Tonight’s episode of Panarama focused on that most ambiguous of questions: what is Britishness and what does it mean to be British? What intrigued me most about this programme was just how much it made me question my own conceptions of Britishness and what it means to me to be British. When one attempts to define Britain the obvious national treasures would be reeled off and my first instincts were… ‘fish and chips!’, ‘the royal family!’, ‘polo!’, (to name just a few) however even these most ‘British’ of icons presented me with a dilema.
Well for a start potatoes, that most essential ingredient of our beloved national dish, were introduced to Britain in the 1570s from America, many hundreds of years after rice and pasta were first eaten here so why arent rice and pasta a national dish? The Royal Family? yes inspirational, traditional and rabble rousing… but ultimately German, and polo? Indian. So you see, look back far enough and the ultimate symbols of Britain are in fact foreign. Therefore with the possibility of defining ‘Britishness’ through symbols quashed what else could it be?
Perhaps the best way to describe what it means to me to be British lies in that most immortal of lines ‘I think therefore I am’. Britishness is a state of mind. Whether the Royal family is of German descent or not is irrelevant considering the fact we still rally round them as one of the ultimate ‘symbols’ of the nation. We still feel a lump in the back of our throats to see the Queen riding the King George III state coach down the Mall to the renditions of Land of Hope and Glory and Zadoch the Preist… German or not! The fact is Britishness is what we feel and not neccessarily what we are. As far as I am concerned love of ones country is inante and not imposed and perhaps the most wonderful thing about it is… it doesn’t have to make sense.
If Gordon Brown really wants to make people feel British the way to do it is to remind them why we should be proud to be British. Not with oaths or days off but through education and understanding. Take the flag back from the extremists like the BNP, fly it proudly from our public buildings. Stop teaching our children that the British Empire was exploitative and ‘nasty’ because frankly who would want to be assosciated with an exploitative system? Instead focus on the developments that the British Empire made in the world, the cities and towns we built, the education and health structures we developed and the traditions of democracy which became an inherant part of their independent national life. Don’t focus on the fact we exploited the slave trade but remind us of the fact that we were the ones ended it. In short: end the apology culture. Apologists don’t make good patriots.
The extremists tend to point to the breakdown of British patriotism and society to immigration, and to be fair this is in part true. It would be naieve for us to deny that mass immigration has changed the face of this country beyond recognition and created community tennsion however I believe it is the system that has failed us and not the individual immigrant. Immigration is largely beneficial to society but it must be kept in check and most crucially there must be conditions. When we accept, as we have been doing up to present, 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. We must expect more from our immigrant communities and in turn we need to make our immigrant communities feel part of our community. We need to find ways of educating us on them and them on us only then can we hope to understand each other. After all, immigrants have the capacity and as much of a right to feel British as Joe Smith from Peckham.
Being British is about driving a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab to enjoy whilst sitting on Swedish furniture and watching American shows on a Japanese TV… oh and the most most British thing of all?… being suspicious of anything foreign. Britishness like individuals are a mass of contradictions, we are what we think we are and ultimately there is nothing wrong with that if it inspires that sense of community and collective bond that patriotism can. Gordon Brown hopes to force a renewed sense of national pride on us simply because his party has done wonders to undermine it, whether it be through policies of devolution or lax grips on immigration. As always he is persuing a top down solution whereas we Conservatives understand that this situation requires a bottom up solution.
Patriotism and true Britishness is not to be demanded or expected, to demand is to destroy, it has to be given freely and the only way to achieve that end is to inspire the uninspired through education and community. Make people want to be British don’t expect them to be.