Being British

With everything that’s happened in the last few weeks it’s no real surprise to find that we’re back onto that perennial political favourite; trying to define exactly what it is to be British; a topic of debate which invariably ends up as being little more than a bit misty-eyed faux nostalgia for a world that only ever existed in the imagination of H.E. Bates.

If anything the defining characteristic of ‘Britishness’ is that we’re not overly precious about what it actually is to be British.

If you look at the history of the British Isles and its inhabitants, perhaps the only thing that we can be certain of is that we’re all, one way or another descended from ‘foreigners’. When it comes to the question of Britain’s ‘indigenous’ population all we really have to go on are a few prehistoric earthworks and a bit of late-Neolithic/early Bronze Age pottery, the eponymous beakers of the ‘Beaker People’. Everything after that arrived by migration and, until the early-17th century, wound up here because the British Isles was about as far as you could go, heading West, before you ran out of land to migrate to. Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and an assortment of refugees from across Europe; everything that’s gone in to creating the identity that we, today, refer to as British, originated elsewhere – and that’s just our primary genetic inheritance. which takes no account of our cultural ‘borrowings’ from other societies.

That’s what the British are; a nation of mongrels with the mindset of jackdaws and no one can deny that this has served us well throughout our history.

Take the primary language of the British Isles – English – and look at how it has developed to become what is, today, the global language of business and international commerce. Why has that happened? Why English and not French, German, Spanish or Chinese?

The easy answer would be to look at the influence of the British Empire up until World War II and, of course, the economic dominance of the USA, an English-speaking nation – in the post-war era, but focussing on that, and that alone, is to ignore something far more important and fundamental to the development of the language itself.

Let’s use an example to illustrate what I’m driving at here: imagine that you’re living in the late 17th Century, at a time when British merchant adventurers were opening up trade routes around the world and, in particular, looking to make inroads into what was, at that time, probably the wealthiest empire on the planet – Mughal India. (Yes this is going to be a bit of a ‘Call My Bluff’ moment)

So, you’re one of these traders. You’ve braved the transit of Cape Horn into the Indian Ocean, landed at a British trading station on the Indian sub-continent and talked your way into a meeting with the local Rajah and a bit of stopover at his palace while you discuss a bit of business and cut a few deals. There you are, a fairly typical smelly and unhygienic European of the time, the kind of person who, if you’re very lucky, sleeps in some sort of night-shirt type garment, if you bother to change at all before going to bed; and what you notice is that, come bedtime, your host and his entourage all change into what appears to be a pretty natty lightweight silk shirt and trouser combo before heading off for some shut-eye – they actually have their own special, and very luxurious, outfits that they wear only for sleeping; something you’ve never come across before in your life.

Now, being an inquisitive sort, you’re naturally curious as to what these unusual garments are; so, of course, you ask someone and get the reply: “Oh, those? They’re just pyjamas.”

Having obtained this piece of information and, maybe tried on a pair yourself and arrived at the conclusion that there’s actually something altogether rather civilised with this particular cultural practice, you finish up your business and head for home, taking a few examples of this particular garment with you to show the folks back in dear old Blighty – after all they’re just the thing that will make for an interesting conversation piece over a convivial brandy or two after your next formal dinner with your business associates.

And so, come the big day itself, you repair to the drawing room with the other menfolk – remember this the 17th Century – and get one of the servants to bring in the latest ‘oddity’ you managed to pick up on you travels; at which point someone inevitably pipes up with: “Very nice, old boy. What are they?”

Now it at this point that being British comes to the fore.

If you were German, what you’d do is construct a horridly complex compound noun to describe this wondrous new discovery you’ve made, something which translates literally to silk-garment-type-thing- for-wearing- at bedtime.

If you were French then you’d most probably agonise over whether giving it a name would dilute your cultural values and puzzle over whether the damn things should be considered masculine or feminine.

