More About Being British

John Tyndall examines some popular nonsense about national identity

IT SEEMS to be the silly season for defining who we are, but at least there is one good omen in the current debate about what Britishness means: the press and TV would not be focusing on the subject in the way they are presently doing were they not sensitive to underlying currents of public concern that Britain's national identity is under threat, as indeed it is.

A few weeks ago we were treated to the unedifying public spectacle of a West Indian immigrant with the usual impeccable left-wing credentials taking us on a television on tour of Britain in which, with the aid of numerous carefully picked ‘spokespeople’, he informed us that the country our parents knew was gone for ever and that we had better get used to it because there was nothing - absolutely nothing - we could do about it. This prompted an article in these columns in which I attempted to define what Britishness meant in a way our dusky tour guide and his co-participants in the programme totally failed to do. But the media will not allow the issue to go away. It emerged again in a feature in the Daily Mail on the 30th March entitled ‘True Brit ’ in which, to use the paper's words, it asked six very different Britons how they define themselves.

Sri Lankan Briton

It was clear of course from the start how the Daily Mail defined them, for among these ‘Britons’ were Shyama Perera, a Sri Lankan, who was given first call, and Mihir Bose, the Indian sports writer. Two out of six from the ethnic minorities is apparently that paper's idea of a representative debate about our country and its identity. However, let Mrs. Perera have her say. She, she said, arrived in London in 1962 but held on to her Sri Lankan citizenship for 25 years until she went back to the Indian sub-continent on her honeymoon and noticed how no-one respected traffic lights and everyone wanted to barge in on everyone else's conversation. This was the decider:-

‘I couldn't bear the chaos and intrusion, so I applied for my British passport. I'd always known that, spiritually, I am British through and through.

‘It's nothing to do with district nurses on bicycles or bobbies on the beat. It's about Britishness as a state of being: an underlying emperance, a social tolerance.

‘You see it in the polite queues outside post offices and in banks when cashiers go to lunch at the busiest moment. London can come to a standstill while a lorry unloads scaffolding - not one driver will toot their horn. ’

This and other attractive features of human behaviour resolved Mrs. Perera that Britain was the best place to be. Very conveniently, however, she failed to address the question of why people, according to her own account, behave so differently in the Indian sub-continent. Could it have anything to do with national character and temperament? That would seem to be a question fraught with danger because it might lead us to a discussion of that taboo subject of race. Mrs. Perera would of course repudiate this by saying that she, having integrated herself into a British environment, has acquired British habits and attitudes on such matters as queuing, and that therefore everyone else can do so. But national identity is not about how the odd individual thinks and behaves; it is about how people in the mass - the average do so. A great many people of Afro-Caribbean origin have been brought up in the same British environment as Mrs. Perera. Some individuals amongst them have adapted to that environment and taken on British modes of behaviour but an uncomfortable number have not, as is easily demonstrable to anyone who cares to observe.

Subject of the Crown

Next in order to define being British was Sir Roy Strong. What made him British, he said, was being a subject of Her Majesty the Queen. What did that mean? Well, said Sir Roy, the Crown holds its diverse peoples in unity, one symbolised by a flag, the Union Jack. United we stand, divided we fall, and... "We have warded off every threatened invasion from without, including the might of Napoleon and Hitler."

But wait a minute! All the threatened invasions from without of which Sir Roy was speaking belong to ages before the huge influx of non-white races into Britain which began in the 1950s. Yes, at such times the country was united precisely because its people had a sense of belonging together, of being a single national entity, albeit with some minor variations as between English, Scots, Welsh, etc., and variations among those tribal groups. The British broadly looked the same, thought the same, shared an overall common culture and felt a sense of common loyalty to one another. That enabled their armed forces, responsible for national defence, to feel and act as one with London cockneys identifying themselves proudly with Scottish Highland and Yorkshire regiments and not infrequently serving in them. Within the British armed forces, as my own experience testifies, there was constant joking and leg-pulling between those of different regional backgounds, but nothing approaching the bitterly hostile ‘racism’ which now, apparently, causes deep divisions among serving men and women on the frank admission of the Ministry of Defence.

