Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 June 2012

Is it wrong to be proud to be British?

With polling evidence today suggesting that the Jubilee celebrations have made 33% of people across England, Scotland and Wales ‘more proud to be British’ – and only 1% less proud – it is perhaps time to ask what if anything is wrong about being proud to be British. Am I proud to be British?

The question was prompted in my mind this morning by my brief walk across the village green to buy my Sunday paper from the village store run by a well-established Asian family. So well-established in fact that the two large England flags draped from the first-floor windows above the shop were the only England flags I saw on my admittedly unrepresentative perambulation. And I don’t think this was just commercial opportunism on their part: the guy who manages the shop is active in the village football club, speaks with an English accent and is a genuine England football fan.

I did, however, see plenty of Union Flags hanging down and over from the Jubilee festivities, in the form of bunting, an advertising banner attached to the railings in front of one of the two mercifully still trading pubs looking out upon the green, and even a discreet but moderately large flag posted on the corner of a front-garden wall. ‘Discreet’ perhaps best sums it up. It’s as if loads of patriotically ‘British’ – and mostly middle-class? – people have seized the opportunity presented by the Jubilee to take their turn to run up their allegiance on a flag pole, having for years suffered in silence as white vans, semi-detached houses and family estate cars up and down the land have proclaimed their loud and garish support for the England team in what have been destined to be but short-lived flowerings of English footballing glory. But this is done discreetly, as I say: nice streams of bunting – not in your face all over houses and cars. Very English, indeed.

In fact, I’ve seen only two cars – and perhaps even just the one car, seen on two occasions – sporting the Union Flag atop their car door frames. It simply isn’t ‘British’ to make a display of one’s patriotism in such a ‘common’ fashion – or not so common as it turns out. (Leaving aside the fact that it is British, apparently, to spend three days literally parading the British flag, and celebrating the British state, all the way down the Thames, in front of the Palace and in the City of London.) Mind you, I’ve seen only two vehicles similarly displaying the Flag of St. George, and England’s first Euro 2012 game is only a day away.

I remarked on this fact to my partner last night as we went on a ludicrous late-night shopping foray to our nearest Tesco. As we were leaving the store, we saw one of the offending cars displaying the Union Flag above the driver’s and front passenger’s doors, and my partner said to me: “There you are, somebody’s flying the flag”. Of course, I had to point out to her that it was the ‘wrong’ flag, if indeed this display of patriotism had been prompted by the football, not the Jubilee. I managed, just, to avoid the potential for a blazing row, but not without a comment to the effect that I was judging the person responsible for the Union Flag display on appearances rather than the sentiment in the heart, which would have been the same whether it was a Union or England flag. Is that right?

What I would say in reply – but didn’t, as I really didn’t want that blazing row at 11.15 pm on a Saturday night – is that this is like saying that someone wearing an Arsenal shirt is going to support Spurs (my team) in tomorrow’s FA Cup final because their sentiment and loyalties are basically the same, and, after all, both teams come from North London. Err, no, it really doesn’t work that way. While the footballing example is perhaps somewhat crass and trivial, the point I’m making is that the meanings and values associated with (middle-class) English people discreetly proclaiming their pride in being British, on the one hand, and (working-class) English people loudly broadcasting their pride in being English are widely divergent and profound.

For those English people who are prouder to be British today than they were ten days ago, the objects of their pride are things like: the Queen; the monarchy; the system and traditions of British government; perhaps even, a little bit, Britain’s ‘proud’ imperial past; London as a ‘world city’; the British ability to organise and execute things like the river pageant, rock concert, cathedral service, carriage procession and fly-past with such dignity, order and precision; British ‘culture’, both high and low; and the British ‘nation’ as a great player on the world stage – supposedly – on, and up to, whom the eyes of all the world were looking. By contrast, for those English people who have been wont, in the past, to festoon English flags all over their property during international football tournaments, their pride in England relates to more ‘basic’ things – some might say simpler and more fundamental things: physical and sporting prowess; generally peaceful, but essentially ‘tribal’, competition and ‘battle’; England’s great footballing traditions and passion; and a rare occasion to come together and celebrate our common belonging as a nation, while taking advantage of a perfect excuse for a piss-up.

Which of these things are ‘better’? Who can say? I know, however, which of these things I’m more proud of. I greatly respect the Queen, who is in fact as much the Queen of England, in the popular imagination, as the Queen of Britain. Indeed, when did you ever hear the phrase, ‘the Queen of the UK’? I also do respect and, in some ways, reverence the UK traditions of government, which have evolved from centuries of English history, and from the constitutional settlement reached in the wake of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, the system is in dire need of a radical overhaul, including recognising England’s right to self-determination and self-government. And all the pomp and circumstance? Well, yes, it’s highly impressive and entertaining. But I’d rather that ‘Britain at its best’ were defined less in terms of pageantry and more in terms of government working to improve the social and economic conditions of ordinary English folk, so they can access good education and decent, sustainable employment based on an economy that uses England’s talents and resources for the good of its people, not primarily for the profit of big business, the City and global corporations. At least English people gathering to watch the football in boozy bars, or on the terraces in the Ukraine and Poland, are only going to start a bit of a brawl and not a war – unlike those canons firing off their 60-gun salutes or those jet fighters brazenly displaying Britain’s fading military might.

Oh yes, and while I think of it, it is mostly English people who are more proud to be British as a result of the Jubilee – or at least they’re prouder to be British to twice a degree as Scottish people. The YouGov poll linked to above found that the proportion of English people that was prouder of being British post-Jubilee ranged ‘region’ by ‘region’ between 34% and 36%. In Scotland, however, the proportion was only 19%. This is still quite high, especially as only 3% of Scots were less proud as a consequence of the Jubilee. Nonetheless, it’s a telling indicator that Britishness is a proposition that appeals to English people significantly more than to Scots; and that’s because, really, it is a largely English phenomenon.

So how do you want your patriotism flavoured, England? Do you want it British-styly, or down-to-earth, common-or-garden English? Well, we’ll see how people’s newly re-found pride in Britishness fares when things do indeed come crashing down to earth and back to reality after the temporary escapism of the Jubilee – or after England come crashing out of Euro 2012!

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