Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Being British

It wasn't just David Melding's new book which led me to give some thought to the question of 'Britishness' recently; I've also been reading Patrick Hannan's latest work, "A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy". This seems to have been sent to quite a number of bloggers for review. It's an interesting approach; not least since I was on Patrick's 'Called to Order' programme some 18 months ago talking about blogging, and I got the impression that he was not exactly convinced of the value of the medium!

In fairness, however, having known Patrick for far too many years, and having been interviewed by him as long ago as the 1970s, it's always dangerous to assume that the way he asks his questions necessarily betrays his own thinking; as often as not, he's trying to be deliberately provocative. He really enjoys a good argument, I suspect.

And that's something which I kept in mind in reading the book itself. Patrick has always seemed to me to be more interested in challenging what people think and why than in expressing a view himself.

So, academic tome this is not; but he is a journalist, not an academic, and what we get is much more of a personal tour around the landscape of a changing Britishness. Insofar as it comes to any conclusions, rather than presenting impressions, it seems to me that it is simply this – 'Britishness', whatever it may be, is not something static or permanent, but something diffuse and vague which is both evolving continuously (and doing so in ways which many 'British' people - and particularly the English - don't really understand) whilst at the same time retaining recognisable elements of continuity.

John Major tried to define 'Britishness' in terms of cricket on the village green, warm beer, and spinsters cycling to church; others have tried to define it in terms of a commitment to justice and fair play. The first is about as far removed as it is possible to get from the everyday experience of most 'British' people; and the second is a set of values which almost any western democracy would also claim to espouse. The only thing uniquely British about the notion of justice and fair play is the idea that those notions are somehow unique to one nation; it's the sort of quiet superiority which is so common amongst the English (public school?) establishment.

I remember years ago reading a book which said something along the lines of "The English always claim that they are not nationalists. This is the first characteristic of English nationalism". And that touches on another problem that people trying to define what it is to be British come up against – they never seem to be able to explain the difference between English and British. Most Welsh people readily understand that there is a difference, despite being entirely comfortable to describe themselves as both British and Welsh.

Although the book isn't really an exploration of Welshness, I'd argue that the same is true for that as well; so one can draw a general conclusion that what our chosen nationality is, and what it means to us, are things which are constantly changing. I understand why some of those for whom "the union must be maintained at all costs" would feel threatened by such a thesis - and why some Welsh nationalists might feel equally threatened!

However, they'd be wrong – in both cases. Understanding our past, understanding the way things are changing around us, and creating our own future based on those understandings is a key element of what our politics should be about.

As Patrick points out, there is a huge mismatch at present between what is happening to the UK and the understanding of it, particularly amongst those in England (and their representatives in Wales) who seem to think that they really can hold back the tide. Trying to cling on to an outdated notion of what we are – whether that be British or Welsh – is the strategy least likely to succeed. And, to end on an optimistic note - at present, I think that nationalists are doing more to understand and embrace change than are unionists.


Unknown said...

It is the British, by whom I mean the Welsh, Scots and Cornish and Mannians, who are the denizens of culture in these islands. The English gave up theirs years ago and retain only the Morris Dancers, the Mummers and the Clog dancers of Lancashire, but little else.
Even the Northumbrian pipers are essentially Scottish (or British).
Brtish culture and traditions are the preserve of the Celtic periphery and the English employ Scottish pipers to lead them into battle and play the bagpipes at expatriate embassy garden parties.

John Dixon said...


That's a pretty dismissive attitude towards our neighbours. At the very least, one would surely concede that they have given the world (admittedly with more than a little help from the former American colonies) a language which has come to dominate international communications. And that language is pretty rich in its literature.

I'd like more recognition for Wales and what we have, particularly from England; I don't quite see how we would get that by a process of denigration.

Unknown said...

It always makes me laugh when English journalists get their knickers in a twist about the difference between England and Britain. There was a sports commentator on the today program that said that South Africa had been beaten by the English lions! The Welsh and Irish Lions would have been a much better description of the touring team! Had it no been for injuries there would have bee no Englishmen (part possibly for Shaw) in the final test lineup!

Unknown said...

My comment was not intended to be dismissive or denigratory, but factual. They gave their language to the world through conquest and colonisation, as well as through fine works of literature. Thus English, and not Spanish, French and German, all colonial powers, became the dominant language of communication fortuitously.

Christopher said...

Maybe I misremember this, but "The English always claim that they are not nationalists. This is the first characteristic of English nationalism" could be from Micheal "Iggy" Ignatiff's "Blood and Belonging", in particular the chapter on Northern Ireland. Or at least, he came to a similar conclusion.