Would Britain, in a future war, be united and able to stand, or divided and prone to fall, with armed forces made up of the chaotic ethnic mix of which it is now composed? And would British citizens on the Home Front be able to behave in the calm, stoical and community-orientated way they did at the time of the Blitz in the early 1940s? Perhaps Sir Roy prefers not to consider such uncomfortable questions.

What is an invasion?

But there was another glaring oversight in Sir Roy's analysis obvious except to the purblind liberal. He spoke of invasions being ‘warded off’, but are the only invasions military ones? Is not any massive influx of foreign people over our borders, which portends huge and permanent changes in our national state of being, an invasion, quite regardless of whether it occurs by means of armed force or not? Elsewhere in this issue we shall focus on the threatened secession of the main part of America's south western area due to the encroachment of Hispanic immigrants over the past three or four decades. Had the same process occurred by means of an armed attack by the army of Mexico and the annexation by that country of the south western states of the US, no-one would think of describing it by any word other than invasion. Yet if these states are lost to the US by demographic conquest and a subsequent political ‘opting out’ by an Hispanic majority, the result would be no different. It seems futile to point out out to the likes of Sir Roy Strong that the same rule would apply to Britain; even if areas conquered and colonised by non British immigrants did not actually secede politically from the United Kingdom, but remained within it so that their people could continue to claim welfare benefits and other rights, they would cease to all intents and purposes to be British in the sense that we know the term. They would, in effect, have been invaded.

Sir Roy went on to speak of the rich cultural ‘heritage ’ which British people share, and alluded to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Robert Burns and Dylan Thomas. He said that the British identity was one which he, as an Englishman, could share, not only with the Scots and the Welsh, "but others who have come to these shores, from Jews to Jamaicans..."

Frankly, this is pure drivel. Whatever one's individual preferences concerning writers like Wilde and Thomas, their works do belong to the authentic Anglo-Celtic-European cultural soil. But was Sir Roy seriously suggesting that there could ever have been a Jamaican Shakespeare, or for that matter a Jamaican Elgar, Turner or Christopher Wren? If he is, why have such immortal geniuses never emerged from that or any other Caribbean environment - or from out of the hundreds of millions who populate Black Africa or the Indian sub-continent from which Mrs. Perera has come?

Sir Roy concluded by speaking of his pride in his British identity, "an identity which it has taken centuries to forge and one which should not now be thrown away but rediscovered in all its pride of collective achievement."

Excellent sentiments! But where lies the danger of our identity now being thrown away? I suggest that it lies, not only in the political correctness of Tony Blair Cool Britannia culture, but also in the vast changes in our population that are now taking place through immigration of peoples culturally a whole world removed from us, and from the prolific birth rate of those of them already here. Yes, Sir Roy, our identity has taken centuries to forge; and what has forged it has been the merging and development of closely related North European peoples with only very minor ethnic variations between them. This identity will most surely be thrown away through similar merging between the native British and the mostly alien newcomers of the post-1945 period - just as prize dairy stocks will be destroyed by the interbreeding of them with stocks of wholly different origins and type. These truths are elementary to any farmer, and neglect of them would soon lead to ruin, but apparently when it comes to applying them to human species the subject is unfit even for decent discussion!

Life in the country

To Val Hennessy, another contributer, "the essence of Britishness is found where I live, in rural Britain." Miss Hennessy went on to speak of:- "Woods carpeted with bluebells, ringing with birdsong... you can't beat the beauty of our countryside, a pair of wellies, a pub lunch and walking the dog in a land of people who love dogs."

And there was more of the same: ancient churches; National Trust gardens; village stores; cream teas; coffee mornings; the singing of Handel's Messiah. Miss Hennessy expressed her infuriation that in Blair's Britain these things were scarcely understood, and I, for one, would not argue with her on that point.

