On underdogs, chips on shoulders, being mean, being noble, and being British

Whatever Scotland decides today the referendum has thrown the union into an identity crisis. While what it means to be Scottish feels tangible, being British is an aerated insubstantial thing, difficult to define, described differently by different groups of people depending on your class, income, and place of birth. Is it possible to come up with something definitive? What does it mean to be British?

A couple of years I was in Donegal in Ireland looking at the landscape and marvelling that less than a hundred years earlier the people here had been British. So odd when they were so clearly Irish. I turned to my Northern Irish friend and asked her how we both happened to be British, when our experiences and histories were so different? What did it mean to us culturally?

A few days earlier, landing at Belfast City Airport, I had taken the Remembrance Day poppy out of my lapel: wearing it in Northern Ireland isn’t a symbol of honouring the dead and patriotism, it’s a symbol of support for the British Army and their actions, including the crimes. Being British isn’t the same for us. The best we could come up with was a shared belief that a cup of tea would make everything better and an obsession with the X Factor. Not a very compelling argument for the union. And yet I find it hard to believe that the only thing uniting us is cups of tea and Saturday night light entertainment.

Just like I find the Better Together campaign’s arguments based on economics, currency, and the military (even a shared military history citing the two World Wars) soulless. Of course there are practical advantages to sticking together but are we four nations just together for mercenary purposes? Like a married couple who stick together for the tax breaks, and co-exist in the same space, avoiding encountering each other as much as possible? Are we together for business reasons? Or might there be something that binds our nations’ hearts?

So six months ago, in a swelteringly hot night bar in Hanoi, on my holidays, another friend and I were discussing this very point. Where was the love? What’s the spirit of being British? We didn’t have in mind the cheesy video out together by Eddie Izzard and co. though we understand the sentiment. We were looking for someone to appeal to something greater, braver, bolder than the begging tactics of ‘it’s not you, it’s us, please don’t go, you’re beautiful’. What’s noble about our mash-up country?

Once again, as in every place I’ve ever been, people willingly told us how the British (ie we) had let them down oppressed them or allowed them to be oppressed in times past. Is that what it means to be British? To be a representative of all that’s mean and bullying in the world? No wonder our constituent parts want to lose the name, if so. I don’t want to be associated with that rubbish in our history either.

Then again, think of the numbers of people who moved here from all over the globe and the people who want to and can’t. What’s the British aspiration? Why, aside from the economics, do people cram themselves into containers and creep into people’s car boots to smuggle themselves across the Channel? What kind of Promised Land is Britain for the off-comer?

For those who have come here from other countries maybe being British is easier to define. It represents a place of freedom of expression and of tolerance, a spacious place where you can be Shia or Sunni, Protestant or Catholic, black, brown or white and there’s room for you to contribute. Like our language which absorbs and co-opts words and syntax from other places, being British is to be part of a collective of eclectic and sometimes eccentric peoples.

Admittedly we’re completely rubbish at this in practice. We’re united in hating the other. From the protests outside the BBC in Glasgow to anti-Semitic graffiti in Manchester to acts of hatred against Muslims in Birmingham and London, we’re brilliant at vitriol and spite. It’s not noble.

Being British is to believe yourself to be the conquering underdog. At worst we splinter into factions – City fans vs United fans, Lancashire vs Yorkshire, Highlands v Lowlands, Welsh speakers v non-Welsh speakers, north v south, everyone else v London. We all have a chip of some description on our shoulders. Our diversity makes defining ourselves consistently against the other easy.

At best we relish it, and the creativity that being confronted with the new and the different brings has made the Brits inventors, innovators, designers, entrepreneurs, and discoverers. It’s made our tiny and geographically insignificant island one of the main players on the world stage. Yes, it inflates our sense of importance, but it reinforces this belief that the underdog can conquer. Because look, we did. And still do, sometimes for good sometimes for evil.

