For a mongrel race the British are peculiarly fixated on ethnicity and faith, which are often stalking horses for a multitude of other issues. For a country that it is proud of its historical traditions, it can become rather trapped by them. It also leads to absurdity. No more so than the Daily Mail’s quite breath-taking attack on Ralph Miliband and whether he was really British. Aside from the fact that this judgment relied on deeply questionable ‘proof’ like his scribbled teenage thoughts, it reflects a deeper anxiety in our society.
The easy response is to point at the Daily Mail and the preposterous position of a paper whose co-founder Lord Rothermere was a fan of Hitler and Mussolini. In 1934, Lord Rothermere wrote an opinion piece, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, a reference to Oswald Mosley. Perhaps it is somewhat understated to say that his politics were not proven to be on the right side of history. The question posed is does the politics of an individual, their race or religion determine their Britishness? For all the liberal intelligentsia in north London screaming no, it should be realised that there are other people who answer ‘maybe’ to themselves.
Britishness lacks the clear tenants of say Americanism. Regardless of your race, ethnicity or religion you can demonstrate your belief in America by planting the stars and stripes in your front yard or belting out the anthem too loudly at sports games. There are visual cues that signal belonging. That and talking about American exceptionalism. This is not to demean use of these symbols at all. If you were to march down the street with the St George’s cross, the first thought many would have is ‘EDL’. So what do the British have? A partiality for one too many drinks? An insatiable desire to talk about the weather? Or was Tebbit’s cricket test really right? It is this undefinable essence of Britishness that makes it easy to hijack.
Perhaps I should say that current debates about Britishness often bear no relation to the subject at all. See for example British Future’s analysis of how debates about the ethnic mix in London have been muddled and how politicians fail to appreciate the number of non-white British born residents.
Language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ often reflects a growing insecurity about the level and pace of change. Change in this sense is not seen as a neutral force but one where the rising cost of living, housing scarcity and unemployment are caused either wholly in part by migration in some minds.
We need a debate about what Britishness really means. This includes acknowledging the financial and cultural contribution that immigrants make to Britain. What the Daily Mail has flagged up is that a reactive debate offers little or no solution at all.
Positive public debate about the nature of 21st century Britishness would be a worthwhile and achievable aim. However, no one seems minded to start the conversation. Our reticence seems to have got the better of us. How very British