Saturday, 20 October 2012

Is Britishness anything more than a construct?

I was born and spent my early years in the Fens now seen as part of East Anglia, something many people born there still resent.  Like many other areas in the country the Fens are a distinctive area with its own culture and history.  Two stories illustrate what was its character forty years ago.  During the war when road signs were removed, a Yorkshire man was travelling through the Fens and in its horizontal landscape lost his way.  Seeing a local farmer, he asked for directions which the farmer freely gave.  Twenty minutes later, the Yorkshire man arrived back at the same place and found himself facing the farmer and his shotgun.  When asked why he’d given the wrong instructions, the farmer retorted that he thought the man’s accent was German and that he was a spy.  Whether the tale is true or, as I suspect, apocryphal (could anyone be quite that stupid!), it illustrates the isolation and parochialism of the Fens at this time.  The second story is certainly true as it involved my father.  He was born in London but although he lived in the Fens for over forty years he was still regarded as an outsider.  There was a harvest dance, held annually and regarded as the height of the social calendar but my father always had to go into the dance via the back door as only those born in the Fens could come in the front..local custom it may have been but incredibly insulting to someone who, in every other respect, was highly regarded in the area.  Today all of this has changed but for many born in the Fens, they still see themselves as Fenmen or women first and then grudgingly English but rarely as British.

With the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence and the debate over what sort of History should be taught in schools, Britishness is again a matter for national discussion.  The problem is that what Britishness actually means is unclear and calls for a stronger sense of our British identity are often met with some hostility; it is seen as very ‘un-British’!  As David Cameron said, somewhat dismissively on one occasion, that unlike the Americans we ‘don‘t do flags on the lawn’.  Jana Ganesh of The Economist may be right to suggest that ‘What Englishness can't do that Britishness can do is appeal unambiguously to people of different ethnic origins’, but this does not resolve the problem of definition other than the vague and inherently contested notions of toleration, freedom and individual liberty.  The problem is that Britain is a geographical terms on to which has been foisted the political concept of the United Kingdom, itself a recognition that there are political different parts in Britain and that Anglicisation was a fundamental part of that process of unification.  One approach advocated by the education right is for a return to traditional teaching of British history.  No one could deny that it is important for people to know about their history and across the world this is a central feature of the school curriculum but traditional British history is rarely British in nature but centres on ‘top-down’ story of monarchs and parliaments.  What happened outside England was, and this was evident in my school experience, only ever taught when it impinged on England.  So my experience of Welsh history was confined to Edward I and castle-building; the Potato Famine for Ireland; and, Bannockburn, Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobite Rebellions for Scotland.  No Black or Asian history and the British Empire as a beacon of civilisation rather than a violent, destructive and economic multinational company.  The traditional history curriculum reinforced a sense of English superiority not Britishness. 

Britishness was an expression of English superiority and for some the two terms were synonymous.  But Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own history that is separate from what occurred in England.  In fact, studying history suggests strongly that what makes Britain is an amalgam of different and often conflicting histories and it is through this diversity that Britishness, if it exists at all beyond its sense of a social construct, needs to be addressed.  In fact Britishness is meaningless without this and a recognition that the British Isles are and always have been a cultural melting-pot in which different peoples have come for vastly different reasons: conquest, settlement, economic immigration, political asylum…..  Britishness reflects how and why those groups have eventually integrated even if they retained, at least initially, their own cultural identities and is a common feature across the United Kingdoms.  How we see ourselves is the result of where we were born, where our parents and grandparents were born, where we live now and the cultural values we inherit from the past and those cultural values are diverse.  The strength of Britishness lies in its inherent vagueness and ambiguity and attempting to define it more precisely will destroy what is its most positive expression: British diversity allows for different levels of Britishness and cultural integration and values it.  The advantage of a social construct like Britishness is that it cannot be defined or expressed in definitive terms; to do so would eradicate its annoying but essential inconsistencies and ambiguities, prevent people from buying into some but not necessarily all of its characteristics and result in a culturally poorer society. 

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