I came across this essay on my work computer. It was my entry for the 2006 Pimlott essay writing prize. You can see by looking at the winning entries which I am sure are available somewhere online, why I stood no chance. Foolishly I went for a jovial, populist tone rather than the serious academic one of the winning entries. However, that tone probably makes this essay more suited to this blog environment. The title set was: 'Who Do You Think You Are? Can History Help Us to Define British Identity Today, or is it Part of the Problem?'. What I titled my essay is 'The State We're Not' a reference to Will Hutton's book, 'The State We're In' (1996) which was about the running of the British state. My essay is more about British culture and identity. Speaking to a woman from the Galicia region (which has its own language and culture and now a degree of autonomy) of Spain recently she was struck by the fact that Welsh people in Britain call themselves Welsh (there was a man present who had just done that) but English people called themselves British. As I have noted before, that is partly due to the difficulties around English identity. Anyway, I did not get to hear much about Galician vs. Spanish identity, but it did encourage me to dig out this essay, which I hope you find interesting.
'The State We’re Not'
Looking around UK society today, it is difficult to find positive examples of an appropriate British identity that you can adopt. How do you show you are British? Do you choose to be emblazoned with the Cross of St. George? Are you a Sunday-morning kilt wearer? Do you robe yourself in the garb that Victorians thought Druids wore? In most cases Britons will answer no. It is no easier when you go beneath such surface details. So how do you define yourself as someone who is British? Is it by the town you live in, even though you dislike your neighbours, let alone the people from ‘the estate’ or those from ‘the posh houses’? Is it by the team which you support, though that too is likely to divide you from more people than it is to link you with them? Is it by your language – one which is evolving quicker in Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing and Los Angeles than it is in Britain? Is it in the sense of what is ‘right’, the moral lead that Britain gives the world, though the more is known of our human rights record the more embarrassing it proves? Is it the ability to complain but not to act; the ability to seek to blame rather than to help? Maybe, but if not, how then do we define ourselves?
I would argue that in an era when many traditional views ‘Britishness’ are dismissed, it is only by defining what we are not that we get a sense of what it is to be British. The highly edited view of history in popular usage provides the tools to determine what so many of us brindle against. A fuller view of British history would provide a different picture, but one which most of us are not interested in hearing. Every country has dark and light sides in its story, and it is often hard for peoples to address the less palatable ones. The British feel we hold a trump card which means that when countries are challenged to tackle their history, we can claim, ‘well, we were the winners’, we decide what goes into the story and how it is told. Yet, I believe this let-out cheats the British of their true identity, something richer and more complex, and thus fascinating. Above all, something that would allow us to think and operate fully in the twenty-first century rather than with one foot still mired in the 1940s.
What, then, do we feel we are not? Stop someone in the street and these days most would say we feel we are not European. Many Britons welcome the proper teaching of History because it shows our young how we beat the ‘Europeans’. Even though Britain’s fighting men and women are lionized and national service would be returned at the drop of a referendum, we contrast Britain’s freedoms with the supposedly or once militaristic states abroad, notably Germany, Russia and Argentina. Somehow the British can love the military without there being anything wrong with it, whereas for others it is an ingredient of dictatorship. Having fought with every neighbouring country, and many others, in the preceding centuries and won, we believe this still equips us to tell them how to behave, whilst making their suggestions to us irrelevant.
‘Europe’ currently provides us with the scapegoat for all that is bad, from the comic regulation of our fruit and veg, to the level of taxes and the influx of foreigners. We expect special exemptions because we were the winners whereas the others were the aggressors or losers; we are the model that they should adopt. Our dismissing of anything European leaves us oblivious to facts like the French retirement age of 60 and that Belgian employees get 14 months’ pay each year to give them summer holiday and Christmas money. We are happy that the Europeans supply us, as they have for decades, with cheap shopping and cheap holidays, without ever asking, why these things are so expensive at home. Even if we do challenge such discrepancies there is always a simple answer: that must be something to do with the ‘EEC’. History can show that the British have had much exchange with the rest of Europe. As we find from among our surnames, despite our aspirations for isolation, there has long been traffic in both directions and connections with France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece and Russia to name a few.
We are less certain about this aspect, but generally we agree we not American. As with the Europeans, we feel that the Americans are somewhat naïve and in need of guidance from us, their elders. British history shows that our forces turn up first and stick it out, whilst cajoling the Americans into action. We admire their tough business practices, but would be bewildered if turned away from a hospital for having no health insurance or finding nowhere to ‘sign on’ after a few weeks unemployed.
