Two days ago, on Tuesday 10 June 2014, The Times published a picture of the late Rik Mayall, who had died the day before, as his probably best known comedy characterisation, Rick from the 1980s sitcom, “The Young Ones”. Alongside the photo was a report about the Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s pronouncement that, in the wake of accusations of hard-line Muslim infiltration of schools in Birmingham, all schools will be expected to teach children what it is to be British.
The juxtaposition of Mayall’s spotty nerd image and the idea of this as a defining image of Britishness was not lost on me. Whether it was deliberate or not can only be guessed at, but it set me thinking nonetheless.
What is “Britishness”. In a country with as culturally diverse a population as Great Britain, is it possible to define it in any meaningful way? I strongly suspect that it’s one of those things that the more you try to define it, the harder it gets.
The different characteristics of the people of Kent, for example, and the Orkney Islands as indigenous British people makes it impossible, surely? The class divisions in Great Britain only serve to make the task more difficult. How could a stereotypical picture of Britishness include everyone, equally? Add the different ethnic groups that are already well established here, and the problem is magnified further.
Is it even desirable to try to define it? Defining something like Britishness is bound to create narrow stereotypes, elitism, and exclusivity. Those who don’t quite meet the stated requirements are marginalised, and are likely to react negatively. What’s to be gained? Very little, with so much to be lost.
The people to whom such a definition would most appeal, I suspect, are those that harbour resentment of anyone whose ethnic origins lie outside of our borders, however long they, or their families, have been here, or what contribution they make to the British cultural melting pot. I posted the picture above on my Facebook page, and the first comment it elicited was: “They have to decide whether they are British or Muslims, they can’t be BOTH…. If they decide the latter, then deport them to Muslim Land even if they are born here….. Britain is for the British ONLY !”. It’s the sort of attitudes to being part of the European community that enabled UKIP to succeed so dramatically in the recent European elections. Local islands for local people.
I won’t be tempted to fall into the trap of trying to define Britishness. Rather, I would hope that values such as kindness, tolerance, generosity, loyalty, courage, open-mindedness and dignity are taught by example in our schools, our homes, our workplaces and our sports arenas, without an adding a narrow label that is inward-looking, is part of a narrow curriculum, and fosters xenophobic attitudes. If others look at us from abroad and choose to associate those attributes with the population of these islands, and typical of British people, then I will be happy with that.