What does Eurovision have to do with the Coronation?
In this first episode of Who do we think we are? presents ‘Global Britain’ — our collaboration with Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN), we’re talking about what we learn about ‘Global Britain’ and its imagined community from looking at how migrants understand major cultural events. Elena Zambelli explains what social scientists mean when they talk about the imagined community. Laura Clancy, sociologist of the royal family, joins us to talk about the missing voices in conversations about the future of the British monarchy. Co-hosts Nando Sigona and Michaela Bensonreflect on what British citizens living abroad, EU citizens and others who have made the UK their homes told them about how they understand Britain and their place within it following Brexit. And consider what hearing from them about the monarchy, the Commonwealth Games and Eurovision makes visible about the new borders of political membership and symbolic boundaries of belonging.
In this episode we cover …
- The imagined community
- The monarchy and the myth of the British nation
- Eurovision, the Commonwealth Games and Royal Events
Active listening questions
- What imagined community, or imagined communities, do you feel that you belong to?
- Are there public events during which you do or could celebrate your belonging to this or these communities? Which ones?
- Who do you think is excluded from this imagined community and how? And what does this tell us about the symbolic boundaries of this community?
Find more about …
- What EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU think about the monarchy in Elena and Catherine’s article in the Sociological Review Magazine
- The concept of imagined community in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the critique offered by Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and its Fragments
- Laura’s sociology of the royal family in her book Running the family firm and the Surviving Society podcast miniseries The Global Power of the British Monarchy
Our podcast picks for this episode are:
- Academic Aunties on ‘Harry and Meghan’
- The Allusionist on Eurovision
- Coversations with IRiS on Political Demography
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Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of ‘Who do we think we are’, the podcast debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we’ll be considering the role of migration in the making of ‘Global Britain’, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I’m Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I’ll also be joined by co-host, Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today, and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain’s migration story, after Brexit.
Nando Sigona [NS]: Literally, we are starting a new age, a new era in British history, we are in the post-Elizabethan era, we are not yet in Charles’ era in many ways, it is that period of transition in which the people and the ruling class is trying to create a narrative that brings us together. And we know that a lot of the ruptures and the conflicts and the tensions were generated during the referendum and the years that followed are still very much open. The hope, I think, from a part of the British establishment is to use events such as the coronation or such as this big sort of celebratory event, the festival of Brexit, for example, Eurovision, as a way of bringing us together.
MB: That was Nando Sigona reflecting on how post Brexit, COVID, and the death of the Queen, Britain as a nation and its imagined community are being redefined. He was talking there particularly about the role that major events might play within this. And we could think here of the Commonwealth Games and the forthcoming coronation, and perhaps even Eurovision. Nando is going to be joining me over the course of this season as co-host, as we explore Global Britain. Now, before we get into the details of the episode, a little bit of a heads up about what we’ve got in store for you in season three. This season is a bit different. It’s a collaboration between ‘Who do we think we are’, and the ‘Rebordering Britain and Britain’s after Brexit’ research project, also known as a MIGZEN. And I lead this project with my colleague Nando Sigona. The project explores the long-term impacts of Brexit on migration to and from the UK, to uncover what this reveals about Britain’s migration story. To reflect this collaboration, we’ll also be bringing project team members, Elena Zambelli and Catherine Craven into the podcast. They’ll be presenting a new feature called ‘What do we mean by?’ where they break down key concepts within the study of migration and citizenship that can help us make sense of the research that we’ve been doing. And we’ll be bringing in guests to offer explainers. Each episode will feature a conversation between Nando and I, where we consider how migration and citizenship are caught up in the making of Global Britain. And we’ll be considering everything from how this particular moment is experienced by new and long-standing migrant populations, to the significance of geopolitics in the UK’s approach to migration. And we’ll be introducing you to the research that we’ve conducted over the course of the project to make sense of all of this. But back to this episode. We’re kicking off season three by hearing from some of the people who took part in our research. And in particular, we’re going to be reflecting today on what British citizens living abroad and EU citizens and others who made their homes in the UK before Brexit had to say about a range of events from the Jubilee through to Eurovision and the Commonwealth Games. Now, we’re recording this in the run up to the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla. And Eurovision 2023, which is going to be held in Liverpool. You might be asking why we would want to talk to people about this. Very simply, we want to show how they imagined Britain and whether Britishness, that’s the accompanying national identity and belonging, and see their place in relation to these following Brexit. In particular, the episode will introduce and explore the concept of the ‘imagined community’. Elena will talk us through its origins as a concept, what social scientists mean when they talk about the imagined community, and how it’s linked to nation building projects. We’re going to be joined by sociologist of the royal family – yes, there is one, Laura Clancy, who joins us to discuss the significance of the monarchy to national identity and belonging, and what we can learn about who is excluded from the imagined community from looking at whose opinions are solicited for polls. And Nando and I will be in discussion about what we can learn about the symbolic boundaries and borders of Global Britain by foregrounding, the voices of those whose opinions are less regularly solicited. But first, let’s hear from Elena about what we mean when we talk about the imagined community.
