Not Saussure

January 21, 2007

Britishness — an analogy?

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 7:52 pm

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.



  1. I tend to agree with you. Living abroad, I realise that “Britishness” is much less definable than being an Italian, for instance, yet I would guess that most of us Brits know exactly what we mean by it: for me, it means being tolerant and leaving people alone when appropriate and that’s what they want. I don’t think other nations understand “backing off” as well as the British do. But of course, sometimes we are pushed to the limits of our endurance – just as one might be in a marriage; your analogy is a good one.

    Comment by Welshcakes Limoncello — January 21, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  2. One day I’ll write down what I consider non-British characteristics. When I get bored, the white space in the middle will be ‘Britishness’, unsullied and undefined, as Nature intended.

    Comment by Tom — January 21, 2007 @ 10:55 pm

  3. hmm… I have had this ‘Britishness’ discussion so many times. I am not British, I am English.

    Still, ask me what being English means, and right now, all I can say is ‘crumpets’!

    So ner!


    Comment by queenminx — January 22, 2007 @ 7:31 pm

  4. Tony, Gordon and John would beg to differ with you. In their eyes, nothing less than the complete reorganization and regulation of society is on the agenda.

    Comment by james higham — January 22, 2007 @ 7:58 pm

  5. Why should the state have anything to do with marriage? It is a private contract between two or more people of whatever sex (or none) and other than upholding contract law, the state has no business in what an individual does by way of free association.

    Comment by Ian Grey — January 22, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  6. (By the way, the last post had mock hypertext in but it got treated as real hypertext and ignored, namely:-

    [Chris Tame Mode]


    [/Chris Tame Mode]

    It’s a libertarian thing…)

    Comment by Ian Grey — January 22, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  7. For the benefit of those who — like me, I fear — were unsure who Chris Tame is or was, here’s a link to his obituary.

    In answer to the question, no particular reason why the state should have anything to do with marriage, but the fact is that it does recognise some forms of marriage as legally valid (e.g. for the purposes of inheritance tax and immigration status) and not others. 

    Comment by notsaussure — January 22, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  8. James: Tony, Gordon and John … weren’t they The Goodies??


    Comment by queenminx — January 22, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  9. I would tend to agree with your initial position, that Britishness covers everything and anything that British people might do, and is therefore an empty term.

    The difficulty comes when people start trying to constrain national identity, or indeed the institution of marriage, for political ends: it means ‘x’ not ‘y’, even if ‘y’ is culturally sanctioned. Same-sex marriage, anyone? (Oh, you’re all spoken for. Oh, well.)

    This comes uncomfortably close to the difference between nations and ethno-cultural groups. At risk of coming over all academic, Anthony D Smith would argue that the very properties that cause a given group of people to identify as such a group impose quite severe limits on what politicians can plausibly get away with in the name of that group, while Paul Brass would claim that such identities are almost infinitely malleable. But they only become nations when such claims are made ostensibly on their behalf.

    I’m not sure how that spread of opinion helps us move the debate forward, except to tell us to beware of politicians wrapping themselves in the flag. Hardly a startling observation, and hopefully not a necessary one.

    Meanwhile, Gracchi is hosting a discussion on what, if anything, it means politically to be black in America, which approaches similar questions from a different angle.

    Comment by Ian — January 23, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

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