can pass the spelling test?
Throughout most of modern history, Britain enjoyed the relatively
privileged status of being able to take its national culture for
granted. Compared with most European countries, there was little
flag-waving or outbursts of patriotic fervour in the UK. Indeed
British intellectuals frequently derided the ‘unhealthy nationalism’
of their European counterparts. They extolled the kind, restrained
and tolerant sense of British nationhood that was said to characterise
their culture. Writing in the early 1960s, the Oxford-based colonial
commentator Margery Perham boasted of the special qualities of British
nationalism due to ‘our exceptional unity, our island position,
and the confidence arising from our power’, which ‘may
have bred in us an unconscious kind of nationalism, one that seldom
needed to assert or even to know itself’. In one sense Perham
was absolutely right. A powerful sense of racial, moral and national
superiority based on legacy of imperial achievement dominated the
selfimage of the British elite. Unlike their insecure continental
counterparts, the British elite did not always have to remind the
world what defined their nation. Britishness did not need to be
By the time of the 1976 Race Relations Act, it was difficult to
argue that that Britain possessed an ‘unconscious kind of
nationalism’ that did not need to be made explicit. At the
1964 by-election at Smethwick – two years after Perham penned
her words – the Labour MP, Patrick Gordon-Walker, lost to
a Conservative candidate who coined the slogan ‘If you want
a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. Immigration had become
an important issue and race relations were thoroughly politicised.
Understandably during the next two decades, the focus was on immigration
and on race relations. And despite the diminishing sense of a shared
national identity, relatively few observers asked ‘what does
it mean to be British?’ And when they did, the question was
often stated in a hesitant and round-about way. When, 16 years ago,
Norman Tebbit posed his famous ‘cricket test’, it was
interpreted as a statement about the questionable loyalties of immigrants
to the UK. ‘Which side do they cheer for?’ asked Tebbit,
as he observed that ‘a large proportion’ of Britain’s
Asian population failed to pass the ‘cricket test’.
However, the very fact that he demanded such a statement of loyalty
betrayed a sense of insecurity about the status of Britishness.
Questioning the loyalty of immigrants has assumed an even more
intense form in the early twenty-first century. However, such questions
actually can be interpreted as an attempt to evade answering the
far more difficult problem of what it really means to be British.
In previous times, a legacy of imperial confidence spared the Establishment
from asking that question. Today it is a sense of insecurity and
confusion which encourages Britain’s political and cultural
elites to constantly talk about it. In retrospect it is evident
that the debate about race relations and immigration was less about
‘them’ than about ‘us’. Inventing cricket
tests or citizenship tests for others is driven by the imperative
of giving some kind of meaning to being British.
The many attempts to give meaning to a British identity expose
the mood of disorientation driving the project. Take Gordon Brown’s
speech, ‘The Future of Britishness’, given in January
2006. In it, Brown expressed his aspiration for a ‘common
patriotic purpose’ which ‘binds people together’
and can ‘motivate and inspire’. He claimed that ‘you
must have a clear view of what being British means’ and stated
that British patriotism is founded on ‘enduring values’.
However, his roll-call of values – creativity, inventiveness,
enterprise, fairness, liberty – represent a shopping list
of desirable attributes, rather than a cultural statement of Britishness.
They are values embraced by virtually every modern nation and do
not add up to a distinct national identity. Is it any surprise that
politicians are continually arguing that we need a debate ‘about
who we are and what we are as a country’? When Ruth Kelly
launched her Commission on Integration and Social Cohesion in August
2006, she asked ‘have we ended up with some communities living
in isolation of each other, with no common bonds?’ The answer
is possibly yes.
Concern with community isolation has intensified since the events
of 7/7. But apprehensions about groups segregated from the rest
of society can serve to distract attention from how the ‘rest
of society’ feels about itself. It is worth noting that the
so-called mainstream or majority society is itself often ambiguous
about public displays of British national identity. During the 2006
World Cup, millions of St George flags were displayed throughout
England. Tessa Jowell, the UK culture secretary, famously flew two
flags from her official car. Yet many were less than comfortable
with this display of flag-waving, and less than certain that it
had become a symbol for a tolerant, inclusive patriotism.
New citizenship ceremonies are not very clear about what it is
that people are signing up to. Spelling out the meaning of Britishness
is fraught with difficulty. It is not a lack of intelligence that
prevents politicians from doing so. Communities gain definition
and meaning from shared experience, and learn to express that through
the idiom of everyday life. Government initiatives and citizenship
projects, no matter how well-designed, are artificial substitutes
for that experience. National and cultural identities are not brands
that can be invented. Such inventions do not touch people in the
conduct of their lives. In any case, a patriotism born out of defensiveness
and insecurity is likely to be far too inwardlooking to inspire
people living in modern globalised society.
Genuine allegiance needs to be earned rather than declared. People’s
loyalties evolve through engaging with an inspiring public culture,
one that offers them a genuine role. Instead of dreaming up schemes
about how society can reconnect with its past, our focus should
be on encouraging people to take responsibility for their future.
Community isolation and segregation will be overcome when people
perceive their wider engagements as an attractive option.
published in an anthology marking the 30th anniversary of the Commission
for Racial Equality, November 2006