For England And St George! (again)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 0:48 | Filed in Language, Politics

Last year I wrote a post (for St George’s day) called For England and St George!. I’m tempted immediately to re-hash it in the light of The Goldfish’s recent post on Britishness. But that wouldn’t do The Goldfish’s post the credit it deserves, so instead I’ll just re-hash the title!

The Goldfish feels that the idea of upholding an ideal of British Values is wrong, because to do so smacks of arrogance, of a permanence that doesn’t exist (what the values of today’s society are may not be the values we cherish in 30 years), and because it’s pointless — a British person is a British person, irrespective of whether they buy into all of these values.

I agree with all of the points she is making, at least to some extent. But that’s not going to stop me arguing with her!

Firstly, arrogance. I think I’m in broad agreement with what the Goldfish is saying: that we shouldn’t assume British values are inherently better than anyone else’s values, but I disagree with the thrust of her argument here.

In order for something to be British, it has to belong to Britain and the British people, as opposed to other countries and other peoples. It has to be something uniquely ours, like British Beef or the British weather. In order to have a set of values, a set of moral tenants which are unique to Britain, we must believe that the people of other countries in the world do not hold these values — or at least they don’t in great number.

Therefore, in order for such a set of British Values to exist, we must be morally superior to other countries and other peoples in the world.The Goldfish

Take the cherished “British Sense of Fair Play”. And let’s ignore the fact that not every Brit exhibits it. Does it mean when we cherish the “British Sense of Fair Play”, we’re meaning that other countries don’t play fair? Of course not.

What we are saying is that this is a value we are proud of, that we identify with. Citizens of other countries are perfectly entitled to choose that value too, but they may prefer to identify with “diligence”, or “artistic”, “fine brewers” or “not being obsessed by whether or not the EU have rulings about the straightness of bananas”.

So I don’t think that by referring to a British sense of fair play, I’m excluding any other country from it. I’m just saying that it’s a value that I, as a British subject citizen choose to identify with. I don’t see that as arrogance.

Secondly, pointlessness. This one I find it harder to disagree with. I wouldn’t say someone is less British if they don’t like Real Ale and Cricket. I’d say that was their misfortune, but it doesn’t make them less British. Like the Goldfish, I too have heard the “if you believe that you aren’t a true American” line trotted out by people wanting to prop up their otherwise failing arguments (“requiring websites to be accessible is unamerican!”), and I too am tired of it.

Similarly, some people would suggest a shared value is our allegiance to the Crown; we’re all British subjects and should do what Liz II jolly well tells us. Well as a semi-republican (don’t particularly mind the Royal family per se, I just consider myself a British citizen) I don’t see why it’s necessary for them to have any constitutional role at all.

So that might make it more difficult to come up with shared “British Values” that everyone agrees with. But you could still surely get some that the majority would agree with…

And then onto permanence. Intolerance of bigotry is seen (by most) as a good value now, but it wasn’t so long ago that the overall “British Values” would have been rather homophobic, rather racist, rather sexist and so on. And even if racism and jokes against stereotype haven’t been exactly encouraged recently, you’d be surprised at how recently “me want pullee Christmas clacker!” was seen as perfectly appropriate for someone Chinese in a kids book (1978 Rupert the Bear annual, the chinese doll story). And that’s before we even consider stuff like Tintin in the Congo.

The Goldfish talks about the ongoing exchange of ideas being essential. But to me, that in itself is a “British Value”. Us Brits are a mongrel nation: a bit of anglo-saxon, a bit Viking, a bit Norman, a bit who knows what else: throughout our history we’ve absorbed other cultures, digested ‘em, and picked out ideas, thoughts, and vocabulary from them. One of my “British Values” is to embrace this melting pot and enjoy the richness of British culture, which is only possible because it has drawn from so many others.

And sure, there’s things to be proud of too. Abolishing slavery, and fighting against it, for a start. And there’s things we ought to be ashamed of, too: like … um … well, slavery. If we can accept the things our country and our people have done wrong (and in some cases still do) while being proud of the things we do right, I’ve got no problem with that. To me, that’s patriotism. It’s tribalism writ large: and I’m a proud North-Easterner, and I’ll admit that.

But that tribalism is only a problem when you use it to say my tribe is better than your tribe; striving to make your tribe one you can be proud of is a perfectly worthy goal (and doesn’t mean other people can’t be proud of their own). If you view your country, your region or your tribe through rose-tinted lenses, you won’t get to appreciate what other tribes, regions and countries have to offer, you’ll have a more narrow-minded view and that doesn’t really help anyone.

Patriotism is seeing your country as it is — successes and failures — and striving to make it better. That’s my England. That’s my Britain. That’s my patriotism.

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6 Comments to For England And St George! (again)

  1. Richard says:

    February 19th, 2008 at 9:30 am

    British or English Jack? Some of the ideas mentioned whilst they would sit comfortably with Englishness would be completely out of place in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

  2. Rob Mason says:

    February 19th, 2008 at 11:30 am

    The sad fact is that with the growing Nanny State and society’s drive not to offend anyone, means that we have lost most of these values as a collective. I’m a mongrel: part Viking/Saxon, Part Celt, Part French, but bugger me if I’m not proud to be British and uphold the values that this country should represent.

  3. Brian says:

    February 19th, 2008 at 11:40 am

    We are Citizens, not subjects – from Wikipedia

    “On 1 January 1983, upon the coming into force of the British Nationality Act 1981, every Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies became either a British Citizen, British Dependent Territories Citizen or British Overseas Citizen.

    The use of the term “British subject” was discontinued for all persons who fell into these categories, or who had a national citizenship of any other part of the Commonwealth.”

    It should be said that I am neither royalist nor republican, more don’tgiveadamnian. It makes little practical difference to me either way I fear.

  4. The Goldfish says:

    February 20th, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Jerusalem >

    Sorry this has taken me a few days to get to – my keyboard died and then my brain did.

    I guess I have always considered things like “The British sense of fair play” to be rather mythical. Worse, it has been too often citted in propaganda to justify some action which is really quite contrary to the principle of fairness. We have entered several conflicts – including the two World Wars – on the basis of defending some defenseless people against an aggressor. But we’ve been so selective and the one time when the argument was a complete no-brainer (Hitler’s invasion of Poland), we’d already watched half a dozen countries get trampled over in the previous few years.

    I’m not saying we should be ashamed – I don’t really believe in any kind of national responsibility for historical events. But with any value as general as that, there is going to be enough evidence of our country and our people not living up to is as there is otherwise. Does that make sense? I’m not entirely sure we are far from agreement, as my brain has not quite come back to life yet.

  5. Collegue Man says:

    February 29th, 2008 at 12:38 am

    I want to believe in a Britishness which allows to point my children at a target they should aim for, and nationality is the largest thing I can be identify with (I certainly would not describe myself as European), so what is wrong with promoting British values, but I personally will promote my idea of Britishess, honesty, fair play, hard work, loyalty and respect. All true british ideals or maybe they are mine, I do not live up to them but I do try so maybe the ideal is what Britishness is, and we could all learn from that.

  6. Mira says:

    February 1st, 2013 at 8:39 am

    This is both srteet smart and intelligent.

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