Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What is British?

Anyone who knows me from the Five live messageboards will be aware of some of my feelings on this subject already.

My preoccupation as with many of my recent preoccupations comes from having had a child. It's forced me to think about a great many things in my life. There are obviously the practicalities of education, health and so on, but also more macro issues. One of these more nebulous issues is that of being British and what it is to be British in 2005.

When I fill in a form asking for nationality, my first thought is invariably to state English, of course that gets pinged as you are always data captured as British. However, I do feel more English than I do British. I don't have anything against the other nations in the union, but frankly it comes down to sport. I support England, I know it's the English and Welsh cricket board but for me and pretty much every other Englishman I know it's England pure and simple.

So that's a personal take, Englishness and Britishness are pretty much inter-changeable and I think if you asked the average Scotsman or Welshman most would agree with you, if you are to take the traditional view of Britishness/Englishness and this is where my argument springboards.

There seems to have been a lot of talk recently about Britishness and what it is to be British in 2005. It seems to me that most often Britishness is perceived as tradition, history and democracy and freedom of speech. However I feel this is far too anchored in the past to be relevant to modern society and I feel this is leading us in to an identity crisis.

This post comes today following yesterday's defeat in the House of Commons on the 90 day terror detention bill. Sir Ian Blair recommended to Tony Blair that this should be the number of days we hold terrorist suspects without trial while the police and security services gathered evidence to build a case to take them to trial. The bill was defeated and a 14 day extension to 28 days has been agreed (Subject to the Lord's approval)

There are two interesting aspects to this particular period in our history in the context of what it is to be British.

First was the way that Tony Blair took Ian Blair's recommendations forward without change. I've been criticised for using the term police state - I realise it's an emotive term but until yesterday I had never used it in the context of Britain. However, when the police have this much sway over government I feel it's the most appropriate term, the cap fits so snugly. I don't think we live in a police state yet, I don't even think we're getting close to it, but, these things start somewhere and this piece of legislation is the thin end for me.

Second, is related to the first, but concerns our approach to the constitution. It seems to me that some of the most vehement supporters of the 90 day bill were the very same ones that would quote Britishness as being about tradition, democracy, free speech, the rule of law, fair play and so on. But isn't it a contradiction in terms to feel being British is about tradition and democracy and freedom of speech and then wanting to defend that by destroying those very principles.

I can't help but think that we are increasingly becoming an elastoplast nation, mending the wounds as they are inflicted without ever looking at why they're inflicted. I realise that we have a fluid constitution built over hundreds of years, but this has relied on conflict and upheaval to ensure it remains dynamic and relevant. I would argue that we have undergone such a long period of relative stability and prosperity since the Second World war that actually we've started to lose our way, the constitution isn't moving on as it has in the past.

Of course this loss of direction and struggle is true of a lot of North West Europe, I can't think of a much safer place to live your life, but cracks are starting to appear, the French riots, Germany's continuing struggle to get back on it's feet following re-unification with it's high unemployment, Holland's approach to law becoming increasingly tough. We're all struggling in our own way.

And of course globalisation has it's role in this. It could be argued that Britishness is less relevant now because we have a more global economy. Tony Blair often appears to spend far more of his time on international issues than domestic, but maybe international is where it's at. After all we are hosting Prime Minister Hu of China currently in an attempt to strengthen our global position, but funnily we're pulling out all the traditional old favourites, horse drawn carriages, silly dressy banquets and so on to welcome him in. (Oh yes and that great British tradition of ignoring the human rights nastiness). However, it's all very well being global and it's all very well freeing up trade and lowering barriers but what are the consequences of this.

Now I'm a South London boy and I grew up with a lot of black and brown faces. I had a fairly liberal upbringing, so people's issues with immigration and multi-culturalism were something I came to quite late and I found very difficult to identify with. I grew up with in a very rich and diverse environment so it's something I've been used to all my life.

My personal opinion is that multi-culturalism is the way forward. I am an advocate of letting anyone in, open the borders. Not completely uncontrolled, but if they bring skills let's have 'em, whoever they are. However where multi-culturalism is falling down for me comes back to our sense of Britishness. It's failing because we cannot convey what it is in 2005. What do immigrants in the UK cling on to, what do they aspire to. Why should they want to buy in to our culture? This isn't the case in the US.

My view of America is thus. Great to live there. Great to travel there. Great to be there. Shit, if they come to visit you, because invariably they're after something. So ignoring foreign policy, I'll concentrate on the domestic 'American Dream'. It's a simple concept really that has both a cultural and economic aspect, it's easy to understand and most importantly it's always contemporary. It's as relevant today as it was in 1776. For an immigrant in the US it's aspirational it oozes from every pore of the average American and it appears tangible, something to hold on to something to buy in to, something entirely egalitarian in it's principle, if not perfectly egalitarian in it's execution, but heh everything has it's flaws.

In Britain we have no discernible comparative aspiration. As I have stated already we have the tradition, the history, the democracy, but then so do most other countries and each of those countries could claim the same. Those concepts were fine in 1945, we had won a war we were a nation on high and we were still an imperial power, but as we get further away, most of the empire has disappeared, the Great in Great Britain looks increasingly outdated and our identity is completely anchored in the past a vision of Britain from the 1950s. So what's our USP in 2005. Why should people want to come here. The answer is the economy. We're strong, we have high employment, we have a huge service industry and that is attracting immigrants, bring 'em on I say it can only strengthen us.

