Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2009

It IS great to be British: Britology at its best

“It IS great to be British”. With its emphasis on ‘is’, this phrase reminds me of the opening of the song, ‘Oh, I DO like to be beside the seaside’. Brown’s latest eulogy of Britishness does indeed have something of that tone about it: well, we’ll all pull together, come rain and foul weather; there’s nothing like a crisis to get us going, and we’ll jolly well come up trumps in the end.

Well, that’s all right then. Evidently, we’re in safe hands. If you want an example of what I understand by the term ‘Britology’, this is a prime example. All the motifs are there in concentrated form. I was tempted to produce a detailed, blow-by-blow critique; but, like Brown, I’d just be going over old ground, and it would be dignifying the drivel (if not drizzle) in too high a degree.

If you feel like some bedtime reading to send you off into a fitful sleep spent endlessly turning over the same phrases in your mind, in the desperate attempt to squeeze out some meaning – any meaning; or if you fancy something to make your blood boil; then go ahead, take the plunge and read it. Here are just a few pointers to watch out for:

1) Britishness / Englishness: What Brown says about ‘Britishness’ could just as easily be called Englishness. And that’s because he IS essentially talking about Englishness, as the Britishness he outlines is what he needs the English to think of as their true, underlying ‘national identity’ – whereas, in reality, it’s Englishness that is the underlying national identity of Britishness: “We have shown over three centuries that a common ground of Britishness, of British identity, can be found in the stories of the various communities and nationalities that inhabit these islands. . . . On one side, our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities – now, of course, added to by many others . . . . On the other, carefully balanced and held in tension, the organisations and operations of a British state that, shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state”.

Eugh? Decoded: ‘British patriotism (patriotism, you understand, not nationalism) is the acceptable face of the English nationalism (and national identity) that originally subjugated the other British nations and the colonies, who are now (after three centuries) England’s equals within a common Britishness’.

2) Don’t say ‘England’, or – if you have to – marginalise it: In order for Englishness to be re-presented as Britishness in this way, Brown needs to suppress or marginalise all references to England. This is because the thing he has to avoid at all costs is referring to the real political history of Britain, which is that the British state has been predominantly driven and moulded by English national and economic interests; and that England could once again develop a national consciousness that, this time, could see its interests as being better served outside the UK, rather than inside. This marginalisation is evident in the above-quoted reference to “our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities”: putting ‘English’ last in line after the smaller nations, as if England were only one and – by implication – almost the least important driver of British identity; well, the least distinctive element in Brown’s Britishness, that’s for sure.

Another example is a quite ludicrous passage referring to the recent financial crisis:

“I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

Yes, this is where the discussion ends. ‘What about England, you f***er?’ was literally my response on reading this (well, OK, without the asterisks, if you see what I mean). The point being that people did question whether England would be better off weathering the financial crisis on its own: that it wouldn’t have been so s***ing awful in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have had to mortgage the future of the next generation of English kids and NHS patients to prop up the Scottish banks (and Chancellors) that had been foremost in getting us into the mess in the first place. (While on the subject of the NHS, you’ll love the lyrical passage about how it is an example of our fairness and unity as a ‘nation’. What a load of absolute tosh: there are four NHS’s thanks to Brown and New Labour, and the English one gets the smallest per-capita funding of them all – really united and fair!)

3)  British values: While we’re talking about ‘fairness’, all the pantheon of ‘British values’ are paraded out here, especially – alongside fairness – ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberty’, along with the Brownian insistence on ‘responsibilities’ alongside ‘rights’. It is highly ironic to hear someone like Brown emphasising liberty so much (an irony that seems totally to escape him), given the fact that his government has been responsible for removing countless liberties that have been fought for and cherished by the English over centuries.

4) British, not English, history: What is even more outrageous is that Brown presents this historic struggle as British history:

“But from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our ‘gift to the world'”. 

Ahem: excuse me, Sir, but weren’t Magna Carta and the Civil War part of English history, before ‘Great Britain’ even existed? Not in Brown’s school of history, they aren’t. Just as a common Britishness – not England and Englishness – is the centre and driving force of Britain, for Brown, so ‘Britain’ is the ultimate telos of the history of these islands: the goal to which it inexorably tends and from whose standpoint alone the definitive history of these islands will be told. Or, in other words, those founding events in English history are indeed confined to history; whereas their continuing effects are now framed as part of the British present and future, which transforms those events retroactively into ‘British history’ (no longer English) and a founding part of the British identity. 

