Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 March 2008

Correction: the Proms are all right – just leave out ‘Jerusalem’!

What a marvellous thing serendipity is! I was just thinking yesterday that it was about time I did another piece on the English Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I took a brief break from work and wandered downstairs to make myself a sandwich; tuned in to my beloved Radio Four; and heard a news item on yesterday morning’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) by the English Minister of State for Culture, Margaret Hodge, entitled, ‘Britishness, Heritage and the Arts: Should cultural institutions promote shared values and a common national identity?’

The Radio Four item homed in on the bit towards the end of the speech where Ms Hodge criticises the Proms (the traditional summer-time series of (mostly) classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London) as being perhaps unrepresentative of the inclusive, culturally diverse, modern sense of Britishness that the cultural ‘sectors’ (e.g. the arts and media) should seek to express, as they hark back to the jingoism of Britain’s imperial past. The BBC wheeled on Nicholas Kenyon, the former director of the Proms, who defended this particular institution as precisely embodying the cultural diversity Ms Hodge was advocating – given that during the two-month-long series of Proms as a whole, a huge variety of musical styles and traditions from throughout the world are featured. It was just the traditional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ that could possibly justify Ms Hodge’s criticisms: much waving of the Union Flag and chanting of patriotic hymns such as ‘Rule Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

The Radio Four article was prefaced by the presenter indicating that they had invited Margaret Hodge on to the programme to discuss her speech and that she had initially accepted, only to cancel later in the morning because of some other commitment that had cropped up. The newscaster speculated whether Downing Street had stepped in to prevent her appearance, presumably out of displeasure that she had associated something that David Cameron was quoted as describing as “a great symbol of our Britishness” with something nationalistic, culturally exclusive and anti-progressive.

Indeed, later in the day, during another wonderfully fortuitously timed work break (coinciding with the PM news programme on Radio Four), it emerged that during a briefing at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman had clarified that, “DCMS had also stated that, in the view of Margaret Hodge, the Proms were a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution, which did a fantastic job to promote serious culture to millions of people; this was a view the Prime Minister very much agreed with”. Clearly, Ms Hodge had received a little slap on the wrist from GB [Gordon Brown] for having dared to criticise a tradition that provides an opportunity for people to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack and celebrate Britain as a great nation (which is not the same thing as old-fashioned British nationalism, you understand)!

To express the contrary point of view, the PM programme brought on the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg, formerly the bard of New Labour and latterly a critic of its more conservative tendencies. He defended Margaret Hodge’s earlier (but subsequently ‘moderated’) criticism of the Proms as being not particularly representative of, or conducive towards, a culturally inclusive Britain while balancing this point of view by agreeing to some extent with Nicholas Kenyon: that the ‘problem’ was only really with the Last Night, with its jingoistic resonances and parading of the Union Jack. And this is where things got really muddled: Billy Bragg then declared that, whereas he used to be quite sceptical towards the Union Flag because of its hard-right, nationalistic associations, he now felt more positive about it as a symbol of some of the great things that Britain had achieved, including through the Empire, and of an inclusive UK formed from the coming together of different nations [seeming to align himself with GB, then]. In support of this new-found pride in the flag, he compared this to the English taking pride in displaying the Cross of St. George; and ‘no one was going to try to stop them doing so’. Wrong; this is precisely what they (i.e. the government) do try to do: promote official flying of the Union Flag (as in the guidelines published by DCMS itself) and the discouragement (and actual banning?) of any official use in England of the flag of England.

Then Billy Bragg went on to claim that the association of the Union Jack with the imperialistic overtones of the Last Night of the Proms, and absence from that occasion of the other flags of the UK, was indeed a problem. Wrong again: in all the recent pictures I’ve seen of the Last Night of the Proms, there are many Flags of St. George alongside the Union Jacks, and also Welsh flags, banners reading ‘Cymru’, and even the occasional Saltire. So in fact, even the Last Night of the Proms could be given as an example of an inclusive, multi-national UK. I’m not sure, however, that this is a reason why GB would endorse the Proms: he for one, I’m sure, would prefer it if only Union Flags were on display in the Last Night, making it a celebration of a unified Nation of Britain and not of the different nations of the UK.

