Thursday, March 17, 2005

There's an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman...

My MP sent me a card to tell me that she was proud of Britain.

Which is nice.

It has a picture of a row of seven kids, in those absurd blazers that the headmasters of comprehensives still think make their schools look posh. Five out of the seven are statistically white, but it is a statistically correct black girl who is at the center of the picture, looking into camera. She is both literally and metaphorically waving a Union Jack. At risk of over-interpreting, the black girl with the flag has what looks like a prefect’s badge, but the white girl just behind her has a prefect’s badge and a head girl badge. I think the message is. “Ethnic Britons. In the minority, but at the center. Successful, but not too succesful.”

There is logo in the top right hand corner, depicting half a Union Jack, with the words “Proud of Britain” underneath it. What this means, who can say. Half the country is proud of Britain all the time; or all the country is proud of Britain half the time; or all the country is proud of Britain but only as far down as Newcastle.

This drivel was sent out, not by the BNP or even the Tories, but by the "Labour" party. On the reverse is a little questionnaire asking “Why are you proud of Britain?” and allowing space for three lines of very small handwriting. You can go to a website and read some of the answers that other punters have sent in. It’s an absolute hoot. It turns out that I should be proud of Britain because "Bus drivers are far more considerate than in other areas" and "Independent research shows that the tax burden in Britain is lower than France, Germany and Italy." ‘Mary from Lancashire’ explains that she is a pensioner and "this winter I am going to be warmer than before", before concluding "I'm proud to be British under Labour." Note how imperceptibly we slide from “Proud of Britain” to “Proud to be British”. I imagine the perpetrators of the leaflet were fully aware of this sinister double meaning. (See under “pigs, flying” and “plausible denial.”)

Why am I proud of Britain? I don’t understand the question, any more than if you had asked me why I am proud of my street, or my borough, or my city. I’m not particularly “proud”, it’s just where I happen to live. Now, if you had asked me “Why do you like being English,” I could have come up with some possible answers.

I like being English because the world's best playwright wrote in English.

I like being English because we invented a game with such complicated rules as cricket, taught it to everyone else in the world, and still can’t beat them at it.

I like being English because our national dishes are stodgy comfort foods like Yorkshire Pud and fish and chips.

I like being English because of Morcombe and Wise, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

And the Beatles, obviously.

Oh, and Radio 4.

I like being English because of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I like being English because there are still a few real ale pubs

I like being English because there is a street in York called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate.

I am certainly not in any sense proud of England. I don’t think that we are better than the Scots because we brew the best beer and they brew the best whiskey. But it probably isn’t a coincidence that I’m a real-ale man. There is a sort of agreed symbolism around “Englishness” and “Ale”. I bet if I’d grown up in Dublin, I’d prefer Guinness.

I don’t know how I would go about being proud of Britain. I mean, what would I be proud of? I’m not proud of the geographical feature called “the British Isles”. I am hardly going to feel proud because Ben Nevis is, in real terms, taller than any French mountains of similar height. I’m not proud of British culture. There isn’t any. There’s English culture and Scots culture and the cultures of the various immigrant communities. When politicians try to talk about the subject, they often find themselves saying that the essence of Britishness is multi-culturalism and diversity. Which is, being interpreted, “We don’t have a culture of our own, but we are very good at putting up with other peoples.” And (it goes without saying) I am not proud of the fact that I am descended from one of the original, native inhabitants of these islands, because that is (a): Utter cods-wallop and (b): racist.

The only thing which I can understand “Britain” to mean is “The British State” or “The British Constitution” or “The British System of Law” -- the collection of civil servants, rules, flags and aging aristocrats which act as a sort of administrative umbrella over the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland. The wages of politicians and civil servants are paid by the British State, so it is not very surprising that they, unlike normal people, think a lot about British-ness and would like everybody to be Proud of Britain. In a similar way, the only person who believes in the existence of the Commonwealth is the Queen, who owns it; and the only people who thought that the Student Union had the slightest significance were the six hacks who ran it.

I am not proud of the British state or the British constitution, because I had very little input in setting it up. (I would have helped if I’d been asked, but I must have been out when William and Mary phoned.) And I am not a politician, a soldier, a civil servant or a police officer, so I can’t even claim any credit for its day to day running. But I do, on the whole, think that the British State is quite a good thing. I’m quite glad that its rules and regulations are the ones under which I live.

Maybe “proud” just means “respect, admire and approve of” or “feel cool about”. In which case, there isn’t space on the back of my little card to enumerate all the ways in which I am “proud” of Britain. A short-list might run:

I’m proud of Britain because we don’t have oaths of allegiance or citizenship ceremonies.

I’m proud of Britain because the police don’t routinely carry guns.

I'm proud of Britain because we have a system of law where every man is assumed innocent until he is proven guilty.

I’m proud of Britain because everyone has the right to a trial by jury.

I'm proud of Britain because politicians can’t interfere with the decisions of judges.

I'm proud of Britain because when the police arrest someone, they have to either charge him or release him within a very short space of time.

