‘That which we are, we are’: what is Britishness?
The literary among you will of course recognise the title quote as being taken from Tennyson’s Ulysses. Granted this is a pretentious way to start a piece, but I thought I could get away with it by disguising it as allegory. After all the entire poem and its author can be used as shining examples of confused state of ‘britishness’ today.
On a purely superficial level the poem itself describes an old, warn out, man. Someone who used to be great, who ‘strove with Gods’, but now has aged, decayed, is ‘not now that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth’. As was famously noted in Skyfall this poem reflects the case of modern day Britain, a nation on whose empire the sun never set. But for whom those days are now behind.
However, this in turn reflects the confused way in which we perceive ourselves, as Britons, in the 21st century. After all Tennyson was from the age of empire. Not only that, he was one of its most potent symbols. His poems, along with Kipling’s, are some of the strongest examples of the old British world view. This world view was ultimately based upon empire; it glorified Britain, and the British people (meaning of course white Anglo-Saxons). It portrayed Britain as the strongest and greatest of nations, a civilising force on par with ancient Rome, it portrayed the peoples of Africa and Asia as uncivilised, as needing the British to guide and rule them.
The problem of course is that in the 21st century Britain is no longer this nation, our empire crumbled long ago, and we are far from the strongest of nations (we have to borrow an aircraft carrier from the French after all). Further, Britain in the 21st century is a multicultural nation, made up of many beliefs and creeds, many of which were deemed as uncivilised by our imperial ancestors. Of course I am not claiming that everybody with a traditional view of Britain is a racist or an imperialist, but we cannot avoid the fact that that is where this world view stems from. Further, politicians are increasingly using this world view as a rallying cry. What is UKIP’s surge is not an indication that many parts of modern Britain want to go back to the days ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. But herein lays the very crux of the problem.
There is no longer simply one Britain, or indeed one Britishness. Unlike in the 19th and early 20th centuries when being a British national carried with it a very clear, homogonous idea of what Britain was and what it meant to be a citizen of this country, in the 21st century there are a hundred different Britains, the Britain of the Working-class British Muslim in Preston is almost radically different from the Britain of the Etonian public schoolboy. While this was always true of lifestyle throughout history it is only recently that the fundamental crux of what Britishness is, what it means to be a part of this nation, has fractured. This is dangerous as it means that modern Britain has no grand, overarching and inclusive ideal of itself. In short nothing to unite us regardless of race, creed or belief. This of course is how groups like UKIP become so popular, in the absence of a cosmopolitan narrative, exclusivist ideas become more popular among separated communities.
If we wish to solve the puzzle of what it means to be British in today’s day and age, therefore, we have to start addressing the nature of who we have become. We have to create an ideal that bridges the gap between disparate communities, who believe they have little in common. In short we have to create commonality. Of course this is far easier said than done. But if we don’t attempt to do this, if we as rational well meaning people simply stick our heads in the sand and hope everything works out for the best, what will invariably happen, as history has demonstrated so many times before, is that narratives of fear and distrust will take hold. The separation of communities will entrench; Britain will find it harder and harder to build a better world as people grow more and more distrustful of each other.
We need to fight the views of groups like UKIP with a narrative of our own, one based on a cosmopolitan and inclusive world-view, not an exclusive, fear-based one.
By Jack Agnew