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 No, all those proposed changes, a bit like HS2 in a post-Covid world, feel slightly old and out of date already.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

So we’re all here… but how do we get ‘there’?

Things have to change… surely no-one could disagree with that? For Covid has neatly lined up in plain sight all that is unsustainable, unjust and disproportionately vulnerable in our society. The question is: How? Who can we rely on to bring about change? I have already gone through a list of potential candidates to lead the way – the prime minister, politicians, councils, charities, schools – but they are all tied up in complicated knots of agendas, quotas, targets, financial restraints, guidelines… the list is long. So I have been asking myself, what I personally can do. But aside from the things I already do, I haven’t come up with much that doesn’t involve getting angry or overwhelmed to little effect. 

It’s quite easy to become despondent isn’t it? In spite of my initial high-octane optimism that this pandemic was a global wake-up call of such volume that nobody could sleep through it, I have to admit to succumbing to little bouts of chocolate- and mid-week-rosé-fuelled Can’t-be-arsed Syndrome myself. Because as lockdown eases, it has become increasingly clear that some of those in positions of power haven’t woken-up. It’s sort of not in their interest to. So that leaves us to bring about the changes. You, me, him, her, them. And I think I have finally identified two places we could start. One is in the past, the other in the present.

The Past

In order to move into a new future with lightness, vision and energy, we need to face and reconsider our past. History is intrinsically linked to identity – who we are and how we got here – and is broadly made up of heroes, victims and villains. Of course it’s natural to want to see your ancestors and nation as heroic. And if they can’t be heroes, then victim. The move to villain, on the other hand, is huge, hard and largely unprecedented. But people need a healthy balance of their country’s strengths and weaknesses and that requires shining the spotlight of awareness and truth into the dark, painful and uncomfortable corners of our history. Not just for deep moral reasons, but because unresolved trauma, injustice or wrongdoing refuse to rest. Instead they remain potent disruptors, passing from generation to generation in search of resolution. 

We have just witnessed how the footfall of the recent Black Lives Matter protests rattled the buried crimes of our colonial past until they erupted through the pavements, toppling outdated values from their pedestals in order to draw attention to the costly price of British imperialism. Counter protests claiming the removal of statues is to ‘destroy history and heritage’ don’t wash, for statues don’t uphold history, just the values of the time; the events and people we want to remember. Like carefully selected snapshots of a nation’s best side, they are not the whole picture.  

Whatever you think of protest, it has time and again been the vital precursor to change. It was, after all, the student demonstrations of 1968 that demanded Germany finally pull its reluctant head out of the sandy silence to face the atrocities of its past and seek atonement. The current protests are also a demand for a more honest appraisal of who we are, not just as a nation but as individuals whose values and actions have been unconsciously shaped by the deeds, and misdeeds, of those who went before us.

So, we each have a real choice here. We can either keep repeating the familiar stories of past glory, riches and world power while watching on as our present falls into widening abysses of social injustice, inequality and environmental destruction. Or we can pull out the roots of these fissures and start to lay more solid and fertile foundations for a better future for the younger generations. 

The Present

The second starting point comes from a lesson I used to teach prisoners in my mural painting classes, one that I myself now need to relearn: that regardless of what is going on around you, there is always personal choice. 

Creativity is all about choices. No rights or wrongs, just a series of decisions. It’s a process in which successes and strengths are built upon, while mistakes and weaknesses are learnt from, transformed and integrated. The prisoners experienced how each person becomes a co-creator working toward a common goal, the details of which emerged along the way. Initially they couldn’t apply this freedom of choice to their daily prison lives. ‘Choice?’ they’d say. ‘What choice? We can’t be with loved ones, we can’t go to the pub, we can’t even have a shower when we choose!’ True, I’d agree before suggesting that they did maintain a freedom of choice when it came to how to respond to each given moment, person or situation. Would they smile, curse or punch? Put the pencil back in the materials cupboard, or nick it? Over time, they witnessed how their choices began to change their world, and then other worlds they touched. A ripple effect of change…

Of course this wisdom is not mine. It was the basis of the teachings of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and creator of logotherapy who claimed: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He should know. He survived Auschwitz and various other camps by discovering what he believed was the primary purpose in life: the quest for meaning. In the early days of psychology and psychotherapy, there was an assumption that we exist in order to reach a certain level of pleasure, power or success. Sigmund Freud’s ‘pleasure principle,’ claimed that the central motivator in human life was to gain as much gratification of our fundamental needs and urges as possible. His disciple, Alfred Adler, substituted ‘pleasure’ with ‘power’ as the prime driver of human striving. His theory believed that all of us are born with an innate feeling of inferiority, which we try to overcome by striving for superiority through power, influence and money. For Frankl, on the other hand, all these goals were actually symptoms that a person had failed to find meaning; a meaningful goal, task or person. Meaning fills the void that so often fuels the unhealthy and destructive drives for personal power and pleasure. Covid and lockdown nudged many of us into searches for meaning, now it’s our choice whether we pursue it.

The Future

I have experienced deep meaning and reward in facing and redeeming the uncomfortable aspects of my German national and familial heritage. In tiny and larger ways, the process changed me as I uncovered unconscious drivers; it changed members of my family and it continues to change people who attend my talks… That’s why I can’t encourage people enough to look at their own history and lineage, warts and all, before the people who can tell you about them disappear. If we can heal our past and make good choices in our present, maybe, just maybe, we will succeed in steering our masked and fragile society to a future that is fairer, kinder and more sustainable for all. 

In Victor Frankl’s words: Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.