering a counter-hegemonic alternative to the tired symbols and myths of national identity ? Perhaps the most important role is to ask questions, to challenge those things that are simply taken for granted, to suggest that things could be different. Already the pandemic has led to unprecedented courses of action ranging from state-sponsored furloughs to in effect re-nationalising the railways, from housing the homeless in hotels to suspending face to face public worship. At the same time, a range of voices are calling us to a new normal, characterised by a better world for all. Suddenly so much hitherto “common sense” is no longer common nor sense. What better time, therefore, to reimagine the myths and symbols of nationhood ?
 Christa Wolff, Cassandra (FS & G, 1988), p. 85
 Rab Bennett, Under the Shadow of the Swastika (Routledge, 1999), p. 10
 Bunting in Bennett, p. 270 TBC
 Ulf Hedetoft, “National Identity and Mentalities of war in Three EC Countries”, Journal of Peace Research 30:3 1993, pp. 281 – 300
 Hedetoft, p. 281
 Hedetoft, p. 284
 Hedetoft, p. 286
 See Dagmar Paulus, “Germany refuses to wage War on Covid”, New European May 28 – June 3 2020, pp. 12,13
 Hedetoft, p. 283
 Hedetoft, p. 297
 Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (Picador Ebook), p. 279
 Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Sage, 1995), p. 154
 Tony Hall, “The TV of Tomorrow”, speech at the Media & Telecoms Conference, March 7 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2019/tony-hall-media-telecoms
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, 2006), p. 6
 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (SCM, 1951), pp. 101 – 103