What does it mean to be British? I mean really, what does it MEAN? Is it about being born here? And if it is, why are people like this so desperate to spew their ignorance in full view? Britishness is a concept, created by human minds and is therefore as mutable to the next person as the one before- though some may share commonalities on what it is, where it comes from ultimately Britishness is decided by the individual until we set down a true consensus of what Britishness is.
Racist folk love to deny people their own nationality based on their heritage. But how far back do we go? We were all African once, all descended from black people originally, all descended from people who travelled to Britain from other nations. Our white skin comes from a genetic mutation because we didn’t require as much melanin on a rainy, cold island that gets dark at 3.30pm in winter. But skin colour is not, and never will be a blocker for Britishness despite the ignorance of the racists. In fact, many caucasian people who live in the UK are decidedly not “British” by their standards, because they come from Europe, from America, from other overtly white or majority white countries. If whiteness is the deciding factor as it is for the racist caller to David Lammy above- what’s to say the Europeans aren’t as British as the rest of us people of pallor?
OK, cry the frustrated nationalists, it’s not JUST about skin colour: so what else? You have to be BORN here! You have to have been birthed in Britain to instantly absorb some of the magical British essence at the moment of your first cry, yes! That’s it… but wait… Boris Johnson, prime minister, was born… in America. So our head of state, our top leader, the man elected(ish) to highest office was devoid of that mystical British air we all have. Maybe that explains why he does such a shocking job but, still… it doesn’t solve the conundrum of why or how Johnson is a Brit.
Well, naturalisation of course! You can naturalise and then that’s it, that’s how you do it. You come here and you work hard and then there you have it, British you are forever and ever with the passport and the strange fetish for tea the rest of us encapsulate in our being… right?
Well… not according to Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The draconian new law (no not that one… the other one… yes) the Nationality and Borders bill has essentially enfranchised citizenship into a privilege one can be deprived of at the whim of a government who has yet to truly clarify on what grounds they can rescind something that’s been earned by one of their citizens.
So we can earn it, but it can be taken away. It’s not something we’re born with because it can be earned. And we don’t have to earn it because someone born overseas has earned it heavily enough to be our highest elected official… So what is it?
The “other” problem with Britishness… The British
Lately a huge hidden group in the population have revealed themselves, casting off the masks of fellow ordinarians to suddenly stand amongst us. They call us sheep and themselves lions- but sheep and lions don’t share fields.
Wolves though… wolves can share fields with sheep. Wolves also attack and kill sheep.
I’m quite happy to be labeled a sheep to be honest, when it comes to following what I saw as entirely necessary restrictions to prevent deaths from a dangerous disease, or because I wanted to remain in the EU flock. Other people’s opinions of my moral or political choices don’t affect me much because I always think about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and how it benefits me and others, or whether it would harm people to do what I do. Call me a sheep or a shill, I’ve already run the paradigms in my head and I’m comfortable with who I am and how I operate.
Lately, I’m surprised people are interested in claiming British nationality. Our passport has slid down the chart of most powerful passports to hold, our economy has been shaken to it’s core and shrunk like a primark jumper in the wash, our world standing is that of a country desperate to encapsulate a greatness we’ve rarely displayed outside of brutal imperialism, and our hostile environment means that all of the above, no matter how disproved, means people still may not consider you really really British, even though they don’t know what that is.
So we know what it isn’t- what is it?
I don’t know.
I don’t think anyone does. But I know what Britishness seems to be right now, and what it could be. Britishness is currently the desperation to cling to Blitz spirit, a time where people followed safety restrictions like wearing masks, whilst not actually doing what that entailed. Britishness is claiming that being British is the greatest honour in the world whilst also not caring one jot about your fellow country people- whether that’s refusing to follow safety mandates or letting the government push ever more people into poverty. It’s declaring that we’re the greatest nation in the world as Scotland gear up for another independence referendum, Wales look to do the same and Ireland look to unify to escape the noxious madness of the English.
So then, what could it be?
