Instilling 21st Century Britishness

In light of Labour’s poor Local Government results, Gordon Brown has returned to the theme of establishment parties inhabiting the political ground of a patriotic Britishness. In the Sunday Times, Lord Skidelsky argues that one way to instill this is to teach a historical narrative in schools rather than the present disjointed “Henrys and Hitler” approach. Lesley White spends time with the youth of a British religious minority, Muslims, to see what identity they are forging for themselves. She argues they are a confident, dynamic group generally at ease with the society they are in.

  • páid

    Well said lib, and Alan’s point is intelligent too. In all this talk of slavery, the Brits didn’t invent it. They just were better at it than most others, and did it more recently. The Irish practised it wisely, raiding Britain for slaves in times past.

    I often feel like owning a slave or two myself.

  • páid

    Oops, i meant widely, not wisely. But come to think of it… NO

  • Mike

    “Well said lib, and Alan’s point is intelligent too. In all this talk of slavery, the Brits didn’t invent it. They just were better at it than most others, and did it more recently.”

    More recently than, say, the United States??

  • c Hound

    Slavery ended in 1914 in the Union of South Africa.

  • Conor Gillespie

    Jo,
    “Have Irish people never done anything, anything at all to be ashamed of? Encouraging generation after generation to believe that another nation was utterly, irredeemably bad?”

    Ohh, we should be so ashamed of being resentfull towards a nation that ground us into the shit for so many years. Really jo, get a grip. Few Irishmen tell the children that britain is ‘iredemabley bad.’ However, even a quick glance at Irish history will show you some of the worst things that the empire had to offer. The Penal laws, The Elizabethan and Cromwellian campaigns, the plantations –these are much more shamefull acts then the fact that many Irish people find it difficult to get over them. As far as Ireland is concerned the British Empire has blood on its hands and is really in no position to complain about ‘demonisation’ from its former subjects.

  • elfinto

    It’s only right to point out that the Brits weren’t the only imperialists. The French, for example, didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory and in fact they still run places such as Tahiti, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Nouvelle Caledonie as integral parts of France. But I’ve often thought I’d like to write a book called ‘The 101 worst excesses of British Imperialism’. If it was a big seller there would be plenty of scope for a sequel.

    I like the one about the British general in Canada who gave some natives a very nice blanket contining the smallpox virus and told them it was a gift from the big white queen.

    Of course the British have done plenty to be proud of too but it’s folly to suggest that the Empire was carved out in order to ‘civilise’ the natives. Like all empires, including the American one we see emerging today, money was the name of the game. Of course there were altuistic individuals but they were the exception among the imperialists.

  • Jo

    “a nation that ground us into the shit for so many years”

    Yeah, way to prove me wrong, Conor.

  • English

    I find it truly enlightening that those who jump at any opportunity to demonise everything British accuse someone who believes the empire was on balance a good thing of membership of a fascist white-supremacist mob, while ignoring the one post I noticed on this thread that implied minority races are something inherently un-English.

    “English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Pakistani’s, Indians, Bangladeshi’s, Afro-Carribean’s etc – non of whom would call themselves British”

    Which aside from being a complete and blatant lie, has disturbingly racialist undertones. In fact it even makes it look to me like the recent rise in English nationalism could possibly be related to the fact that ethnic minorities (in England) are much more comfortable describing themselves as British than English – a new way of defining them and us. Then again, as long as they’re having a go at Britishness we can overlook that, can’t we?

    Posted by beano on May 08, 2006 @ 01:45 AM

    Sorry, but having lived in England for many years I feel that I am correct in this view. People identify with their racial group first and foremost. People from Wales are Welsh, people from Scotland are Scottish, people from England are English, people from Northern Ireland are er..British or Irish (but are obvioualy all Irish!). British is always secondary as a description of oneself (apart from people in Northern Ireland and their cousins in Scotland),it is not a primary description of one’s national identity. There is no getting away from this.

    The situation of other ethnic groups is more complex, second generation immigrants from Ireland and Afro-Carribeans would maintain their culture but would generally describe themselves as English, apart from a minority. First generation immigrants would never describe themselves as anything but Irish or Jamaican for example.

