What does ‘British’ mean to you? And are certain ideas of ‘Britishness’ holding us back?

I’m really interested in the question of what ‘British’ means to people now. I am curious which images of Britishness are conjured up by Brexiteers. What British means to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, NHS workers, army officers, staunch Conservatives and practicing artists alike. And what British means to you, whether you are British or not.

The reason for my interest comes partly from reading Afua Hirsch’s excellent book, BRIT(ish). Born to British and African parents and raised in middle-class Wimbledon, she explores questions of identity on personal, collective and political levels and reveals the on-going challenges and prejudices faced by many black British. It’s shocking, moving and humbling. And it offers potent insights into Britain’s evident desire to be ‘post-racial’ before it has properly confronted the deeply embedded racism derived from old but intractable beliefs in the superiority of whiteness. 

As a person born to parents of differing nationalities, I have often occupied myself with questions of national identity. Now I am fascinated by the concept of ‘British’ more than ever because, from where I’m standing, Britain and Britishness are hurtling towards a potentially exciting cusp of change. I don’t mean the very tangible changes we, along with much of the world, are making as a result of the Covid pandemic. I also don’t mean the changes that will inevitably come about as a result of Brexit and our divorce from the EU. I’m not even referring to the changes the prime minister and government are plotting in order to make Britain ‘the greatest place on earth’. No, all those proposed changes, a bit like HS2 in a post-Covid world, feel slightly old and out of date already. Most have a reactive feel to them, like sticking plasters, firefighting or making-it-up-as-you go-along.  

Change is rarely comfortable. And fundamental change even less so. Many people fear it and tend to hold tightly to the status quo in preference of disruption. But I am keen to understand precisely what qualities of ‘British’ people are wanting to hold on to. Because it seems to me, and I am far from alone in this, that Britain – whatever that means – is holding onto something, or at least desperately trying to hold onto something. Critical words that have been around for decades in smaller circles are suddenly trending in new publications, articles and programmes. Where Britishness may once have conjured up images of fish and chips, rainy queues, Mr Bean and the Royal Family; or diplomacy, reserve, wit and multi-culturalism, the main things now being cited both here and abroad – and not without considerable sadness and dismay by countries that have deeply admired and loved the UK – seem to be largely scathing criticisms. Above all, of prevailing attitudes: British self-importance; self-congratulation; delusions of grandeur; flag-waving patriotism; exceptionalism; self-entitlement; immaturity, isolationism, archaism… it is not a flattering list.

What has happened? It’s long been clear that Britain has never got over winning the war and, though it’s less verbalised, losing its empire. Boris Johnson is busy channelling Churchill and the language used by many of our leaders merely reveals how stuck they are in ruts of victor/loser rhetoric on the one hand, and nostalgia on the other. Both are ossified and now misplaced attitudes that infuse national thinking and hinder their ability to respond to the very specific demands of these unbelievably challenging times with the appropriateness some countries with lower death rates have displayed. And of course, our pride in our victories and apparently benign empire is only partially justified anyway. There are far broader perspectives to explore and embrace that will not only bring honest nuance to our favoured narratives, but also acknowledge the lingering dark shadows we have cast over whole areas and peoples in our past. As Afua Hirsch says, ‘Britain definitely has secrets. They lurk in the language and the brickwork and the patterns of society.’

Why is it important to look at them?  

Why do we need to look behind us before moving ahead? 

Because until we do, many options and possibilities for the future will remain closed to us, not least in relation to the biggest challenge facing the world, climate change. Like a person riddled with festering wounds, Britain cannot move forward with the light optimism it so desires. It can only limp making the wounds more livid. But once we have tended to the hurt, trauma and ethical redress needed to heal our past, we will be able to move forward less hindered. We can then start the process of integrating the fragmented aspects of British society into a healthier, synchronised whole. This more inclusive version of ‘British’ with its stronger, more contemporary identity will restore us to the position of respect and admiration we long for and will then rightly deserve. 

It won’t be comfortable… but it will be deeply healing and liberating in the long run.