But hang on all I can see is multiculturalism failing and it's because people are failing to integrate. Not as some of the haters would argue, because they want to be with their own, but it's because the international image that we convey which is largely based on everything I have outlined above in reality is hugely nebulous. It's not tangible, it's not something that seeps from every pore of an Englishmen as the American dream seeps from an American.

If you landed at Heathrow by plane tomorrow, or pulled in at Waterloo on the Eurostar, or landed at Dover by Ferry and walked in to the newsagents what would you see. Newspapers full of sensationalism, celebrity magazines, lads mags, tits arse and empty heads. This is modern Britain. A Britain that takes solace in vacuousness that pins it's nationalism to the Football team or the cricket team. This apathy and lack of identity shows in so many different ways.

Look at the last election turn out. We returned a government who received 25% of the countries vote. Politicians are unable to galvanise the electorate to even bother to drag their fat celebrity loving arse 200 yards to scrawl an x on a ballot paper. Why? because they fail to inspire. They fail to take the electorate with them with a bold vision of modern Britishness. What we get is the media veneer of Cool Britannia. A Blairite PR job based on a few musicians having champagne cocktails at No. 10. This isn't modern Britain, this is a few designers getting pissed for free and pretending that the late 90s were as cool as the swinging 60s. Oh how quickly it all disappeared. Do you think we're going to see Noel Gallagher hob nobbing with Cherie Blair again. No I didn't think so.

So here I am.

Are we strong economically? Yes and we are maintaining relatively well

Are we strong globally? Relatively bit of a lapdog

Are we at threat from terror? Yes, but not enough so to erode our entire rule of law

Are we being taken over by immigrant cultures? No. It's just that we appear to be, because our own identity is so weak that when we play host to a culture that has a strong identity it puts ours in the shade.

I want to live in a strong-multicultural society, but if we are to do that we need to get a fresh modern vision of what it is to be British without that we will simply become a mish-mash.

Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to what that vision is, but I'm definitely going to have a damn good think.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Tony Blair would have recieved greater support for this legislation had we not already seen the present law being implemented completely unnecessarily at the Labour Party conference against Mr Wolfgang. I'm all in favour of holding terrorists for as log as is required, but we simply cannot trust the authorities with this sort of power - it is too open to abuse.

Span Ows said...

I agree with Mr. Anonymous above; also I tend to sympathise with almost all of your well writtrn essay on your thoughts, especially re our loss of direction and also our lack of identity, but I have one or two doubts:

Firstly uncontrolled borders are a definite say "totally open but not completely uncontrolled"...well I think that is wrong: one of the major requirements of any government, probably THE first thing they should be ensuring, is the security of it's citizens (I'm not just applying this to current bombing scares) and the security of its citizens involves control of the countries borders. Now, that doesn't mean no immigration but it does mean 100% controlled immigration...this in no way would jeopardise normal economic migrants.

The second is that any multicultural society must go some way to ensuring the 'assimilation' (forgive the word but it's relevant) of it's immigrant the USA all nationalities are represented and keep a strong bond even to the point of definite and irreversible ghettoisation...BUT...they are all strongly and even aggresively AMERICAN when push comes to the UK that is not the case; God forbid that a third WW (conventional) ever starts because we would be overrun in would stand and fight like past generations have done.

Also, I call myself English and always put English (I was Brit/ Eng when in the army)...and on forms that do not have this answer I write it in 'Other'...same applies with the ethnic questions...I am not I put White English in the 'other' may be petty and unnecessary but I do not care.

Six Years Late said...

I'm not surprised you picked up on the border thing Span. It's the area I have the least firm opinion. I agree that we need to control borders 100%, my doubt is where we draw lines, I don't agree there should be yearly quotas as this takes no account for humanitarian disaster and an increase in people requiring refuge, but where we draw the line I still haven't made up my mind so the juries out.

On your second point this may not have come across, but this is what I was getting act. I want our immigrant populations to be aggressively British as well. I think you're being a little pessimistic about how vociferous people would be in defence of the country. I think the proportion of people that are actively anti-Britain is tiny.

Span Ows said...

"I think the proportion of people that are actively anti-Britain is tiny."...agreed...BUT...of the majority of the rest that are either neutral towards 'Britain' despite living here, or those that are pro Britain, how many would fight for her? I say very few. Even the 'chav' element that have held this country up in hundreds of wars down the centuries are, in my opinion, now more likely to turn round and say "stuff that!"

IsobelMagsBuchan said...

Fascinating question Six and one that requires a lot of thought.

From my own point of view being English is about being a mongrel! I don't mean this in any sort of bad way but in the way that having researched my family history for over 20 years now, I know that nothing and nobody is as they seem to be. Chip away a few generations and my, what surprises we have in store.

Then I look at my son who is as English as I am having been born from moi and born in England. Yet, his biological father is Turkish. My young daughter has an awful lot of Welsh in those genes and yet she is my son's sister and she too was born in London to an English mother.

My Aunt (by marriage) is Jewish and her parents escaped the Holcaust by fleeing Poland in the 30's. Her daughter is my cousin. She was born here to an English father. We share genes and yet there are origins that are so different but yet go back three genrations on another side and the origins are the same.

It's very complicated and as I said it's all mongrel to me!

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