The Misguided Search for “Britishness”

March 14, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Lord Goldsmith unveiled his report on British Citizenship on Tuesday this week. He has raised calls for a ‘National Day’ as a public holiday, an updated national anthem and the compulsory swearing of allegiance to the Queen by students and legal immigrants.

The former Attorney General claimed that these measures would help to alleviate the “crisis of national identity” and encourage a “sense of belonging”, particularly in newcomers to Britain and to children. But why do we need this sense of national identity in the first place? How does this claimed lack of a national identity actually affect the everyday lives of the British people?

The answer is not very much at all. In fact it is a blessing for Britain not to have inherited the superficial and empty patriotism that is found in many of the ‘newer’ countries such as the United States. Their blind indoctrination, directed at symbols such as the flag and constitution, whilst holding their federal country together, are also a root cause of their jingoistic approach to foreign policy and arrogance in dealing with foreigners, something that Britain has mostly managed to shake off since the fall of the Empire. It is not uncommon for US citizens to exclaim wildly that their country is the greatest in the world, but I very much doubt that the majority of them could name sound reasons as to why, without citing their supreme position on the international stage.

The benefits of such empty and unthinking patriotism include the way that the USA can think of itself as a nation, very much unlike other countries with federal structures, most notably Germany, Italy and even Spain, which still harbour ancient inter-regional tensions.

Britain however, is not a federal state. Some fear the possible break-up of the Union, with an increasingly nationalistic Scotland, and the acceleration of devolution in the past decade. Yet a top-down government-imposed initiative to increase Britishness will only aggravate Scottish and Welsh anti-unionist sentiment, even if it serves to satisfy monarchist conservatives in the short-run.

British politicians should come to recognise that Britain cannot be so easily summarised. It is no wonder that Conservative proposals for a written constitution were met with such widespread resistance. Any attempt to summarise a nation that has been transformed within the last fifty years into a multicultural, pluralist society, either within a written set of rules, or within an empty oath, is doomed to failure or insignificance.

We should stick to the diverse national identity that we already have, revelling in its nostalgic and meaningless imperial connotations, instead of attempting to modify it towards a certain aim: presumably the myth that we need greater “social integration”. Britain should stop trying to act like an immature newly-founded country, and quietly celebrate its complex and diverse culture simply by not celebrating it.

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This post was written by Anton Howes

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