Go on then, let’s take the Prime Minister’s challenge and have a go at defining what we mean by ‘Britishness’. It’s a word that has been in the news since a crack team of Ofsted inspectors was dispatched to investigate 21 Birmingham schools amid rumours of extremism.
Writing last weekend in the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister exhorted us to ‘stop being bashful’ about being British. As citizens we should be ‘far more muscular’ in championing our values and institutions. It is time to regain our national pride.
But defining Britishness can prove surprisingly slippery. We find ourselves drawn unwittingly into a landscape of misty-eyed stereotypes conjuring up a Britain as it used to be rather than as it is now.
And it seems impossible to say what Britishness is without resorting to a kind of sociological shopping list. Here, for example, is what the great writer George Orwell came up with: “The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin tables in the Soho pubs, old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings.”
That spirit – including the old maids on bicycles – was conjured up in 1993 by Prime Minister John Major. Britain, he said ‘evoked long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and Shakespeare still read in school’.
You see what I mean about lists?
Then there was the poet Sir John Betjeman who provided a glimpse into another age with his own account of Britishness: “Books from Boots and country lanes, free speech, free passes, class distinction, democracy and proper drains.”
So back to the present: How might we define Britishness today?
I certainly want my version to be more contemporary, more multicoloured, more rooted in attitudes of tolerance and acceptance than in growlings of social division and ethnic mistrust. I want it to be a Britain I recognise, rather than summoned up through nostalgic yearning.
Thus I was pleased to be reminded by some students this week that in World War One, soldiers from the British Isles fought alongside troops from the Caribbean, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and India. This truly was a war involving the people of the world, whatever their faith, colour or background.
And, as an English teacher who enjoys cooking, I’m frequently reminded of the diverse global traditions of our food and the rich international heritage of our language. English, after all, is made up of words our nation has scavenged on its ventures to far-flung places.
Thus, when I ask for coffee I’m speaking Arabic. Eating tortillas, I’m deploying Spanish. A request for pizza naturally uses Italian. Coleslaw and waffles come from the Dutch. Sipping punch or eating kedgeree and I’m using Hindi. Tomato or squash – it’s the language of native Americans. Ketchup is from Malaya. Then there’s the whole range of some of those great British favourites, curries and stir-fries – ‘curry’ is a Tamil word and ‘wok’ a Cantonese one.
So for me, Britishness doesn’t summon up predictable colours of red, white and blue. It isn’t just about knowing the kings and queens of England, or being able to name all 38 Shakespeare plays.
Britishness is an attitude, an underlying spirit of tolerance and fair-play and acceptance that can’t easily be defined, but can and should be endlessly demonstrated and celebrated – in schools, in parliament, and in the real world beyond.
Britain now is a different country from in its colonial past – infinitely more tolerant, diverse, colourful and multicultural. Few countries in the world can claim the levels of civilised integration that we enjoy.
This harmonious diversity is definitely a form of Britishness we should be proud of. Our differences enrich us, educate us, and unite us.
That’s nothing to be bashful about.