    Asian immigrants have tended to stick together as a group more – probably because they are Muslims and the overt racism they have experienced.

    Sorry for the very broad generalisations as their are exceptions, but this is my experience as an Englishman.

    English (not British, e.g BNP) Nationalism is a good thing, English national self-identity is long overdue, because we are very different to the rest of the other groups, and should celebrate this. Moving to Northern Ireland has helped me understand how very different we are!

  • Conor Gillespie

    Jo,

    You’ve completley missed the point (:

    My argument was not that we don’t demonise Britain but that the actions that inspired that feeling were MUCH MUCH worse then the current Irish practicse of condemning all things british. The plain and simple truth of it is that BRITAIN DID treat Ireland appalingly and to claim to be offended by the demonization that follows such a histoy is rather petty. do you see my point?

  • DK

    The British empire is a touchy subject. Express even a slight admiration or understanding for it and you get all manner of reactions sent your way, from being called a fascist to accusations of patronising the natives who were conquered.

    To reiterate a point from the link “The past is a foreign country — they do things differently there.” The Empire and the things it did were of a time and a place – you could pick almost any event from the past and find the bad side to it. But what of the good? And why do almost all the former members seem to want to remain in it? Even Palestine has applied to join (oh, and South Africa was booted out over Aparteid in 1961, but rejoined afterwards, much as Zimbabwe is booted out now). I would like to know what people from these countries think of the Empire (not Ireland – the other countries).

    And the empire works both ways. Britain’s culture has been changed radically by contact with the other countries, from curry houses to the English language itself. Maybe it has improved tolerance as well.

    But the article is about definitions of Britishness in the 21st century. So the Empire is not even here any more. You have to question its relevence to modern Britain – is the physical Empire as important as the ideas within it? I don’t think so, and definitions of British-ness really refer to our common experiences living on the Islands.

    For me, that would be a lively and colourful media, a diverse and rapidly changing music scene, the English language, wide choice of food and shops, surrealist humour, social awkwardness and politeness (like the moslem teen in the article saying “fuck” and then looking ashamed when an adult saw them).

    Come to think of it, that’s not actually too far from a definition of Irishness.

  • DK

    This is interesting. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_of_Nations#Other_termination:

    “The Republic of Ireland did not apply for re-admittance after becoming a republic in 1949, as the Commonwealth then did not allow republican membership. But the leader of its Opposition at the time, Eamon de Valera, believed that this was a mistake, and he and his successor as Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, both considered re-applying.”

  • siochan

    English,
    “People from Wales are Welsh, people from Scotland are Scottish, people from England are English, people from Northern Ireland are er..British or Irish (but are obvioualy all Irish!). British is always secondary as a description of oneself (apart from people in Northern Ireland and their cousins in Scotland),it is not a primary description of one’s national identity. There is no getting away from this.”

    Ummm, I think the whole point is that Northern Irelanders who claim to be British and denying the label of Irish is in recognition of their heritage. many of the people of northern ireland are the descendents of the original planters bacame in James I’s time. To claim that they are all Irish because of their birth and then to label say england born jamaicans as jamaicans because of their heritage is a bit sketchy.

  • kensei

    “Of course the British have done plenty to be proud of too but it’s folly to suggest that the Empire was carved out in order to ‘civilise’ the natives. ”

    No one is suggesting why that it is carved out, merely the attitude the Brits took once they started it. The undercurrent of which is obviously still here. Look at all those westminster style democracies!

    Basically every Unionist poster is going “Well there were bad things, but…….”. And that’s all the bad things get, airbrushed out.

  • Jo

    I concede that Britains attitude to Ireland can be glossed over as “appalling” but that ignores certain aspects of history such as (sighs) the Normans were not “British” in any meaningful sense, the Plantations were by Scottish people not British people, successive Land Reforms, Gladstone, even Churchill offering an end to partition, 2 efforts at establishing power-sharing, freedom of movement between Ireland the UK economy to the present day, the fact that the Empire was largely built by Irish soldiers fighting for the Crown, the fact that in Irish men have killed many times more Irish people in the twentieth century than the “British” did…and before anyone blames the Famine on “the Brits” take a look at the starving today and what ireland is doing to stop it. Laissez faire, free market economies killed people in the 1840s and continues to kill them today.

