The fact that Gordon Brown wants us to imitate the American habit of flying the national flag outside our homes or having a new “Britain Day” bank holiday shows how little he knows about Britishness. To be fair to Gordon though, do any of us have a really good grasp of what Britishness is all about?
Let’s look at a few ‘undisputed’ British icons. Fish and chips is the most British of British foods yet chips are made from potatoes, an American plant introduced to Britain in the 1570s many hundreds of years after rice and pasta were eaten here and battered fish was a quick, cheap and Kosher food for East London’s Portuguese Jewish immigrants of the early 1500s, How about tea, so much more British than the Euro/American drink of coffee? Well, insurance deals were being done in London coffee houses decades before tea was even heard of this side of the channel. What about a few other quintessentially British things… Playing Polo? Indian. Guardsmen’s bearskins? French. The Royal Family? German.
As American comedian Chris Rock put it:
“Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.”
The problem with any definition of Britishness is that it cannot hope to encompass the attributes of the whole nation. Being quiet, reserved and “stiff upper lipped” might be a fitting description for a member of the civil service in London but does it fit with the character of a greengrocer in Liverpool? I doubt it.
So can Britishness be defined as a purely geographical thing, if you are born in Britain are you automatically British? Clearly this has a large part to play but it cannot be the whole definition, nor could someone born overseas be automatically excluded.
Perhaps Descartes had the right idea, “I think, therefore I am”. Could the definition of Britishness be as simple as genuinely believing that something or someone is British? Are the British icons listed above any less British because they happen to come from overseas? I would argue that they are not. Fish and chips is British and so is Chicken Tikka Masala – despite their foreign heritage.
If Britishness is so simple to define, why does Gordon suddenly feel that we need to display our Britishness? The cynics among you – and I know that there are a few – may think that it is little more than gesture politics. The gruff Scottish Chancellor needs to show the English that he is a potential Prime Minister for the whole country; he probably hopes that throwing an extra bank holiday into the equation will do his popularity no harm either. You may think that… I couldn’t possibly comment!
Leaving the obviously shallow motivations aside, I find myself agreeing that we are losing our sense of national identity. It is not being watered down by immigration as the extremist and racist parties would have us believe. We have managed to stay British through immigration from the Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, Irish, West Indians, West Africans, East Africans, Indians, Pakistanis etc. etc. etc. Britishness evolved but it did not diminish.
The answer to our current diminishing sense of national identity is held in the definition “I think, therefore I am”. People are less inclined to see themselves as British than they once did, they are less proud of Britain and its achievements; they are not encouraged to feel British.
When children are taught that the British Empire was nothing more than the exploitation of less developed nations and an evil that should be apologised for, they will not want to be associated with that history. When the police and the armed forces are reviled, people lose faith in the nation that they represent. When local councils refuse to fly our national flag for fear of insulting minority communities they allow the extremists to adopt it as their own. When the government carves off Scotland, Wales, and Ulster and attempts to break England into regional chunks, is it any surprise people stop thinking of themselves as part of a nation? When we accept the premise that speaking the national language is an optional extra, we allow deep divisions to form within communities until some communities are detached completely.
Flying flags and having a national day is not the answer to the problem. National pride and loyalty cannot be created overnight with a few strokes of a Whitehall pen. It takes belief in the nation state at every level, starting at Number 10. It takes pride in British history and our current place in the world and that pride needs to be communicated, starting at school. It takes an understanding that new the cultures that come with immigration will add to and change British culture, just as they always have, but should not be allowed to run parallel to British culture. Other languages spoken in Britain should be spoken as well as, not instead of English.
Gordon Brown hopes to force a renewed sense of national pride on us, as always he is pursuing a top down solution. We Conservatives should understand that this, like most things, requires a bottom up solution.
National pride, like loyalty and love cannot be demanded, to demand it is to destroy it; it has to be given freely or not at all.