British to the Core
In 2015, leading up to the General Election…
...with the Conservatives committed to offering Britain a chance to break away from Europe if they win the election outright, the Scottish Nationalists still determined to win independence from Westminster, and UKIP claiming to stand up for British interests but generally being obnoxious, what does it mean to be British ?
One version might be :
A proud nation of leaders, scientists, engineers, pioneers, philanthropists, educators, religious leaders, peace-keepers, artists. Resourceful, energetic, creative, forward looking people. Diplomatic, tolerant and sympathetic. Committed to advancement and prosperity but also to justice and equality. People with a strong set of values, an inherent sense of what’s right, and a stiff upper lip.
That sums up some of us, perhaps.
Or who we might like to think we are.
Keeping the British end up. But is the flag fraying a bit at the edges ?
Historically we are a combination of peoples, notably the Celts, Picts, Scots, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Jutes, Danes, Normans and more. Britain was invaded many times. Several centuries later, Britain became the invader and created an empire. There are few places in the world where Britain has not interfered. This massive interference in world order, this exploitation of people and misappropriation of resources, was one of the most shameful stages in British history. You only have to look at some of the street names in Bristol to be reminded of the horrendous actions of our ancestors. White Ladies Road and Blackboy Hill tell an unhappy story from the days of slavery, a major pillar of the Empire.
Some of the acceptable aspects of the empire including cultural links, genuine trade partnerships and cricket have survived in the form of the Commonwealth, a collection of 53 independent sovereign states. The British Queen is still the constitutional monarch in 16 Commonwealth realms, the largest being the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica.
Britain has lost much of its former power and influence, and rightly so, but the country still seems to have something to offer. Many want to settle here, and over the last century, immigration has been encouraged, though mostly when it has suited our economic needs or when we have had little choice on humanitarian grounds, and only as long as newcomers have ‘known their place’. Currently, despite the unhealthy rise of UKIP and worse, we generally seem to be a welcoming country.
In a recent conversation with a Nigerian friend we compared notes on our respective elections and countries. My friend suggested that Britain is a utopia. I suggested otherwise. The idea of Britain as a perfect country had never previously crossed my mind. We do not have extreme hardships, but we do have issues to address, political and otherwise. I certainly do not always feel very comfortable about my national identity, or about the state of my country.
Democracy stops at the ballot box
The last British election, in 2010, resulted in an outcome that nobody wanted. None of the parties were wanted on their own. So we ended up with a coalition, again which nobody wanted. The Tory led regime has advanced the riches of the few and cut the resources and services available to the majority. The Liberals have merely facilitated Tory rule and have risked being obliterated themselves. There are signs of change with the upcoming election, but no signs of anything better, just more confusion and hurt. The worst outcome would be the emergence of ‘BlueKip’.
But here’s the strange thing. Somehow, despite the Government, and even despite a huge financial deficit, we still seem to have a certain level of…
Most of our money is borrowed, of course, from creditors who have borrowed hugely themselves. Does anyone in the world actually own anything ? But we do not experience poverty on a grand scale. We do, however, suffer from selfishness and division, the hangover effects of privatisation, tax evasion schemes, multiple property ownership, the stripping down of the welfare budget and the decline in public service funding. But collectively the country must be considered quite well off, certainly in comparison to less fortunate countries in the world.
Now here it starts getting a bit confusing. We may be a fairly selfish nation, governed by politicians out to line their own pockets, with at least one former prime minister raking in millions through his lucrative connections, but we are quite big on charity and overseas aid. We have Oxfam, Barnados, Shelter, Crisis at Christmas and many more. We celebrate Red Nose Day every other year. In alternate years, we support Children in Need. If only they were not in need. And I think it’s fair to say that even if we are not too keen on chuggers (charity muggers) and direct debits, most of us are fairly public spirited.
Government funding for international development is ring-fenced, sometimes at the expense of national interests. I am not sure about the merits of this. Dambisa Moyo has seriously challenged conventional wisdom regarding foreign aid, highlighting the long-term negative impacts. But it really does seem to be the least we can do, given what we have taken from so many countries in the past and how we have messed them up. Perhaps the point is that we should do more than the least we can do.
