Lost – Anyone Seen Britain?

Book Launch Event 8 July 2016

WHY BRITS ARE GOING BANANAS OVER BREXIT                           

Just what it means to be British these days is actually quite hard to pin down. The old stereotypes of us as warm-beer swigging, tea drinking people who are reserved, saying “sorry” all the time, is superficial. And more than that, it’s not even true today. A few years ago, an eminent panel was asked to come up with an official handbook for aspiring British citizens. Tasked with the question of what does being British mean, the main conclusion of the experts was that living in the country was the definition of Britishness – which seemed ridiculous.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
I know it sounds old hat but we still haven’t gotten over The Empire. When the British Empire dissolved, it left us unsure of who we were. And we still haven’t got used to being just a country, because for centuries we had been an empire. In the Empire days, the very different races of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish were brought together in a new identity: being British. So an unexpected positive benefit of Empire is that for a long time now, being British has not been based on race, blood, ideology or religion. Instead, being British is based on liberal values and institutions like the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, free speech and individual liberty. This means people can chose to be British if they are born here or live here. So our being indefinite about who we are can be a good thing and is actually a British quality.

Bananas-low resGOING BANANAS OVER BREXIT
BUT – there’s also a big downside to this sense of indefiniteness as to our identity as Britons. After the Empire, we were left adrift with a big dose of feeling in decline and unsure, which still remains. This is not so conscious but affects how we approach the EU referendum. We seem to be going bananas over the Brexit question and we’re not rational about it. All the arguments about the economics of it seem like rationales. The real reasons are deeper and not very conscious, having more to do with being unsure of our identity. We’re afraid of losing our sovereignty. The Brexit question brings up a visceral sense that our barely surviving nationality is under threat and must be protected. Raise the drawbridge and let’s trade independently with the rest of the world instead. This view is sincerely felt but is irrational, since the UK is actually the 5th biggest economy in the world, and not in any danger of disappearing.

CLOWNS TO THE LEFT AND JOKERS TO THE RIGHT
Both right and left have their own version. Traditional Tories are often passionately for Brexit. These are often people who do care about Britain and our heritage in their own way. But generally, being in support of Britain is equated as independence from the EU and Europe.

Then on the left, there’s a peculiar lack of passion about Britain and the EU. Labour seem surprisingly wishy-washy about staying in the EU, although on paper, the vast majority are in favour. Where’s the passionate internationalism you might expect from the socialist movement? Yet, post-Empire, the left is uncomfortable about asserting positive national identity of any kind. Or supporting anything with even the possibility of a whiff of pride in Britain; to them it might so easily smack of Britain’s past colonialism.

We still haven’t gotten over The Empire nor integrated that whole period into a healthy national psyche: one where we can feel reasonably self assured as Britons and not feel threatened by the EU or Europe. Really, it’s ok. Britain’s doing pretty well generally, all things considered.

Come and meet Chris and get a signed copy of his book “Being British: Our Once and Future Selves” on 8/7/2016

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Book Launch Event – Friday 8th July 6pm-8pm

cropped-book-cover.jpgJoin Chris Parish for the launch of his seminal book “Being British: Our Once & Future Selves” a fascinating journey into modern British culture and identity:

 

EVENT DETAILS
DATE/TIME: Friday 8th July 2016 from 6pm to 8pm

VENUE: Waterstones, 51 Greenwich Church Street, London, SE10 9BL;
(Nearest Stations: Cutty Sark DLR or Greenwich BR).

Over drinks and canapés, Chris will be signing books and answering the questions “Who are we?” and “What does it mean to be British in post EU Referendum Britain?

To attend the event:
Please RSVP to chrisparishwriter@gmail.com detailing names and email addresses of all attendees in your party.

Click here to buy the book

 

E: chrisparishwriter@gmail.com
W: www.chrisparishwriter@gmail.com
Blog: https://beingbritishbook.com/

British Identity

 

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“I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.”

So said Sadiq Khan, the newly elected London mayor, in a recent interview with the New York Times. His victory generated great interest and comment around the globe, and mainly for the fact that one of the greatest Western capital cities had elected a Muslim as its mayor by overwhelming popular vote. Flying in the face of the widespread fear and divisiveness swirling around the whole subject of Muslims in the West, the result stands as a powerful symbol of unity amidst difference; a testament to the sanity of the general electorate in not being swayed by prejudice.

It made me feel proud to be a Londoner, and also I was reflecting on Sadiq Khan’s quote: how it expresses ease at holding multiple identities, and the sense of healthy belonging that goes along with that. It’s healthy to hold a nested hierarchy of identities like a Russian doll: you can be a Sikh, a Liverpudlian, a Briton, a European and a global human being, for example, with no inherent conflict.

