It has been more than a decade since Benedict Anderson urged us to consider the nation a particular kind of cultural artefact and to study national communities in terms of the style in which they are imagined. Anticipating Anderson's seminal work, Enoch Powell, the Biblical scholar, Ulster Unionist M.P., and 1960s advocate of the voluntary repatriation of people of color in Britain likewise suggested that the “life of nations … is lived largely in the imagination.” He also noted that the myths on which Britain's “corporate imagination” rested had, since 1945, become severely impoverished. Amidst the rubble produced by the collapse of many of those myths scholars have begun to problematize the various components of national identity that, customarily, have been taken for granted as “real” rather than invented. They have also begun to trace the manner by which the national community has constantly been imagined and reimagined in the past. Some of their more insightful work has considered the articulation of Englishness against other nationalities in the United Kingdom, particularly the Irish. This had led Linda Colley to suggest that national identity is always contingent and relational, the product of boundaries drawn up to distinguish between the collective self and the other.
In this essay, I want to suggest that Britain's wartime sense of national unity, generated through the struggle against fascist Germany, began to crumble after 1945. This gradual erosion of national cohesion, coupled with Britain's failure to generate new narratives of national purpose through the rhetoric of the Cold War, led to a veritable crisis of national self-representation in the 1950s, a crisis compounded by domestic social dislocation and the rapid emergence of the political, military, and economic hegemony of the United States.