Relatively low unemployment
This sounds good, but there is so little job satisfaction. So much grumbling and Monday morning misery. Zero hours contracts and so many service jobs that so few people want. We have an unofficial ‘living wage’ that makes just a little more sense than the official ‘minimum wage’. We also have a public sector that is being starved of funding on spiteful and ideological grounds as much as on financial grounds. The private sector cannot pick up all of the pieces, and not everyone wants to line the pockets of share-holders anyway. As for the third option, the ‘Big Society’, not everyone can be a volunteer.
Thankfully, we don’t have the fight on our hands that President Obama has with the mean-spirited half of his country. We have a national health service which most of us are happy to support with our taxes. The NHS provides supposedly free healthcare at the point of need. Sadly the service is forever cash-strapped, erratically managed and perhaps a shade too welcoming and generous at times. It doesn’t help when NHS trained doctors work for private healthcare firms and sell their services back to the NHS. It also doesn’t help when funds are exhausted in the treatment of the self-inflicted effects of alcoholism and obesity, two of the most prominent health problems in Britain today. Still, the NHS performs wonders despite almost impossible challenges.
We have a reasonably decent transport infrastructure and various means of getting around the country. Just don’t expect a seat on the 07:42 to Waterloo, a free flowing ride around the M25 motorway, or a bus that picks you up and drops you off anywhere near your rural retreat more than once a week. HS2 – yes we need additional train capacity, but does it really help to get from London to Birmingham half an hour quicker ? Is the time saved really worth billions ? Then there’s traffic congestion and the fumes. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulates. Cycling and walking will only get us so far on the journey towards sustainable transport.
We have reliable electricity supplies, for the time being. Yet this is threatened by the madness of over-commitment to electric vehicles. The exhaustion of fossil fuels is still inevitable if we don’t get really serious on a global scale. Renewable sources of energy are not convincing. Nuclear energy is a mixed bag : brilliantly efficient and clean when contained, but volatile, and the waste is terrible to dispose of, and we never really do dispose of it. We have seen disasters in Japan and in Ukraine, and it could happen here too.
We have world class universities and research facilities in Britain. I must give a special mention to the universities of Southampton and Nottingham, for personal reasons, but there are many fine academic institutions not far behind. In terms of equality, somehow we have a reasonably progressive system, allowing students from both state and private schools to benefit from Higher Education. The Green Party is pledging to do away with tuition fees, which is nice, but somehow not likely to happen. As for the schooling system, I don’t trust myself to remain calm on the subject. I’m still trying to understand what Tony Blair meant by the term ‘equality of opportunity’ all those years ago.
Culture really deserves a feature all of its own. A website even. I think I know where to find one. But here’s a few tasters. And by culture here I mean artistic culture. Our theatrical treasures include the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. We have Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, Imogen Stubbs, Dame Maggie Smith, Adrian Lester. Then there’s music. So much to mention, but I’ll offer you Jools Holland and his annual New Year’s Eve Hootenanny to keep the Scots onside. Calvin Harris too for added bounce, Sir Tom Jones (the voice from the Valleys), Heather Small (M People, Manchester and England) and Katie Melua (brought up in Northern Ireland) completing a whistle stop tour of musical Britain. In the world of Art, again there are too many to mention, but I’ll express a personal liking for Sir George Stubbs and his horses, Henry Moore and his wonderful sculptures, Chris Ofili for his amazing ‘No Woman No Cry’ picture and more, and Grayson Perry for being creatively outrageous.
For me, the BBC is about as good as it gets when it comes to news reporting. It has a global presence, authoritative journalists and generally sound values. An excellent reputation all told. The institution has its failings, of course, but without the BBC, and Radio 4 especially, we would be lost. In the newspaper world, I have long been a Guardian reader, and have signed up for ‘membership’ even. I like belonging to a club run by a newspaper trust with sound ethical values. I also like to recall the days when newspapers provided the wrapping for fish ‘n’ chips, and my days as a paperboy when I used to deliver the Bristol Evening Post. I have a long and proud association with the Press.
