‘ “Distinctions of country, sacred now, may possibly disappear” in the future evolution of world society . . . he [Mazzini] holds . . . nationality must be recognised as the appointed means to international union.’
– Gwilym O. Griffith, Mazzini: Prophet of Modern Europe, 1932
Growing up in Colombo in the 1960s, ‘British’ for me was a word found in war comics and in vague notions of an empire from which we were independent. So, ‘independence’ meant to be free of the ‘British’. The two words were in opposition. The term ‘European’ referred mainly to the English (plus Scots, Welsh and Irish), and random sailors who’d been blown off course. Talk of ‘Britain’s independence’, or ‘Europe without Britain’, would have seemed nonsensical babble to me then, unaware of the Pandora’s box Mazzini had rattled in distant Italy a century earlier.
It was only in the 1970s that I began to see that the definition of a word could be a political project. Ceylon became a republic: Sri Lanka – with troubling questions as to who would be entitled to be its citizens. That same year, the Ugandan crisis resulted in a call to redefine British identity. Within ten years a bizarre hierarchy of nationality from born-in-Britain British to made-in-the-Commonwealth British had been established. Identity, it seemed, was not so self-determined after all. Apparently, I had been a British subject (as all Commonwealth citizens were) unwittingly in independent Ceylon, but in post-republican Sri Lanka was no longer so. When my children were born in London, they burst in undeniably British (and by extension European) and I suddenly became British too, again – identity augmented and plural much in the way I had become both son and father. To be more than one thing seemed to me to be the way to go; your position in the parade a matter of perception.