  • Fraggle

    Jo, that’s a lot of blinkered nonsense.

    You don’t know a lot about the plantations obviously, go read up. Significant numbers of planters were English. For example, the ‘London’ in Londonderry doesn’t come from Scotland.

    Regarding starving people, what is your point? Irish government aid per capita and per GDP is higher than average (and higher than the UK) according to Nationmaster and Irish famine relief charities are well supported. Some Irish celebrities take time out of their busy schedules to support the poor in the world.

  • Jo

    My point is that to blame the Famine on “the evil Brits” ignores the predominance of laissez-faire doctrine in failing to address starvation in the 1840s right through to 2006. You worship the market, people die.

    The 2nd largest group in NI today are the Presybterians? Are they Scottish or English in ancestry?

    My other point stand. The Empire was won by Irish & Scots soldiers fighting under English officers. And it wasnt the only Empire, as I recall. There were quite a few Catholic Empires too. But then again the English weren’t Catholic so its their Empire that is the “bad sort.” I happen to think all empires bad. But then all I write and think is “blinkered nonsense”

  • kensei

    “My point is that to blame the Famine on “the evil Brits” ignores the predominance of laissez-faire doctrine in failing to address starvation in the 1840s right through to 2006. You worship the market, people die.”

    True. But would the same thing have happen if Englishmen had been dying? I doubt it. There’d have been a revolution else.

    “The 2nd largest group in NI today are the Presybterians? Are they Scottish or English in ancestry?”

    No one is denying that Scots came (granted land by the English Crown, remember), just that it wasn’t only Scots.

    “There were quite a few Catholic Empires too. But then again the English weren’t Catholic so its their Empire that is the “bad sort.” I happen to think all empires bad. But then all I write and think is “blinkered nonsense” ”

    So do I, but then I wouldn’t right blinkered nonsense like your second sentence.

  • Jo

    Hey guys, whats the big world like when you dont wear blinkers?

    Youse uns are so lucky not to have any prejudices and such ideologically free powers of analysis…(irony doesnt always work in blogging, does it? ) 😉

  • IJP

    Jo‘s spot on.

    Remember, people: ‘mutual respect’… we can be British, Irish, both or neither – but we can’t force anyone else to be.

  • lib2016

    “..we can’t force anyone else to be (British, Irish, both or neither)”

    Now you tell us! Where were you when we needed you? 😉

  • Fraggle

    IJP, what bit of what Jo is saying is spot on exactly?

  • Jo

    …easy! Every bit, of course!

  • Fraggle

    Like the bit about Scottish people not being British?

  • hovetwo

    Someone once said that all nation states rely on a shared misunderstanding of history for their existence.

    Our definitions of identity are elective – we pick out the things we like and reject the rest. We can only be proud of what being British or Irish means to us as individuals, and be open to having our prejudices called into question.

    You can be proud of being British, culturally and politically, without forgetting that Saddam Hussein was not the first person to use chemical weapons in Iraq in the 20th century.

    You can be proud of being Irish, culturally and politically, without forgetting clerical abuse, censorship and corruption.

    I may cast Lord John Russell as a British Pol Pot for his ideological obsession with letting Ireland starve, but I might just see Robert Peel as a great (and unsung) British hero for his Herculean efforts to keep Irish people alive.

    I’m not interested in “British Empire Good or Bad” debates (answer both, don’t care whether it was more bad then good or vice versa) – I’m fascinated when people describe what they love about being British – or Irish, because I feel I have a richer understanding of my own (Irish) identity as a result.

  • Jo

    ..Welsh, Danes, Normans, English, Manx..sure theyre all agin yez…every last man jack of them Brit ones…

  • kensei

    “Hey guys, whats the big world like when you dont wear blinkers?

    Youse uns are so lucky not to have any prejudices and such ideologically free powers of analysis…(irony doesnt always work in blogging, does it? ) 😉 ”

    That is also blinkered nonsense I would’t come out with, frankly.