Elena Zambelli [EZ]: The concept of imagined community was first theorized by political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson, approximately 40 years ago, in his book ‘Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism’. His investigation started with this puzzle: How could the nation, a modern political formation, command such strong feelings that some people were ready to die in its name? And what exactly was the nation anyway? Anderson defines the nation as an ‘imagined political community’. Does than this mean that the nation is a fantasy or a trick? Does it cease to exist when its community does not actively think about it? Well, no. Nations continue to exist in everyday life, even when we do not care about them. They exist in the monuments and memorials remembering the wars fought in their name. They exist in the days of holidays we’re given to celebrate them, such as an Independence Day. So, if only in this very practical sense, nations are not fake, but quite real. Imagined community highlights that nations are made up of people that, even if they will never know each other, still feel that they belong to the same community, or the same nation. The nation, Anderson observed, is always imagined as sovereign. It does not need to invoke other sources of authority, such as religion, to make an enforce its rules. It is the people’s will that make the nation. It is in the name of its people that the nation rules over them. The nation is also imagined as limited, because none has ever laid claim onto humanity as a whole. But when and how did these imagined communities of nations come into being, historically? Anderson located their roots in the Americas of the 18th-19th centuries, and identified the key factor in print capitalism. Think about people reading novels and newspapers reporting on facts of common interest, such as wars and taxes, people doing so in a language they all increasingly shared, and starting to imagine themselves as living in a common space and time – past, present and future. Put these elements together, and you have the key ingredients for the formation of a nation. Other scholars considered that nations first appeared in Europe in the 17th century. But was the people’s imagination enough to create and sustain nations over time? No, not really. Nations had to be constantly, actively produced in quite material ways. It was the state ruling in their names – the nation state – that took care of organizing this. States erected borders to delimit, protect and rule over the people constituting the nation. State schools taught children how to imagine themselves as bound to a common, shared history. Taxation compelled people to pay for the institutions organizing common affairs, and distributing wealth and welfare. military conscription pushed boys out of their families and places of birth, forcing them to live with peers that were strangers, because they had never met before, but also familiar, because they were all called to sacrifice in the name of the same nation. As a model of governance, the nation state has been hugely successful. Today it is the predominant political formation in the world. Now, there is one last but key point to address. If there are so many imagined communities on this planet, how do we call the people that do not belong to our own? They are the ‘other’ – a generic category full of negative connotations and consequences. So, when the nation encounters these ‘others’ at its borders, or on its soil, it can and does command their exclusion, discrimination, deportation, and more. You just need to think of how high-income countries today treat migrants and refugees knocking at their door. Nationalism, xenophobia and racism then, are part and parcel of the same way to imagine the world as made up of discrete bounded communities. Since Anderson, whole generations of social scientists have been using, adapting and also criticizing his notion of imagined community. It remains nonetheless a key concept to understand the current resurgence of nationalism in different parts of the world, from Brexit Britain, to Hungary, India, and many more places. Capitalism remains central in the study of the rise and everyday lives of national and other political communities, whether these are above, below, or cutting across the borders of the nation state. It is less the press and more the internet, though, that attracts contemporary scholars’ attention to these social phenomena.