But, of course, you’re British and so, with complete equanimity, you simple announce to your assembled guests: “Well they’re pyjamas, of course, didn’t you know that? Dashed comfortable as well” – well, no; you wouldn’t say that exactly as I’m deliberately caricaturing the situation using a stylised linguistic convention which belongs to an era a couple of centuries later, but you should the general idea – and then all you do is wait a few decades for Samuel Johnson to come along and there is it in the English dictionary: “Pyjamas (n) – Clothes for wearing to bed and sleeping in, usually consisting of a loose-fitting shirt and trousers.”

English is a conglomerate language; a hybrid which has developed because those of us who speak it as a ‘native’ tongue are not in least bit precious about it. If we come across something we haven’t got a word for already but somebody else has then we appropriate that word to our use: if we’re still stuck after that, we simply make something up that more or less fits the bill – usually by cobbling together bits of Greek and Latin (go figure!) . This is not without the occasional pitfall or two arising out of the obvious communication gap that comes into play on first encountering people who don’t speak English, which is how we end up with the odd, and probably apocryphal, story or two about the naming of the quaint native village of “well-that’s-where-I-live”, which sits on the banks of the river “don’t-you-know-what-a-bloody-river-is?” below Mt. “who-is-this-idiot-and-why-does-he-keep- pointing-at-things-and-making-strange-noises?”; but while it’s by no means a perfect system, it’s worked well enough for us over the centuries.

This is why English get everywhere and why it has become to dominant language of global commerce; becuase uniquely amongst other languages it evolves and changes happily to meet the requirements of the speaker in any situation; it’s the ultimate in utilitarian business tools.

In the same way ‘British’ is a conglomerate identity and, more to the point, a symbolic identity.

Other than in its geographical context; i.e. the British Isles; its a term which, for most of our history, has had no real meaning at all. Britain, or rather Britannia, meant something to the Romans, as that was the name given to the British Isles – or that part of it which came under Roman control – as a province of the Roman Empire. As far as can be ascertained the term then fell into disuse and was swept away by the Saxons in the course of their migration and occupation of England, only to be revived in the Middle Ages as both a romantic ideal – as in “King Arthur of the Britons” – which, in turn, was little more than an expression, in what passed for the propaganda of the the era, of the semi-Imperial ambitions of Edward I and his successors. ‘Britain’ and the mythological romance of King Arthur, as wrought by, first, Geoffrey of Monmouth and later by Thomas Mallory, was mere imaginative artifice, a romanticised concept keyed into the ambitions of the English Crown to bring Wales, Scotland and Ireland under its overlordship.

The concept of being ‘British’ only really acquired any sense of reality following the unification of the English and Scottish Crown’s in 1605 which brought James I (James VI of Scotland) to the throne – it was not until 1672, in the reign of Charles II, that Britannia, as in the goddess-like female personification of Britain we know today, first appeared on British coinage; itself being a renaissance revival of a symbolic representation of Britain created by the Romans. Britishness, in its modern sense, is something that developed only over the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries in the period from the accession of James I to the thrones of England (and Wales, although it had long since been subjugated by Edward I) and Scotland; through the 1701 Act of Union, which unified England and Scotland into a single political entity; the Kingdom of Great Britain; to the Act of Union of 1800, which added Ireland to this unified political state.

Even then, the idea of being British was purely symbolic. Scotland may have eventually joined with England and Wales to form a single unified state in 1701, but it retained its distinctive character as a nation apart from England, with its own distinct legal system and church. Indeed, central to the events which led to the English Civil War was Scottish resistance to efforts by Charles I to enforce religious uniformity across his entire domain, resistance which forced Charles to recall Parliament in 1640, for the first time in more than a decade, in an effort to raise taxes to finance his efforts to ‘put down’ the rebellious Scots – and if anyone’s in any doubt how that little altercation turned out, well let;s just say that Scotland still has it own distinctive legal system and church today.