But how do these images come to be regarded as intrinsic to Britain? Apart from the natural beauty of the countryside - which many nations, and indeed races, can claim of their native habitats - they are products of our own traditions and culture, which stem in turn from the type of people we are. Those who note with satisfaction that the British love dogs ought to go and see how dogs are treated in, for instance, India. Ancient churches? Yes, well, one will find churches of great beauty over most of Europe, though the beauty is often of a different kind. But what of Africa or the West Indies? Any churches of similar quality to be found in such places are certain to have been designed, and their construction overseen, by Whites. National Trust gardens? Another art form in which we British are unexcelled. Again, beautiful gardens may also be found in Continental Europe and lands overseas colonised and built up by Europeans. But where, except when created by white expatriates, are they to be found in the lands from which most recent migrants have come? Handel? Well, he was German but nonetheless European. Is there a West Indian Handel, or an Asian one? If so, I have yet to hear of him!

And if the red guards of multi-culturalism and multi-racialism have their way, Miss Hennessy may not for very much longer be hearing the Messiah in her village hall but may find that it has been replaced by gangsta rap, or some such new British musical idiom. I suspect that already that stirring sound can be heard across the local garden hedges by means of walkmans or in the pubs in response to the debased demand of the growing legions of morons who patronise such ports of call.

Inventors of cricket

Mihir Bose, by his own account, came to Britain as a young student. After his studies he had three choices: he could have gone to America, returned to India or stayed here. "I chose to stay here," he affirmed, "and have never regretted it."

That I would not doubt. A return to his homeland would not have been likely to enhance Mr. Bos's pay packet and living standards, so it was a case of Britain or the United States. Maybe his fondness for cricket ruled out the latter country. Anyway, Mr. Bose was very proud of being British, he said. But his pride was not in the great wars the country has won, or the nationalism that can so often turn to jingoism and violence. It is, he said, "in the cultural and scientific riches of this country and its sheer humanity."

All this deserves a little closer analysis. Pride in victorious wars cannot, to any intelligent person, go to make up the be all and end all of patriotism and a sense of national identity; but in the case of a country like Britain at least, it should form quite an important part. An element of our self-respect demands that when our courage has been put to the supreme test it has not been found wanting. Only the bully goes looking for war as an end in itself, but history demonstrates that armed struggle is a recurring feature of the lives of most nations, and it is no more than human to gain satisfaction from struggles in which we or our ancestors have performed well.

But of course, quite regardless of arguments as to how important military prowess is in the folklore of any nation, British military prowess and achievement are not part of Mr. Bose's folklore, no matter how he may protest to the contrary. That he should seek patriotic inspiration in the martial deeds of is own forebears, whatever they may be, would be understandable. But one can hardly expect him to gain any such inspiration from those of our forebears - especially when some of them were at the expense of his.

As for cultural and scientific riches, those of Britain may indeed by admired by the likes of Mr. Bose, but I find it difficult to see how he can be ‘proud’ of them. I might as well settle among Australian Aborigines and proclaim that I am ‘proud’ of their having invented the boomerang! It all gets us nowhere in defining national identity.

Flattery

Sheer humanity? It is at this point that we have to be careful, for what is happening is that we are being flattered. Native Britons, I am afraid to say, have an almost fatal weakness for this kind of compliment. It adds to our feel-good reserves just when we are most in need of them. Mrs. Perera knows that too, as she has demonstrated in her talk of an underlying temperance, a social tolerance. It is of course vital to those from outside who want our gates to remain open to them that Britons should be laid-back as to who comes through the gates. Of such a laid-back attitude all sorts of descriptions might apply: lazy, apathetic, cowardly, stupid, wishy-washy, unvigilant, unpatriotic, lacking in duty towards posterity - the list is extensive. But tell British people that they are these things and they might not like it. How much more comforting it is to their consciences to put it all down to their ‘humanity’ and their ‘underlying temperance’. In that way they can enjoy a little glow of self-righteousness instead of reproaching themselves for their failure to defend their frontiers and their heritage!