MB: Elena made clear what this idea of the imagined community intends, that you might be asking yourself, what has the monarchy got to do with this? Or rather, what can we learn about the imagined community from looking at the monarchy and public celebrations? We explored this with Dr. Laura Clancy, author of ‘Running the family firm’, and lecturer in media at Lancaster University, whose research considers the economic, political, social and cultural function of the monarchy in Britain today. We asked her to reflect on what public opinion surveys and polls say about people’s attitudes towards the late Queen and the monarchy more generally, who’s missing from such conversations, and why remembering that not so long ago, Britain was an empire, matters for the way we think about the imagined community today.
Laura Clancy [LC]: The monarchy is really important, I think, you know, in Britain to this idea of an imagined community. We can see that over thousands of years. So, if you think that thousands of years ago, the only way people would know about the monarch could be if they got a coin, right with a picture of the monarch on that, and that would give them an idea of who was their ruler and who they were meant to be looking up towards, and what was kind of meant to be their idea of nation? And what that might look like and is that representative, and so on. And now of course we have, they’re everywhere, right? So, we have we’ve had to go, we’ve gone through kind of tabloid news. We’ve got things like royal correspondence, which creates this particular discourse around monarchy, and embed it within our news cycles, as, you know, meant to be as important as a foreign correspondent, for example, that will tell us about worldwide news. We also have things like social media, so they’re kind of embedded within that particular space, which is more directed, I guess, towards younger audiences, in particular ways, particularly things like TikTok I’m thinking of, that draws in kind of new audiences into this idea of imagined community for what Britain might be and what Britain might look like. And of course, for lots of us we’ll never actually meet the King, or will never see any of the royals, really. So, it’s about kind of creating this particular image of what the royal family is, and what that might represent about Britain. And I think the media is really key to that. The other thing that’s really key to that is big events. So, like coronations, which we’re seeing right now, and cementing, this as an important moment in a national imaginary, I think. So, kind of telling people – you can’t, we can’t tell what people want to think about the monarchy, we can’t say, you know, make them support it. But you’re telling people that this is an important national moment, and it’s something that you should take note of. And it’s something that even if you’ve got no intention of watching the coronation, on the day, you know it’s happening, because you can’t walk into a shop without seeing flowers or seeing various paraphernalia. And we’re all meant to be essentially celebrating the same thing. That’s what they’re trying to tell us. So, one of the biggest polls that run and has run for a very long time is the YouGov polls. And they asked various kinds of on-the-spot question, so they might ask about a particular royal event, for example. So, there was one recently about Prince Harry and kind of ‘what do you think of “Spare”, you know, do you support him after Spare?’ So, there’s very particular moments that may flush up when we have these news cycles, but they also have these really long running polls that ask for the approval ratings of particular roles, for example, so let’s say, you know, what you think of the Queen, what do you think of King Charles, what do you think of Prince William and so on? And they’ll track the approval ratings and they’ll then split that by gender, by the nation that you live in, by the political party that you support or your particular political leanings, and whether you voted leave or remain in the Brexit referendum. So, they’ll make this distinction between that those data of particular royals. And they also ask things like, ‘what do you think for the monarchy generally? Do you support the monarchy generally? Do you think we’ll have a monarchy in 100 years?’ And that one’s quite interesting in terms of the split of people? Most people actually say probably yes, or probably no, and not many people are leaning towards definitely yes, or definitely no, which is quite interesting that people are kind of airing in the middle. And, I wouldn’t, that might not have been the case 50 years or so ago, when it might seem obvious that they will continue. So, this kind of long running data is really interesting, I think, in terms of allowing us to track changes over time. And it will be really interesting to have that data that’s split in terms of different identity categories. So, they might do it by gender. But they don’t do it by race, or they don’t do it by citizenship, or they don’t do it by disability, for example, we kind of don’t get all of those intersections, which I think would give us much more nuanced picture of what kind of is going on within the British public and beyond in terms of their feelings towards monarchy. The polls show what you would imagine, I guess. So, the monarchy is generally speaking more popular with older populations, more popular in England than in Scotland and Wales, which I think is fascinating. And that’s sort of splitting