    “Remember, people: ‘mutual respect’… we can be British, Irish, both or neither – but we can’t force anyone else to be.”

    What exactly has that got to do with what Jo was saying, or the British empire?

  • DK

    This post has strayed from definition of britishness to arguing over the merits or otherwise of the British Empire. I’m with hovetwo in the it had bad and good bits & am more interested in the cultural definitions. On the surreal humour suggestion – this link shows that the Irish have it as well:

    http://www.u.tv/newsroom/indepth.asp?id=73142&pt=n

  • Jo

    kensei

    You no longer make any sense whatsoever.

  • Conor Gillespie

    Jo,

    ummm you didn’t exactly make any sense yourself when you claimed that NI was planted by scots not brits!

    1) Are you saying that scots arn’t brits?

    2) Are you saying that there were no English planters

    If you’re saying either of these things then there’s very little hope for you (:

  • Reader

    hovetwo: You can be proud of being British, culturally and politically, without forgetting that Saddam Hussein was not the first person to use chemical weapons in Iraq in the 20th century.
    I keep on seeing this – OK then, when and where?

  • English

    This is the biggest load of balls I have ever read – you are all Irish! If I moved to Spain for example, my children would be Spanish not English. If I remained in England they would English, I live in Northern Ireland and my children are born on the island of Ireland therefore they are Irish. THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE!

  • Crataegus

    English

    A bit simplistic, what would you be if you moved to Gibraltar? Or perhaps the Basque country, or that strange bit of Spanish territory that is in North Africa? Then one has to ask what would the real Spanish regard you as? Some of them will probably think you are raising the cost of local houses and taking their jobs.

    But don’t let concerns like this delay your journey.

  • hovetwo

    Reader FYI – in fairness, conventional bombs were used more extensively in Iraq at the time, and both sides in WWI had used chemical weapons in Europe before Britain tried them in Iraq.

    Our last occupation

    Gas, chemicals, bombs: Britain has used them all before in Iraq

    Jonathan Glancey
    Saturday April 19, 2003
    The Guardian

    “The British responded with gas attacks by the army in the south, bombing by the fledgling RAF in both north and south. Terror bombing, night bombing, heavy bombers, delayed action bombs (particularly lethal against children) were all developed during raids on mud, stone and reed villages during Britain’s League of Nations’ mandate. The mandate ended in 1932; the semi-colonial monarchy in 1958.

    Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, estimated that without the RAF, somewhere between 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would be needed to control Iraq. Reliance on the airforce promised to cut these numbers to just 4,000 and 10,000. Churchill’s confidence was soon repaid.

    An uprising of more than 100,000 armed tribesmen against the British occupation swept through Iraq in the summer of 1920. In went the RAF. It flew missions totalling 4,008 hours, dropped 97 tons of bombs and fired 183,861 rounds for the loss of nine men killed, seven wounded and 11 aircraft destroyed behind rebel lines. The rebellion was thwarted, with nearly 9,000 Iraqis killed.

    The RAF was vindicated as British military expenditure in Iraq fell from £23m in 1921 to less than £4m five years later. This was despite the fact that the number of bombing raids increased after 1923 when Squadron Leader Arthur Harris – the future hammer of Hamburg and Dresden, whose statue stands in Fleet Street in London today – took command of 45 Squadron. Adding bomb-racks to Vickers Vernon troop car riers, Harris more or less invented the heavy bomber as well as night “terror” raids. Harris did not use gas himself – though the RAF had employed mustard gas against Bolshevik troops in 1919, while the army had gassed Iraqi rebels in 1920 “with excellent moral effect”.

    Churchill was particularly keen on chemical weapons, suggesting they be used “against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment”. He dismissed objections as “unreasonable”. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes _ [to] spread a lively terror _” In today’s terms, “the Arab” needed to be shocked and awed. A good gassing might well do the job.

    Conventional raids, however, proved to be an effective deterrent.