I live in a bastion of Britishness, a borough where one of the highest proportions of all its residents identify with what they consider their country – Britain. I also very much consider myself British and am very happy to think of this as my primary national identity; so I guess I live in the right place. Where is this stronghold of Britishness in our Sceptered Isle? Well, what might come to mind could be somewhere like Tunbridge Wells or a small village in comfortable Hampshire or Dorset, or any location where the Daily Mail or Express dominates the dailies. But Royal Tunbridge Wells residents are far less than half as likely to identify themselves as British than in my home borough. It’s the London East End borough of Tower Hamlets, which doesn’t have a ‘Royal’ epithet either.

Data from the most recent national census of 2011 shows very clearly that all the boroughs in the country with the highest number of respondents picking British as their primary identity are London ones. And it pretty much correlates with the much greater ethnic diversity of these boroughs. It’s repeated outside London too, where the ‘most British’ places are Slough, Leicester, Luton and Birmingham – all places with high levels of ethnic diversity. Elsewhere in England, much greater percentages of the population picked being English as their primary identity: in Tunbridge Wells, 63% picked English in contrast to Tower Hamlets’ 25%. Interesting, isn’t it?

My wife was canvassing in Tower Hamlets for the recent London Mayoral election. She told me something interesting in how she had door knocked several flats where the Bengali woman of the house couldn’t speak English. Their children translated and the ladies turned out to be well informed about the election and planning to vote Labour. But what was particularly interesting to me was how they were unanimously against Britain remaining in the EU; this was because they didn’t want foreigners in Brussels telling us British what to do. Although they didn’t speak English, they clearly had a very strong sense of Britishness and of belonging.

Yet  we have the interesting situation where long established or native Britons – indigenous Britons even? – I can’t find the right word for the older white British stock – are not as sure as more recent immigrants of their own sense of Britishness.

At roughly the same time as Sadiq Khan’s interview with the New York Times, I read an interview in the Times (of London) with the ex-minister of finance for Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, . Yanis Varouvakis is always insightful and brilliant and he has a very good understanding of the British, having lived for many years here at one point in his life.He volunteered in the interview that:

‘The British seem to be ill at ease with their Britishness. It’s always confused me. The Germans are not ill at ease with their Germanness, or the Greeks with their Greekness. But the Brits are constantly itching. They are always at war with their own nature. I find this adorable But, at the same time, puzzling.’

Now Yanis’ statement doesn’t surprise me at all, having spent a long time studying our peculiar country. In my experience, immigrants do tend to be more at ease with their Britishness than native Britons. Why that might be so, is a whole other subject and one which I’ve attempted to explore in my book, Being British: Our Once & Future Selves.

 

Advance copy of book

Me with advance copy of my new book. It will be released at the end of June and I will have a book launch in London around then – details to follow soon. Happy to finally complete this project!

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British Grand Narratives (and not such grand ones too)

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What’s our story? Do we even have one as a country, and anyway, does it matter? As one attempt at an answer to these questions, I had the interesting experience recently of visiting the imperial splendour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall (the FCO is tactfully able to retain its abbreviation with the ‘C’ now standing for Commonwealth rather than Colonial). The occasion was a conference on the notion of British ‘decline’ and questioning this as a national historical narrative. Jointly organised by Queen Mary University, the Mile End Institute and the FCO, the conference examined the notion of ‘decline’ which is so commonplace in British historiography since 1945 that it seems questionable whether historians can even talk about Britain in this period without producing a narrative of ‘decline’.

Decline is a concept that has been the post-war lens for examining a variety of aspects of British life, including decolonisation, diminishing world influence, gradual erosion of manufacturing and exports, and a stagnating domestic economy plagued by industrial dispute and heavy debt. Sounds sort of familiar to many of us Britons growing up in the second half of the 20th C, doesn’t it?

Key speaker at the conference, Prof David Reynolds, examined several British grand narratives – and as he put it, some not so grand ones. Of course, number one was ‘decline’, followed by Europeanisation, and then multiculturalism. They all have their problems for becoming an attractive narrative. Britain is always the ‘awkward’ European and ambivalent about our relationship to the main continent, so it’s hard for Europeanisation to become our grand narrative in the way it has for France and Germany. And ‘multiculturalism’ can seem an attractive new narrative for Britain, but in order for this to work, we would first need to come to terms with with our Empire history; and we’ve hardly begun to do that.

Decline is still the way the British story is usually written and thought about. Yet it is not just a simple story of the rise and then subsequent decline of The Empire and of Britain. Yes, the vast Empire is gone (thankfully), but what is less well known is that from about the second half of the 19th C onwards, The Empire was more of a financial burden to Britain than an asset. Policing the seven seas to protect The Empire cost more than it gave back in return.

Now, far from having sunk into oblivion, Britain is actually the 5th largest economy in the world. London is one of the top financial cities in the world with huge reach. Britain also has great global influence in the creative industries these days, rather than in the old manufacturing sector. And despite our continuing inequality, Britain has really rebounded pretty well since the devastation and bankruptcy of the country following WWII.