more and more each year as well. The popularity is getting, it’s getting more and more sparse between the two. And it’s slightly less split by gender. So, they’re more equal. And it’s more popular with right-wing, people who vote right wing as well. So, I think that’s kind of what we would expect, I suppose. But it’s really interesting, you know, to look at that over a couple of years, and think about how that might change, particularly with younger populations. And the disapproval rating among younger populations is becoming much more pronounced, which I think is really interesting in the context of where we are now, and the changes in Britain, global Britain, and all of those things, and also the changes in the monarchy itself. I think race and ethnicity and citizenship is really ignored in all of those polls. So, there’s something missing, I think, in that kind of story. So, there’s kind of not detailed and no long, you know, long form, there’s no kind of data on people who might have travelled from the Commonwealth, or previously lived in Commonwealth nations or travelled to Commonwealth nations, you know, when we consider that a lot of these polls are assuming that the monarchy is Britain, right, it’s British people. And it’s within Britain only. And, of course, we know, it’s much more complicated than that, even for people who might have migrated in or, you know, left Britain, or the fact that the monarchy, you know, there is a monarch of various countries around the world. And that remains the case. And the British monarch is monarch in various places. So that kind of data is really missing within these particular snapshots that these polls give us. I think it’s interesting that Charles has always been less popular than the queen. And actually, the Queen was the most popular member, and always was, and so the fact that she’s gone, you know, what, how will that change particular imaginaries. And I mean, I think it’s, if we’re thinking about global Britain in this way, you know, what the Queen had, I think, because she was around for so long, because she was, you know, crowned really, in the immediate post war years, you know, 1950 to 1953, not long after World War Two, rationing was still going on, the Empire hadn’t fully collapsed by that point, the British Empire, we’re talking about a very different version of Britain at that time, and a very different version of global Britain actually, in Britain’s relationship to the world. So now, when we’re headed into this new coronation, and we’ve got a global Britain that has distanced itself from a lot of, you know, global communities, the European Union, for example, we’ve got countries around the world that have decided to get rid of the monarchy, like Barbados, or are debating doing that. And there’s kind of widespread debates in loads of countries around the world, Australia, Jamaica, and so on. You know, it’s a very different version of global Britain that we’re talking about. And the global monarchy, actually, we’re talking about a very different version of global monarchy. So, I think people’s imaginaries of Britain have changed along those lines. And it’s really important, as opposed to thinking about the role of the monarchy within the nation. And of course, when we’re talking about a particularly bordered nation here, a lot of the imaginaries of Britain come with the idea of, you know, kings and queens and palaces, that’s what a lot of countries would describe as for, and these kinds of spectacular displays of pageantry. So, I think that’s, you know, that’s really notable. And I wonder if we did that poll with people who had migrated, I wonder if that poll would look very different and what are you most proud of, you know, does that translate and who are those, who are those polls speaking to and who are they not speaking to?
MB: You’re listening to Who do we think we are presents Global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit, hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co-host Nando Sigona. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you’ll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast. We’ve heard that from Laura Clancy about the missing voices and missing data in polls about monarchy, and how this makes the assumption that Britain is the British Isles, and that not all the people who live there, or indeed in other parts of the former British world have got much to say about the monarchy. And we want to build on this through our conversations with EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU, populations who we might, at least until Brexit, have considered as part of the imagined community. What Nando and I want to draw out in our discussion, is how the imagined community so often considered in terms of who is included, and who has the rights to political membership, might also be understood as a process of exclusion. In other words, making the imagined community is as much about creating boundaries that exclude some people from membership. And we heard a little from Elena about how technologies of migration governance, such as detention and deportation might be part of this. But we’ll be turning to the more mundane and asking questions not only about what boundaries have drawn, but also who draws these boundaries, for what purposes and with what effect. Nando, before we go into this in further detail, I wondered if I could just ask you why you think it’s important for us to talk about the imagined community in the context of Brexit.