This appropriation to Britain of the narrative of English history is dependent on the suppression of the fact that the struggle for modern liberty began in England and is a constitutive part of the English national identity. Indeed, one might even contend that a hidden (or not so hidden) driving force behind Gordon Brown’s suppression of ‘our liberties’ is his urge to suppress England itself: the nurturing mother of freedom. 

5) Nations and regions: Just a few overt instances, made all the more sinister by the general talking up of Britain as the nation [is it my imagination, but are politicians and the media increasingly referring to Britain as a / the ‘nation’ nowadays, almost as much as they call it ‘the / this country’?], while references to England as a nation are avoided at all costs and the ‘regions’ are clearly meant to be English (although they could also be read as referring to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, too): 

“There is the changing role of the state and its relationship with our regions, with communities and individuals”. Is that his way of referring to devolution, which he doesn’t mention explicitly anywhere else?! Or is this just a reference to the non-mandated, centrally imposed regionalisation of England; the equally non-mandated reforms of local government; and the steadily advancing encroachment of the state into the lives and liberties of the individual? 

Or again: “a strong sense of shared patriotism can be built that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion”. Race, region or religion – the new ‘3 R’s’! Oh, I get it: ‘region’ is the new collective term to refer to what Brown previously christened the ‘nations and regions’. It’s what you might call a more politically correct revision of that previous designation: it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ‘regions’ of England, by simply referring to them all as regions. Well, that’s all right then. Except we know that, in reality, those nations do now have new national institutions (their own parliaments and governments), whereas we English are lumbered with the ancient and unchanging institution of the UK parliament – unless you count the unelected regional authorities as the new institutions for England. And, of course, this way of looking at it makes Britain the nation, as it is frequently termed in Brown’s essay. 

Elsewhere, Brown refers to Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and England (let’s get the order right) as ‘nationalities’, not explicitly as nations. This implies that there aren’t four nations in the UK but just four distinct national identities that have fused to form a single British nation. But, ironically, this bizarre coinage makes the indigenous peoples of these islands seem like uprooted immigrants to Britain: having a nationality distinct from the nation (Britain) in which they now live. In fact, ‘nationality’ is more commonly used to refer to a person’s official national identity: their citizenship. We talk of ‘British nationality’ but of the ‘nations’ and national identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and Cornwall, for some). 

This linguistic confusion marks out the way Brown turns the realities of British national identities on their head: ‘British’ is in reality the name of a ‘mere nationality’ (citizenship, statehood). But Brown wants to make Britain out to be a nation and the core national identity of its citizens. If Britain becomes a nation, then the ‘lesser’ term of ‘nationality’ can be applied to the UK’s historic national communities. And yet, ‘nationality’ is in fact the more ‘proper’ (official, legal, formal) name for a person’s ‘national identity’ – so that ascribing ‘nationality’ to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish suggests that these – not Britishness – are the founding national identities of the UK. But then, all that is left for Brown to hook his concept of ‘proper’, true British nationhood on to are attributes of citizenship and statehood – those above-mentioned civic British values and the institutions of the state: “the organisations and operations of a British state, . . . shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state. . . . I believe we are discovering that what unites us is far greater than what separates us, and that the values we share most are those that matter most. Recognising them, and with them the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, will strengthen us as an open, diverse, adaptable, enabling and successful modern state”. The state as nation; and the nations as superseded, nationalistic ‘nationalities’. 

Well, I’m sorry; I ended up doing the lengthy demolition job after all. Familiar ground, but endless permutations of the same delusional reasoning and twisted logic. But it’s true, there is one thing that IS great about Britain: you’re never far from the water. Deep water in Brown’s case.



  1. Some minor points perhaps but the Magna Carta contains three Welsh clauses (and a clause about Alexander II of Scotland getting his sisters back?). The English civil war has always been a bit of a misnomer since it was fought in all parts of these islands. Attempting to compartmentalise our histories can be a little tricky but I agree on the wider point that Brown is trying to appropriate a pre-British English narrative.

    I suppose you could say he’s espousing an old-fashioned Anglo-British narrative, rarely challenged before the likes of Linda Colley and Norman Davies.

    Comment by Hendre — 5 May 2009 @ 9.58 am | Reply

  2. There was no British nation at the time of the Magna Carta or English Civil War, Hendre, and so they were English – whatever the Magna Carta REFERS to, it is English. Scotland and Wales will no doubt have their own terms for any English Civil War-related fighting that took place involving those countries. It is difficult to “compartmentalise” our histories, you say? Not at all! The histories of neighbouring countries often overlap, there are often references and knock-on effects. But the originator remains the originator.