In the meantime, while I am aware that English, Welsh and Scottish also have individual identities, please send me the words and qualities that ‘British’ conjures up for you.

A few related links:

Afua Hirsch on BRIT(ish) – a short video

BRIT(ish) Review – what does it mean to be black and British now?

National Geographic: Why Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis

11 thoughts on “What does ‘British’ mean to you? And are certain ideas of ‘Britishness’ holding us back?

  1. Surely it means a person from Great Britain ie Britain and Northern Ireland.
    see opening lines of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles” The Island of Britain is eight hundred miles long and two hundred miles broad. Here on this island are five languages: English, Brito-Welsh, Scottish, Pictish and Latin. The first inhabitants of this land were the Britons who came from Armorica……….”( from translation by Anne Savage published 1982)
    Not unique in amalgamating several nations “American” “Indian” “African”

    • Thank you for your comment. I think my curiosity is primarily a qualitative question. What constitutes Britishness today? What are the national traits or characteristics of ‘British’ that we strive for and value ? It’s a tricky question I know!

    • Dear Angela,
      There are times (many, many) when I feel very grateful to you for stimulating my mind with your brain teasers.
      However, being as I am an increasingly lazy thinker as I get older, your “What makes us British?” conundrum somehow feels like a less welcome challenge …..
      With a British dad and an American mum, I guess I should be able to add something to the debate you’ve stimulated, but I do find it a tyringly challenging prospect.
      I promise to go on thinking about it, but as a starter it occurs to me to suggest that one useful approach might be to work through a number of paired/contrasted characteristics – two countries at a time. So, for instance –
      1. Ego – Britain v USA
      Suggested summary:
      • the typical American is perfectly comfortable with self-praise, egotistical ambitions/affirmations and generally blowing his or her own trumpet.
      • the typical Brit abhors these things. He or she sees modesty and humility as virtues (whereas the typical US citizen sees them as wet and unhelpful).
      You get the idea….
      Other suggested paired comparisons could be –
      • love-making – Brits v French
      • efficiency – Brits v Germans
      etc ….
      Do you think this approach might help the debate to progress?
      Maybe …. ? 🤔

      • Dear David, I so appreciate your engagement with my blogs and your responses are always welcome and of interest – thank you! I think making comparisons is a brilliant way forward. Often it is easier to define something by defining what it isn’t. Just like when you don’t know what you want, it is sometimes helpful to list what you absolutely don’t want. So I am going to move forward with your idea. I have often done it with English / German. e.g. the Germans like to talk in straight lines and get to the point while the English prefer to go around it, sometimes never getting to say what they mean. One can feel tactless, the other frustrating or even dishonest. Neither is right or wrong, just different. I wonder if you have found being dual-national has given you an opportunity to employ both ways of your two nationalities in different circumstances giving you a richer repertoire of ways of being…
        Thank you as always for writing and please feel free not to think further on this point!!

  2. Thanks again for your blog. I love reading them. Did you watch, dear Angela, this afternoon’s very interesting BGA Online Event “The road to 1990: Germany reunification”? I especially liked the contribution by Timothy Garton Ash. Much love, Eveline


  3. I think race and nationalism are constructs we either get handed by the powers – or we make our own, in which case we become our own island(s).
    I consider myself British but identify more strongly with Celtic Nations.
    Also the thought of sleeping in Kent gives me the heebie-geebies, I feel claustrophobically trapped between the Citadel and the Continent whenever I set foot there. Make of that what you will.
    30 years ago you could walk across the channel…

  4. An interesting piece. Unfortunately I can’t share your optimum. If I catch a glimpse of C4 or BBC3 I can see what the future of britishness contains – crass, vulgar and shorn of any tradition. I hope I am proven wrong but the evidence doesn’t point to the sunny uplands of a new Britain but downwards to a dark and maybe nasty place for most of us

    • Thank you for your comment. I have times when I also see just the darkness and nastiness of the future. But I trust… hope… try to believe that it will be a phase, possibly quite a long one, but one out of which we will eventually rise. Maybe my German roots have shown me that this is possible.

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