NS: Brexit has been a moment of rupture, of misalignment or disruption of an established world view, has been what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci used to call a break in the cultural hegemony. What does it mean? It means that an established world view, the beliefs, values of the ruling class that everyone accepts as a given start to be challenged. And there is a process of transition, and in this transition is what actually Brexit started. Literally, we are starting a new age, a new era in British history, we are in the post-Elizabethton era, we are not yet in Charles’ era in many ways, is that period of transition in which the people and the ruling class is trying to create a narrative that brings us together and we know that a lot of the ruptures, and the conflicts and the tensions were generated during the referendum and the years that followed are still very much open. The hope, I think, from a part of the British establishment is to use events such as the coronation or such as this big sort of a celebratory event, the festival of Brexit, for example, Eurovision, as a way of bringing us together. The point is, who are these ‘us’? Who is part of the global ‘we’, how can I be part of it? And this is where we try to locate our discussion.
MB: I think that’s really important in terms of outlining that this process of establishing who counts as ‘us’ is indeed a process it’s not a fait accompli and, and I guess what you’ve highlighted there is this kind of moment of hope, a little bit, or this moment of transition might be a better way of putting it. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit more about how significant this transition from monarch to monarch is for how we think about the imagined community and these times.
NS: It’s significant, and it’s also dangerous. Historically, the transition between two monarchs is a moment in which there is an opening, an opening in a narrative that is a possibility of bringing in new ideas, new values, new beliefs, but also of establishing new actors on the ground. This is why it’s so important the choreography or what we are witnessing now, you know, this is why, for example, there is so much attention to the rituals. Rituals help us to stick things together. It’s also important, for example, to think about why the coronation is happening 9-10 months after the actual succession. It’s because what we’re seeing now is an attempt to establish the king on his own right in the public narrative in this new imagined community. It is no longer seeing the king through the lens of his mother to whom a lot of people were particular attached. What we see now, the longer the time passes, the views about the monarchy seems to get more – and this is what also other surveys are showing – seems to be getting more positive. So now people are starting to learn to know the King, and all these rituals help to establish him almost as, as this new unifying figure.
MB: I think that what I sense there, Nando, is something of our shared anthropological training in thinking about how what anthropologists refer to as rites of passage play out, and the significance of time, actually, the time, the delay between the death of the Queen and the coronation of the new King, and the work that that’s doing there. But let’s just take a break to hear a little bit more about what those taking part in the research had to say about the monarchy and its relevance to life in contemporary Britain.
Voiceover – EU citizen in the UK 1: If the festivities had taken place before Brexit, I might have felt more of a connection to the Jubilee. But Brexit has created a rift between me and Britain that didn’t exist before, and has highlighted the perception of me as ‘other’ by those in power and many of those living in Britain.
Voiceover – EU citizen in the UK 2: Mixed feelings. On the one hand, my street organises the street party and got together as a community, which is lovely in a big city like London. On the other hand, the pageantry and associated nationalism always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. My concern is that it adds to Britain’s core issue of a lack of a modern identity fit for the 21st century beyond their old and now defunct role as a leader of a world empire.
Voiceover – EU citizens in the UK 3: I feel that the monarchy only adds to an antiquated class-based identity the current Conservative government continues to support. I do not believe the monarchy actually contributes at all to the development of the country, or the benefit of its citizens.
MB: What’s really interesting about this sense of being outdated or out of touch that gets communicated through a lot of the responses that we’ve received is that it’s actually remarkably similar to what other people who were regularly surveyed about the monarchy have to say. So, for example, we heard Laura talking about what people say in the YouGov polls, or even in the Mass Observation archive. But I think the importance of raising what those taking part in our research had to say about this, and that’s EU citizens in the UK, and British citizens living in the EU, for the most part, is that it’s the views of these populations that are rarely solicited as part of that very national conversation about the British monarchy. And to my mind, we might want to ask why this is the case. And particularly in the context of the coronation of King Charles the third, what this might be making visible about the new symbolic boundaries of the imagined community in global Britain, as these are being worked through. From your point of view, what does looking at the monarchy and Brexit and how these are brought together in people’s accounts make visible?
