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The social aspects of "Britishness"

Stuart Weir
1 June 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): In his speech to the Constitution Unit's Devolution Conference last week, "The Purpose of the Union", Professor Robert Hazell argued that Britishness should not be defended in terms of values, but in terms of "interests and institutions". It is interesting to look at Robert Hazell's list of institutions that symbolise Britishness. I rather wonder who for. Here is the list:

  • Westminster Parliament
  • The Monarchy 
  • Supreme Court, judiciary, common law
  • BBC, British Council
  • Civil service, armed forces, National Health Service
    And in civil society 
  • The Church of England, of Scotland and in Wales, and other churches and faith
    groups 
  • Voluntary organisations, from national welfare bodies like Age Concern and the
    NSPCC, to specialist bodies like Amnesty or Oxfam.

I served on the Commission on the NHS in 2000 with Will Hutton, Allyson Pollock, Conor Gearty and others and we actually asked people in a poll to choose "the most valuable instutions for this country", admittedly from our own list of seven. The NHS, which comes at the tail end of Robert's list, was overwhelmingly the most popular choice, with nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of those polled: Parliament followed on with 12 per cent, then the police (11 per cent), the BBC (4 per cent), the Royal Family (3 per cent) and the Benefits Agency (2 per cent). The police received the most second preferences (44 per cent), followed by the NHS (17 per cent) and Parliament (14 per cent). In the same poll we found strong support for economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. I mention this because the government and commentators tend to ignore the social aspect of people's sense of "Britishness", belonging and democracy.

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