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Britishness - comments and analysis
23 March 2006

union jack against blue sky

We asked people to contribute their opinions about 'Britishness'. What is it and how is it evolving? Is it inclusive? Is it even a useful concept?

'British culture continues to develop in a unique way, along the 'import-export' model that we have practiced for centuries. Britain has been described by Philip Dodd as a 'mongrel nation' - absorbing, transforming and transmitting myriad influences from around the world to create something new and exciting, but recognisably British.

'It is this way in which our national identity has evolved over time that contains the seeds of the enduring health of our society and our economic and creative strength in the future. But our culture of openness, fairness and tolerance needs to be fought for and defended. Our great cultural institutions have a vital role to play here. They are a key part of the public realm, through which we can discover and constantly re-discover Britishness, whatever our personal, religious, ethnic or local identity. The British Museum or the BBC for example, reflect the changing nature of our nation, and - just as importantly - introduce and guide us through the culture of other nations.

'Culture and investment in culture is vital if we are to continue to build a society that preserves and develops the best of who we are. At the Olympics in 2012 the eyes of the world will be on Britain, focused on the biggest and most comprehensive expression of our national identity we will see in our lifetime.'

Tessa Jowell MP

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

 

'We need an inclusive British identity that can meet our needs in the 21st century. Most attempts to do so start from the assumption that there is a real "core Britishness" that we need to discover, articulate and require everyone - particularly newer communities - to share. But historical Britishness cannot deny the strong strands of racism, exploitation, and class division that have been interwoven with the more amenable parts of our history.

'The other problem with "discovered Britishness" is that it seems to place all the obligation to change on the newer communities and none on the majority. While incomers will always have the greatest adjustment to make, those of us who grew up in a Britain that was overwhelmingly white and confident in its imperial history need to know that Britain has gone for ever. The question cannot be "who we are" but "who we want to be".'

John Denham MP

Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee

 

'What is Britishness? It has several dimensions. It is a technical legal-political term referring to the possession of British citizenship. It might also be taken to refer to the past (since 1707), present and future of the British state - that English dominated collaboration of nations and peoples - and everything that has been done and said in its name.

'More prosaically, but also more meaningfully, it encompasses the two dimensions of contemporary citizenship. First, the vertical, official, relationship between the citizen and the state - the rights and duties of the citizen, the rule of law and so on. Second, the horizontal, citizen-to-citizen relationship, which is about shared (and conflicting) interests, about institutions (the BBC, the welfare state), about ideals and values, and about a special bond of fellow feeling that the citizens of good societies feel for each other. This second, horizontal, relationship is about felt citizenship as well as legal citizenship and cannot be commanded by politicians. But it is a vital ingredient of any progressive notion of British citizenship.

'Britishness is historically associated with the protestant religion, and empire, and the unity forged in two world wars. As those things are fading or in the past for the majority of today's citizens the idea of Britishness is also fading - especially, since devolution, for the Scots and Welsh. But as Britishness is also one of the most open and flexible of categories - that transcends narrower, ethnic or racial or regional or social class identities - it is important to keep it alive and, if possible, to give it new content. Hence, I welcome the attempt by Gordon Brown and other politicians to reinvent the language of a progressive civic nationalism.'

David Goodhart

Editor, Prospect magazine

 

'There are times when I wish we would stop this obsessive naval-gazing about our identity - reminiscent of patients addicted to psychoanalysis - but yet I believe it is vital for us all to buy into a new British identity, a collective that can connect us and, in time, deepen our cultural and emotional bonds.

'There is a modern British identity we must strive to make, although much of it will happen in any event and cannot be invented. The story we tell of ourselves should be both honest and accurate. We should refrain from the embarrassing habit of declaring ourselves the best at everything, yet also delight in the many things we are good at.'

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Author and journalist

 

'What Britishness is not - and has never been - is a smooth, stately procession of reforms undertaken and liberties granted. From the Putney debaters via the chartists to the suffragettes, the nation has been made in dissent and struggle - almost always underplayed when "Britishness" is discussed and defined. (A Life in the UK - the textbook for the citizenship test - accords no positive role to the trade unions at all). For a hundred years our identity, culture and language has been shaped and altered by immigration (imagine the history of the British theatre without Irish playwrights, or literature without Asian novelists). The best of British has always had trouble with the cricket test, and therein lies the best hope for its future.'

David Edgar

Playwright

 

'Britishness is not a static, backward-looking set of symbols. It is about how we all live together in the same shared space. Finding ways to promote this idea of Britishness and common citizenship are important. As new communities arrive and existing communities become more fluid, so the British identity will be enriched and will evolve, but the inclusive, polite, tolerant heart of Britishness should remain the same. I don't think it needs to be discovered or created but it needs to be appreciated and encouraged. Whereas in the past British behaviour was instinctively derived from, and promoted and reinforced by, the tea-drinking, bowler-hat wearing middle classes, today that class structure is not so easily identifiable; now we all have to share the responsibility for communicating what makes for acceptable behaviour.

'It is certainly true to say that Britons are associated with a sense of fair play more than any other characteristic, but that's not to say that other nations are not associated with fair play and democracy! Values are expressed in different ways in different countries because the precise expression of our values is shaped by our own geography, our history and our traditions. The unique thing about Britain is what these have come to mean over the years and that will be different for every country. The implications for how British people relate to one another will therefore be interpreted as uniquely British.'

Trevor Phillips

Chair, Commission for Racial Equality

 

'If Britishness means anything, it is essentially about Britons defending human rights. What is Britishness? It's about free speech and fair trials. It's not about whether you know the recipe for fairy cakes or which cricket teams you support. It's about hard-edged values.'

Shami Chakrabarti

Director, Liberty

 

'Britishness is such an amorphous and difficult concept to define. It is composed of so many strands that are borne of the history of the UK; a history in which so many different ethnicities and nationalities have made a positive contribution over the years. Any definition of Britishness would need to be broad and inclusive enough to do justice to this fact of an identity that is continually evolving through inclusion, adoption, enrichment and integration.

'To limit the application of values such as fair play and democracy to Britain, I think, bespeaks a false nationalism. Fair play and democracy are values that are not necessarily the exclusive preserve of Britain though they do capture something of our country's entrenched sense of individual liberty and social co-operation. The widespread belief in the robustness of the rule of law in Britain certainly reflects our reputation as a vibrant multicultural democracy.'

Sir Iqbal Sacranie

Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain

 

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Links

Paul Gilroy - The not-so United Kingdom

Paul Routledge - Britishness-is-bestness

Other Catalyst articles on Britishness


Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 18/09/2006 10:48:02

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo