Monday, January 21, 2008

Rue Britannia (2006)

Writing about the Righty/Lefty debate prompted me to search through my hard drives for an article I wrote on stereotyping. It wasn't quite how I remembered it but it still seemed right to include it here as it presses home the point that identity isn't about colour or race or handedness; it's about how you feel and relate to others ...

What has happened to the British sense of national pride?

If there had been such a total loss in any other country, there would have been an outcry from royalty and parliament. What happened here? The people who govern us have just ignored the issue. They have even, to some extent, relinquished the Union Flag to the racists. Things got so bad that in the early 1990s, there were even stories in the newspapers of people being threatened with prosecution for ‘inciting racial hatred’ if they flew the Union Flag or painted it on their car. Incredible. I didn’t see the Queen being threatened in the same way by her local council. A great people feel saddened. Many feel angry. A merciful few feel sufficiently angry and dispossessed that they've turn their anger into militant or racist action.

Admittedly, since the United Kingdom stopped being quite so united, the Union Flag has been supplanted by the flag of St George in England. Red crosses far outweigh the red, white and blue. But even that hasn’t helped the English to celebrate their heritage. Scotland, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Wales and even Cornwall have always celebrated their national days. But England? Not a sausage. St George is suspiciously silent.

But parochial pride aside, few Scots or Manx would celebrate their Britishness any more. There seems to be an overall sense of shame in being British. Since the dismantling of the Empire, we’ve spent a hundred years apologising. Apologising for imperialism. Apologising for claiming other people’s lands and countries. Apologising for slavery. Hell, we even apologise when we want you to pass the salt or if we bump into you. But people change. Slavery is abhorrent and it makes me shudder that British people committed such horrendous cruelty to their fellow man. But that’s because I’m seeing it through 21st century eyes. It’s a sad fact of history but many white people didn’t see black Africans as ‘fellow men’ but merely as clever beasts. These are the same people who attended cock fights and bull runnings and dog fights. But I’ve never been involved in such things. And no living Briton was involved in the slave trade (next year marks the 200th anniversary of abolition). We have all moved on. So why are we still so apologetic? It was a terrible, cruel part of our history. But I wasn’t responsible. And nor were you. I don’t see the same apologetic angst among the Dutch. Or the Germans. Or the French. Or those black Africans who supplied the slave traders with their ‘stock’. All of them were heavily involved in the slave trade. But they’ve accepted it, made reparations and apologies and moved on. They still have national pride because they focus on present achievements and future goals. We just seem to wallow in past mistakes.

Or maybe we don’t celebrate Britishness because there’s no such thing? There was a programme on Channel 4 tonight called 100% English? in which several people who consider themselves to be quintessentially English were DNA tested to check their racial background. Unsurprisingly, their results showed that they were all – every man and women – descended from a mixed bag of ancestors that included Romani gypsies and people from the Arab states, South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. One lady, who'd formed a society for the ‘protection’ of the Anglo-Saxon as a racial group, was so incensed by the result that she’s apparently launched a legal challenge against the programme. Is it any wonder that politicians are scared to let the English celebrate their Englishness? Every time the question comes up, out come a significant minority of rabidly militant nationalists who equate Englishness with superiority over other people and so-called racial purity. One man said that footballer Ian Wright could ‘never be English’ because he’s black. Since when has being black stopped anyone from being American? Or French? We don’t think twice about the nationalities of people like Tiger Woods or Thierry Henry. I'm not sure if this is purely an English phenomenon. Had the same programme run in Scotland, I'm pretty sure that the participants would have been pretty mellow about the results. Why? Because the Scots are secure in who they are. They're happy with who they are and they're allowed to love Scotland. If the same were true in England then maybe feelings wouldn't run quite so high.

Part of this insecurity may rest with the fact that no one can be really sure what 'English' actually means. Most of the things that the racist louts proudly hold up as examples of Englishness invariably aren’t. There’s an on-line study running at the moment by a group called Icons. They’re collating information on what it means to be British and they’re asking people to visit the site and nominate a place, person or thing that defines Britishness [1]. Here are a few of the nominations so far:

The Tower of London
A Cup of Tea
Hadrian's Wall
Holbein's Henry VIII
The Sunday Roast
The Mini (skirt)
The Mini (car)
The Pound
The Pub
Punch and Judy
The Routemaster Bus
The Spitfire

All quintessentially British … or are they?

Depending on which theory you subscribe to, Cricket was invented by the Normans (French) or the Indians of the Punjab. The Tower of London was built by the French when they were in charge to show the English who’s boss [2]. Tea was brought to the UK from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and is drunk from cups made from a substance first invented in China. Hadrian was Italian (or possibly Spanish), and Holbein was German. The Sunday roast was invented by the Romans and most of the ingredients are not native to the UK; potatoes from America, chicken from Africa, sprouts from Belgium … need I go on?

Even that most British of institutions – the Pound – is a foreign import. It’s Italian in origin, coming to us with the Romans. Until they introduced us to a currency, most British trade was done by barter. The Roman Librum (Weight) from which we get the star sign Libra – the Scales – was a specific weight of metal used for the smelting of coins. That’s why a stylised letter 'L' is used for a Pound sign (£) and the symbol for a pound in weight is 'lb'. The term ‘Pound’ comes from the Saxon word for weight – Pundus. The term ‘Quid’ may come from the Latin phrase quid pro quo which means ‘trading like for like in value’. Or it may be from the Gaelic Irish mo chuid which means ‘my money’. And just to rub salt into the wound, the Pound was the original Euro as it was legal tender across the whole of the Roman Empire from Europe to the Mediterranean to North Africa.

All of which reinforces the points that we are what the comedian Eddie Izzard calls ‘a mongrel nation’; the distillation of millions of invaders and immigrants. We have absorbed (or stolen) the best from the rest of the world and made it our own. This has suggested to some scholars that we suffer from a crisis of identity and that’s why we have difficulty is celebrating our Englishness. But why? America is exactly the same. So is Canada. And Australia. All countries colonised by ‘foreigners’. But they all have national pride.

Where is ours?

We should celebrate the diversity of our culture. We should cheer and shout that we live in one of the most enlightened and tolerant societies on the planet. We should all feel proud to be British - whether we are from a Scottish, Bangladeshi, Welsh, Croatian, Geordie or Manx lineage. Let the English be proud to be English. Let all of us who inhabit these islands be proud to be British.

And we should also be damned proud to be mongrels from good mongrel stock. The pedigree dog is the in-bred moron with bad hips and lower life-expectancy who sits in the corner gnawing its own leg off. The mongrel is the cheeky little whipper-snapper who steals the sausages from the butcher's shop and runs away.

To Hell with so-called racial purity. I know who I’d rather be.


Note: For the purposes of this essay, English means non-Scots, Welsh, Irish, Manx or Cornish. British means any resident of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.


[2] The French were in charge for several hundred years after the Battle of Hastings (1066 … just in case …) and it’s worth noting that many of the words we still use to describe the higher or posher functions of British society are entirely French: Government. Parliament. Minister. Banquet. Court Martial. Etiquette. Try saying them with a French accent. It wasn't until the 14th Century that English became dominant in Britain again. In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose first language was English.

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