Quest for national identity is mistake

February 23, 2007

What unites us is our civic culture and pragmatic common interest, suggests Bernard Crick, not romantic notions of 'Britishness'

Britishness suddenly bursts upon us, mainly impelled by politicians and some sections of the press. Politicians seem myopically to believe that a heightened sense of Britishness could diminish terrorism, cut the crime rate, help cure alienation from politics and raise the tone of things generally. More soberly, historians and political theorists have, since at least the end of the Cold War, been writing on nationalism in general and on national identities and their interrelations within the British Isles in particular. "Identity politics" has become fashionable and seemingly important to political scientists and sociologists.

I move between scepticism and cynicism when leading politicians and leader writers make speeches on Britishness. Do people in their ordinary lives worry greatly about identity? Most of us take our identities - my plural is deliberate - for granted; if we do feel them threatened, these threats are usually far less pressing than the vicissitudes of our ordinary life of friends, family, employment, health and mortality.

Only in genuine crises does either national or personal identity consume us. The big speeches on Britishness, whether by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or David Blunkett, may only be answering imaginary crises - problems, certainly, but rhetorically stirred and opportunistically presented as crises, either for political advantage or to sell books or newspapers. Lots of things could make life better for all of us, especially for our children - say shorter working hours and a return to education for life rather than education for work. But a heightened and clearer sense of Britishness is unlikely to be the catch-all solution to the discontents of our times. Britishness and especially Englishness are usually taken for granted, and a good thing too.

Last May, however, the Department for Education and Skills ordered a review "of how the national curriculum is covering diversity issues to meet the needs of all pupils (and) how we can incorporate modern British cultural and social history intoJthe citizenship curriculum within our secondary schools". Diversity meant, of course, postwar immigration. Only historians recall the earlier panics and prejudices surrounding poor Irish and Jewish immigrants (and their gradual integration among Scots, Welsh and Protestant Irish and English). The review was to consider whether such teaching could give "children a strong sense of British identity and an understanding of British culture and traditions. It would be the first time that pupils would be taught about core British values with a sharper focus on our shared social and cultural history as part of this curriculum."

What are these "core British values"? In the Chancellor's recent speeches we find, happily, that they are our good and trusty old friends "freedom, toleration, representative government and fair play". Even if not uniquely British, we've done fairly well by them over the years, but to say that these values are not already in the new citizenship curriculum is nonsense.

I fear the new DfES ministers were simply wanting the media to believe that they were doing something new to meet the (false) worries that we old Brits were losing our identity. In fact, ministers have now cooled down and appear to have accepted the advice that what is Britishness should be discussed by pupils but not authoritatively defined and taught.

Brown's two big speeches on Britishness take all their examples of civilising progress from English history. The Scot seems to be compounding the English confusion of Englishness with Britishness. In the year of the tercentenary of the Act or Treaty of Union, he does not stress that we are a multinational state and - long before the Windrush dropped anchor - a multicultural state too.

Who but ignorant foreigners talk about British rather than English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh novels, poetry, music or folk song? And does any other state in the world field four national football teams? What Brown in fact stresses strongly and well is our common attachment to a civic culture - once called representative government, now, somewhat ambitiously, democ-racy. Britishness is acceptance of the historical institutions of government and their conventions, not a whole common culture.

Britishness is a strong but limited concept. It is the civic culture and a pragmatic common interest that holds us together rather than nationalism.

And surely allegiance to that is what we ask of all immigrants who are right instinctively to call themselves British Asians or whatever, not English Asians.

Sir Bernard Crick is currently visiting Stevenson professor in citizenship at Glasgow University and former chairman of the Advisory Board for Naturalisation and Integration.

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