Monday, February 18, 2008

On Britishness

In the last few years, there has been growing talk by politicians of British Values and the nature of Britishness. This has included proposals to teach Britishness Classes in schools, the idea of a national motto and a very amusing but nevertheless official Citizenship Test for immigrants seeking nationality. Our prime minister in particular seems to think that there are a set of British Values, moral tenants about which debate and eventual consensus should be encouraged.

An Union Flag, in case it helps at allI don't think this will come to much. Regardless of British values, our national character (which perhaps shouldn't be in the singular) is such that we're not going to go for this. We are not a young or recently liberated country; we don't need to wave flags and sing songs on a regular basis to remind ourselves of our good fortune or our loyalties (although we do have some fabulous patriotic songs). We must also bear in mind that the real question facing the United Kingdom over the next few decades will be whether or not we are going to remain united. Scotland and Wales now have the first real democratic opportunity to choose to break away if they should so wish. And they just might.

Which brings us to that fact that Britishness is no single thing. There are still massive geographical and class differences when it comes to sense of humour, social etiquette and petty morality. Those who reminisce about some time when there was a more defined and respected British character are usually talking about a time when an upper-middle-class, Church of England, Southern English person was the only British character represented, the only voice heard in circles of power, on the radio or in films.

So why the present focus on Britishness? Well frankly, it's a backlash to increased immigration and an increase of media attention towards minority groups (usually the Muslims) who seem to do things differently and from whom have emerged a handful of violent extremists. It is perhaps felt that if we could define Britishness and make sure everyone complied, we'd all get along and people would not fear for our precious - if totally elusive - way of life.

This is a rubbish motive for a rubbish idea. The idea itself is rubbish for three reasons.

1. Arrogance.

In order for something to be British, it has to belong to Britain and the British people, as opposed to other countries and other peoples. It has to be something uniquely ours, like British Beef or the British weather. In order to have a set of values, a set of moral tenants which are unique to Britain, we must believe that the people of other countries in the world do not hold these values - or at least they don't in great number.

Therefore, in order for such a set of British Values to exist, we must be morally superior to other countries and other peoples in the world. Which we're not.

Nobody has said this explicitly, but it has to be the implication. Britishness is not a virtue, any more than being male or female is. One may be very pleased that one is British and one may love one's country above all others. What's more, there are many things things about Britain which makes it one of the best countries in the world in which to live, partly by luck and partly by design.

However, the people here aren't better than people elsewhere. Better off, maybe.

2. Pointlessness.

Nobody can be forced to subscribe to a set of values. If I disagreed with any or all of the British Values, then I wouldn't stop being British. I don't stop being British if I break the law either. I am not without admiration for the way that US Americans seem to be able to use patriotism to support arguments for freedom, equality and a transparent democracy, but I am baffled by the use of the term "unAmerican" (which I have seen used by all sides of political arguments). It is rather like my sister and I having an argument and one of us saying, "No member of this family could possibly think that!"

So, what's the point? The Citizenship Test attempts to question those seeking British nationality on those matters that British people ought to know. But it's mostly facts, and often facts that those born here would struggle with. It arguably forces incomers to do a little homework, but it cannot reflect a great deal on their potential as a good British citizen (strictly speaking, we're not really citizens, we're subjects, but hey) We also make them swear their allegiance to the Queen and it is all absolutely pointless.

Good citizenship is something we learn from one another, not from a book or a motto or a constitution. The government is not totally powerless in this regard, but it cannot address the matter directly; what the government needs to do is to make sure that the institutions, infrastructure and law help encourage a happy cohesive society, rather than one divided by massive social and political inequality. Now there's a novel idea...

3. Permanence.

Imagine that they had written down a set of British Values in 1950. How would these compare to the ones we might draw up today? Our country has changed. Our social and political priorities have changed. In fact, why do we need to go so far back? Imagine a set of British Values that might have been drawn up by consensus in 1980. Things have changed since even then.

Setting all but the most general values in stone for all eternity is a big mistake. The right to bear arms in the United States constitution as was written in another world has pretty much ruled out a serious debate about gun control in a country where innocent people are injured or killed by firearms every day. Is there anything which should be written down now, never to be questioned again?

The ongoing exchange of ideas is essential for any community. In a community of sixty million, with all the diverse opinions within, we can't expect any discussion to ever reach a place where everyone agrees. We have to put some things down from time to time, and there are some issues where conflict trickles down to next to nothing, but the permanent closing of any matter is a big mistake.

Even things we know to be true need to be questioned from time to time, partly to make sure it is, indeed, the truth, but partly so we remember what the issue was about and why we came to a particular conclusion. To keep our values alive and meaningful.

Unless of course British Values are something really vague; but that brings us back to point 2.

