Britishness has been in the news a lot recently. After the current education secretary has encouraged the deregulation of state funded schools, opting-out from the national curriculum, openly expressed his preference to “empower” faith schools and so on, there is a sudden panic. You see, in an ethnically diverse, multicultural society like the UK, it turns out that giving local communities more power over their schools has an unintended consequence – namely local people don’t always want to reshape their schools in the image of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Shock horror.
There we were, expecting local communities with high concentrations of non-white, non-christian, first generation immigrants and their second generation families to take more control over their schools and teach what, precisely? How to make scones and put up bunting? Playing hopscotch and singing Jerusalem?
You mean to say these British citizens, empowered by the new deregulatory regime in Westminster, introduced a greater focus on their own cultural traditions within the curriculum? What the deuce? The damned sauce! What about the dear old Queen and her corgies? What about teaching all those muslim kids about Christianity… like we all learned about Islam and Buddhism back in the 1980s… oh, wait, no we didn’t. Okay, what about studying the British Olympics… no wait, the great British television shows like Breaking Bad that… oh… no… hang on a moment. Okay, how about the great British clothing stores like Gap that sell clothes made by wage slave children in Bangladesh… damn. It’s almost as though our entire British culture is a huge stinking morass of foreign stuff. Well at least all these young people listen to good British pop stars like Kanye West… er… watch British football teams full of British people… oh man… go to the cinema to watch…er… drive British cars… use British computers to surf the British internet… Angry Birds is English, right? Oh.
Okay, got one! They all eat traditional British food like curry and McDonalds. Doh! (“doh!” is British, isn’t it? No way…)
The complexity of defining a cultural experience for someone living in Britain as British is, in reality, mind boggling. Ad infinitem, ad nauseum, et cetera. (That’s British Latin, that is.)
Go figure (which is an American saying for “Golly gosh, what a conundrum”).
Systemic flaws in the provision of British education?
The British education system is, in reality, a sticky mess of six (yes, six!) different kinds of school available for British children to attend, seven if you include fee paying private schools. There are layers of bureaucracy for each one. Competition. League tables. Catchment areas that dictate property prices that vary wildly between one end of a suburban road and another, and in some cases a shortage of places even for kids that live within them. It’s hardly surprising things are difficult to follow. The answer? Well, as long as we’re all agreed on teaching “British values” then it’s all good.
Since the announcement of “British values” the country has been desperate to define what that means, and so far, is none the wiser. In fact, the education secretary himself has been quoted as saying “there is something rather un-British about seeking to define Britishness”. Confused? Yeah.
A short story about why “Britishness” is so hard to understand
In November 1991 I was watching the Five Nations Rubgy in a pub in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. It was England vs. France. I’m not a rugby fan, but all my mates were doing it and I went along to get pissed and have a laugh. My friends were mostly Scottish, and they had gone to support France, because they couldn’t possibly support the English Rugby team on the grounds that they were the English, whom for about 400 years were invading and mostly butchering the Scots. Before the Act of Union in 1706. I’m half Scottish, so as a result, can pretty much support anyone I like.
However, logically, I’d assumed that the Scots would be more likely to support the English over the French because… well, because England and Scotland are both British. In reality, as the French scored, my Scots buddies would burst into song singing the old Gaelic song, Flower of Scotland, to celebrate.
Later on in the tournament, we returned to the pub (they sold jugs of beer, cheaply) and the Welsh got support from the Scots against the English too. In fact, come to think of it, that time there were both Irish and Scots supporting the Welsh. Same again with Ireland V England. In fact, throughout the whole tournament of hangovers and a cheeky snog with an engineering student called Laura from Strathclyde, I never experienced anything other than utter contempt for the English team.
About fifteen years later, in a pub in Switzerland, I found myself with a rugby crowd again. This was mostly English people who were supporting the Italians against the Scots because they didn’t like the Scots, mostly because their team was a bit rubbish at the time.
