The elusive search for Britishness

Britain’s contemporary political culture has in many ways become alienated from its genuinely illustrious tradition of political thinkers who made Britain, but also the free world, what it is today

What's it all about?
Tom Wilson
On 15 October 2013 23:21

The recent vogue for public discussions about the meaning of British identity would be a welcomed development if so much of what is being said wasn’t so confused, ill-informed and quite simply wrong-headed.

Perhaps much of this phenomenon has been spurred on in the wake of the Olympics opening ceremony – a display that presented the world with a never-never land Britain of pop music, the NHS and multicultural immigration.

In the course of the debate about what British identity is, the multicultural argument has been championed particularly vocally and been given prominence, especially by the BBC. The multiculturalist position is one that essentially wishes to reduce British identity to being, by definition, diversity. In other words, that multiculturalism is the very essence of Britishness.

Under this view British identity becomes simply the sum total of a cacophony of a vast host of other often divergent cultures from around the world.

Yes, tolerance has been an important British character trait, but given that most Western countries now have a strong element of ethnic diversity it is evidently not true to claim that multiculturalism is the defining characteristic of Britishness. If we were to opt for the multicultural definition, we would be forced to conclude that prior to the arrival of HMS Windrush in the 1950s there was no British identity.

Accordingly, the typical English village or market town must be classed as particularly unBritish on account of the lack of ethnic diversity usually found there. Presumably towns such as Salisbury, Winchester and Ludlow are the least British places imaginable.

Quite simply, the multicultural definition of British identity is farce masquerading as seriousness, but it hardly merits to be taken seriously. With these notions being pushed to the forefront of the national discussion, no wonder the quest for a satisfactory characterisation of British identity has proven so elusive.

And given that multiculturalists by their nature tend not to be particularly deferential to the notion of strong national identities, it was always folly to listen to these people on this subject.

Yet, despite the attempts of cultural Marxists to deny and decimate traditional British identity, for many people it is clearly still very much there. In no small part this identity is deeply bound to a long history of unique cultural traditions and customs that have developed among the people of the British Isles over generations and centuries.

Many of these draw heavily on the country’s Christian heritage, others do not; they grew out of Britain’s history and landscape. Put plainly, authentic British identity has to acknowledge a strong degree of continuity with the nation’s long and rich past.

The other essential component of British identity, one that offers itself to adoption by those who have come to Britain, is British values. These values should manifest themselves in the daily British way of life; Britain’s national life should sit at the heart of the country’s politics.

Britain’s contemporary political culture has in many ways become alienated from its genuinely illustrious tradition of political thinkers who made Britain, but also the free world, what it is today.

Among these thinkers we might include Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, before them Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and more recently perhaps Isiah Berlin. All of these thinkers have done much for championing the principles of government by consent, the rule of law, the role of established institutions and most importantly protecting freedom from tyranny.

We might do well to recall that among these men Burke was Irish, Smith Scottish and Berlin an immigrant refugee from Russia.

The thinking of these men has also been incredibly outward looking. It was out of this tradition of thought that the American Republic arose as well as an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the ideology behind the French Revolution, with all its utopianism and totalitarianism.

It is from their thought that we get the notion that the role of politics is not to try and perfect people, but rather the political system should take people as they are and seek to prevent the worst of outcomes: civil war, anarchy and tyranny.

British society must consciously place these men at the very least on par with Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen as being figures who loom large in Britain’s sense of itself. Britain’s history of political thought, combined with traditional British culture, bolsters the nation’s characteristics of being law abiding, entrepreneurial, having a certain upright self-respect and, of course, a sense of fair play. 

If nothing else, perhaps this move would do something to counter the Left’s sexist, racist and frankly infantile tendency to talk dismissively of ‘dead white men’.  

Tom Wilson lives in New York where he is a political analyst and writer

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