I'm proud of Britain because the police can't stop me unless they have good reason to believe that I am doing something wrong. They can’t, for example, stop me to make sure I am carrying my identity card.

I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be imprisoned (or put under house arrest) without a fair trial.

I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be accused of a serious crime, like, say, terrorism, without seeing the evidence and having a chance to answer it.

I'm proud of Britain because it does not torture or execute anyone.

I’m proud of Britain because if someone has been tortured in a foreign country any confessions or evidence obtained can’t be used in a British court.

I’m proud of Britain because we don’t deport people to nations where they might be executed or tortured.

The other day I heard a "Labour" spokes-person on the radio explaining that the British People could vote out the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at a general election. But the British People can’t vote out judges. So politicians are more accountable than the judiciary. So it is a good thing that the new anti-terrorism laws will be administered by politicians rather than judges.

I am less and less proud of Britain every day.


Anonymous said...

Taking pride in anything other than one's own achievments and contributions seems a little self-defeating to me.

I think there may also be a link between pride, and how easily one is offended or angered.

Anonymous said...

I think it's significant that I've never heard a Labour minister try to defend the anti-terror legislation's reliance on politicians instead of judges (back when they were still clinging to that line) without sounding, to me, acutely embarrassed.

Porlock Junior said...

Note how imperceptibly we slide from “Proud of Britain” to “Proud to be British”.

Isn't it a remarkable concept? I've never figured it out, though all my countrymen (-persons) ar expected to be Proud To Be American. So terribly clever of me, to arrange to be born in Los Angeles.

Have the British, or the English or somebody, lost the fine sense of irony that they had under Victoria? "It's greatly to his credit That he is an Englishman" seems to have been some kind of joke, on the same lines as "only a Parley-Voo." (A joke that the French, masters of irony that they are, failed to grasp.) Shall we now see Labour MPs singing the song as a companion piece to "Jerusalem"?

Americans supposedlly never had any sense of irony to lose, but there is a certain class of Yank that relishes that song and the finale and the enormous Union Jack that always drops out of the heavens at the end of Pinafore. Given the type of patriotism we're exposed to, which often is the first refuge of scoundrels, we need it. (It would not be so good, of course, if we had the notion that an Englishman was not a good thing to be.)

If the Labour Party no longer needs that kind of mocking negative thinking, maybe we'll just take it off your hands.

Porlock Junior said...

Andrew makes me ask myself a question I hadn't really thought of: Do I like being American? It's what I am, and there's no getting away from it; nor do I want to, most of the time. But would I say that I like it? Behaviorally, I suppose that my opposition to any idea of changing it means that I like it; or perhaps that I'm addicted.

Nor can I really see Charles's point about the American's special feeling that all the nation's achievements are mine. I just don't see it that way. Perhaps I'm just weird.

One fine model for love of country is George Orwell. His essay "England Your England" is well worth reading today. (I like to read it in conjunction with Dorothy L. Sayers's "The Mysterious English". Very different essays, written to the same purpose, written very well, distilling the political differences of the writers. I think Orwell wins, of course.)

Orwell begins characteristically, "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." (Compare Sayers's lead, which is a sarcastic apology for having to say some good things about England. That Orwell guy could have written something good about politics and language.) He then gets down to the business of talking about patriotism, and the differences between nations, and all kinds of rude things about England and the way it's run. He seems to see things wrong that are neither lovable national quirks nor malign foreign influences. In the end, he says, the "gentleness, the hypocrisy, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies."

That's the kind of patriotism for me.

One of the advantages of being American is that there are all these good things on this side of the water, and you get Shakespeare and Orwell and all those guys as a free bonus.

Sorry to go on at such length in comments, when maybe I ought to be putting it in my own blog. "What I like about [your contry's name here]" seems to avoid these distinctions in what we are proud of, if anything.

Anonymous said...

Taking pride in a nation is like taking pride in a yard; you want to keep it neat, tidy and well-tended so your pride is justified.This is one of a number of thoughtful comments which have made me have a nice hard think, so I figured I should post a follow-up.

Love of one's nation can indeed be a constructive thing. One can just as easily love nations other than one's own.

I think my main issue with the notion of national pride is that is limited to one's own nation. It is exclusive by nature, and as such easily attaches to similarly exclusive attitudes such as arrogance and racism.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to this discussion, but I thought I'd contribute a bumper sticker I saw today, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA:

"I love my country... but I think we should start seeing other people."

Anonymous said...

Love the quote, Lirazel. :-)

Not quite what I'm getting at. The thing that bugs me with National pride is that it is based on dividing the world into those within the lines on the map and those outside.

I mean this in the same way that racial pride divides the world.

In both instances, the pride can have constructive influences. But the destructive influences are there as well.

You know, the more we discuss this the more I am starting to think pride might be like any other emotion. Not inherantly a bad or good thing. If that's the case, we'll have to change the list of Seven Deadly Sins.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew Rilstone said...

Offensive comments removed. Please do not feed the troll.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.