What Is Britishness? David Cameron’s Flimsy Definition Doesn’t Stand Up to Scrutiny

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Britishness is suddenly in vogue.

No less a figure than David Cameron took to the Mail on Sunday earlier this month to declare that we needed a more “muscular” defence of “British values”. He identified these values as “a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.” These would appear to be the minimum requirements of any society that was neither a fascist dictatorship nor a lunatic asylum rather than exceptional facets of British life (the Muslim Council of Britain, for instance, immediately declared that in fact “these are Islamic values”), but even so, the Prime Minister is quick to clarify:
“Of course, people will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries. And, of course, they’re right. But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop. Our freedom doesn’t come from thin air. It is rooted in our parliamentary democracy and free press”

It is difficult to imagine a more hubristic passage. Mr Cameron’s government has done more damage to the tradition of the free press in Britain than any tyrannical king through the witch hunt of the Leveson Inquiry. Likewise the most significant exercise in parliamentary democracy this century – the refusal of the Commons to dance with the Devil in Syria – was met with a briefing exercise orchestrated by Number 10 to the effect that Ed Miliband, who had led the anti- faction, was “a ******* **** and a copper-bottomed ****”.
Nevertheless, even when the Mr Cameron’s personal interaction with the foundation stones of British values is discounted, his argument is exceptionally weak. In policy terms he proposes to launch this re-activation of our civic sense by using the “upcoming 800th anniversary as an opportunity for every child to learn about the Magna Carta, for towns to commemorate it, for events to celebrate it.” To reassure us of his sincerity on this point, he adds that “I’m even holding my own ‘one year to go’ reception at Downing Street tomorrow.” This interesting idea misses the fact that the Magna Carta was an English document, not a British achievement, and in any case as Dr Tim Stanley pointed out in the Telegraph, a nation’s spirit is not defined by its devotion to legal proceduralism, which is the Magna Carta’s main concern.
So there we have it, the Prime Minister’s version of Britishness is a set of obligations so loose and easily met that they apply to any civilised nation at any point in history; these are drawn from traditions he despises and will be promoted on the back of an anniversary that is properly that of another country.
Oddly, politicians always seem to run into this problem. Any senior politician celebrating a decade or more in public life becomes seized with a manic desire to pronounce on what constitutes Britishness with the strong implication that it flourishes only thanks to his or her beneficent influence on public morals. These celebrations of Britishness tend to follow similar paths – either they refer to a Britain of dew-drenched cricket pitches and thatched pavilions that exists only for a tiny proportion of the country (cf John Major, Shirley Williams), or it identifies itself with a vision of Britain that most of its inhabitants actively despise (cf William Hague: the rap years).


Can we do better? I think we can, and I shall try to. First, however, it is worth noting that the utility of Britishness as a concept to a large part of the population is in serious decline. To understand why, we should first look at the continuity between English and British identities. As by far the largest part of Britain in terms of population, it has always been the English who both provided the majority of Brits, but also provided the majority of British values.

Think of it this way: if you ask a foreigner about the qualities of the Welsh people he will probably give an answer which includes a highly level of literacy and lyricism in language, an unusual physical robustness, talent in rugby and singing, political solidarity. None of these is a British trait or part of the British national myth. Ask a foreigner what he means by England, and he will reel off something along the lines of Blake’s Jerusalem, about the beautiful country and the demonic urban mess of our cities. He would give almost exactly the same answer for England. In this sense, the British identity has always had its power from being the English identity.
I think this is less the case now than it was. Anecdotally, I have found an increasing proportion of the population outside of London start referring to itself as English rather than British. This argument does have an empirical basis, too. In 1997, only 24% said they felt English rather than British in a survey run by Public Policy Research and Cardiff University. In 2012, despite the British flag waving at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, 74% felt either more English than British or equally both.
So why do the English feel less British? I would argue that this is a direct result of mass immigration. Under New Labour, some 3m people immigrated to the UK. In other words, at least 5% of the 2010 population was a foreigner who arrived in the previous 13 years. That is, by any standard, a monumental demographic change.

