What is Britishness?

Britain is a pluralistic nation which should be seeking to create a single culture that embraces and accommodates differences without over-emphasising and reinforcing them

How do you define 'British'?
Ghaffar Hussain
On 12 March 2012 10:45

In last week’s article, entitled ‘Making Bradford British’, I dealt with, among other things, the need for a clearer understanding of what it means to be British.

I stated that this debate is currently polarised between two sides; on one hand you have those that define it in very narrow terms, and on the other, those who define it so vaguely that it practically has no meaning. In fact, the entire debate seems to have been hijacked by those with an ideological agenda.

As such, it seems condemned to remain nothing more than a mere debate, occasionally being raised in discussion programmes or broadsheet columns.

I am of the opinion that Britishness, or any national identity for that matter, is not as difficult to define as we have been led to believe. I don’t want to downplay the complexity of national identity in a globalised world and I accept the fact that we may never arrive at a precise and succinct written definition, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a meaningful and functional definition that offers some practical use.

National identity as a construct should be discussed as an ideal that citizens strive towards to the best of their ability rather than a mere reflection of the state of the nation. Therefore, the extent to which one seeks to strive towards the ideal and attaches importance to it gives an indication of their relationship to their national identity. The ideal, however, is not just a set of values. It is a spirit, a way of living and a state of mind.

Being connected to a nation is about synchronising one’s interests with the interests of the nation. It is about seeking to be informed of important issues affecting the nation and wanting to be part of, or at least aware of, national debates and important developments. In short, it’s about being integrated into the social fabric of the society, feeling a sense of attachment and a degree of loyalty.

In a British context, this doesn’t mean you have to watch East-Enders and listen to Oasis – gladly I do neither. But it does mean wanting to be informed of social, political and cultural trends through which you can identity contemporary and historic social memes. Furthermore, it doesn’t entail supporting every government decision or being uncritical of cultural practices and social norms, but it does mean recognising that what is good for the Britain is good for me.

National identity is also about being aware of and appreciating the historical narrative of the nation and its cultural, intellectual and political heritage. This is something we are very weak at in Britain, partially due to the manner in which History is taught in our schools and guilt about the excesses of Empire. Appreciating the historical narrative is also about being aware of the good and the bad, it is not about romanticising the past.

Finally, national identity is also about values, and in this regard at least, we in Britain can be proud. Such values include fairness, justice, rule of law, equality before the law, personal freedom and respect for the rights of others. These values are represented through institutions, such as schools, hospitals, charities and other non-governmental organisations. They are reflected in our democratic political framework that governs the country. They inform the ideal of Britishness by making sure that it is accommodating enough to allow for individuality and personal freedom whilst being focused enough to know what it stands for and what it opposes. They also guide the behaviour of British people and are manifest through words and actions.

I don’t find it particularly useful or accurate to refer to the above values as exclusively Christian, nor do I feel that they are under threat from ‘militant secularists’ as some in the Tory party have stated recently. British values transcend religious divides and are not derived from religion; in fact, they are informed by the Enlightenment rather than the Bible.

I also don’t think these values will be eroded by immigration as long as we don’t mistake tolerance for relativism. Striving towards the ideal should also be about standing for and defending values we believe in and not being afraid to proselytise them. This involves being prepared to challenge those who seek to take advantage of a tolerant political and social atmosphere to promote intolerance and inequality.

So there you have it; I have sought to find a middle ground between those who want to define Britishness too narrowly and those who want to define it too broadly.

I feel the former clings to a very narrow conception of Britishness due to misplaced fears about the erosion and ultimate extinction of national identity due to mass immigration and rapid social changes. The latter hangs to a hopelessly broad definition in the fear that a more refined definition would hamper their anti-establishment proclivities.

Both, in my view, do a disservice to their nation by contributing towards a climate of confusion which has had a caustic effect on national cohesion, undermined civic pride and made patriotism unfashionable.

Britain is a pluralistic nation which should be seeking to create a single culture that embraces and accommodates differences without over-emphasising and reinforcing them. It is a nation that is under-going rapid change and, therefore, is in need of, now more than ever, a clearer conception of Britishness that is inclusive, meaningful and capable of restoring civil pride and creating unity of purpose.

Ghaffar Hussain is a writer, consultant and commentator on Cultural and Identity related issues as well as Middle Eastern and South Asian politics

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