In other ways we feel the Americans are soft. The ‘we-can-take-it’ attitude through centuries of fighting has meant that, unlike the squeamish Americans, generations of Britons raised on weekly casualty reports from overseas, if even from just across the Irish Sea, means we do not whimper as the death toll mounts. What goes for abroad applies to the home front too. September 11th – what is all the fuss? Who marks the days to remember Brighton, Docklands, Enniskillen, Guildford, Harrods, Manchester, Omagh and more? Is there a day in the British calendar on which some civilian has not been blown apart? The British have been through it and ‘keep on keeping on’. So, however much we would have liked to have our representatives in the Senate and have long preferred a bomb with a US flag on top, anything closer is only going to come once the Americans have matured to our level. Of course if we just viewed our Victorian history, we would know that, first, very many Americans have British roots, though these have been far more quickly lost than those with Irish, Italian, German or Polish connections. Second, that the current actions of the USA would look right and proper to those who had lived under any of Palmerston’s governments. Whilst this may not make them excusable it allows them to be understood and anticipated.
We are determinedly not political. ‘I don’t do politics’ has even been legitimised as a kind of catchphrase. We certainly do not see that the changes we desire, whether great or small, will be engineered or prevented by politics. There is a clear division between the outcomes we want and any method of achieving them that we will accept. Never educated about how our state works, we feel inadequate in any discussion of politics and this unease means, as a topic for discussion, politics is banned from dinner tables and sofas the length of the country. Such aversion, plus television, draws away those who once would have filled the ranks of the Chartists, the Suffragists, the Mosleyites and their opponents, and the anti-poll tax rioters. Nowadays we have a single, ineffectual, political weapon, the moan, used as we stand in the queue, as we shout at the television or at the drivers in the cars around us. Being British means being able to complain better than the rest; if it was an Olympic sport Britain would head the table for medals. Of course, Britain has never moved forward relying on simple complaints. Without something more dynamic in the past we would lack votes for many men and for all women; reasonable working conditions would be rare. Not knowing how such things were brought about, breeds both complacency and fatalism.
Anyone can bear witness that we are not merciful. News reports on the arrest of a murderer elicit scores of volunteers to be the executioner. In a country where guns are all but illegal, we would rather have every officer armed and a large portion of the ‘right’ people properly equipped too. Whereas we will not march, or certainly not more than once, to oppose a war or poverty or banning fox hunting, we relish the chance to pick someone else’s fight, even better if it is simply based on rumour and assumption. Rather than the activist we prefer to be the on-the-spot vigilante, to make the streets safe for us ‘decent’ people through our rage. Arbitrary justice is our favoured form with no time for lenient judges and the complexities of proof. We are British because we know what and who is wrong, and what ‘they’ should suffer as a consequence.
Feeling as powerless as we do in this society, the only tool of ordinary Briton is anger. From airport check-in desks to traffic jams we swear and jibe, hoot and jab with righteous indignation and a ‘how dare you!’ It stretches from those whose tack is ‘don’t you know who I am?’ to those who fall back on ‘do yourself a favour mate’. We are united and divided against each other in our ferocity. Our personal anger expelled temporarily, we slump back in our chairs to watch master classes in temper on our television. Reality TV shows us the reality of both our inability to cope with anything that confounds our plans and the force we use to challenge such ‘injustice’.
We are not tolerant. Whilst we may be sympathetic and occasionally reach a short way into our pockets to help, we would rather foreigners’ problems were dealt with in their own countries. For us, the words ‘asylum seeker’, no longer have any connection to persecution and torture, simply designating people who are not us, people who get greater benefits and an easier life than we will ever have, and yet who are at the heart of every local crime. Maybe this should not be surprising, as many corners of British history show where such tensions lead, from the forgotten anti-Semitic rioting of the First World War, through the Notting Hill riots of 1958 to the recent Bradford riots. Many of us define ourselves as not being ‘them’ - those invaders or in turn, not being ‘them’ – our attackers. Forgotten too is the fact that the British Isles are a landscape of settlement from pre-history to today; that the first Arabs arrived as Roman troops and racial legislation appeared in the 13th and 16th centuries. Through the centuries Britain has been a place of refuge. From Huguenots refugees of the 17th century through Jewish ones of the 19th and 20th centuries to the East African Asians of the 1970s, those fleeing persecution elsewhere have injected culture and prosperity, and contributed to the Britain as it is today. Forming opinions from perspectives that lack a sense of history may be a defining characteristic of the British, but it is liable to choke off such input in the future, leaving a society of stagnant attitudes and a stagnating economy.