NS: I think for many Europeans, particularly those coming from Republican traditions, the monarchy was often accepted within indifference, up until Brexit, in many ways, people accepted the idea that if I’m living in Britain, that’s how the institutional arrangements are, that’s it. What emerged from the surveys is how Brexit in a way activated these feelings vis-a-vis the monarchy, the monarchy is seen immediately as a way of connecting to the history of the British Empire, the position of Britain as a great power, and in control of large territories in the world. This idea of the hierarchy and the sense of superiority that comes with this idea of the Empire. So, a lot of people respond to and connect Brexit to the monarchy in this way. I mean, it’s not the case that even if we think about the debate, the political debate, people were talking of, of the post Brexit period as the Empire 2.0. Now there is also in the police debate and the political debate, there is a sense of understanding that Brexit has something to do with this sense of nostalgia for the past, maybe that the monarchy to many extents embodies.
MB: I think it’s that change in sentiment that’s really, really important there and it kind of aligns a bit more with what we might imagine racialized minorities in Britain or those with personal or family migration stories, alongside what we know of the people in Britain’s former colonial territories. It’s saying at this moment in time, about the British monarchy and the extent to which they want them to represent them on the world stage, going forwards. But I think it’s also important to note that while people appear to be kind of ambivalent about the monarchy, perhaps even skeptical, and not subscribing to the vision of the nation that this might communicate, there’s also that sense of participating in celebrations as a pause from the everyday. So when we talked to people about the Jubilee, the sense came across really clearly, that just that break from the normal stream of things, getting together with friends and family, even if they didn’t think that the monarchy had any relevance to them, became part of a sense of value, of being part of a community of sorts, even it wasn’t necessarily the imagined community that perhaps is more ordinarily intimated in the sense of the monarchy.
NS: I think that there is also something else and again, we go back to Brexit, there is been a sense of exhaustion of the tensions that have been building within communities and society in the UK over these last six, seven years. And in a sense of trust, find the occasion for celebrating together is a way of rebuilding some kind of illusion of shared values, sense of community moving on from Brexit. And this is something that public surveys also show among the Remainers, the people that supported you know, that didn’t vote for Brexit, but still feel that it’s time for reconciliation. And all these highly controlled rituals that we are seeing happening nowadays, all this choreography helps to create shared memories, shared sentiments, spaces where people can develop a sense of commonalities. And this is where these events become significant. They can be joyful events, but it can also be traumatic events. I mean, we know very well that’s – just imagine COVID, you know, the clapping the hands for the NHS worker, the sense of being all in this together, really, in a sense helped us as a collective to move on from the conversation on Brexit, although we came back all the time anyway. But there was at least a sense of a shared experience that people were trying to find support and encouragement during the hard time. But there is also the positive one that I think is where we saw with events such as the Commonwealth Games, or how people reflected on the importance of Eurovision.
MB: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, we can also see this, in the responses people gave us when we asked them to reflect on major events that had taken parts during Queen Elizabeth the Second reign, and they highlighted there Brexit, which perhaps we could have expected, but the World Wars also featured really, really highly across all the categories of people who took part in the research. And I think that this perhaps reminds us of the symbolic work that major geopolitical ruptures might play both in shoring up a sense of imagined community, and perhaps shaking it a little bit to a certain degree.
NS: Another example is somehow the response to the war in Ukraine in a moment in which in a sense, the UK was affirming its independence and its autonomy from the European Union as a project in the sense Ukrainian war showed how some forms of cooperation were still possible, so, the response to the Ukrainian refugees, de facto sharing decision on the common security, is a way in a sense also to challenge some of these assumptions around the boundaries of this imagined community. It was about almost reclaiming a space for a European Britain even in the post-Brexit reality and what I found interesting, when we think of a much more mundane or pop, we can call it, event is how some of these tensions in the broader world, the geopolitical tensions, filter through also an event such as Eurovision, for example.
