Being British, Edited by Matthew d’Ancona
Under Gordon Brown there has been a renewed debate about what it means to be British, and this collection of essays, inspired and introduced by the Prime Minister, seeks to enlarge this debate.
The 35 contributors to this volume are largely agreed that the reason for Britishness being a subject of debate is the devolution of Scotland, the rise of home grown Islamic terrorism, and the increase in immigration. With a general election approaching this book is worth a look.
The essays range from the very short, to the fairly substantial. Of the 35 there were 12 I thought really worthwhile – inevitably with a volume like this there is a certain amount of repetition between authors, and a patchiness in quality. The political/cultural division represented in the book is summed up by George Carey – on the one hand, those who locate Britishness in such things as, “a common standing army, economic success and necessity, religious tradition and heritage – alongside British institutions.” And on the other, “those elusive ‘values’ of ‘fair play’, tolerance, rights and responsibilities, respect for the law, and so on, which are hardly the unique properties of Britain.”
As someone who leans towards the former definition, I found the most irritating contribution in this volume to be that of Trevor Phillips, which seemed to be just one cliché piled on top of another, in an attempt to puff the Equality and Human Rights Commission which he heads.
If you wanted to cut to the chase, the 12 essays I would pick out for your consideration are those by:
• Alex James – bass player in Blur, and producer of organic cheese
• Libby Purves – writer & journalist
• Dylan Jones – Editor of GQ
• John Gray – Professor at the LSE
• Douglas Murray – Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion
• Rowan Williams – Archbishop of Canterbury
• Jonathan Sacks – Chief Rabbi
• John O’Farrell – author & commedian
• Anthony King – psephologist
• Michael Gove – Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
• Tim Hames – Head of Communications & Public Affairs at the British Private Equite & Venture Capital Asociation
• Charles Leadbetter – author
This selection probably reveals something of my political bias and cultural assumptions, so your list may look different, but it gives you somewhere to start.
As this is a varied collection of essays it is hard to summarize, but I’ll try to do so… The British are the result of a long pattern of immigration and ‘unsuccessful’ conquest. We gave the world the industrial revolution, but are characterized by muddling along. Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia ground zero of claiming us to be ‘a young country’ was a grave mistake, as we are at our best when we have an awareness of our history. History – and English Literature – should be more taught, and better taught, in our schools. Vague concepts of ‘tolerance’ are not enough to sustain us, and it is the breakdown of the family that is central to our other social dislocations. We are a unique island, with unique demographics – densely populated, highly urban, dominated by one super-city, which is as big as the next 17 largest British cities put together. We are not good when we are too earnest, which is just one reason why I’ll take Alex James over Trevor Phillips any day…
This book might not help you decide which way to vote on May 6th, but then it just might. And if nothing else, it gives a useful insight to the mind of the current incumbent at Number 10.
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