All this having been said, it is true that there is a certain humanity and temperance in Britons (and other Northern Europeans). Those things can be our strength or our weakness depending on circumstances. They are a strength when the need is for social cohension, respect for the law, polite behaviour, care for the very old and very young and other needy folk amongst us all civic virtues in times of national security and calm. On the other hand, when not carefully rationed and regulated this very same humanity and temperance can be a grave weakness in times of danger, when our national survival is under threat and we are beset by enemies who wish us ill. Prudent politics demand that we should not get carried away by slushy sentiment and dazzled by words when such things come into the equation but should know where the brake needs to be applied to them.

But this is not to say that when faced by enemies we have not usually displayed great humanity and temperance towards them. The British when victorious in war have generally taken their enemies prisoner and provided them with food, warmth and as humane conditions as circumstances have permitted a much kinder treatment than scalping them or putting them in the stewing pot. But this is the way we British are as a people. It stems from something in the race. Take away that racial ingredient, and there is no certainty that our captives would not have been subjected to much more barbaric practices.

For the future, we should endeavour to maintain the same standards of humanity in our dealings with other races, but this is very different from allowing them to walk all over us and take away our country.

Contradictory attitudes

Malcolm Bradbury, another writer, clearly wants it both ways, which might be because he wants to appeal to opposite sections of his reading public at the same time. His sense of Britishness, he said...

‘...derives from both sides in this political debate. I want, as a writer, to live in a cosmopolitan and creative nation, active in the energetic cultural life of the 21st century world.

‘But that surely means sustaining much that is distinctive about Britain: its peculiar traffic between tradition and change, elitism and democracy, the strength of its countryside and the traces of past human history. It means not letting our urgency to live in the electronic present destroy continuity with the Britain of the past.

‘Britishness for me is not being quite American, not being European. It means not over-emphasising the tradition, yet not discarding the past. Above all, it means hoping that the result of our growing energy and diversity is a society comfortable with, and optimistic about, itself.’

The amount of waffle in all this leaves one breathless, but there are a few things which call for comment. There is nothing uniquely British about the problem of reconciling tradition with the modernisation essential to national efficiency; every nation has to grapple with that, but some do it better than others. Wise statesmanship is most certainly needed here, and wise statesmanship is something which we in contemporary Britain have not got. The climate of dripping liberalism almost everywhere results in our constantly sacrificing the best of our traditions in pursuit of an efficiency which we seldom seem to achieve. It is the innate silliness of the liberal consensus which dictates that efficiency and tradition must inherently be in conflict with one another, whereas in more adult and mature cultures that is rarely so. Just what has the downgrading of Shakespeare in favour of Rasta poetry got to do with getting British industry and public services to run better?

Mr. Bradbury seems to feel that, as a writer, he needs to live in a nation that is cosmopolitan and creative, as if both those things hung essentially together. They do not. Perhaps the most culturally creative period in English history was the Elizabethan period, not one noted for being cosmopolitan. It is true, of course, that the greatest fertility of European culture has come from the influences of one highly developed national culture bearing upon another; but that is not the same thing as cosmopolitanism. Great European writers, poets, artists, musicians and architects have enriched their output through contact with the works of others of different nationality but within a framework of common race; and virtually all the great art of Europe bears the imprint of such contact. But how much has European culture been enriched by contact with that of Asia? Not a lot. And with Africa? Not at all. Nevertheless, when Mr. Bradbury spoke of cosmopolitanism he clearly meant multi-racialism, not the mere cross-fertilisation of European national cultures that has been taking place for centuries.

And what of Mr. Bradbury's reference to "the energetic cultural life of the 21st century world?" Here, it seems, he was confusing energy with deafening noise, lurid illustration, literary shock and outrage and mere architectural bigness.

But he also wanted, so he said, to sustain much that is distinctive about Britain. What does this mean in his language? Not being ‘quite American’, not being European in other words, being more American than European. Just how this tallies with British distinctiveness is not explained, but we must not be unfair to Mr. Bradbury. By this time he was running out of space.

The passage about a society being comfortable with... itself seems to come right out of the phrasebook of John Major. But is it an ideal to be aspired to? It all sounds too much to me like smugness, stagnation and contentedness with the second-rate and the inferior. A nation comfortable with itself seems to be one not disposed to strive to eliminate the rottenness within, to reach after new and expanding horizons, to excel. It all evokes the image of old age, when great ambitions have been renounced and a cosy chair by the fireside is the highest aim - not a state to be disparaged in individuals who get to that stage of life but hardly an ideal for nations which, to survive, must submit themselves to a constant process of renewal.