MB: Yeah, as a long term watcher of Eurovision and almost avid watcher of Eurovision and kind of bloc voting, second guessing why nobody will ever vote for the UK – except for last year – I think that we can see how an event which is often trivialized actually can reveal quite a lot about the kind of senses of community regional senses of community, communities within Europe and also the reflection of geopolitical events within that. And we did ask people who were taking part in the research to reflect on Eurovision. Here’s some of the things that they had to say about it.
Voiceover – EU citizen in the UK 4: Eurovision is one of the things I enjoy a lot in general. I’m also way more into music than sports, and it’s sort of a gay Christmas. So double whammy for me as a queer and European person.
MB: I think that there’s something quite fascinating, Nando, about Eurovision, that you’ve found out through doing a little bit of your own research, looking back into the history.
NS: I have a couple of anecdotes, you could say. I mean, Ukraine has won Eurovision three times, and twice has been linked somehow to the broader geopolitics of the relationship with Russia. Last year, when we were just a few days from the beginning of the Russian invasion, that was certainly part of the dynamics that we’ve seen in the course of the competition. But also before, in 2016, soon after the invasion of Crimea, Ukraine won the public support. Eurovision itself as a competition now has gone on for over 70 years. So, it’s been since the 1950s, was very much born after the Second World War, as a collaboration between different European Broadcasting corporations, with in mind the idea of celebrating the European value, the European unity after the war, but soon also European unity against the danger of the Soviet Union. And so, in fact, the countries that were part of the Soviet bloc were not allowed to participate until very recently. I mean, we’ve seen, for example, the participation of Croatia and other members of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to mark in a sense, the incorporation of the Balkans space within the European, Western European narrative. And more recently, we have seen the participation also in the 2010s of countries that were before not allowed to contribute from closer to the Soviet space. So, what we’ve seen is that despite the fact if you look at the website of Eurovision, it is always said, this is apolitical, we don’t take any position, politics has been always part of that project. One thing which I think is worth to reflect upon and maybe see what you think about it, is this idea that how is it possible that at the same time, you have events – just thinking about the Commonwealth Games, and Eurovision – which somehow seem to encapsulate different imagined communities. So, it’s not like there is one single imagined communities in one space, but there seems to be many, how they can sort of live next to each other?
MB: I suppose it’s a question of whether these are like competing imagined communities, or whether people can align with one or another at different points in time. And certainly, I think that the reflection on Eurovision is a bit bittersweet from the point of view of British citizens who have found themselves excluded from the political project of Europe through Brexit, for example, but just to reflect on the Commonwealth Games, because of course, this is something that happened last summer, it came to Birmingham. And this particular game was branded as the world’s most inclusive, fair and progressive multi-sports event. Now, I don’t know how much people know about the Commonwealth Games, but like the Olympics, it’s held every four years. And importantly, I think in terms of the people that it encompasses, or the people that allow to participate. These people come from the Commonwealth of Nations.
NS: There are 56 members of the Commonwealth of Nations. But strangely, there are 72 Commonwealth game associations. So, there are 72 entities that participate in the Commonwealth Games, but there are only 56 members. This is where I, where it become quite interesting to see how important these events are, because the difference in numbers comes for a sample from the inclusion of all the British nation as separate entities, but also the inclusion of Gibraltar, of the British Dominions, of the British territories. And so, you could see how it became an opportunity somehow, on the one end, for this inclusivity no? But an inclusivity, which is managed within the space of the former British Empire, clearly, and this is where it’s the contrast is interesting. It is inclusive, but just within a very defined boundaries of who we want to include.
Voiceover – British citizen in the EU: The Commonwealth games have always felt a little strange to me with the legacy of empire. I understand that a lot of work has gone into positive change away from this historical picture. But it is still very exclusive to a list of countries who were, at some time at least, ruled by Britain. That said, I understand it as a platform and a stage for smaller countries who do not get the chance to make a large impact on events such as the Olympics due to their size.
