A quick point that occurred to me during the course of a discussion the other day about the goverment’s — and, it seems, everyone else’s — interest in Britishness. I don’t think there’s any such thing, in that you can’t say, ‘That’s British and that isn’t’ as you could, for example, say ‘That’s a sentence in English and that’s a sentence in French’ or even ‘That’s a grammatical (or idiomatic) English sentence and that isn’t.’ Britishness is what someone who is British does; if you’ve got a British passport then, by definition, you’re British. That carries with it various legal obligations, and some would say moral ones, but other than that, it’s up to you.
Somone objected that I was being wholly legalistic about this, but I don’t think so. The analogy that occurs to me, and which I may explore later but upon which I would very much welcome comments now, should anyone want to make them, is with being married. It’s a great deal more than a legal relationship, obviously, and one that’s different in various ways for all married couples. But the only irreducible part of it is that the government regards you as being married.
That’s emphatically not saying, ‘Marriage is just a bit of paper’ (a foolish saying; you rarely hear people saying £20 notes are ‘just bits of paper’) but it is, I think, saying that the formal rules about who’s married and who isn’t, and the legal rights and responsibilities that follow from this, are the only bits the state should try to decide.