What seemed to really cement the post WWII and post Empire notions of decline as our narrative, was the decade of the 1970s. Stories from the 70s of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, our being ‘the sick man of Europe’, the 3 day week, rubbish rotting on the streets, bodies lying unburied during a gravediggers’ strike, all somehow crystallised a British myth of decline that has never left us. A poignant quote from historian Dominic Sandbrook writing about the 70s, and the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan is worth pondering for a moment to let it sink in,

‘Even Callaghan himself seemed to have little faith in his native land. In November 1974 he told his colleagues, “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength – and that is running out. And,” he went on, “If I were a young man, I should emigrate.”

Hmm… and from no less than the PM of the time himself. Grand narratives are powerful myths and have a strong influence on all of us. A grand or metanarrative is a story about a story, which aims to encompass and explain other ‘small stories’ within totalizing schemes. How true they are, is of course, another matter.

For example, American historian George Bernstein, in his book about Britain since WWII, The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain Since 1945, comes to a very different and counterbalancing analysis:

‘Apart from the catastrophic decades of the 1920s and the 1970s, both linked to larger worldwide economic phenomena, the peacetime story (in Britain) has been one of growth and prosperity.’

Bernstein asserts from studying the economic figures, that Britain has done a remarkable job of transformation, and that the country since WWII was actually not fundamentally in decline, when for everyone here, that is an unquestioned and often unconscious given. Of course, he’s not British, which helps on a subject so close to us natives. For example, he points out that Britain’s annual growth rate from 1951-73 was higher than in all previous time periods including the most powerful periods of empire, and this growth was really impressive, given the devastation of WWII.

Of course, I haven’t given any answer to what could or should be our current narrative, if we are to have one at all. But I think it’s better to have a more conscious story than merely one such as ‘decline’ which is absorbed largely semi consciously from our culture. And I don’t think it is fit for purpose any more. Do we need a story, anyway? I think so, since we live by stories and myths far more than we imagine, and that is not a bad thing. Life is a story, after all.

Fair Play

I still remember as a child, the shock when my ordered view of the world collapsed. Strangely, while I can’t recall what was the trigger, it’s etched into my psyche how my sense of certainty and goodness was shaken that fateful day. Like realising Father Christmas wasn’t for real. It was when I woke up to the sickening realisation that Life wasn’t fair. Up until then, it had never occurred to me to question the cast iron ‘fact’ that Britain was fair, the world was fair, Life was fair. And then my awful epiphany that ‘fairness’ was not a universal quality. While similar rude awakenings no doubt happen to children all over the world, this one about fairness has a particularly British flavour. Fairness is a value we British hold most dearly. I was absolutely convinced that Life was fair – I mean, wouldn’t there be a law against unfairness?

Trevor Phillips relates how when the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which he was head of, opened in 2007, they undertook a public attitude survey to find out what the public most wanted the Commission to promote and protect.10978523354_f4823e2863_c

‘Fractionally behind a concern with being safe, the most important thing for people was fairness. Overwhelmingly respondents were more receptive to the idea of fair play than they were to the language of ‘rights’. If you think that’s uncontroversial, think for a minute how a French or American group might answer. Rights would be right up there, the rights secured by their revolutions and laid down in their constitutions. But we do things differently here. Fairness sums up our belief in cooperation for the common good. It is made possible by a robust rule of law and stable institutions.’

Foreigners make fun of our almost religious ritual of queuing and we can be duped into feeling that we are being uptight, if not severely anal about this obsessive habit. Americans don’t even have a proper word for the phenomenon apart from the rather inadequate ‘stand in line.’

I can’t bear it if someone jumps the queue and doesn’t wait their turn, and we seethe with anger at anyone who transgresses this unwritten law of Britishness. But it’s not such a weird reaction of ours. It’s because pushing ahead of others who have been waiting is NOT FAIR! And we think our society should be fair, or at least striving to be so. In a time when it often seems that we are devoid of any sense of what being British means or if we even think there is anything to feel British about, a value like fairness still resonates down the mists of time. Fair play is an article of faith across the political spectrum in Britain and we are outraged by injustice; Churchill and Orwell, opposites in many ways, both held it dearly. Fair play as a British value runs deep and has roots stretching way back into our historical development as a nation. It is part of who we are, and one facet of the elusive heart of Britishness.

From: Beng British: Our Once & Future Selves

Germaine Greer on British Values

I found it interesting to read in the latest Prospect magazine in a piece marking 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, what Germaine Greer wrote as the conclusion of her book on Shakespeare in 1986.

What she says about English (British?) values, is so much in line with what I have come to recognise and write about this exasperating yet strangely lovable country. Though I have to admit that I wouldn’t have thought that the influence of the bard was so fundamental to our values.

Germaine Greer’s conclusion:

“As long as Shakespeare remains central to English cultural life, it will retain the values which make it unique in the world, namely tolerance, pluralism, the talent for viable compromise and a profound commitment to that most wasteful form of social organisation, democracy. To an outsider such a lack of system may seem amorphous, disorganised, and even hypocritical, from within it is evident that such an inclusive mode can be no more inconsistent than life itself.”William-Shakespeare