Pretty widespread condemnation for the plan by Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to celebrate a Britishness Day, ranging from some excellent suggestions at both The Virtual Stoa and Blood and Treasure as to how, perzactly, we might celebrate it (the latter has a most useful link to The London Riot Re-enactment Society) to a really rather good leader in the Telegraph, including the observations
Being British means not worrying too much about what it means to be British.
We may fly flags and sing Rule Britannia enthusiastically at the Last Night of the Proms, but it’s not like us really.We might quite like the idea of a national day, but we would hate to be told what to with it.
And, as if to demonstrate the idea’s a complete non-starter, David Cameron promptly decided not only that he agreed with Ms Kelly and Mr Byrne but told us we:
should take a leaf out of America’s book when it came to teaching citizens “what it means to be American”.
One of my infallible rules of political analysis, other than that when both main parties agree on something, it’s time to worry, is that recommending an idea on the grounds ‘it’s what the Americans do’ is about as pointless as recommending something because the French do it. It might conceivably a good idea, but most Brits would, I think, instinctively feel it’ll be a good idea even though, rather than because, the French and the Americans do it.
In this case, there are good historical reasons for distrusting American and French examples. Both countries have had, in the past, to sit down and define themselves, the USA when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the French when, having done away with the French Monarchy, had completely to redefine what — other than speaking French — all citizens of the new Republic were supposed to have in common.
We’ve — fortunately, to my mind — never had that experience or necessity. Being British is, and always has been, ultimately a legal concept — you’re one of HM’s subjects, and that’s about it. Certainly there are various values that, at least at present, we hold to be important — liberal democracy, tolerance, freedom, the rule of law and so forth — but they’re hardly uniquely British; the Dutch or the Czechs would doubtless sign up to them, too. If people really want a liberal capitalist democracy day, then fair enough, but call it by its proper name.
Nationalism, it should be remembered, is an historical political movement which has never really got very far in Britain, for good historical reasons. It sprung from German romanticism and became very popular, and understandably so, both with people who were trying to liberate themselves from larger empires and with people who were trying to unify smaller polities into a larger whole. Yes, if you were a C19th subject of the Hapsburg Empire who spoke Hungarian (at least to the servants) and didn’t like being ruled from Vienna you quite possibly wanted to insist on a separate Hungarian identity, just as various Irishmen didn’t like the idea of being West Britons. Similarly, Italian and German nationalists of the C19th wanted to insist on a larger German or Italian identity that would unify all the little statelets and principalities.
But in Britain, we’ve never really had that experience; England essentially took over these islands and then we set about creating an overseas empire. I can see the point of being a Scots, Welsh or Irish nationalist; I can just about see the point of being an English nationalist, though I think it’s a pretty self-defeating idea, but trying to combine nationalism with Britishness — a supranational concept — is both ahistorical and utterly illogical. We don’t have a National Day in the way that the French or the Americans do for much the same reason we don’t have a President, do drive on the left and don’t speak French or get particularly fussed about abortion and gun control; our history is not that of either France or the USA.
Ruth Kelly, in her whitterings on The Today Programme about this said something suitably vague about
“The point of it would be to celebrate the contribution that we all make to society,
Well, what is that supposed to mean? Parades in honour of taxpayers? Somehow I don’t think so. Well, we know roughly what she meant, because she was praising voluntary organisations, but even that misses the point. Most people make a small but very important contribution to a small part of society just by being decent people. My late mother was able to spend her final years — particularly the last year, after she lost her sight — with independence and dignity not just because of the help various voluntary organisations gave her but because of the informal support network provided by her friends and neighbours. OK, that’s just one old lady they were helping, but it was extremely important to her. That, to my mind, is one of the important things that makes communities.