    “The Arab and Kurd now know”, reported Squadron Leader Harris after several such raids, “what real bombing means within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”

    In his memoir of the crushing of the 1920 Iraqi uprising, Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer L Haldane, quotes his own orders for the punishment of any Iraqi found in possession of weapons “with the utmost severity”: “The village where he resides will be destroyed _ pressure will be brought on the inhabitants by cutting off water power the area being cleared of the necessaries of life”. He added the warning: “Burning a village properly takes a long time, an hour or more according to size”.

    Punitive British bombing continued throughout the 1920s. An eyewitness account by Saleh ‘Umar al Jabrim describes a raid in February 1923 on a village in southern Iraq, where bedouin were celebrating 12 weddings. After a visit from the RAF, a woman, two boys, a girl and four camels were left dead. There were many wounded. Perhaps to please his British interrogators, Saleh declared: “These casualties are from God and no one is to be blamed.”

    One RAF officer, Air Commodore Lionel Charlton, resigned in 1924 when he visited a hospital after such a raid and faced armless and legless civilian victims. Others held less generous views of those under their control. “Woe betide any native [working for the RAF] who was caught in the act of thieving any article of clothing that may be hanging out to dry”, wrote Aircraftsman 2nd class, H Howe, based at RAF Hunaidi, Baghdad. “It was the practice to take the offending native into the squadron gymnasium. Here he would be placed in the boxing ring, used as a punch bag by members of the boxing team, and after he had received severe punishment, and was in a very sorry condition, he would be expelled for good, minus his job.”

    At the time of the Arab revolt in Palestine in the late 1930s, Air Commodore Harris, as he then was, declared that “the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand, and sooner or later it will have to be applied”. As in 1921, so in 2003.

  • Nick J

    English

    So me (also English) and my Scotish missus live in Spain and say one day we have kids. Does that make them Spanish, because I am fairly sure in terms of passport, language etc they will be British.

    In terms of my cultural identity I consider myself British first, English second, as do most of my peers, be they Scottish or Welsh or whatever.

  • Nick J

    Obviously they would be British then Scottish, or British then Welsh.

    I do not think by any stretch of the imagination you would get a Scot claiming to be English…..

  • DK

    Hovetwo,

    Fascinating post. It also shows how weapons and combat practices go in and out of fashion depending on the current cultural zeitgeist. So gas was fine immediately after WW1, but since then chemical weapons have become banned. Giving no quarter to your social inferiors, or beseiged towns that refused to surrender, was standard practice in medieval times, but stamped out by the end of the 17th century. Mass bombing of civilians fine in WW2, but much frowned on now. I wonder what weapon is next. Probably land mines, and air-fuel bombs (napalm and the like).

    Equally there are weapons that have come into fashion – either through technology or perceived impact. So you get the smart bomb – either guided by computers, or a person carrying it. Both delivered very accurately to the intended target – usually. Also thorough training and indoctrination of soldiers, whether they be Marines or kidnapped children in the Lords Army. Previously, mass conscription as in the Iran-Iraq war or most of Europe in the Cold War, would have been fashionable.

    Sorry for the ramble – bit off topic, but then we have passed 100 posts, so most other posts probably will be as well.

  • hovetwo

    DK

    I wouldn’t apologise for the “ramble” (good points by the way) – I’m not sure the thread was on the offical topic from the beginning!

    The point I was trying to get to is that an active citizen and patriot shouldn’t have to excuse everything done in the name of their country in the past, any more than you have to support everything Blair or Bertie is doing today. People should be angry about attempts to airbrush unpalatable events from the national narrative, whether chemical weapons or Magdalene laundries, without feeling the need to apologise for their own identity.

    I would still be interested in knowing what people love about being British or Irish, since these are the bits that are worth defending and strengthening.

  • DK

    “I would still be interested in knowing what people love about being British or Irish, since these are the bits that are worth defending and strengthening.”

    Well, I am in the lucky position to have a crack at both bits, since I am English, but have lived in NI for more than 10 years and have an Irish wife. Job and holidays take me south of the border a fair bit too.

