January 31, 2007

Do we really need to define 'Britishness'?

In recent months, there has been increased debate surrounding the idea of ‘Britishness’. Politicians, journalists and commentators are all adding their voice to the discussion, and are likely to devote even more time to the subject in the approach to the next general election and the imminent face-off between Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But according to a recent survey of social attitudes in the UK, the proportion of the population that consider themselves ‘British’ has declined from 52% to 44% in the last decade. At the same time, the Scottish Nationalist Party appear to have wide support from the Scottish electorate, worrying those who have recently celebrated the 300th birthday of the Union.

It is easy to see why a decline in the numbers of those who feel a sense of national identity might worry the future Labour leader. For the Scottish MP with his eye on Number 10, it is now more important than ever that the population remains united.

The politics of the Union between the England and Scotland is, its fair to say, rather complicated. But it is also only one issue in a complex discussion of what unites the population of the UK. There are a number of questions still to be answered, starting with the obvious: Do we really need to define ‘Britishness’? There are many who would argue that we do.

“The concept is certainly not redundant,” says Matt Hartley, chairman of Warwick Conservatives. “It’s important that society has something that all its members can take pride in, and patriotism will always have a role to play in maintaining a strong, cohesive and stable society.”

“It is a shame, however, to see the idea of Britishness being abused by politicians for their own ends - the most recent example being Gordon Brown, whose patriotic talk of “being British” is nothing more than a cynical attempt to counterbalance his own Scottishness in the minds of the electorate.”

Damilola Ogunleye, President of the Politics Society, is also wary of public figures abusing the idea. "There isn't a problem with having a term of national identity as such, as long as it is a flexible concept that isn’t reduced to an irrelevant rallying term for politicians and a few segments of society."

Brown’s supporters would no doubt counter that this is a subject that has long been close to the Chancellor’s heart. In 2005, Brown highlighted the importance of “a sense of shared purpose,” and argued that a belief in “tolerance and liberty… shines through British history.” If you’re prepared to forget about the legacy of colonialism, you might think that he has a point.

In 2006, Brown took the idea further by proposing a national day for Britain, directly referring to the American model. It seems that there is still has some way to go if he is to win over the population. David Cameron has taken a slightly different approach, stating recently, “we can't bully people into feeling British - we have to inspire them.”

For Chemistry student Gary Bartley, the emphasis should be placed on redefining, rather than inventing, the concept. “We need to move away from the stereotype of men drinking tea and watching cricket, and move towards a more realistic idea of what we stand for today.”

Ciaran O’Connor, Vice-President of the Politics Society, is altogether more sceptical that it is possible to define what it is to be ‘British’. “I think it’s a bit of an outmoded concept, and what actually is it anyway?” he asks. “I think some form of cultural identity is a good thing, but to differentiate between that and other, more universal values such as liberal democracy and human rights seems slightly pointless.”

Professor Steve Fenton, who recently participated in a One World Week event looking at multiculturalism in the UK, agrees. “Who said Britain has a copyright on these values. We can be all for these values without it being because of our national identity."

“I am not at all convinced that people in their everyday lives are very concerned,” he continues. “People have other concerns which are related – for instance there is undoubtedly a strong band of sentiment against immigration, and a rather narrower band against multiculturalism.”

These comments highlight an important point. The values that Brown and others would like to associate with ‘Britishness’ are shared by societies throughout the world – so how can we claim these under the banner of the Union Jack? Some would argue that it is also misguided to assume that it’s possible to reach a consensus on which values should be included in a comprehensive definition of our national identity.

“Ironically, this kind of national soul-searching can actually divide people more than it unites them,” said Labour Party member George Eaton. “Individuals have multiple identities and everyone's path to some notion of Britishness will be different.”

A further problem for those seeking to promote tolerance and diversity as ‘British’ values is the fact that this isn’t always supported by reality. One political commentator, Martin Bright, recently commented in the New Statesman magazine; “the values [Brown] treasures… have been sorely challenged internationally by the government’s foreign policy. Jade Goody has not helped.”

Indeed, the majority of people living in the UK would no doubt support the promotion of positive values. That 40,000 people called Channel 4 to complain about the alleged racism in the Big Brother house recently is a good illustration of this. But whether or not these callers’ actions were distinctly ‘British’ is still a matter for debate.

Written for The Warwick Boar, 31st January 2007

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  • An excellent blog Simon. I am looking forward to seeing 'Outfoxed' quite a lot now. Hope you keep th… by on this entry

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