Britain Seeks Its Essence, and Finds Punch Lines
LONDON — It was a lofty idea: formulate a British “statement of values” defining what it means to be British, much the way a document like the Declaration of Independence sets out the ideals that help explain what it means to be American.
Because of the peculiarities of its long history, Britain has in modern times never felt the need for such a statement. But in an era of decentralized government and citizens who tend to define themselves less by their similarities than by differences of region, ethnicity or religion, the government felt that the time was ripe for one.
The proposal, part of a package of British-pride-bolstering measures announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s new government over the summer, raised a host of tricky questions. What does it mean to be British? How do you express it in a country that believes self-promotion to be embarrassing? And how do you deal with a defining trait of the people you are trying to define: their habit of making fun of worthy government proposals?
Detractors spread the rumor that the government was looking not for a considered statement, but for a snappy, pithy “liberté, égalité, fraternité”-style slogan that it could plaster across government buildings in a kind of branding exercise.
Nor did it help when The Times of London cynically sponsored a British motto-writing contest for its readers.
The readers’ suggestions included “Dipso, Fatso, Bingo, Asbo, Tesco” (Asbo stands for “anti-social behavior order,” a law-enforcement tool, while Tesco is a ubiquitous supermarket chain); “Once Mighty Empire, Slightly Used”; “At Least We’re Not French”; and “We Apologize for the Inconvenience.” The winner, favored by 20.9 percent of the readers, was “No Motto Please, We’re British.”
“The point I was making is, this idea of a statement of Britishness; I cannot think of anything less British than that,” said 25-year-old David Bishop, author of the winning motto.
In the House of Lords, there was a surreal debate on the nonmotto, even after Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, an official in the Ministry of Justice, said flatly that there were no plans to have one.
“I do not think I will go down that route,” he said. “But I will say that the motto of Birmingham City Football Club is ‘Keep right on ’til the end of the road.’ ”
The Earl of Mar and Kellie then suggested that the British could use the Scottish motto “Nemo me impune lacessit,” which he translated from the Latin as “Do not sit on a thistle.” (Actually, it means “no one attacks me with impunity.”) Lord Faulkner of Worcester offered “Play up, and play the game,” a line from a Victorian-era poem comparing conduct on the battlefield to conduct on the cricket field. And Earl Ferrers said that if it proved too difficult to come up with a British-wide motto, the House of Lords could perhaps use its own: “Questions and answers ought to be short.”
Part of the trouble with the whole exercise is that Britain never really began as a country, but rather “just evolved endlessly through time,” said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford.
“In the past, Britain was something that just happened,” he said. “You didn’t have to think about it. No one’s ever sat down and thought about what it means to be British.”
On the contrary, said Michael Wills, the Ministry of Justice official in charge of the statement-of-values exercise. “It’s absolute historical nonsense,” he said in an interview. “There’s been an intense preoccupation with what it means to be British from the 17th century onwards.” After a long period of post-imperial transition, economic decline and loss of heart in the second half of the last century, he said, Britain has a new confidence and robustness and is ready to say so.
“People are proud of being British,” he said. “When you ask people, ‘What does it mean to be British?’ they want to talk about it.”
The government’s plans also include coming up with a definition of British citizenship; formulating a “bill of rights and duties” for citizens; and even considering writing down a constitution (it is currently unwritten, an accrual of precedents). There is also talk of a “British Day,” similar to Independence Day; a “museum of Britishness”; and a revisiting of the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” one of whose later verses advocates annihilating the “rebellious Scots,” which is not very nice to the Scottish.
The Scottish, who were empowered by the Labor Party to set up their own Parliament and take more control of their destiny, are feeling particularly un-British these days and in any case have never really liked the song.
“It’s surprising that it’s taken them 250 years to realize that it’s not inclusive,” Brian Adam, a member of the Scottish Parliament, said last month. “I personally am more happy with ‘Flower of Scotland.’ ”
The historian Tristram Hunt said that such grand gestures would not sit easily with many Britons, anyway. “I personally think it’s based on a misreading of the British character,” he said. “Part of the attraction of Britain is the space it gives people to pursue their own agendas and identities.”
In advocating the proposals, Prime Minister Brown, a Scot himself, has been influenced by the United States, with its melting-pot philosophy and strong sense of national identity, and by the ideas of Sir Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain. Sir Jonathan believes that while Britain was once like a country house — everyone was a guest, and everyone felt a sense of belonging — now people are treating it like a hotel, checking in and out and hunting for bargains. Instead, he has said, it should be a community that people build together.
As for the statement of values, Mr. Wills of the Justice Ministry said that the government would soon hold “an extensive and intensive” period of consultation with regular people on what being British means to them. After that, it will convene a “citizens’ summit” of 500 to 1,000 people who will deliberate on the matter. The final decision on the statement will be made by Parliament.
But the government has its work cut out for it, if the sort-of debate in the House of Lords is anything to go by.
After Lord Hunt’s assurances that the government had no plans for a motto and his colleagues’ insistence on discussing one anyway, Lord Conwy had a thought. Why, he asked, could they not just use the French “Dieu et mon droit,” which means “God and my right?”
Lord Hunt replied: “As the noble lord will know, that represents the divine right of kings. While it is of course a well-known phrase, one would need to reflect on whether that would be entirely relevant to a motto that we are not going to have.”