Maybe the problem with the Last Night of the Proms for Bragg and Hodge, then, is not so much its UK-wide symbolism but the fact that it stands for a mono-cultural and nationalistic Britishness, as opposed to the multi-cultural, internationalist Britishness they both espouse. OK, what we’re really talking about here is an English Britishness. It’s the Englishness of this particular celebration of Britishess they don’t like; in particular, its ‘elitist’, white English middle-class character. This is the subtext of Margaret Hodge’s critique as well as the basis for Billy Bragg’s inconsistency over the Cross of St. George: OK as a symbol for the English working class but definitely not if associated with white middle-class British nationalism – the old type, that is, where Britishness was celebrated as an extension of English national identity and pride. Why else would Bragg say that we could still have a Last Night of the Proms so long as it no longer included a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’? I ask you! Of all the anthems traditionally performed at the Last Night, this is the only one that is universally thought of as an English hymn as opposed to the unmistakable Britishness of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Bragg then alluded to the fact that a bit of Vaughan Williams wouldn’t go amiss: echoes of the Vaughan Williams (non-jingoistic British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both English.)

The dichotomy that is at work in Bragg’s and particularly Hodge’s advocacy of a culturally inclusive Britishness, and indeed of a ‘culture industry’ that promotes social inclusion, is a common one within the ‘Britological’ promotion of Britishness over Englishness. ‘Britain’ is seen as culturally inclusive, open, internationalist; whereas Englishness is associated with all the worst aspects of exclusivity, narrowness and tribal nationalism that in the past were linked with Britain’s imposition of its rule and civilisation on the peoples of the Empire, and in the present is seen in hostility towards, and separation from, the multiplicity of peoples and cultures (again, many coming from the former Empire) that continue to settle in Britain. But the paradox of this British all-inclusiveness is that it is predicated on the exclusion of Englishness, the touchstone of the old mono-cultural, national Britishness: Britishness that was the expression of a nation – England – rather than a merging of multiple nations (including the ‘former’ nation of England) into a cultural (rather than ethnic-national) unity that has progressed beyond traditional nationhood and become truly international and global.

This helps to illuminate why Margaret Hodge’s criticism of the Proms is so fundamentally misguided: she rejects it as an example of an exclusive Britishness; and yet, of course, if the Last Night traditions were jettisoned on these politically correct grounds, it is they that would end up being excluded and censored in favour of the type of supposedly more inclusive, internationalist British culture of which Ms Hodge provides examples in her speech. Why can’t the Last Night of the Proms be retained as a relatively harmless expression of a now largely moribund British patriotism that was actually inclusive of the different nations of the UK – if necessary, alongside all those other cultural celebrations of multi-culturally inclusive Britain Ms Hodge supports? Isn’t that what true cultural diversity entails: mutual tolerance of difference, including different interpretations of Britishness? But again, it is perhaps the very native, ‘tribal’ quality of this particular celebration of national British identity that Ms Hodge objects to: the fact that it’s an English Britishness and by that very token perhaps evokes a Britain defined in terms of the four indigenous nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall) that were united – albeit in a contested form – in the English-controlled UK before devolution? In other words, it’s an ethnic-British, mono-cultural Britishness: inclusiveness limited to white British people and not extended beyond ethnic boundaries to all-comers.

Isn’t this the real subtext of Ms Hodge’s speech: the Proms as appealing to an insular, conservative, white audience – described as “a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds [in PC language, implies ‘ethnic backgrounds’] feel at ease in being part of this”? Or, as she describes the situation in her constituency of Barking in East London, “a retreat to the old narrow bonds of kinship and ‘tribe’” [in context, clearly in part a reference to English nationalism, or at least the nationalism of white English people] being associated with far-right, racist extremism. This is the big logical, ideological and political mistake that is made in arguments of this type. The fact that some people who call themselves English nationalists (or British, or indeed any type of, nationalists) are racist does not mean that any affirmation of English national identity/-ies is racist, or indeed even nationalist as understood as entailing hostility to other cultures. But somewhere down the road in the split that has occurred in the English-British identity, the British establishment has decided to try to secure a monopoly on the ‘good’ English-British values: Britain as inclusive of many cultures; England as nationalistic, exclusive and xenophobic. According to this view, by definition, only Britain and Britishness can provide the foundation for the blending of so many nationalities and cultures into something new – a new Britishness – because it is not a nationalism but an internationalism. To Britain are ascribed the positive aspects of British history and culture: the progressivism of the Empire, and the international (British) civilisation it spawned along with its liberal values.

But you could just as easily turn the whole thing on its head and associate the positive aspects of British history and culture as English, and the negative aspects (the nationalism; the aggression towards other peoples, both within the British Isles and throughout the Empire; the racism; the insularity; etc.) as British. Historically, it is probably more accurate to describe many of Britain’s great institutions and values as originally and primarily English: parliamentary democracy, libertarianism and the openness to the world beyond these shores, admittedly mixed with imperialistic and mercenary motives as the English began opening up what became the British Empire long before the Union with Scotland. The truth of the matter is that both good and bad aspects were indeed both English and British, insofar as the identity and destiny of the English merged with that of the other nations of these islands.