The point here is that becoming ‘British’ didn’t mean the end of our individual national identities or cultures; we may be British but we’re still English, Welsh, Scottish and, in the case of those in Northern Ireland that want to stick with us, Irish; in fact we’re more inclined to define ourselves by those latter identities on a day-to-day basis than we are to use the term ‘British’. Being British gives us a collective identity to use for those occasions when we need one, the rest of time we just get right on with being whatever our individual national identity says we are; these are identities which co-exist side-by-side without ever really trying to replace or subsume the other.

This is where the whole debate around ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘integration’ starts to wear a bit thin. British is, by definition and history, a multicultural identity, all that’s changed in the last couple of hundred years is that we’ve added a few additional cultural identities to the idea of ‘Britishness’ along the way and various migrant groups have shipped up on our shores and made this nation their home. And that’s really the beauty of being British, anyone can do it and, by and large, we don’t really make too much in the way of demands of people who come to this country and want to share in that British identity other than we expect them to observe our laws and make a reasonable effort to get along peacefully with everyone else who lives here.

This is where we differ markedly from America, for example. If you migrate to America you are under an expectation that you will become an American and buy into a whole package of ideas and cultural values that go along with that identity, values which emphasise that, above everything else, you are an American and everything else is secondary to that. That’s why Americans go in for the whole business of ‘double-barrelled’ identities; terms like ‘African-American’ and ‘Japanese-American’; it’s got nothing to do with integration, it’s all about differentiation. When you meet someone and they proudly announce that they’re an ‘African-American’ they’re not telling you that they’re an African who’s successfully integrated into American society and culture, what they’re telling you is how their sense of identity is different from the prevailing cultural norm in the US: “Sure, I’m an American, I’m just not one of those idiot ‘redneck’ kind of Americans”. Its a kind of ‘don’t blame me, I’m not 100% one of them’ kind of thing. The American identity is so all-pervasive that people feel the need to make the way in which they might differ from that identity explicit by using portmanteau terms to demonstrate who they really feel they are.

By contrast, when someone says they’re British, they’re British – and if they happen to go on to point out that they are a British Muslim or a British Sikh, then what they’re saying is that they are British AND they are a Muslim or British AND a Sikh, that they have two distinct identities which co-exist and work together to make them who they are. That’s really all that multiculturalism is, in the British sense of the term, it’s the acceptance that being British means having two identities – or more, in some cases – which co-exist side by side in a society in which identity is not an ‘either-or’ question. The Jewish community in Britain is a good example of how this all works in practice. I don’t think anyone could really argue that they’ve haven’t ‘integrated’ pretty successfully into British society over the last hundred years or so, even though we’ve, by no means, made it easy for them along way; yet if you look at how they’ve achieved this you’d have to say they’ve done it without really compromising on their own distinctive culture – becoming British has not necessarily meant them becoming any less Jewish along the way; all they’ve really done is get on with their lives within the basic framework provided by British society and observed our laws.

None of this should be taken to suggest that this is necessarily an easy or pain-free process. Every migrant community which has come to Britain has faced its own share of racism and ignorance from wider British society. When the Huguenots arrived here in the early 18th Century and settled in Shoreditch you can pretty much bet that you would have heard the same kind of comments you still come across today – “Would you look at that! There’s another one of them bloody Frenchies. I don’t know what this country’s coming to, all them bloody foreigners coming over here with the foreign ways and their foreign ideas and them taking away jobs from decent English folk. Bloody place is going to the dogs since they started turning up. Shouldn’t be allowed, that’s what I say!” – and while such things never really go away entirely, over time they tend to dissipate and become less of an issue. Migrant communities end up becoming part of the overall cultural landscape of Britain; they become familiar to the extent that three or so generations down the line it becomes difficult to think that they was ever a time when they weren’t part of that landscape and they haven’t always been here, that same as everyone else.

Multiculturalism has been part of the ‘British’ way of life for centuries without ever drawing too much sustained attention towards itself. Its just something that’s happened all on its own and its only in recent years, the last century or so – an in particular the last fifty years – that its actually become an issue in its own right.