In the intervening years, I’ve found myself in the cultural minority for a number of other reasons. I’ve been the only southerner in a pub in Newcastle during football matches between the Magpies and Chelsea, the only Dorset man in a Hampshire pub during the country cricket, the only Conchita Wurst supporter during the Eurovision, the only Labour voter at a Conservative Party tweet-up, the only comprehensive school boy at a private school dinner party. None of those experiences made me feel discriminated against, disadvantaged or threatened, it was just the normal experience of difference which everyone can relate to. Apart from the private school dinner party where one person genuinely assumed that, because I had not attended private school, I’d prefer a can of Guinness to a glass of wine. Seriously!!!
They were all the normal kind of (slightly awkward) moments in life made bearable by self-medication – I.e getting pissed and not giving a shit. Everyone can relate to that. Which is why it’s a valuable measure for this post… being in, being out, it’s all eminently forgettable.
That’s Britishness, right there.
The self-referencing paradox of community
If you didn’t spot it, that’s because you’re looking for some sort of affirmatory story about people all respecting and supporting one another, but that is not going to happen. The whole point about belonging to a community works against itself as you extend the nature of the community. The cognitive process of self-identifying within a wider social group logically creates recognition of those who do not belong. That means the bigger the community you’re trying to define, the harder it is to define the parent community… like this:
- You are an individual, not a community, i.e. You can’t define me without defining you.
- You can’t define them without defining us.
- You can’t define your biological family without defining people who are unrelated to you
- You can’t define your neighbours without defining the people who aren’t
- You can’t define an organisation you belong to without defining non-members
- You can’t define gay without defining straight
- You can’t define beauty without defining ugly
- You can’t define British without defining foreign.
It’s a functional operation of logic. The same logical construct that defines unity, also creates difference. It’s a self-referencing paradox, and as such, is best avoided as an INSTRUMENT OF PUBLIC POLICY… duh.
You can only celebrate your cultural identity by recognising that not everyone else in the world has it too. But when so many of our cultural values are shared (yes, they have democracy, social freedoms, civil liberties, rights and laws in other countries too) it means what you’re left with that is exclusively or distinctively British is virtually nothing. We don’t even own the English language, the Americans do… which is why when I install software it offers me language options of “English (US)” and “International English”. In fact, the only thing about Britain that isn’t a shared value somewhere else in the world is actually living in the UK as opposed to another country.
This doesn’t make the whole essence of cultural identity a bad thing, but it does make it a really stupid metaphor for bringing consistency into a national education policy for a diverse, multicultural modern state. Here’s a better conceptual container that steers clear of all the flag waving, bowler hat wearing, Monty Pyhon watching nonsense. Citizenship
Citizenship – a non-paradoxical concept
The rule of law. Government institutions. Democracy. The democratic process of change. Human rights. Civil rights. All that falls under the category of citizenship in a modern democracy. It doesn’t matter what your ethnic or cultural preferences are, what language you speak or anything else. Get the basic concepts that you don’t endorse discrimination and don’t support the use of violence or coercion in social interactions (and politics) right, and that’s all you need. It’s the lowest common denominator of a civilised society.
That’s better than Britishness, because its something that you can actually define without defining other citizens as being somehow outside the community. And as everyone involved in the education issue is a citizen, it’s the only real non-divisive alternative.
It would be nice to add equality to the citizenship mix, but we live in a Britain where women earn less for doing the same job, where the taxpayers support a monarchy, where our voting procedures mean that we have a distorted representation of the actual voter choices in the country, where our commitment to a welfare state and NHS is being tested to a point that drives disabled people to the poverty line and the sick die waiting for free health care, where the great and the good choose to live abroad, join technically legal schemes and avoid paying their British taxes, where your life expectancy in the North is less than the South, where your life chances if you are non-white are more limited than for the white majority… and so on.
That’s all Britishness too. It’s a sticky mess of concepts. Just like our schools. It’s Basil Fawlty politics.
Citizenship works much better. It’s not perfect, but if it’s necessary to foil the imaginary plots of an imaginary enemy within, might as well buck the trend in current thinking and do something practical. Is being practical a British value? Hmmm…