There are only two ways a country can really come to terms with arrivals on such a scale. The first is to demand integration and assimilation. Britain and Europe, perhaps affected by a vague memory of the wickedness associated with the mono-culture fascist countries in the last war was never likely to pursue this with any great vigour. The second is to extend the definitions of national culture to the point where they exist only in the eye of the holder. Hence the notion that the Notting Hill Carnival, which is Jamaican, and curry, which is Indian, have in fact been British all along. In other words, the mountain has come to Muhammad.
This has one positive effect. It encourages new migrants and their children to feel that they are British or British-something with less effort on their part. It is therefore valuable in social cohesion terms. On the other hand, it has left English people feeling alienated from Britain. It is difficult to write this without feeling rude, but since records began in 1964, the Oxford Migration Unit has found that the proportion of people in Britain who feel that immigration has either “gone too far” or that there are now “too many” immigrants in the UK has never fallen below 50% of the population. Mass immigration is the single least popular, consistently pursued policy in Britain since the dawn of mass democracy – the fact that Britishness is now so often couched in terms of multicultural exchange in the public arena has had the corresponding impact of encouraging the English to revert to identifying themselves as English, an identity which is more closely linked with where you are born, and less closely linked to political convenience (something the Union has always been an example of).
In other words – in seeking to make Britishness a more inclusive identity, politicians have made it a less relevant identity for the majority of existing Britons, although it is likely to be more relevant for new arrivals.

Towards a new definition

[pullquote]A national identity is by definition exclusive[/pullquote]So Britishness may be a less useful or applicable concept than before, but can it be better and more honestly defined than has been done by the Prime Minister? I think so, but to do so will be uncomfortable because a national identity is by definition exclusive. In defining who is, it tells us who is not. When we are conditioned to thinking of Britishness as ultra-inclusive, the notion that it must exclude some people if it is not to lose itself will be unpleasant.
At this stage, I would like to introduce a quote from W. Somerset Maugham:
“It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For man and woman are not only themselves; they are also the religion in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which the learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the school they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them.”
Mr Maugham was using the passage to explain why he was a rotten writer of fictional Americans. I would like to use it to argue this point – Britishness relies on a mass of cultural communalities. The vast majority of people born in Britain are to parents born in Britain and grew up in a roughly comparable educational and social environment. If any British values are derived, it has to be from these people, rather than the man born in Rawalpindi who moves here in his fourth decade. That man is alien to those experiences that have formed his fellows in Britain, and is the exception rather than the cultural rule. In other words, Britishness should be derived from the thoughts and habits of the ‘old’ British, rather than the ‘new’ British.

What are those thoughts and habits? Well, the defining national characteristic of the British, as is apparent from their history, has been the very peculiar relationship which the nation has with authority. I think this is as true of the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish as it is of the English. Throughout British history, authority has been seen as a necessary evil, one tempered by the belief that anyone in a position of authority is an innately amusing figure, and that anyone who actively seeks authority rather than coming upon it accidentally as a result of birth, is both deeply funny and a figure of contempt. This disdain for the men who would be king is the key to understanding the British soul. It has saved Britain from despotism; it gave the country its unique imperial character with its willingness to resign power rather than become ludicrous like the French in Algeria; it created a constitutional structure in which every actor was shorn of the power to be radical; even now you cannot visit a school without it being apparent in all the pupils – all want to do well, none want to be seen to be trying hard. This is, I think, fairly unique amongst nations and the fact that this amusement and disdain never tips into social disorder is remarkable. This, to my mind, is Britishness.

In addition to this fundamental of the national character, there are several other tics which are much more pronounced in Britain than other countries. I do not think these tics create a Briton, but he is more likely to be recognised by these than any on the Prime Minister’s list. These are (in no particular order): an obsession with property ownership, a robust contempt for continental Europeans, financial regularity and a lack of corruption, a belief in amateurism, a belief in joining in, a love of reading but not of literature, a suspicion of overt displays of learning, a hatred of philosophy, pragmatism as a world-view, a reticence to discuss religion, the belief that sports are indicators of social class, a lack of femininity, a refusal to adopt political creeds, the belief that wine can be improved by mulling it, a preference for autumn over spring and winter over summer, the assumption that a complaint prefixed by a notice about the complainant’s refusal to grumble is not a complaint at all.
These, as I say, are the tics which I think we can still find in the majority of British people. Whether there is still a Britain after the Scottish vote, whether there is still anything resembling a British national character and sentiment once the great movement of people to these islands is complete, we cannot say. But writing for the here and now, I think it is still possible to describe and enjoy Britishness in terms which are specific and historically accurate and, by necessity, exclusive. That is my attempt. What is yours?