Forgive me for a moment for going back to the 2012 London Olympics. Team GB really did put on a great show both for and with the rest of the world. We also contributed in terms of performance. Who can forget the displays of sporting excellence by Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, and Christine Ohuruogu, to match those of Usain Bolt, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and David Rudisha ? The overall event was hugely successful. Rio looks to be failing in comparison before it has even started, but that often looks to be the case in the lead up to any Games.
Historically, British religious fervour has resulted in horrific cruelty, with examples including the crusades and the persecution of each other by Protestants and Catholics. Modern Britain is generally calm, but there is still some tension between people of different religions and denominations. A broad level of tolerance prevails most of the time. This tolerance is characteristic of the Church of England, which nowadays seems to be all inclusive and doesn’t appear to have any absolutes any more. What exactly does it stand for ?
We have a police force which we want to believe is honest and trustworthy and protective. Most of the time it probably is. But the old adage ‘ask a policeman’ is commonly sniggered at nowadays. Hillsborough, Plebgate, stop and search, the failure in the Steven Lawrence investigation and the damning accusation of ‘institutional racism’ have collectively earned the police a corrupt and unacceptable image. Grooming and other forms of child abuse are finally being taken seriously, so that shows progress. Celebrities are no longer safe from prosecution for historic crimes. But why does it always take the country so long to acknowledge problems and to take action ?
Britain does not have Boko Haram to deal with, but it’s not so very long ago that the IRA was terrorising the mainland as well as the provinces in Northern Ireland. Nowadays, thanks to the peace process and considerable compromise with the IRA, and more widely thanks to the intelligence services, we are well protected against the threat of terrorism in this country. Things can be missed, of course. The London bombings in 2005 are a case in point. Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered outside his barracks in 2013, but extremists cannot always be identified in advance. The current problem seems to be not stopping terrorists getting into Britain but stopping ordinary people from going to fight abroad and coming back as terrorists.
In 2011 we had riots in London and in other major cities. In the early and mid 1980s there were riots in Brixton, Broadwater Farm (both London), Handsworth (Birmingham), St Paul’s (Bristol) and Toxteth (Liverpool). Our streets have not always been safe, and some of the problems have never been properly resolved.
Finally, here’s what I consider to be the biggest problem we have, and probably the most expensive :
Sadly, taking military action sometimes seems necessary, helpful even. But it’s ridiculous having to solve problems that are so often of our own making, against weapons that we have made ourselves and are used by countries who used to be our friends (in an economic sense at least). Abhorrent loss of life is experienced on all sides in wars that never should have happened. Revenge begets revenge. Afghanistan looks set to be a forgotten war and a lost cause yet again. And why did we march into Iraq? The lies, the expense, the destruction, all in the name of humanitarianism and democracy. We rarely make things better through military action and the imposition of the kind of politics that we champion back home.
We are besmirched with the unspoken horror and shame in having a British government that makes money selling arms across the world. We need the contracts and the billions and the jobs. Our own prosperity and security is founded upon the destruction of others.
And then there’s the £100bn to renew Trident. A hideous waste of money for a horrendous non-solution. That money could be so much better spent. For this alone I would vote for The Scottish Nationalist Party, if I had that option.
So, Britain is far from being a utopia. There are some terrible social and political problems that simply cannot be ignored. But we also have many assets and advantages in Britain, and many cultural and creative delights. I would rather live here than in most other countries. Tobago would be one exception. New Zealand another. It all depends how you look at things and what you value in life. I have aimed to focus on the positives, I truly have, but it’s not always easy. Moreover, most positives have a negative flipside. I’m not sure if the reverse is true. We can celebrate our successes, but we must never be smug. We have to be honest and critical, and we owe it to ourselves and others to address our failings. There’s a limit to how much self-recrimination any of us can stand, I know, but we have not quite reached that limit yet. We must continue to aspire to be better.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015
See also the companion piece on national identity: Essentially English