That tension between our differences is a finely held thing, often knocked off-kilter. When the balance tips away from us, the chip on our shoulder becomes a burden we can’t carry and our pride makes us shout. After all, we’re a boisterous and noisy people. We write, we protest, we march, we speak, and the vote is given, pay is raised, welfare is created. Not always, but it’s why the NHS is so fought over and loved: it represents an equality we aspire to. We all get sick, we all deserve to be cared for equally. The chip notwithstanding.

Perhaps of late we’ve not taken enough care of that balance. Perceived favouring of one part over another in our mish-mash country. It’s why when No campaigners rallied in Trafalgar Square, Twitter was alive with Yes campaigners shouting about ‘Those Tories in London’. We’re not all Tories, but when you don’t take care of the balance, when you stop listening to one another, the debate, our fragile beautiful tension of a country goes to its extremes. We polarise and box each other. We take up our positions and get entrenched. We get nationalism and UKIP and incitement to racial hatred and too much of the difference and not enough of the creative unity. Our union has to be nurtured, shouted for, heard, and held in tension. It’s a tightrope to be walked that needs to be held taut.

Should Scotland leave, the optimist in me hopes they build a brave new more egalitarian society, the kind of place I’d like to emigrate to – it really could be an amazing, startling, and beautiful thing. Should they stay, they stay to help all of us do that, to bring us all back into line, to agree that the differences exist and are hard to confront, but that in confronting and overcoming them, we are crafting something unusual, vital, creative, and beautiful too. We are the same but different, different but the same. Shall I put the kettle on?

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5 responses to “On underdogs, chips on shoulders, being mean, being noble, and being British

  1. Thanks for this – really interesting stuff. I have to disagree, however, that we ‘completely rubbish’ at tolerating each other, or that this is particularly British failing. Yes of course there are Brits who are intolerant, or racist or whatever, but actually in comparison with very many places, we’re extremely open to what people from other countries and cultures can bring and prepared to celebrate it too; along with our cuppa, we’ll probably be having a dinner of chicken tikka masala after all. We’ve always had a belief that as long as you’re minding your business and not hurting anyone, you can live as you please. That may not seem like much of a value; it may even create a vacuum where others with a more ideologic bent can step in, but to me it’s our greatest strength and the reason why so many want to come here.

    • Fair enough – we’re not completely rubbish, you’re right. We’re not stellar though and I guess I didn’t want to idealise us in what I was writing. I do believe our tolerance and openness is our strength, and maybe our defining quality. I do also think it’s a fragile thing we can’t take for granted and need to protect. Our tendency to slip into comparing ourselves against one another too easily slips into intolerance, whereas, you’re right, if we’re able to have a cup of tea and share food together, we’re pretty much okay most of the time. Maybe tea really is the answer…

  2. Britishness for me is an evolving admixture of things like tolerance (largely), belief in the rule of law, constant borrowing from other cultures (in times of Empire this often meant theft, now it’s more about ideas and experiences), curiosity, an ability to see (and often obsess about) our faults, a certain modesty about our achievements, and (in general) reticence. Travelling in California years ago I was shocked when an American colleague stated that his country was the best in the world. Goddamn world actually. I asked him if he had been to all the others. My standpoint I feel was terribly British, his totally American.

  3. Oh hello Martin! I think that’s a fairly solid list. Even post-referendum, I think this questions of what being British is continues to matter. Without a uniting sense of nationhood, any attempts at empowering the regions will splinter into divisive factionism. We needn’t define ourselves oppositionally (i.e. not from Yorkshire!), with all the potential for discord and stridency, if we really know what values we share. Hope you’re well?

  4. Hi Johanna, I’m as right as ninepence, roughly my hourly rate it sometimes seems. Just got my nomination papers in for the local council election (Green candidate in more ways than one), which is exciting though in this area cats in hell are sniggering about my chances. Nil desperandum (spes unus if we’re keeping very poorly punning score). How’s life, love and work with you?

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