All of which begs the question; why? Why has it become such an issue and why, indeed, are we getting into these kinds of debates at all?

There is one seemingly ‘obvious’ reason – simply the ‘visibility’ of more recent communities by comparison to the ones that have preceded them. When the vast majority of migrants came to this country from Europe it was relatively easy for them to ‘disappear’ into the background; who could tell a first-generation Huguenot migrant from an Englishman by mere sight other than, perhaps, by differences in their respective attire. Accents would have been a bit of dead give-away, as would names, but these are difference which diminish rapidly as we adopt their fashions and they adopt ours; as a second and then a third generation are born and grow to adulthood having grown up in the same environment and under the same cultural influences as everyone around them. Over time such migrants ‘blend’ into the society around them in such a way that it becomes impossible to identify them as migrants, or the descendants of migrants, without really knowing exactly what to look for.

Quite obviously, Britain now has migrant communities from across the whole globe, many of whom are of obviously non-European appearance and who, therefore, won’t merge – physically speaking – into the wider population in quite the same way. That doesn’t, however, mean that this kind of merging won’t or can’t happen, just that it will happen in a different way; one based on attitudes and perceptions rather than anything so crude or simplistic as them simply looking physically indistinguishable from everyone else.

This is something I can only really explain in personal terms.

I live in a very ethnically-mixed area and have lived in this kind of environment now for around twenty-years; so for me to walk down the street and see people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds all around me is something that is perfectly normal part of my personal frame of reference. It’s an entirely familiar and comfortable environment in which I feel perfectly at home to the point where I don’t even think about it; it is what it is and nothing more, to the extent that I rarely, if ever, give any thought to the idea that things might be any different somewhere else. In a couple of weeks time I’ll be off on holiday with the family; nothing fancy just a week on the South Coast and a chance to relax, spend time with the kids – all the usual stuff. However, I know that where we’re going that week the overwhelming majority of people we’ll encounter will be white Europeans and I know, from experience of previous holidays, that it will take me two or three days to adjust to that environment; one which is, in terms of my own daily life, completely unfamiliar. Coming home, after that holiday, will be simply a return to a familiar and comfortable environment, even though to someone who lives all-year-round in the town I’ll have just left, it would probably seem the most alien place on earth.

That, for me, is what integration is; what it actually means. It’s nothing more complicated than the fact that I live in an ethnically-mixed area which is an environment in which I am entirely comfortable and feel completely at home. The various migrant communities which live in that area are all a part of my personal frame of reference, of my understanding and experience of the world around me. I live in Britain; and the Britain I live in is a varied and diverse place in which everyone is different – unique – in their own way and for their own reasons. The Asian-run shop down the road, which stays open until 10:30 of an evening is as ‘British’ a thing anything else in my experience, in fact its strange to reflect that areas without a local Asian community you still find all the local shops are shut by 5:30 in the afternoon – in fact that doesn’t feel particularly British at all.

I don’t know if this makes sense or not but what I’m trying to get across is that while the whole ‘visibility’ thing might seem obvious when to set about trying to figure out why things like multiculturalism and integration are perceived to be such an issue and, indeed, often seen as polar opposites, when you step away from the obvious and think purely in terms of perceptions and attitudes then its not particularly obvious, or even relevant, at all. It’s not the case that, as a society, we face a choice between multiculturalism and integration, the two actually work together and work together pretty well if only we don’t make artificial distinctions and adopt the pretence that they’re somehow mutually exclusive.

This whole issue, which has surfaced yet again over the last few weeks for fairly obvious reasons, is not, I think, the issue that many people seem to think it is.