To ascribe the negative features of British culture and history to England and Englishness is therefore not only to perpetrate a huge historic and epistemological injustice towards the English but also has disastrous consequences in the present that militate against the declared aim to create an inclusive British-cultural identity. The first consequence is the exclusion of England as a nation in its own right, along with the English national identity – seen as ‘bad’, ‘exclusive’, ‘retrograde’ – from the new internationalist, multi-cultural Britain. This was seen in the example discussed above: a would-be exclusion of the Last Night of the Proms from the new culture owing to its old English-British-nationalist connotations. But because cultural expressions of a traditional national and ethnic identity, such as in the Proms, are mistakenly seen as nationalistic and, implicitly, racist, this results in calls for these traditions to be modified or banned. However, such responses inescapably cross over into inverted racism in their own right because they imply automatic suspicion, hostility and censorship directed towards any expression of anything redolent of ‘ethnic-English’, ‘ethnic-British’, ‘white’, or just plain self-consciously ‘English’ culture. The one nationality and ethnicity that then gets excluded from the new multi-cultural Britishness is Englishness. Indeed, one might even say that this exclusion is constitutive of the new Britain as an international entity, as opposed to its traditional status as the expression of English national identity. So we have a sort of inverted cultural apartheid: only those cultural expressions that are multi-cultural and international in inspiration are authentically British in the new ‘inclusive’ definition of the term; and there’s no such thing (at least, it’s not ‘acceptable’) as traditional white-English or white-British culture.

The second disastrous consequence of the negativisation of Englishness is that ‘immigrant’ communities are encouraged to identify as British rather than English. The illogicality of this as a supposed strategy for promoting integration is astounding. First, Britishness is positioned ideologically as an international / multi-cultural concept and identity; then you take international migrants and encourage them (through citizenship courses and ceremonies, and new forms of cultural expression) to identify as British, i.e. as international and multi-cultural. So then, what you are left with is the migrant communities affirming an identity as international-multicultural-British that is separate from the identities of the ‘native British’ people around them who identify typically as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In other words, rather than embedding Britishness in the already established, historic cultures and identities of the nations of the UK, and then encouraging international migrants to identify with those cultures, Britishness is elevated to an international plane; so that, in reality, no truly profound cultural integration with the existing nations of the UK on the part of migrants need take place. Instead of international settlers becoming British in the same way that British people are British (by virtue of being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish in the first instance), it’s Britain that is made international. The net result is virtually a reversal of the intended effect; instead of immigrants integrating with the national identities and cultures of the UK, a plural, international ‘cultural identity’ of Britain evolves with which the established nations of the UK are called to identify. We have to ‘get with’ the new ‘multi-culture’, since this is essentially the same as the global culture on which Britain’s future depends.

Well, we English at least have to accept these realities and relinquish our Englishness in favour of the new British internationalism. I don’t hear such a call being directed to the Scottish and the Welsh, whose quest to reaffirm their own distinct cultures and national identities (inclusive of those of migrant communities) was not alluded to in any shape or form in Margaret Hodge’s speech. And why should it be? She is after all only the English Minister of State for Culture (the Scots and Welsh having their own culture ministers); and her exhortations to embrace a new inclusive Britishness are therefore primarily – if not exclusively – directed to the English alone.

British internationalism versus English nationalism. Problem, though. GB [Gordon Brown] wants Britain to be a nation. All this talk about cultural pluralism and the repudiation of the Proms as a case of nationalist mono-culturalism does rather militate against the idea of both migrants and native British people converging in a monolithic, unitary Britishness of the kind that you could see the Last Night of the Proms as celebrating – if you ignore the flags of England, Wales and Scotland, that is. No wonder GB slapped Ms Hodge’s wrist! It’s not just the implication that GB’s flag waving, like that of the Last Night, has slightly jingoistic overtones. No, it’s the fact that Ms Hodge’s internationalist vision of Britain is not in fact a vision of a united Britain: it’s a multi-nation, not a nation. At least, in such a Britain, we English might be able to uphold our own national identity and traditions as one ‘tribe’ among many in the land; while we can hope that, in time, the madness of seeking to achieve cultural integration by denying the distinct cultures of the UK’s nations will recede. Then perhaps, the true conditions can be created for migrant communities to come together with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples; and we can develop shared multiple national identities, rather than a divisive, imposed Britishness – whether of the unitary, statist, Brownite variety; or the plural, cultural Hodgian kind.

So let’s keep the Last Night of the Proms for now. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let them remove ‘Jerusalem’ from the programme!

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