MB: I think what’s significant here in the context of the research that we’ve been doing, is what this idea of the Commonwealth Games and probably by extraction, the Commonwealth, meant for people who were taking part in the research. So, as I said before, European citizens who live in the UK and British citizens who live in the EU, because the sense that we get from them is that the Commonwealth, a supposedly inclusive project, was associated with the colonial and this was not in positive terms. In many ways, what we were able to pick up through these responses was how this contradicted that inclusive tagline through which the games were branded. And to my mind what this shows is that it signaled how this new project of Britain after Brexit, global Britain, was one that they experienced as being excluded from, of not being included.
NS: I find it interesting because in a way the Commonwealth Games, whether were really significant for the city of Birmingham for the different communities that are part of the city, they don’t really have had such a strong resonance. What we saw in our survey, there was other people being skeptical, indifferent, ignoring them, or really relating them to this new project of Britain in the world, this new reconnecting with the empire, so very much they had an hostility vis-a-vis the project, because they saw very clearly, often also linking for example with all the debate around the so-called Festival of Brexit that also was connected in the space of Birmingham, so when, during the Commonwealth Games, one of the main square of Birmingham was hosting one of the big installations that was put in place as part of this festival of Brexit. So, there was a trying also to connect to this narrative from the point of view of we have to manage this project. When you come to Eurovision instead, and we’ve seen in particular also in the response to the Ukrainian war and how it’s been associated to it, we see how you managed to project perhaps a more future-oriented, positive, colourful, perhaps, over-the-top in many ways, a much shiny idea of what the West and the Best Western value in Europe is, in which the difference is more, are able to find the space within this sort of chaotic and colourful imaginary that is produced through an event such as Eurovision.
MB: I think that to circle back to your earlier question, Nando, drawing on what you’ve just said, I think that we can see that perhaps these events, the different imagined communities that they connote, may have different significance depending on how people are positioned within that project of global Britain in a variety of ways or even within the past projects of Britain and Britishness, from its imperial project through to its European project.
NS: One element which I think, the possibility for people to associate themselves to different imagined communities in the sense, at the same time loving Commonwealth Games but also loving Eurovision, is a sign of, we can use it almost as a litmus test, as a way of understanding if these boundaries of the communities are rigid or fluid, to what extent people can come in and out, to what extent there are spaces for people to wear different hats. One thing was clear soon after the Brexit referendum was that the boundaries of the community have become very rigid. There was a very neat polarisation where it was almost impossible to cross between different imaginaries. You were either with us or against us. The attempt here, I think, is through all this event and being joining up with different alliances both through cultural events, but also politically and geopolitically is an attempt to make those boundaries again more malleable and more porous and allows people to wear different hats rather than being closed in pigeonholed into specific identities.
MB: I think in a way that helps us to wrap up this episode. It helps us to see that actually the imagined community, that national project of belonging, is probably best understood as multiple, at times complementary and at times contradictory as well in the lives of the people who live within and beyond the imagined community. We hope that you’ve enjoyed this first episode of ‘Who do we think we are? presents Global Britain’, a podcast produced and presented by me, Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona, as part of the research project ‘Rebordering Britain and Britain after Brexit’, and that’s funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit initiative. You can find out more about the project at migzen.net That’s M-I-G-Z-E-N.net. Our voiceovers today were read by Catherine Craven, Lisa Dikomitis, Giulia Guadagnoli and George Kalivis. A special thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post-production support, to Elena Zambelli and Catherine Craven, for the additional research for this episode, and to George Kalivis for the cover art and social media assets. If you head over to https://whodowethinkweare.org you’ll find transcripts and enhanced show notes including active listening questions, our podcast picks and where you can go to find out more about the topics discussed in the episode. And just a last call. If you like what you’ve heard, please do take a moment to follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform, or reach out to us via our socials. That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another episode very soon.
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