If we can learn anything from our own history when it comes to questions of ‘Britishness’, multiculturalism and integration it has to be that these aren’t problems to be solved at all. Britain is a multicultural, multi-ethnic society; and it has always been a multicultural, multi-ethnic society throughout its entire history. That is the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of being British, it is the reason that ‘Britishness’ has developed as a symbolic, conglomerate, form of national identity, because even without migrants from the European continent and, over the last century or so, the rest of the world, Britain would not be able to function as a unified nation state with such an identity; one which allows us to be both British and English, or British and Scottish, etc. at the same time without comprising our personal sense of having both identities.

All that’s ‘missing’ from this equation when it comes to some of our more recent migrant communities is time; time for them to adjust to our society and time for us to adjust to their presence in that society. What politicians and media commentators seem to forget here is that when it comes to time, this is not something that you can address in the life span of single Parliament or even a government which spans more than one Parliamentary term – it a generational thing which will take at least two, three or maybe four generations; the better part of century; to work itself out on its own. The job of politician is not to make ‘integration’ happen or manage and shape the direction that society takes; their job is simply to curb its excesses and keep a lid on the unfortunate tendency of some to react to anything new or different, with hostility and, in the worst cases, violence. Do that, and things will work themselves out on their own as they have with every other migrant community that’s come to live here in the past.

You see there isn’t really a problem here at all; not with multiculturalism, not with integration and certainly not when it comes to ‘Britishness’. Defining what it might mean to be British only ever becomes a problem when someone tries to suggest that we try make such a definition – Britishness is one of those things that’s impossible to describe, but we know what it is when we encounter it and that’s really all there is to it.

This should be obvious when you think that every single time this question rears its head, the one thing no one every seems able to agree on is exactly what ‘Britishness’ is – its something we define for ourselves, not something that can be defined for us and that’s because being British is not really about who and what you are but about what you make of it.

  • Bravo! I agree with this absolutely.

  • I throughly enjoyed this blog. It is one of the most interesting things I have ever read. It speaks the truth, and that’s what’s important.

  • Nicely written piece as ever, but too many assumptions in my opinion.

    English is most definitely more hybrid a language than French or German but to suggest those languages didn’t appropriate other words into their language as well is simply not true (although not to the extent as us, as our vocabulary testifies).

    Especially in the modern era, if you look at the amount of English creeping into German in particular, it is frightening.

    You make a good point about our hydrid culture, but this is true in so many other cultures as well.

    We must always remember nationalism is irrational. Irrational things like nationalism or supporting your football team excessively or following a religion, can be fun, but they are also potentially dangerous.

    We must never think our culture is superior to others, as this leads to arrogance, and that will lead to a fall.

    I think your last paragraph sums it all up nicely. Britishness like any nationality is what you want it to be, but in the end it is all meaningless. There is only one world and personally I feel just as much affinity with German friends and French friends as English ones. We are in the end, not really THAT different! Nationalism just holds us back.

  • Unity

    Neil:

    The stuff about French/German is jsu a bit of knockabout humour to illustrate a point – all languages evolve over time, we just worry rather less about ours changing than other cultures so things tend to move a little quicker.

    The point I’m making here is really that, to take your friends as an example, if any of them were to decide to become British citizens they could do so without having to lose the French/German identity in the bargain.

    Through various marriages my family includes members of both Polish and Maltese descent – Aunt Wenza, who was born in Malta, is still entitled to her share in the George Cross awarded to the island in WWII. They’re all British, all citizens, but the still retain their Polish/Maltese roots and significant elements of those cultures.

  • Interesting weblogs
    Four articles that have caught my attention recently:

    Think of England which carries these tongue in cheek articles on why everyone hates the English

    An old post from This England on This Ingerlan.

    Leighton Andrews AM on why England needs an a…

  • Farai Yasini

    I believe in wanting to raise the age at which people retire, the UK government is grappling with the wrong end of the pension crisis stick.

    A more practical solution would be to regularise the 500 000 illegal immigrants and the 300 000 failed asylum seekers currently living in the UK. This would allow them to make a more visible contribution to the UK economy.

    I say this because one Home Office study informs us that between 1999 and 2000, immigrants and asylum seekers contributed an excess of