    Comment by Maria — 5 May 2009 @ 11.48 am | Reply

  3. I’ve heard so much about the Englishness of the Magna Carta lately I couldn’t resist pointing out that it contains Welsh and Scottish clauses. I agree with you, Maria, as a compact between a King of England and his barons, it lies firmly within the narrative of English history (with some contemporary significance for the Welsh and Scots too).

    The Welsh clauses are a matter of interest because they affirm the primacy of Welsh and Marcher law in Wales and the Marches. So for those who currently object to the idea of a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, well, it’s in the Magna Carta after all …

    Re the English civil war, various different terms have been used over the years to describe this period. Isn’t the War of the Three Kingdoms the current favourite?

    Comment by Hendre — 5 May 2009 @ 3.32 pm | Reply

  4. I don’t know, Hendre… can three separate Kingdoms share a single war? The “Three Kingdoms” tag does not appear to be an attempt to replace the English Civil War, but appears to refer to a broader view of the era, encompassing Scotland, Ireland and Wales – although the singular “war” tag appears be lacking in logic.

    You say: “I’ve heard so much about the Englishness of the Magna Carta lately I couldn’t resist pointing out that it contains Welsh and Scottish clauses.”

    That’s most interesting. Do you find it difficult when things are defined as being “English”. If so, why do you think that might be?

    Comment by Maria — 5 May 2009 @ 4.31 pm | Reply

  5. “I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

    My first thought after reading Brown’s diatribe was what a lie! I mean the bloke is bare-faced lying. He knows it and so do a lot of other people. Who wants this bloke in power? He can’t even tell the truth.
    Of course he can waffle on about britishness all he likes. He cannot however deny that he signed the scottish claim of right. Everyone knows you can’t serve two masters. No honestly, I think he’s just crapping on about britishness ‘cos he thinks it’ll somehow stop the English from claiming their natural birthright of self-determination. You are waging a war you cannot possibly win Brown. Either leave or be sacked. The choice is yours.

    “…for those who currently object to the idea of a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, well, it’s in the Magna Carta after all”

    Nobody cares mate. I know you want us to give a crap isn’t it? Personally, I will laugh til I cry when us English are rid of you decrepit, whining, miserable drips!
    You do realise that your silly goading is a dead giveaway right? A giveaway of your own insecurity. Besides that wasn’t it the Tudors who annexed wales? Oh what a joke.

    Comment by M Anderson — 6 May 2009 @ 4.28 am | Reply

    • Steady on, M. Anderson! Hendre would doubtless point out to you that Henry Tudor was of Welsh descent on his paternal side! Also, I like Wales and the Welsh. In fact, my mother is Welsh, and I’ve still got family there. Let’s have no insults against the Taffs (oops!).

      While I agree that it’s a bit niggling to have the English Civil War re-named as the War of the Three Kingdoms, it was still overwhelmingly an English event and driven by the struggle between the English Parliament and Throne. I don’t think anyone here disagrees with that. Gordon Brown might – but then he’s just a mono-ocular, Caledonian intellectually challenged person, as we know.

      Comment by David — 6 May 2009 @ 8.24 am | Reply

  6. Maria, I’m all in favour of the English disentangling Englishness from Britishness. Had Gordon Brown presented this vision of Britishness twenty or thirty years ago there probably would have been few objections from the English (if anything you might have thought there was too much talk of ‘nations’ in the plural). Elective devolution has changed all that but Brown refuses to acknowledge it. As Britologywatch notes, it barely gets a mention. Brown can’t even bring himself to list devolution as one of the “many changes” his generation has seen.

    Back to the Magna Carta … I was being slightly mischievous in bringing up the Welsh clauses in this context but I think it’s worth noting such clauses exist. My reference to ‘those who object’ was more aimed at Welsh devo-sceptics and diehard “nation state” unionists (some of whom refuse to believe that Welsh law ever existed).

    As for the Tudors, one of our historians summed them up quite well: the significance of the Tudors wasn’t that they identified with Wales but that the Welsh identified with them. Jasper Tudor, Henry Tudor’s uncle, was quite an adept political operator and harnessed Welsh sentiment to the Lancastrian/Tudor dynastic cause.

    Comment by Hendre — 6 May 2009 @ 10.14 am | Reply

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