Is there another country in the entire world that generates such confusion over what you’re supposed to call it? Which of these names should we use: the United Kingdom, the British Isles, Britain, Great Britain? Even people who live here struggle to understand the geographical differences these names signify.
Then, when you try to attribute qualities to this country as a whole, are they to do with ‘Britishness’ or is that just nonsense? Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness – where do they come in?
We hear the British don’t mind being thought of as quirky or idiosyncratic. On 5.5.5 & Counting, we don’t fully accept this. We believe the real quirkiness and idiosyncrasy arises from Englishness. The English share of the population is, of course, in a massive majority – more than 50 million out of about 65. Trying to understand what Englishness is and what Englishness means may therefore shed light on resistance to changing the voting system of the UK to a fair one that would actually count the votes of its citizens at general elections. One journalist writing in “I” newspaper on 24 October 2015 says that there is no desire to go through the upheaval of writing a constitution in England and, just as worryingly for us, ‘Most English voters are quite happy with their parliament.’
Admittedly, the UK has had its share of Scots in high government positions. Also, we see all the home countries represented quite prominently in politics and in the media. But wherever in the UK they come from, once they are immersed in the dynamic of that zone of South-east England where the power lies, they are in grave danger of succumbing to Englishness. Many would agree with us that when we think of the Establishment, ‘Englishness’ is pretty near the front of our minds.
So we think the dominant cultural force and national identity must be not pure ‘Britishness’ but something we could call more accurately ‘Brit-Englishness’.
The culture of Brit-Englishness seems to flourish on creating distractions from its own problems. The projection of attention or blame onto ‘others’ is known as displacement.
Never does this get better demonstrated than when someone calls for a definition of Britishness – quite a common occurrence, in fact. This often descends into race and faith issues. For example, paragraph one in an article on Britishness by Rafael Behr (Guardian, 7 July 2015) mentions the infiltration of radical Islamist ideas. This shows how inclined we are to move without hesitation and label Britishness as the antidote to overseas political systems and religions whose values appear to us to be less desirable. Fine, some space for those comparisons is necessary when trying to find a meaning to Britishness. But to fill up the whole room with them, shut the door and walk away like that’s it done and dusted – is that really our best shot?
We need to dive in and take a much harder look at mainstream Britain itself – inside rather than outside. Everyday experience of Britishness is what you find when you are interacting with society. Would it not make more sense to judge it with questions like:
- How do we all treat each other socially, in public or at work?
- How do we see ourselves reflected in the media?
- How do our political and financial institutions behave?
We ought to be comparing ourselves in these respects to countries that we have much more in common with. We take it for granted that we count ourselves in ‘the premiership’ with the Nordic, West-Central European, the other English-speaking economies and Japan.
But when British people are asked what it means to be British the idea of making comparisons at this level doesn’t seem to enter their heads. The far more common responses are:
- First, as if they’re being faced with an implied threat to the concept of Britishness. Because it is not easy to define in itself, we perhaps don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner with anything too specific. It has a special quality that we ought not to try and define too closely. It can be better defined in relation to any external threats to it, real or perceived.
- The second follows almost inevitably from the first. We know in our hearts what it is to be British in a core, domestic sense and the last thing we want is anyone to question that and tell us what we should be doing or thinking differently.
So it’s not surprising that the argument is often put forward saying that we appear to lack a sense of Britishness. Definition of the national identity, Baer continues in his article, risks straying into awkward historical and religious terrain – church and empire! The definition of Britishness may therefore not just be nebulous and remote but highly sensitive. Englishness, of course, has its massive presence in British culture and of all the country’s peoples, what it means to be English is by far the trickiest to grasp. Is it possible that all that idiosyncrasy we pride ourselves on is a smokescreen?
Nobody is trying to pretend the other home nations are blessed with perfect national identity. The recent Scottish independence referendum almost divided their country in half. Northern Ireland is especially difficult because of its complicated and troubled recent history. But when you listen to the Scots and the Welsh they do seem to be underpinned by a view of the world that gives them a more solid sense of who and what they are. They seem often to come across as more forthright and natural.
Here’s a bet. When groping to find a direct answer of substance to the question of what is Britishness, most of the things that start coming to the forefront of our minds are either English or strongly tinged with it. The Queen and her current entourage, royalty past and present; Churchill, the Houses of Parliament, Shakespeare, Dickens, the bobby on the beat, our valiant troops, Oxbridge, the boat race, the Grand National, the Proms, the Lake District, the special relationship with the US, the London taxi, the Bank of England…to name several. Indisputable evidence of this cultural bias has now come out with the announcement of a revised British passport design (November 2015). There are twelve pages of British ‘creatives’. On one of those pages the Edinburgh Festival gets a short paragraph. On another, three iconic buildings, one each in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland get a paragraph each. Absolutely everything else on the twelve ‘creatives’ pages is on locations in England or about English people.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we should at least be starting to question the reverence we afford the nation’s cultural mascots. They imply some great store of exemplary values – achievement, competence, excellence and so on. But the reality gap is now painfully obvious. The performance of so many of our institutions has not matched reputations. Some might say there has been complacency. On competence, trust and inequality we’ve always liked to talk as if Britishness ticks all the boxes but the reality is a growing column of X’s. It is in the balance whether we may soon have to add another one because of the allegations that have come to light of organised child abuse – or worse – in the highest political circles of the land. Establishment interests may feel the pressure is off now because at late October 2015 there have been significant developments taking the heat out of some of the allegations. Let’s hope that’s the last of it or, frankly, where would we be?
Even so, maybe the people would still like to see some of our institutions getting a good shake-up and Westminster hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to keep a clean sheet in the last few years. In our view, changing the way we elect our governments by ending safe seats and moving to a fair voting system would be a very constructive project to start planning.