Britishness in a post-colonial era

Britishness in a post-colonial era
Surprisingly in a country which once ruled an empire, the British have grave difficulties in identifying what their country stands for. A few years back, a British newspaper ran a competition for the best one-liner defining the country. The winning entry was: “No motto, please; we’re British.”

When US presidents address their people, they start with "my fellow Americans". French presidents always open their addresses with "Frenchmen and Frenchwomen" and always end them with "Long Live France".

But British leaders? Well, it's "hello" or "good evening" and "goodbye" at the end, mundane greetings which are neither distinguished nor dignified.

Surprisingly in a country which once ruled an empire, the British have grave difficulties in identifying what their country stands for.

So, when Prime Minister David Cameron recently called on people to promote British "values" and ordered schools to make "Britishness" an integral part of the curriculum, there was much eye-rolling from the public that anyone would be stupid enough to even raise such a matter.

The explanation why Mr Cameron felt compelled to wade into a debate which he knows will be controversial is clear enough: Britons need to redefine their national identity, and do it fast.

One reason is September's referendum on Scotland's independence. Opinion polls suggest most Scots will opt to stay as part of the United Kingdom. But if future demands for independence are to be avoided, the place of the Scots within this kingdom will have to be redefined, not so much by what separates them from the rest of the population, but by what unites them.

The same applies to an education system which is so diverse and obsessed with promoting "tolerance" at the expense of a common identity that it produces some real horrors. The discovery that several schools in Birmingham city had been taken over by Muslim hardliners who then proceeded to segregate boys and girls in classrooms and told pupils that non-Muslim girls should be regarded as "white prostitutes" shocked the country.

The concern over a lack of identification with Britain surfaces in other ominous ways too. Last year, for instance, more people holding British passports opted to risk their lives fighting for terrorist groups in Syria than those who signed up for reservist duties in Britain's armed forces.

Mr Cameron's call on the country to be "far more muscular in promoting British values" and "not to be squeamish about our achievements, or bashful about our Britishness" is not new. Nor is it a narrow Conservative Party agenda - his Labour Party predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown launched similar appeals when they were in power. But all these efforts met with popular derision.

Part of the problem is that nations are like extended families: Belonging to them is often not a matter of choice but an accident of birth, and defining what a family should stand for is either an unnecessary or unpleasant exercise, only undertaken when it faces a crisis.

Matters are even more difficult with the United Kingdom, a country which is an amalgam of four nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - all of which were initially brought together by the sword.

Britain's colonial experience also had a decisive impact, persuading Britons that they need not confine their identity to just a few windswept islands off the Atlantic Ocean.

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