We could admit our sins, we could work together to heal the rifts of Brexit (whether that encompasses staying out of the EU or an eventual attempt to rejoin when this madness burns out), we could work together to actually build the nation in the mind’s eye of the people so proud of the mirage they see when they look for the green and sunlit uplands.
Ironically, losing EU status made me feel less British. Harking back to the start of this piece, I said that Britishness means different things for different people. For me, Britishness was always about multiculturalism and about sharing our country with those who wanted to come here and enrich us- be it culturally, with their work specialty whatever that may be or, hell, with their presence itself.
I’m not naive, and I know that not everyone that comes here is going to be some wonderful European draped in their country’s culture, eager to make things better- but I’m also not stupid enough to think that every British person is a paragon of virtue, eager to help their fellow countrymen when the chips are down- the callous disregard of the vulnerable at this stage of the pandemic (it’s not over just because the figures stop, it’s just invisible and unmeasured) shows me that Brits are all too eager to ignore their country-fellows if it gets difficult for them. Some of the worst people I’ve ever met have been natal British people – if that’s even a phrase, as it made my stomach roil to type it. And some of the best have been African, From other European countries, American.
Let me guess: Why don’t you just leave?
Lately I feel like all I do is talk about how sick of Britain I am. It’s not because I don’t care and it’s not because I’m not patriotic. It’s because I refuse to cling to the idealised version of the UK so many people do. I see things for how they are, and I know that we can do so much better but we cannot do that whilst we recline on a bed of Johnsonite lies- we cannot do it whilst we mourn for a prime minister we’ll never have- and we can’t do it whilst we disenfranchise Britishness from people who work harder to claim it than some that live their whole lives with their silly blue passport as a de facto right.
Here’s the irony. There are huge, gaping problems with Britain, wounds in our side and whether you want to acknowledge them or not they are there, haemorrhaging. Some are keen to ignore these wounds and others, like myself and my fellow activists, call them out, are trying to stem the flow of lifeblood, are shouting to medics. I don’t want to abandon the UK to die of it’s wounds. I want to make it better here. I want to make British people happier, healthier, safer, smarter, richer and more prosperous.
Someone the other day said I “need to think about what those who disagree with me think”. I don’t disagree. But in 5 years I’ve never once met a brexiteer who didn’t approach any questions about Brexit with a sneering attitude of hiding some grand secret we remainers aren’t party to which all boils down to “The EU did some bad things” (you can’t get the DJ to change the music by screaming outside the entrance to a club). And ultimately if your goals aren’t aligned with mine – as in finding practical steps to make British lives better, we just don’t have a lot to talk about. And, even further, if your goals of making British lives better are simply to flag wave with no substance, to talk about the great and green country before you when the green isn’t grass but the toxic fumes of corruption then you’re not my country fellow, you’re as close to an enemy as one can be without actively bearing down on me with a pistol in hand.
I know England in particular can do better, but not until we give up the foolish lie of perfection in a country that’s ailing, failing and sailing head first into multiple disasters. We can build something great- once we condemn the creaking structure of Johnson’s levelling up in a country he’s simply levelled.
Daviemoo is a 34 year old independent writer, radicalised into blogging about the political state of the world by Brexit and the election of serial failures like Trump and Johnson. Please check out the rest of the blog, check out Politically Enraged, the podcast available on all streaming platforms and share with your like minded friends! Also check him out on ko-fi where you can keep him caffeinated whilst he writes.
2 thoughts on “The mythology of “Britishness””
Fintan O’Toole, an Irish journalist, was one of the first to join the dots between the 2011 census and what English people said when asked about identity and the brexit vote in 2016.
This is a few years old but it is worth watching as it is still relevant.
I often find myself send that clip to european friends who don’t understand the nuances of what’s going on with Ireland, the border and brexit. O’Toole explains it very well.
First 10mins should give you the gist but he echoes what Gavin Esler (ex-newsnight presenter) wrote about in his missive “How Britain Ends”.
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Thanks for this, will have a good listen to that!
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