What does being British mean?

Trying to define what being British means is a bit like our constitution. It’s unwritten – but you kind of know what’s what, almost by instinct and practise – or at least we used to.

And that’s part of the problem we face.

For the first two thirds of the 20th Century being British was – mostly – empire, Protestant and monarchy. (To any Scots, Welsh or Irish in the audience – apologies for the list that’s coming. I know it’s really an English list, but – hey – that’s part of being English too, forgetting those other nationalities).

We had a stable class system where we all jolly well knew our place. You could tell class by accent and we aspired to the Queen’s English as aired by the BBC. Highfalutin standards set by British film inspired our behaviour from a stiff upper lip, public school and Biggles, to Upstairs Downstairs, nannies, fair play, having one’s dander up and so on.

Wimbledon and cricket, leather on willow. Billy Bunter and Goodbye Mr Chips. Miners with dirty faces. Dick van Dyke’s terrible rendition of cockney – gawd bless you sir. Pearly Kings. Giving the wife the pay packet on a Friday and going down the local for a beer with your mates. Football on Saturday and fags weren’t even known to be dangerous.

A genuine belief that taking part was more important than winning. The Women’s Institute and the army of women in dreadful shapeless floral prints who make jam, have expansive bosoms, buy material at John Lewis to make their own curtains Loving eccentrics And being nice to pets.

As the Victorian English novelist Charles Kingsley put it:

What we can we will be
Honest Englishmen
Do the work that’s nearest
Though it’s dull at whiles
Helping, when we meet them,
Lame dogs over stiles.

So we hanker after that idealised past – at least the older generation do. We expected the waves of newcomers to our shores to adopt our sense of fair play and tolerance, to adhere to our rules – written or not – and above all – to understand that we are a democratic country where if we do not like what our government is doing – we protest – peacefully – and we gather the people to our view and make our point through the ballot box.

But that is a generation that is ageing. Families are more flexible. Empire and war are no longer are no-longer underpinning a common, communal heritage. It’s less about fighting the Germans (though not perhaps as much less as it should be!) and more about beating the Aussies at cricket, and rugby too! Just a shame about the football…

Even with no significant immigration over the last few decades, these social changes would have brought about a great change in what it meant to be British. But that extra ethnic mix adds a further twist.

So to the serious heart of today’s debate – tacking integration and alienation after 7/7.

The shockwaves that hit us when we learned that British lads hated us enough to blow us up indiscriminately sent us into panic mode.

We seem to be on a psychotic and urgent search for instant answers and instant solutions. The soul-searching and breast beating of what have we done wrong? And the fear – who are Muslims really loyal to? Their home and neighbours or some other calling? Only a few extremists these days doubt that Catholics can be British – revering a Pope in Rome doesn’t stop loyalty to this country. But many do harbour such doubts and fears about Muslims.

And that fear is heightened by terrorism.

But whilst issues of integration and alienation are important, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that they will have more than a minor impact on terrorism in this or other Western countries.

Because whilst poverty, racial discrimination and alienation are all important issues for ethnic minority communities in Britain and undoubtedly segregation is growing dangerously untrammelled – it’s not from the poorest or the most marginal where the terrorists appear to have been coming from.

They’re generally rather more middle class than that.

It’s become a common story – the relatives, neighbours and colleagues of a terrorist speaking out about how normal and helpful they were, how they took part in their local community and seemed healthy and well-balanced. Because it’s not from the most marginal or most hard-pressed communities that the terrorists come.The 7/7 bombers were not making a statement about community or poverty.

So fighting terrorism, and casting and testing all policies just in that light is not enough. What is to be done?

Well part of the answer is to be firm in our values. We live in a democracy. No one group – be that Muslims, Jews, old people, people with disabilities – whatever – even if every last member of that group disagreed with the government – if that group does not form a majority of people in the land or can gather other to its views – has any right to disagree by means other than peaceful protest or political campaigning. Full stop.

Another part is to be realistic about our impact on the world. Tony Blair’s first statement after the bombings were that they had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq.

Mr Blair, that was one of the most stupid statements you have made. Iraq may not have been the direct causal link – but it sure made for a good cause to rally extremists around and recruit to the fundamentalist cause.

A third part is to welcome the debate within the Muslim community. Should more preaching in English? Why don’t more Mosques carry out more outreach work and play a part in the whole of the local communities in a way that so many local churches do for Christians and non-Christians alike?

And of the wider community – why still the reluctance of so many to face up to the racially divisive impact of police tactics like thoughtless stop and search? Why such a readiness to fund military action, whatever the bill, but still such reluctance to fund tackling poverty in our urban areas?

The good part of Britishness – at its most base level of live and let live and adherence to the laws of this basically good hearted country is under threat – and we need to find ways, soft measures not new laws, to open up and share all that is good in this land so we all enjoy the benefits of democracy.

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