I do love my country, with all its faults and foibles, just as I love my family. Not that everyone must; some people find they don't get on with their family at all, and some people don't get on with their country. However, I'm not nearly so worried about these people as I am about those who have such a jealous obsessive love for their country that they no longer see it for what it is. George Orwell wrote a very good essay on the matter.


Mary said...

Good post. I always forget to put that bit in when I'm responding with a slightly different viewpoint.

I'm not altogether convinced it's to do with superiority (I mean, okay, in some ways and for some people that's all it's ever about, but still).

Like, if I see two steaks at the butcher's, and one is British Beef and the other isn't, I'd be more inclined to opt for the British one, but more because of things like supporting local industries and a vague notion of carbon footprints, rather than because I think it would be better.

Or the whole "our place, our rules" thing. Scaling down from countries a bit... if I say that in my house, visitors should, let's say, take their shoes off and refrain from smoking. It's not that I believe my house is superior to houses where you keep your shoes on and have a cigarette. It's just my preference, and one which I would expect my visitors to respect.

The Goldfish said...

I'm not sure it is such a differing view. I would also opt for local produce for similar reasons. And sometimes British stuff is better - sometimes not.

The point is that the implication of some formalised set of British Values is that we have moral values that others do not. Which we don't.

As for "Our place, our rules", that's more complicated. I actually think that much of our "rules", our laws are superior to those of other countries; the rules which provide us with the levels of freedom, security, and democracy we enjoy.

However, that's law. Laws are arrived at through a long and slow process, passed by governments we elect and reviewed and amended on a regular basis. They are very well-defined (well usually).

None of this applies to British Values. It is the frequent accusation that immigrant communities (even several generations in) don't behave as we behave, they don't respect our unwritten "rules". But if something isn't a crime... It is a little complex, I shall go away and consider whether there might be a better way of putting it.

Anonymous said...

Again, good post. Thought-provoking.
I was going to leave a comment explaining the bits where I disagreed with you, but when it got to about 1000 words, I decided it was worthy of its own blog post:-)

So thanks for the inspiration, and here's for England and St George! (again). Oh, and I do tend to agree with you about Britishness classes and all that - just don't agree with all of your reasoning!

LindyLou said...

Well, I loved this post.
It's primary election day here in the rolling hills of Wisconsin and we are looking forward to a little peace after the assault on our common sense by the candidates. I wish they would subject their strident palaver to the same level of reason that you've used in writing this.
I think there's a lot to be said for acceptance that not everyone holds the very same opinions of everything and that the differing opinions don't have to be bargained away. I value some things highly, you value other things highly, perhaps. We're both right of course and we're both wrong and let's not batter against each other until one of us crumbles. We're all national characters after all and we're not likely to want to conform to each other's image of the ideal. Those ideals tend to be caricatures, not real characters anyway.
Thanks for getting me thinking--just in time, too because I'm on my way out to vote right after I post this.
Oh, and I shudder to think that some representatives who are yammering at each other should be entrusted to come up with something as important and enduring as a national motto.
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" comes to mind. Yikes!

fluttertongue said...

Damn Goldfish. You just have a knack for teezing out good posts, one after another. I wonder if your knack of structuring things just so comes naturally or some writing course. In any case, I agree wholeheartedly. I believe there should be pride in one's community - not the silly little things that go with it, but the people themselves, be they new or old, citizens or not and the work they do to brighten it up.

Sage said...

The whole time I was reading, I was thinking of The Bridge on the River Kwai, and this line:

"One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity."

And then they realize their foolishness and blow the thing up.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone,

LC - I hope this election goes better than the last one, for yourselves and the rest of the world!

My favourite suggestion for a British national motto was

"Mustn't grumble"

Fluttertongue - Thanks. I was actually quite rubbish at writing academic essays as I was prone to rant. It is good that I know have an outlet for that where I don't have to includes lots of quotes and references. :-)

Sage - :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm admiring it from thousands of miles away in Arizona. It got me thinking a little on this Sunday morning. I agree with the way you are thinking Goldfish... however, after visiting the country a few times over the past 10 years, it is becoming more like the U.S. - more of a cultural melting pot, bigger guts, etc.

I LOVE almost everything British and I would hope that the British people hold on to as much of the uniqueness as possible! In my humble opinion, those wanting to hold on to the "British values" should encourage it by simply being proud of their country! And by knowing it is not bad or wrong to be proud. Your country's style, sense of humor, language, attitude, etc is absolutely lovely and admired by people all over the world. I hope it will never be lost. Except for the whole Royal Family thing ;)

One last little point - we still love our right to bear arms here in the West. It might surprise most to know that many, many law-abiding, completely "normal" citizens carry weapons (legally). It is not that big of a deal here and is pretty typical. Unfortunately it is the criminals and illegal carriers of firearms that get all of the attention in the media - especially overseas.