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 No, all those proposed changes, a bit like HS2 in a post-Covid world, feel slightly old and out of date already.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

To remove, or not to remove statues: that is not the question Britain’s imperial past is asking of the present.

Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.

In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.

In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”   

Colston’s statue being deposited in Bristol Harbour by protestors

Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.

I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.

Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.

Churchill’s (boxed) statue in Parliament Square

The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nation verge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.

The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.

Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.

The removal of the slave-owner Robert Milligan statue in Canary Wharf

From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.

Banksy’s sketch proposal for reinstating the Colston monument as part of a slavery memorial

Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

doesn’t make any sense.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.”

Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)

The dark side of British History you weren’t taught in school – video by George Monbiot

Robert Clive was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall by William Dalrymple

Removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes would be cowardly and anti-intellectual by Daniel Hannan

When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? by Kris Manjapra

Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war by Frederick Forsyth 

All lives matter: There is too much at risk for us to let the ‘culture warriors’ win. You cannot teach the lessons of history by trying to erase it by Liam Fox

Britain’s colonial crimes deserve a lasting memorial. Here’s why by Afua Hirsch

Until we reckon with our imperial history, Britain’s toxic culture war will burn by Daniel Trilling