More Britishness

On the BBC website we have the following headline:

Britain ‘needs stronger identity’

A headline which, once you find out the stry refers to Michael Howard talking about ‘Britishness’ on the Today programme could just as easily read:

Son of Romanian Jew lectures Britain on its sense of national identity

I point that out not to be offensive or racist in any way or to take issue with Michael Howard’s ancestry but simply because the mere fact that Howard in the son of Eastern European immigrant and a Jew actually says quite a lot about what it is to be British.

The fact is whatever else Howard may think of himself as, he probably doesn’t seem himself as particularly Romanian or Slavic I don’t suppose but would almost certain still identify strongly with his ‘Jewishness’ not of that matters in the slightest or make any difference to his being British; if his personal sense of identity incorporates elements of his non-British ethnic or cultural background, so what. It doesn’t make him any less British than anyone else who lives in this country, or any more that his being the current leader of the Conservative Party would make him any more British than anyone else.

I set out my own view of what is to be British in this post – in essence I see Britishness as being whatever it is whenever its needed, its not something I think can be defined, taught or inculcated, as Howard suggests, its something that people kind of acquire over time as a result of living in this particular society and culture, almost as if by osmosis.

Still, I had to wonder whether maybe there really was some sort of definitive idea of what is Britishness – Howard, you’ll note – doesn’t actually say what he thinks it is – maybe somewhere out there there’s a comment or quotation from a noted public figure which captures the essence of Britishness; and when I say ‘public figure I don’t mean a modern politican, what I have is mind someone more akin to a Churchill, Dickens or Dr Johnson, someone who we might think epitomises what it is to be British.

All of which turned out to be a complete fruitless search, even using Google, although I did turn up this modern selection of musings on Britishness which, oddly enough, comes from a website of resources for teachers of the English Language (and British Studies) working in Poland – something which is, in itself, quite fascinating as what we have here is an idea of what people who are planning to migrate to Britain are being taught about ‘Britishness’ before they ever arrive on our shores.

I’ll pick out a small number of personal favorites, although what should be obvious from the whole list is, yet again, a complete absence of consensus on what Britishness really is, starting with the wonderful thoughts of Terry Jones…

I suppose an essential aspect of being British is not liking others very much. We are set apart by our lack of French-ness, German-ness or Italian-ness. Still Britain is one of the few places left in the world which still has real beer.

Malcolm McLaren also gets down to the point with…

Being British is about singing Karaoke in Bars, eating Chinese noodles and Japanese sushi, drinking fresh wine, wearing Prada and Nike, dancing to Italian house music, listening to Cher, using an Apple Mac, holidaying in Florida and Ibiza and buying a house in Spain. Shepherds pie and going on holiday to Hastings went out about 50 years ago and the only people you’ll see wearing a Union Jack are French movie stars or Kate Moss.

Although Lib-Dem peer Shirley Williams seems to have forgotten the little matter of the English Civil War in her piece…

Britishness is the countryside, individual liberty, unbroken tradition, and no revolutions. For the British countryside I would pick out the West Highlands, the Lake District and the West Country. There is a strange mistiness alight, such as Turner picked up on so brilliantly. It is a country of poetry.

Most intriguing of all, however, is this quote from, of all people, William Hague, speaking when leader of the Conservative Party…

[Conservatives must embrace] the Britain of big industrial cities and housing estates, the Britain proud of its world class designers and good restaurants, the Britain where hundreds of thousands go to the Notting Hill Carnival and the Eisteddfod, the Britain which watches MTV and Changing Rooms, and which is fascinated by Ricky and Bianca’s ups and downs, the Britain which turns to the sports pages before the political news, where more people go on holiday to Florida than Butlins, the Britain, in other words, that has always been Britain too: urban, ambitious, sporty, fashion-conscious, multi-ethnic, brassy, self-confident and international.

But I’ll leave the last word to the ‘white-suit man’ Martin Bell who noted…

It’s tolerance, decency and a determination to talk about the weather on all occasions and a tendency, when a stranger stands on one’s foot, to apologise.

…which I particularly like if only because its exactly the kind of thing that Arthur Dent would have said had he – or his creator, Douglas Adams – ever been asked the same question.