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Let’s talk about “Britishness”

Immediately that I mention “Britishness” I spy a flabby overblown and under-defined concept bouncing straight towards me – a bit like Rover, the security and surveillance balloon from The Prisoner, (itself a show which if you are not British will confuse you only slightly more than a Chinese puzzle being demonstrated by a man from Azerbaijan in a vernacular dialect of early medieval Eastern proto-Finnic.)

Come to think of it, being totally perplexed by Patrick Mcgoohan’s sixties adventures marks you out as “the other” in this discussion of what Britishness actually is. (Don’t worry, you can tell us what you actually think of us later.)

It is amazing how “Britishness” has troubled the good, the bad and the ugly over the last few years.

First we had the Tebbit Cricket test which was all well and good as a workable definition for a right-winger from Chingford, but whose shortcomings were exposed immediately when you cross the Scots borders into a land of curling and drug-addled skiers seldom troubled by the voice of Richie Benaud. And this without even mentioning Mr Aziz the muslim who runs my local off-licence (Yes. It’s that kind of place here) and watches cricket constantly, cheering on Pakistan or, alternatively, whoever is beating India…

Jolly John Major had another cricket-based try at a definition, saying Britain is the land of::

long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.

I must say that You don’t see many of those old gals on bicycles in my neck of the woods – perhaps the “morning exhaust fumes” have killed them all off, or someone stole their bikes whilst they were enthusiastically praying for a new poodle.

On it went: David Blunkett fingered Professor Sir Bernard Crick as the man to set up a “Britishness test” for incoming immigrants, Gordon Brown (skillfully “meanwhiling” the “West Lothian question” in advance of his coronation,) tossed in the idea of turning Remembrance day into a “whoopee! I’m British!” kind of day.

Yesterday it was David Cameron’s turn to chime in with a definition; proclaiming that to be British is to be: calm, and thoughtful, and reasonable

Thanks Dave, you have obviously never travelled by train in your entire life have you?

According to Richard Eyre:

What is Britishness? Something that can be politically expedient to invoke on behalf of Falkland islanders, 8,000 miles from Britain in the South Atlantic, but awkward in Scotland and embarrassing in Northern Ireland where, far from being the nation’s glue, it’s pepper dust in an open wound. Being British is a variable ideology. We’re comfortable with being seen as a source of creative energy in fashion, pop music and TV comedy. We’re occasionally proud (but often ashamed) of our sporting heroes, and we’re chagrined by being celebrated for HP sauce, Marmite, Oxford Marmalade, red buses and pillar boxes, rotten teeth, “Swinging London”, “Cool Britannia” and the heritage diorama from Normans to Windsors.

On the same theme, In 2000, MORI interviewed the prospective “opinion formers” in 13 countries around the world. Asked which images “best sum up” the countries of the UK they came up with: kilts, mountains and whisky for Scotland, castles and rugby for Wales, the Royal Family, Big Ben and the Tower of London for England.

Great; the world thinks we are all whisky-drinking Austin Powers “mini-me’s” who live in castles.

Mori also asked Brits themselves about British identity and found that:

Scots were most likely to identify primarily with Scotland (72%) and their region (62%), less with their local community (39%), and only rarely with Britain (18%). Even more overwhelmingly, the Welsh identify first with Wales (80%), then region (50%) and community (32%); 27% of the Welsh identify with Britain. But among the English, there is an almost even split between the importance of region (49%), Britain (43%), local community (42%) and England (41%).

Where is the adopted son of a Welshman and a Yorkshire lass such as myself to fit in? Do I feel British? No, is the short answer. Though I have always felt welcome in Scotland and Wales, they both seem like foreign countries- although having said that, so does anywhere outside the M25 ring-road which encircles London. I guess I am in with the 49% who say that “region” is the most important thing.

Last week Sir Keith Ajegbo (who used to run the comprehensive around the corner from here where the pupils were known for eating burgers and having underage sex) presented his report about citizenship (thus allowing education secretary Alan Johnson his own chance at proclaiming what British values actually amount to.)

Keith and Al, who cunningly chose a date close to The 300th anniversary of “Britain” (or the act of union anyway-an event which passed by on the 17th of January with barely a whimper heard from any corner of these islands) want to put “core British values” at the heart of teaching, because they think that young white working class teenagers are losing their sense of identity. What are the core values of a young, white, British teenager I wonder? (Burgers and sex, I hear you reply)

Sir Keith thinks that teaching British history alongside the history of colonialism and slavery will allow these mysterious “British“values (which nobody has been able to define) to solidify in front of our eyes like gold on the philosophers stone . The thing is that he wants it done by history teachers who, even when I was at school (last century), were so obviously harassed by endless doubts about whether someone like Nelson was actually hero or villain that they always played safe and ended up teaching about Hitler (not much room for doubt there) and Jethro Tull (not the band, the inventor of the seed-drill) knowledge of whom was as much use in seventies Brixton as the 16th century Italian history was to the Congolese pupils who Evelyn Waugh found nuns enthusiastically teaching it to in the twenties.

Anyway, I’m now rambling like Ronnie Corbett on methamphetamines, so here, as a great Englishman (sorry “Briton,”) once said, is the rub: Should British white working class teenagers be taught about the great events in working-class history? Chartism, Tom Paine, Daniel O’Connell? What use do the powers that be think they will make of “whig history” these days? Do they actually think that your average teenager will connect the battle of Blenheim to anything in their daily lives?

Secondly, how do you “foreigners” see Britain and “Britishness?” We know how insular we can be -best summed up by the old anecdote seen on a board on a winter’s day at Dover: “Fog in Channel; continent cut-off.” But what do those of you living abroad make of “perfidious Albion” in this new century? What values (if any) do we stand for now?

And what exactly is Britishness anyway?” Does anyone agree with the conclusion of yesterday’s report which stated:

The final step is to recognise that the‘common values’ that might bring us together are still up for debate. We do have basic tenets of fairness, individual liberty,democracy, tolerance, justice and the rule of law, but beyond that, there is no readymade political consensus.

Or is that way too wooly and ambiguous for you?

Lastly (for the separatists) do you think this whole idea of Britishness is well past its sell-by date and should be put out to pasture with Norman Tebbit?

Best of British luck dealing with all that in the comments boxes.

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