Narrative, identity and UK National Strategy

Next Generation National Strategy. Image: SOIF.

Sophie Middlemiss writes: How can the UK develop a new narrative that informs and guides its role in the world? How and by whom are national narrative and identity shaped, and how readily can they be changed? And what should be the role of public emotion in national strategy?

A fascinating set of issues were explored at last week’s seminar on British history, identity and national narrative, convened by the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London and SOIF as part of our National Strategy for the Next Generations programme.  Three academics gave insights from their recent research into these complex, interconnected issues. We share a flavour here.

An ethical foreign policy?

Dr Thomas Colley has found in his research that people right across the political spectrum want the UK to be a force for good in the world. This may mean different things to different people. Nonetheless, it’s an important learning for the British government as it develops a future national strategy in its ongoing Integrated Review. An ethical foreign policy remains both plausible and popular. This is true even at a time of manifest threats (COVID, climate change) and an overwhelming focus on pursuing critical national interests that are often narrowly defined.

Sources of pride? 

Dr Claire Yorke of Yale University underlined the importance of emotions in shaping citizens’ thinking about their country’s place in the world. Examples range from Brexit to the Chinese ‘century of humiliation’. So when we think about developing a National Strategy fit for the Next Generations of British citizens, we need to think about emotion too. What do we want people to feel about Britain’s place in the world?  What are the sources of pride, hope and vision that we want to evoke?


Dr Russell Foster, meanwhile, made the case for an Alltagsgeschichte approach. This is a form of everyday history or micro-history that encourages us to look at the little, everyday interactions which shape people’s identities and ideologies. These are more often taken into account in the context of domestic politics, but they apply just as much to how citizens feel about their country’s place in the world.

About the NSxNG programme

Our National Strategy for the Next Generations programme is making the case for a more future-focused, participative and historically-aware kind of national strategy development. It also seeks to influence HMG’s current Integrated Review of the UK’s external action (from foreign policy to defence, development to soft power).

To find out more, contact SOIF’s policy lead, Sophie Middlemiss.