Light amid the fog

By far the most sensible contribution to the subject of Britishness came from Alan Massie. "I am British," he said, "because I am Scottish." And he continued:-

‘Some may see this as a paradox. It isn't. It is a fact of history. Likewise, William Hague is British because he is English. We are what we are as a consequence of centuries of history.

‘Some may resent this fact. But their resentment makes no difference...

‘My eight great-grandparents were all born, and lived all their lives, in Aberdeenshire. This reinforces my sense of Britishness because they, too, were inextricably British Scots...

‘Then I am a child of the Empire, which was always the British Empire, never the English or, indeed, Scottish Empire. At the age of 19 my father went out to be assistant manager of a rubber estate in Malaya...

‘I am British because I recognise how, over three centuries at least, Scotsmen and Englishmen have influenced each other.

‘The Romantic Movement, which in the early 19th century produced the finest flowering of English poetry since the Elizabethan Age, had its roots in Scotland.

‘The greatest moral force in Victorian England was a Dumfriesshire peasant's son, Thomas Carlyle. We have helped form each other, Scots and English; and what we have formed is British.’

Nowhere here, of course, is there mention of the dreaded word race, but one gets the feeling that it was not far from Mr. Massie's mind when he wrote the words. He is British because he belongs, ethnically, to one of the most vital and valuable components of the British Nation and ipso facto to the British ethnic Nation as a whole. At last we were getting somewhere near the core of the matter, even if Mr Massie, as a professional journalist, had to be a bit careful about his choice of words.

He spoke of the British being "a consequence of centuries of history." That is of course true, though it is not the whole truth. The American people are the consequence of their (fewer) centuries of history, and in their case that is nearly the whole truth. But in the case of us British the historical process happened to jell with ethnic homogeneity and compatibility - and was in fact primarily a consequence of those things. This makes our identity all the stronger, if only we rediscover the will to assert it.

Definitions absurd

So, out of six definitions published by a national newspaper of what Britishness means we have just one which makes a bit of sense, and out of the other five we get two provided by people who by no stretch of imagination are British. O tempora, O mores!

All of this just illustrates the world of fantasy in which the media dwell, but to some extent even the media are the victims of concepts of Britain which would seem absurd even to Continentals, most of whom know the meaning of nationality quite clearly.

Go to most parts of Europe and you will find refreshingly commonsense and down to earth definitions of what a nation is: it is, according to such definitions, a community of people distinguished by an ethnic identity, that is to say people belonging to a particular biological type, recognisable by physical characteristics, mentality, language, culture and norms of behaviour. Of these things, the last three can be acquired through environmental influences - but only within the boundaries imposed by the first two. These are truths that can, and should, be accepted whatever one's political views about the race issue may be. In former Yugoslavia, for instance, it is well understood that a Albanian Kosovan does not become a Serb merely by living in Serbia and learning the Serbo-Croat tongue. These two nationalities are also distinct races. It is not considered beyond the realms of polite conversation to state the fact.

Even in Britain we were not always so daft about this matter. My main dictionary is Chambers's Twentieth Century, published in 1934 but not much changed since the first edition of it appeared in 1896. There nation is described as what it is: "a body of people born of the same stock", and later: ‘a race.’

By this definition, Britons can be Scots - as is Alan Massie, English - as is William Hague, or Anglo-Irish with a bit of Scots as I am. They can be these things because the stocks in question are close enough to be considered as of the same racial family. They cannot, remotely, be Sri Lankans, Indians, Jamaicans or people of any other stock hundreds of centuries removed, in anthropological and evolutionary terms, from the peoples of Europe. This is not to ‘hate’ them. It is not to suggest ill-treating them. It is only to recognise difference.

We therefore return to the definition of Britishness which I ventured in these columns two months ago: We British are the indigenous peoples of the British Isles. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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