• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Who 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 spelled out.

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.

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