Despite regular claims to the contrary, it is clear the British are not classless. E.P. Thompson argued that class was not about our place in an economic structure, but about our perceived standing in relation to the others around us in society, especially as consumption is now the basis of how we define our status. We define ourselves against everyone else we encounter; there are not three classes, but millions. I look down on him because his car has 0.2 litres less capacity than mine; I look up to her because her shoes came from that store; I look down on him because he has got last year’s toy; I look up to her because she got the chair by the window in the Television Room. Every aspect of our persona from where we live and work, and especially what possessions we have, separates us. You may argue that other countries are equally as divided, but the British add extra layers based on the less tangible aspects – our accents, our names and our attitudes. Ironically our consumer society means we are united in debt. So many of us teeter on the edge of bankruptcy; we are as vulnerable of a fall as any Victorian character of a Dickens or a Charles Palliser novel. For all our fine distinctions, so many of us are just a few purchases away from penury.
We are not intellectual. We relish the ability to dismiss learning; we are the only nation who can say someone is ‘too clever by half’ as if there is a quota we should not exceed. It is common to laud the self-made man, but such references now neglect that such people were also self-taught men and women as two examples from among the praised show: Brunel went to college, in France of all places, and Stephenson attended evening classes. These men did not despise learning in a way those attempting to be their equivalents do today who somehow assume great business people are born not painstakingly crafted.
Another role model swept under the historical carpet in more recent decades is that of the self-teaching trade unionist, probably best embodied by Peter Sellars in ‘I’m Alright Jack’. Whilst the movie ridiculed, it did note a common type of the 1950s: a man working to advance himself through study. Ironically, now, in a time when more people than ever can access education whether face-to-face or online, you cannot even satirise such people, because they have been wiped from history and a person’s knowledge of a football team’s record or the latest ‘Big Brother’ happenings win him or her higher status than any ability in history or engineering.
We are not lazy. Britons are united in how long they work. How would the Victorian reformers view our work practices now? A century and a half of legislation has not eliminated the long hours and the workplace injuries. Whilst we may have fewer bank holidays and work longer hours than colleagues in neighbouring countries, every employee is made to feel greedy for taking off time that is legitimately theirs. No comment on workplace sickness is unaccompanied by allegations of malingering; no reference to statutory leave is not countered by talk of how many millions each bank holiday costs employers. The history written in the future is more likely detail how many who were made unemployed by the minimum wage than to outline how many chip shop workers, as a result of its introduction, for the first time could afford a portion of fish and chips from an hour’s work.
We are not celebrities. The magical aura that so many Britons grasp for shows how many of us will not attain it. Our voices will never be spurned by a panel of experts, our dressing gowns will never be viewed through Channel 4 cameras, we will never be asked to escape from a jungle, and we will never attend Elton’s or the Beckhams’ bash. Yet, because the day-to-day work of most is so devalued, we aspire for our fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety, as if something not done in front of millions of viewers lacks value. Those of us who fail to become the latest manufactured pop idol, are thus left with nothing but shrieking in public places and condemning anything that we feel is alien, to give us some sense of being worthwhile.
So what is the role of history? The first question has to be – which history? Two decades of schools focusing on the history of wars and ‘great’ people has left so many of us without a history that relates to our present. Just as much as the ‘losers’ like France and Germany, China and Japan are having to address their histories, with all their difficulties, so must Britain. There are too many dark corners that to many have become myths to be denied. Who remembers that whilst Churchill never ordered a miner shot. he favoured sterilising habitual criminals? Who now believes that in 1910 King George V thought the country was on the verge of civil war? Who is familiar with Britain’s ‘punitive’ aerial bombings over Iraq in the 1920s? Who talks about keeping Jews out of air-raid shelters in the early days of the Blitz? Who describes that the Catholics welcomed the British Army into Northern Ireland for their protection in 1969? Who teaches what issues caused the Three-Day Weeks? Who can explain why the Community Charge was dubbed the ‘poll tax’? An incomplete, or even worse, a selected history, makes for an incomplete national identity. An identity for the future cannot be one that has its feet mired in a distorted view of the past. It has to be based on the good and bad of every country, not viewed rosily nor seeking to demonise those of other times and places.
How can history play its part in identity? With so much negativity, who can offer a solution? Where is the focus of pride? Maybe television offers some answers, look to Tony Robinson and to the late Fred Dibnah. These ‘amateur’ enthusiasts were in a position to interpret history to be both interesting and relevant in a form accessible to viewers. The stories they have told are of a Britain in all its complexity, involving all kinds of people. They successfully highlight that the great moments of history have been underwritten by hard slog. The great cathedrals, the burgeoning cities, the glorious victories, the NHS are all built on sweat and ache of millions of hands motivated by an infinity of thoughts and ambitions. There is a place for the rulers and the governors in such stories, but they are not us, they are not the people who actually did the things which have created the Britain and thus the Britons which we know.