    Things I love about being British:
    The music – such variety and innovation
    The food – ditto
    The beer – ditto

    Things I love about being Irish:
    The country – Stunning
    Politeness of strangers

    Things I love that are both British and Irish:
    Sense of humour – surrealist e.g. Father Ted
    Regional variety – lots to see
    History – lots of it
    The weather – you appreciate a sunny day more when it is rare.
    The media – quite happy to say everything in all manner of tones

    That’s a good start. Could do things I hate, but I’ll keep the post positive!

  • micktvd

    A very interesting post about Iraq, hovetwo. Wasn’t Churchill voted the greatest Englishman of the 20th Century or something? Even my old mum has fond memories of him during WWII, although she’s quick to add that he hated working people and was a ‘rotten bastard.’

    I’ve really enjoyed this thread, even the name calling. I think the discussion about empire is crucially relevant in today’s climate.

    A couple of points I’d like to make:

    The great things about capitalist liberal democracies are usually those things struggled for and maintained as part of the great history of progress,democracy, human rights and civilisation. They weren’t handed to us as a gift by the imperialists, lawmakers, the feudalists, the capitalists, the owning class or the power elite. They were extracted from them, by force or threat or bargain. They are constantly battled over again and again. They don’t belong to the heritage of ‘England’ or ‘Ireland’ or any nation state; they are not represented by or embodied in the imperial or national project, past or present.

    I think this is where we get into a pickle, talking about..’well at least the British Empire was kind of democratic and less murderous than others’ The British Empire was as murderous and racist as any in history. But British ‘society’ had within it people and institutions that opposed empire and partially civilised it and therefore made the experience for those colonised less disastrous than would otherwise have been the case.

  • kensei

    “You no longer make any sense whatsoever.”

    Well Jo, at least it took me a while to get there. You have come off with crass mischracterisations of what other people have said to try and score cheap points.

    Come back when you actually feel like aproper discussion.

  • hovetwo

    Blast this work thing, it really gets in the way of blogging.

    Micktvd

    Really like the points you make. It’s the people and institutions who fought for change and reform I admire (although having read Roy Jenkin’s biography I struggle to dislike Churchill).

    Britons can be proud of William Wilberforce and the role the Royal Navy played in ending slavery, they can admire the heroism and brilliance of Nelson, without having to believe the Royal Navy is intrinsically good.

    I’m still more interested in Britain and Ireland today rather than yesterday. I accept that the past is prologue but if we get too bogged down the past will be epilogue as well.

    Not really interested in MOPEry or DOPEry – Dissing Oppressed People Everywhere, generally by turning human suffering into an Olympic sport, as in “you think you lot had it bad, you’re lucky you weren’t Russian serfs”. I don’t care whether Ireland was always in Gold Medal position in terms of oppression, or even how often we made it through the heats into the semi-finals. We were frequently dropped into it from a great height – I don’t need to know how high the diving board was.

    Anyway, having been born and raised in Dublin but having spent 16 years in Oxford, London and Prestatyn (aagh), I’ll have a go at the things I love about being Irish and the things I love about the Brits:

    Being Irish:
    Friendliness / warmth of strangers
    Poetry
    Literature
    History
    Music (except the 48ish verses of the Ballad of John F. Kennedy sung a by a forgetful old man who kept starting from the beginning)
    Dance
    Irish (Gaeilge) – after Greek, the oldest living written language in Europe (except for tedious stories of depressed islanders and their suicidally stupid offspring), ach rinne mé dearmad ar breis is gach focal tar éis an Árdteistiméaracht
    Boston is the next parish
    Dublin is easy to escape from – to a beautiful land and sea-scape
    The diversity of the Irish diaspora, from William Orpen to Fitzcarraldo to…
    Our UN contribution, including our role in drafting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and helping China to join before Mao went a little crazy….
    Our second-level education system

    About Britain:
    My mates
    The dreaming spires
    London, and the way you can walk down the road with blue hair before the age of 70 without anyone batting an eyelid
    The kindness and decency of strangers, when you can overcome the awkwardness and embarrassment and finally introduce yourselves
    Music
    Literature
    History – especially the bit during WWII

    I also agree with DKs list of common features.

    Anyway better go.