Farewell, disunited kingdom as British bask in warm glow of the union
The patriotic bounce from the Olympics and the royal jubilee may have sunk the SNP’s plans to break away
The day before Gordon Brown muscled his way into the debate about Scotland and the future of the union, I happened to be in Edinburgh to give a keynote lecture at the opening of the 2012 festival on “What does it mean to be British?” One answer might have been provided by the spectacle of a former UK prime minister, and Scot, telling a domestic audience that Britain was “the best platform” for “Scottish success”.
A year ago, when the festival organisers first broached this subject, it was a long way south of front-page news. Picking over the debris of the riots, the commentariat was more inclined then to reflect on a disunited kingdom.
Timing is everything. In 2007, the last time Brown tackled the question of Britishness, he was widely mocked for the rhetorical equivalent of trying to pin the tail on the donkey. The Times sponsored a campaign for a “British” motto, something to match “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and less embarrassing than “Cool Britannia”. Readers’ suggestions included, for example: “Dipso. Fatso. Bingo. Asbo. Tesco”. Closely followed by “No motto please, we’re British”.
Not any more. The summer of 2012 looks like a new chapter in the “British” story. Alex Salmond’s campaign for Scottish independence had focused minds on the strengths of the union. Now the patriotic bounce from the Olympics has had this unexpected outcome: suddenly we’re all Britons again.
Perhaps we should savour a fleeting moment. In general, the national identity of this dysfunctional archipelago remains a vexatious and contradictory topic, in which what’s not said is the important bit. For many Britons, an ironical raised eyebrow can be as meaningful as a national mission statement – except, of course, in a crisis.
Possibly the last time “British” made sense was in 1940. Winston Churchill wrapped himself in the union flag, to mobilise the country. “We shall fight on the beaches” was a unifying assertion of insular defiance. Without the threat of invasion “we shall never surrender” might have been empty bluster.
Even in 1940, “what does it mean to be British?” was complicated. As the Luftwaffe massed over London, George Orwell explored the question in The Lion and the Unicorn. “We call our islands by no less than six different names,” he wrote, “England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. How,” he asked, “can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”
Attempts to navigate Orwell’s muddle usually bump into Englishness, a set of values that lurk behind, and complement, Britishness. In the past, icons of Englishness have included Big Ben, cricket, bacon and eggs – the “full English” – brass bands, allotments, the royal family and the WI, Marmite and the last night of the Proms. These morph into the Britain of rightwing cliche. Since the turn of the millennium there has been a growing appetite for a richer, more complex answer to the question. This summer of 2012 has seen various conflicting versions of Britain Redux.
Danny Boyle’s was the most uplifting contemporary response. His brilliant, slightly bonkers mash-up of fact and fiction, seasoned with irony and song, was an inspired celebration of popular history and culture that was – incredibly – even hailed by the French.
Part of the trouble with “Britishness” is that, despite sharing an unconscious contract whose terms are made manifest only at moments of high national emotion, our instinct is to play truant from the identity question.
Historically, the meaning of “British” has never had much traction. As Britons, we are like the man in the New Yorker cartoon who says to his shrink: “Call it denial if you like, but I think what goes on in my personal life is none of my own damn business.”
Just five years ago, during a rare bout of navel-gazing, when polled about what it was that made them proud to be British, more than 60% said they couldn’t think of a single thing. A recent Channel 4 documentary about multicultural Bradford showed one contemporary white Briton, a man, boasting: “I know I’m a British citizen because I’m not anything else.”
Those days are gone. The poll reported in today’s Observer tells us that, since the Games, a staggering 82% are proud to be British, while 70% agree that the combination of the Games and the jubilee have “improved the mood of the nation” and brought people together. A further 86% believe that the Games has had a beneficial effect on the public mood, while 78% think that the Olympic achievement has had a positive effect on “the way Britain is viewed by the rest of the world”. This adds up to a profound change.
Today, the jubilee and the Olympics have brought a new generation of Britons to the foreground, liberating a new enthusiasm for the union flag. Orwell’s “muddle” has become something to celebrate. For many Britons, to be “British” is to be part of a phenomenon that is polyvalent, adaptive, global and even subversive. Strangely, for an idea that has been painfully associated with empire and colonialism, Britishness is found on the side of the individual in society, especially against elites.
A Sri Lankan or a South African immigrant to these islands might be reluctant to embrace the cross of St George. You can’t be Scots and English, but you can be Scots and British. Or Asian, or Muslim, or Chinese – and British. As I said in my lecture, “British” is a loose, hospitable definition. With a place for the flags of Scotland, Wales and England, on equal terms. Beyond these islands, even if you have a funny name or look a little different, you can still be a Briton.
A recent discussion in the Observer gives substance to this proposition. Shazia Awan, 29, born in Wales and co-founder of the Peachy Pink fashion and sports brand, said she was “very proud to be British. I consider it an absolute honour and privilege,” she said, “to be born in a western society where we’ve got democracy, human rights, the right to vote, rights for women, and parliament.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Rajeeb Dey, 26, born in Basildon, Essex, and recently named the world’s youngest global leader by the World Economic Forum. Dey said: “I see myself as a British Asian. To be British is very much about being in a melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds. That’s what I love about Britain.”
One unintended consequence of Team GB’s Olympic triumph has been to suck the air out of Salmond’s Scottish balloon. When Chris Hoy and Andy Murray speak about the buzz of performing for “the home crowd”, and when an international kaleidoscope of athletes acknowledge a society expressive of tolerance and humanity, the union flag is less a symbol of an 18th-century political fudge that’s past its sell-by date, more the emblem of a globally responsive community.
In anticipation of my remarks in the Hub (a converted church at the top of the Royal Mile), I had prepared some lines of defence against crotchety Scot Nat audience members. As it turned out, the mood of the meeting (about 400 people) was discreetly pro-union. Agreed, the average age was close to 55 (younger Scots favour independence), but I found no appetite for a discussion about breaking away.
And this is before the terms of the referendum have been settled. After that, some Scottish heavyweights will bring their formidable intellectual cannon to bear on the SNP’s arguments. Speaking in Edinburgh, Brown said that a Britain based on shared values could become “a beacon” for nations living together in “a multinational world”. This line will doubtless be backed up by some fierce Caledonian number-crunching. As one local said to me last week: “The Scots never take their eye off the bottom line.”
Brown will certainly be joined by politicians Malcolm Rifkind, Charles Kennedy and Alistair Darling, writer Allan Massie and broadcaster James Naughtie, together with many other freethinking Scots intellect-uals, sportsmen and entrepreneurs who prefer the muddle of the union to the clinical solitude of independence.
After the British summer of 2012, Alex Salmond may have to settle for “devo max”, which is probably what he wanted all along.