The Great British weekend (except in Scotland)

Tom Griffin
5 June 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon):
"Britishness quite simply is one of the most important associations that we have," Immigration Minister Liam Byrne told a Progress meeting at the House of Commons last night.

"It is a code shaped by history that defines so much about who we are and how we look at the world. There's a historian Vron Ware who puts it like this. She said, 'I think British is easier than English. It's clearly a bit more plural, as it includes the Celtic fringe, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It seems to accommodate the regional difference.'"

That assumption was being tested yesterday by the SNP's challenge to Byrne's proposal for a British National Day on the August Bank Holiday, which is on a different day in Scotland. More surprisingly, if the usually well-informed Benedict Brogan is to be believed, the idea didn't endear the Minister to Gordon Brown either.

Nevertheless he insisted,"I myself have become convinced that that final weekend in August, what is in parts of the UK a Bank Holiday already, could become the Great British weekend."

It's a debate that Ruth Kelly and I explored last May, and since then I've asked people all over Britain what they thought about the idea of a national day. I'll be candid in some places there was a rejection of this idea, a sense of fatality, a sense that it was all too late, that celebrating Britishness was too hard, and elsewhere there was a traditional British scepticism towards anything that looked like it was sponsored by the authorities. In other places there was concern, frankly about who was going to pick up the bill, but in the groups that I listened to the majority was in a different place. I think a clear majority of people do support the idea of a national day.

Byrne noted in passing that "a defence of the union will be absolutely central in politics", but his argument was largely framed in terms of a contribution to the debate about immigration.

In response to questions from the audience he defended the Crewe by-election campaign claims that "only Labour wants ID cards for foreigners'.

To get tougher on employers who break the rules, we do have to make it easier to know whether someone is here legally or illegaly. Now all people who come here have some form of documentation. The difficulty is there are seventy different types and actually that is a nonsense. We do have to introduce a much simpler system, which is why we're introducing compulsory ID cards.

That's the point we were making in Crewe. We wanted to underline however, that the Tories actually claimed that they supported this policy, and then during the Tory Party conference last year they cancelled their support in the fine print of a press release put out by David Davis. They are, as David Cameron, keeps on saying, treating the British people like fools.

ID cards, it seems, are easier to impose on foreigners than on British citizens. Paradoxically, the same may prove true of Labour's vision of Britishness.

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