Brown’s national roadshow about Britishness was a flop – an expensive and ill-conceived project, initiated by a Fabian Society speech, which received an unenthusiastic answer from the population. The result didn’t reveal a new form of patriotism or, on the contrary, demonstrate any strong independent feeling. Britishness remains unmoved and unrevealed – it is a great big blank. What does Britishness mean? What has a Scot, a Welshman, an Englishman or an Irishman in common, apart from the jokes, which is independent of their own national attachment? If we asked a Gurkha about Britishness would we have a better answer?
Brown’s efforts failed and Britishness still has no definition. I would contend that it is dangerous not to have an answer. If British people have no definition and don’t exist, why do they need a democracy? And without a democracy, Britons shall be slaves. For this reason a definition must be found for Britishness.
The origin of this flop can surely be found in the theorical basis for this debate. Lord Acton’s article ‘Nationality’ in The History of Freedom and Other Essays says the nation is a modern artefact, embodied in an administrative state. Is Nation just an artificial bureaucracy, exalted by some glorious anthem? No god-given or natural legitimacy, just an invented political system?
Linda Colley in Britons: Forging the Nation identified the emergence of Britain in 1707 with the Act of Union, based on the Protestant faith. In 1999 she and her vision were popularised in a series of Millennium Lectures on “Britishness in the 21st Century” hosted by Tony and Cherie Blair. And what were they really saying? That our nation is “new”, as well as being artificial existing only after 1707?
With this liberal point of view, it is no surprise that there is a British lack of interest in Britishness. A nation with no deep-rooted heritage and an à la carte administration could never inspire people. People can’t recognise themselves in this dry construction. Laws, democracy, culture and freedom become consumer goods. With this bureaucratic view of nation, Britons could just as well be bobbing up and down to the Birdie Song from the Tweets rather than “Land of Hope and Glory” during the last night of the proms.
To understand what Britishness is, we have to admit that the English language has a word missing from its vocabulary. The Greek word patris (from which patriot or patriotism is derived) can only be translated inadequately as fatherland. If the word nation, coming from the Latin natio, means the place, tribe, or country where you were born, patris means not just the place but also the law, the culture or the religion to which you are loyal: the charter of the land. In this sense during the American War of Independence a Virginian could qualify as an American patriot or, as a good Spartan, Leonidas was also a Greek patriot.
This is an important distinction – Britain is our patris and English, Scottish or Welsh our nationality. This could, by the way, end the debate about the sovereignty of one nation over another and help us to rediscover a certain logic about devolution, where the patris could bring about the democratic process of the national parliaments.
Surely Britain as a patris existed before the Act of Union? If not, why hasn’t the Yorkshireman claimed independence in the name Vikingness? How do we explain that the Welshman Harry Tudor become Henry VII and James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain? The family of William Wallace, the famous Scottish patriot, came from Wales and Shropshire.
Just these few examples demonstrate that a certain sense of Britishness already existed. It would be wrong to see a pre-1707 Britain as a dismembered island. The British are defined as inhabitants of the isles of that ilk. Exchanges of culture, finances, the sharing of the same religion and mixed marriages rendered Britishness a reality, just as in America our Virginian can be married to a girl from Connecticut and in ancient Greece our Spartan might worship the same gods as a Theban in the same language.
In the 18th century politics and art were bound to copy Nature: it is by this attachment to and observation of Nature that law and jurisdiction could be defined. If Britain and the British peoples didn’t exist before 1707, it is absurd to proclaim them abstractly as real. The Act of Union was certainly the desire to give a form to an already existing sense of Britishness, and not to create an abstract concept.
To claim that Britain in 1707 was founded on Protestant values is also debatable. The question at John Locke’s time wasn’t to unify the north and south of the island in an anti-Catholic nationalist feeling, but to unite the Anglican Church with non-conformist religions in loyalty to the State, thereby preventing civil unrest, as had been seen in the Civil War.
Excluding Catholicism from succession and from civil life was a way of preventing a return to political absolutism. It wasn’t Protestantism that characterised this time, but the establishing of laws in order to live peaceably in freedom. The myth of the Protestant nation really falls down with the Gordon riots in 1777 – why would a Protestant nation fire against Protestant rioters? Parliament at that time was wondrously pragmatic.
If the liberals, and Brown, believe Britishness and Britons are an abstract idea, how can they possibly hope to give them a true democracy rather than a false plebiscite? Even the eminent historian David Starkey has said that is impossible to teach Britishness because the “British nation doesn’t exist” (Can pupils learn Britishness? BBC news October 12 2007). If this is true, one could equally ask can we learn truth, justice, or freedom? If not, we should despair of our world.
The Brown patriotic project failed and the problem wasn’t a question of money. It is a symptom of the regression of our politicians’ democratic and patriotic sense of the Nation/patris. Here is the danger for the future. This liberal illusion of an abstract nation wants to erase the inherent patriotic loyalty and put in its place a new one, but no one has proved that the new manufactured one would work better than the old one.
What Britishness means today may still be what it has always been: ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’. Britishness added to national identity has succeeded in preserving Freedom in the name of the Justice and Truth. It is at the same time a national creed shared by the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English and also a universal truth. “I am Free” is what was the British have said throughout their history. I am free – you can’t invade me: I am free – you can’t condemned me without an impartial judgement, the Habeas Corpus: I am free – you can’t impose your religion or culture: I am free – we are sovereign people: I am free – I shall never, never be a slave: I am free – we shall never surrender. From Boudicca, via Braveheart and Mr Humphries, to the Who’s song, this sentiment is deeply ingrained in every British individual of these isles.
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