The Battle for Britishness

Alexandra Runswick
11 September 2008

Alexandra Runswick (Unlock Democracy): The USA has life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. France has liberty, equality and fraternity. What is the equivalent British set of values? Does it matter if we don’t know? Is it somehow un-British to even ask? These were just some of the issues raised in the RSA  and Heritage Lottery Fund lecture Britishness – a values based approach is not enough.

The proposed Statement of British Values has been one of the more hotly debated aspects of the Governance of Britain agenda. While there is growing consensus about the need for a Bill of Rights, response to the BSV project as it is apparently known, has been lukewarm at best. Much of the debate has focused on the government’s decision to use a deliberative process, a Citizens' Summit, rather than what values might make it into the statement.

Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund was the keynote speaker. She made a passionate case for culture, including heritage, being the core element of national identity.  In particular she argued that while values are fixed, culture is porous and constantly evolves.  Values, particularly those based on civic norms could become a test that it would be possible to fail while culture is a dialogue that allows people to both receive the established culture and give elements of their own.  At a most basic level this is reflected in the fact of Chicken Tikka Massala being the national dish but Liz Forgan was also exploring how this can be used to resolve entrenched conflicts between communities and create a shared sense of belonging.

For those of you interested in random factoids it turns out that rather than being quintessentially British, horse chestnut trees are in fact Eastern European and Cumberland pigs, used to make Cumberland sausages, are actually Polynesian. Yet it could be argued that the very fact that they are not exclusively or originally British and yet have been absorbed into a concept of national identity does indeed make them particularly British.  Certainly that is what I think Bonnie Greer was highlighting when she talked about the subtlety and fluidity of Britishness.

Michael Wills was left to defend the government's decision to start the debate on Britishness. It's hard not to feel that he is being attacked from all sides - by those who don't think he should have started the debate, those who think that Britishness is the wrong starting point and those that think the citizens summit is not going far enough.

He argued strongly that there have always been debates about national identity and that the debate would be taking place now without the government but that it would be hijacked by 'poisonous influences'.  He also pointed out that it is up to the Citizens Summit whether there will even be a statement of values and that the government is entirely open minded about this.

In response to Liz Forgan's call for culture rather than values Michael Wills argued that "our heritage, our past is noise until someone makes an act of selection" and that values, rather than being a loyalty test were the criteria by which we could make that selection.

The Lecture was fascinating and it was intriguing hearing the conversations as people left the theatre. There were all kinds of debates about whether people felt more British or English/Scottish/Welsh and what influenced those identities. It certainly made me explore what Britishness means to me - a strange combination of amongst other things, geography, Jane Austen and the Suffragettes. But that is profoundly personal definition - it would certainly not be the way my brother would define his Britishness.  It seems to me the personal debate about who we are has been conflated with the public debate about what values we as a society should aspire to and to which the state should be held accountable.  The debate about culture is vital and exciting but also never-ending and not one I'm sure government should be involved in.

If there is to be a Statement of Values it should be a collective expression of the values we aspire to and think are important - a contract with government about the society we want to create,  rather than interminable introspection about personal identity.

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