All The More Reason

What is Britishness?
January 26, 2007, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister later this year, I am reliably informed that the idea of ‘Britishness’ will be a central theme of his tenure. In his speech to the Fabian Society recently, Brown framed this concept as embodying ‘progressive values’, namely ‘liberty, fairness and responsibility’.

Politicians have often appealed to the idea of ‘Britishness’ as a convenient shorthand for the values that they feel, personally, to be important: from the ‘Bulldog spirit’ evoked by Winston Churchill to rally a nation at war, to the rather more soporific nostalgia of John Major recalling the bygone imagery of ‘’old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ in order to illustrate his ill-fated ‘back to basics’ approach. The language of patriotism, if not the last refuge of a scoundrel, is certainly a convenient bolt-hole for a politician struggling to find a way to convince an audience of his central point.

Brown can be indicted on similar charges. Those values that he has described, laudable as they may be, are not peculiarly British. To talk of ‘liberty’ is misleading. The idea of ‘liberty under the law’ is most certainly a concept that has firm roots in this country; it is commonly cited as one of the great virtues of the ‘idealised’ British constitution. To confuse this with ‘liberty’ per se though is little more than Whiggish sentimentality: what is ‘liberty under the law’ if not a warrant for lawmakers to take away that liberty on a whim? ‘Rights’ are a far more potent tool with which to defend individual freedom, but the British constitution does not provide such safeguards.

New Labour often talks of rights accompanied by responsibilities. Tellingly, the latter are mentioned by Brown, but not the former. The link between the two is spurious in any event: the very essence of rights is that they are unfettered and inalienable, not redeemable like Green Shield stamps once the requisite amount of ‘responsibility’ for their exercise has been shown. Perhaps Gordon Brown means to say that Britishness is about responsibility to others. Taking a narrow view of history, i.e. one that begins in 1945 and ends in 1979, this may be so. At a stretch, one could characterise the NHS as a peculiarly British expression of solidarity, but its method of operation is rather more Soviet Union than Albion in style.

The meat in Brown’s rhetorical sandwich is ‘fairness’. Without further elucidation, this merely seems to be harking back to the hackneyed idea of British ‘fair play’. While living in France, I noticed that people would often refer, tongue in cheek, to le fair play whenever an example of British perfidy was recounted (e.g. ‘Mais Belmarsh,, ce n’est pas ‘le fair play’, huh?’). This is surely an object lesson in the dangers of both annexing and trade-marking certain virtues for one’s own nation.
The French are by no means innocent of this; after all, the words ‘liberte, egalite et fraternite’ are etched into the facade of every public building in the country. But at least they have, on paper at least, made a legal commitment to making these ideals a reality. Incidentally, the eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that Brown’s formula of ‘freedom, fairness and responsibility’ is not all that far removed from this. Could it be that his idea of what it means to be British is in fact that most un-British of things….French!?

Any commentator asked to consider aloud what it means to be British will usually be able to elicit a smug chuckle from his audience by smirkingly pointing out that the very exercise of self-examination is ‘un-British’ in itself. In doing so, they seemingly forget that in order to be able to characterise something as ‘un-British’ they must themselves be referring to some bogus national standard of self-restraint. Although it may be neither British nor un-British, the exercise is pointless unless the values elicited have a normative, rather than a purely descriptive function. This means having the political courage to codify a set of progressive aspirations in constitutional and legally enforceable form.

Other than providing a demagogic shortcut between the heart and the head, wrapping one’s values in the Union Jack performs more or less the same function as the Emperor’s new clothes. Rhetorically ‘nationalizing’ progressive ideals gives credence to the erroneous notion that there are no such things as universal values; just culturally-specific quirks of history. Let us aspire to these ideals, let us celebrate them, but let us also ensure that their enjoyment is, in fact, without borders.

Michael P


3 Comments so far
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That last paragraph is packed with things to ponder. I agree with the idea that “‘nationalizing’ progressive ideals” does give ownership to something that ought to be shared. Still, things can start somewhere before going elsewhere. And frankly, if French and British identities merged somewhat (despite the boringness of it), it would alleviate the return of costly past nationalisms.

I wonder, what, if they existed, the debates on Britishness were a hundred years ago. Somehow I think time was probably spent more on debating the differences between classes, or between catholics and anglicans. (I could be in left field here) So why is this a pertinent question now? Finding the motivations to this question of national identity may give us another insight to the current state of “Britishness”.

Comment by J.S.

I’m not an historian, but from what I have read, national identity in days gone by seemed to centre much more around the ‘Nations’ of Britain: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

This is the other problem with the question of Britishness: many of the virtues ascribed to the British are relics of old English, or even Anglo-Saxon, mythology. This influence is inevitable, given the English numerical superiority, but I would be interested to hear what the Welsh contribution to the Brownite notion of British identity was.

Comment by Michael P

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