A Progressive Patriotism

In my book, Being British, I explore how we could find much value today in national pride: a pride which does not set itself against the Other, but rather a pride stemming from a long-forged tradition which stands up against injustice and shameful things. George Orwell is a great example from this stream of Englishness/Britishness. Irish writer Fintan O’Toole expresses similar sentiments very clearly in The Guardian:

“Orwell represents a great English tradition that is sceptical, egalitarian, independent-minded and gloriously awkward. It is a tradition worthy of any nation’s pride. England urgently needs it now – and so does Europe.…It uses the idea of national pride, not to bolster smugness and self-delusion but to stir outrage at these shameful things. It says simply: we English are better than this.

Even in these shameful times, it is important for an outsider – which as an Irishman I certainly am – to say: yes you are. England is better than the shrinking of its public realm of mutual care that has led to Grenfell Tower. It is better than the reckless game-playing of a buffoonish ruling class that has led to the self-harming gesture politics of Brexit. It is better than the show it is making of itself on the world stage, the tragicomic spectacle of a nation in which no one has the authority to negotiate its future.

It is, after all, a country in which Orwell sprang from very deep traditions and in which those traditions of honesty, courage, egalitarianism and scepticism are, in spite of appearances, vibrantly alive.”


See article from Guardain below:


Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available :http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british


Anywheres vs Somewheres

A very helpful understanding of the divisions in the UK. I’m an ‘Anywhere’ who has come to greatly appreciate and embrace the value of ‘Somewhere’; a theme of my book on British culture.

 “A populist politics of culture and identity has successfully challenged the traditional politics of Left and Right, creating a new division: between the mobile ‘achieved’ identity of the people from Anywhere, and the marginalised, roots-based identity of the people from Somewhere.”

Anywheres vs Somewheres: the split which made Brexit inevitable


David Goodhart’s provocative take on the UK’s new tribal divisions is sure to become a private manual on Mrs May’s brand of conservatism   By Andrew Marr

The EU referendum vote was the biggest democratic rebellion in modern British history. It was also the biggest defeat for the broadly liberal, outward-looking “cognitive elites” (cleverer, better-educated folk) who have dominated politics since the 1960s. Understanding Brexit, explaining it – and trying to chart ways forward after it – have become some of the highest duties for serious commentators. Big word, “duty”. But if the wrong lessons are learned, or no lessons at all, this may be just the beginning of an epoch that will be rawer, much more turbulent, and more dangerous.

Meanwhile, everyone even vaguely involved in politics knows how potent and important naming can be – look at the subtle intimidation of Remainers, melted down into “Remoaners”, or the acrid battles fought over the adjectival advance guard for Brexit: hard, soft, clean, dirty . This book by David Goodhart, the founder and former editor of Prospect, is, before everything else, an act of naming. The new tribal division is pretty clear. On the one side stands the liberal Europhile establishment, comfortable about immigration and globalisation, and on the other are those Britons, often far from the metropolis, who are anything but comfortable, who feel left out and left behind. One frequently used shorthand is between “open” and “closed” groups of voters but that also seems mildly propagandistic: “Shall I just put you down as a Closed-Minded, then?”

Goodhart renames the new tribes the “Anywheres” (roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the population) and the “Somewheres” (about half), with the rest in between. And it broadly works. Those who see the world from anywhere are, he points out, the ones who dominate our culture and society, doing well at school and moving to a residential university, and then into a professional career, often in London or abroad. “Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities,” he says, “based on educational and career success which makes them . . . comfortable and confident with new places and people.”

The rebels are those more rooted in geographical identity – the Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife – who find the rapid changes of the modern world unsettling. They are likely to be older and less well educated. “They have lost economically with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalisation of their views in the public conversation,” Goodhart writes. He argues that this distinction, emerging from a melange of social and cultural views together with life experiences, matters more than old distinctions of right and left, or social class.

Socialists would instinctively disagree, but Labour canvassers in Stoke-on-Trent Central will be well aware that there is an underlying truth here. Core, working-class Labour voters do often have views, such as suspicion of mass immigration and hearty enthusiasm for the armed forces, which aren’t reflected by the party’s liberal intelligentsia. Indeed, Labour’s current agony, torn between its Brexit-voting constituencies and its passionately pro-EU wing, is well described in Goodhart’s book. And Theresa May’s optimism about capturing Labour voters, first advertised in this journal, derives from its arguments.

The connection between cultural conser­vatism and hostility to the EU seems to be solid: for instance, support for the death penalty is the most reliable predictor of anti-Brussels voting, more than income, geography or anything else. All of which leads to the queasy possibility that the liberal elites are going to have to acknowledge, or even kowtow, to the views of the more ­numerous authoritarian, poorer Somewheres.

Yet that is unlikely. The liberal elites are so certain of themselves and they have become so used to thinking they are on history’s sunny side, that the very idea of such an accommodation sends them into a vituperative frenzy. Witness the jeering at pro-Brexit voters for being stupid about the economy and the almost gleeful enthusiasm for loss of their jobs as a result. Goodhart quotes a Bulgarian political scientist: the outcome is a sort of struggle in which populists are becoming openly anti-liberal, and elites are becoming secretly anti-democratic.

So this book will make some people very angry. Nowhere is it more provocative than in Goodhart’s assessment of the huge postwar expansion in British higher education. He rightly points out that our somewhat unusual tradition of “boarding universities” separates young people from their parents and communities in ever greater numbers. Universities become the prime seeding ground for liberal/Anywhere identities: indeed, according to a recent survey, only 11 per cent of academics voted Tory in the last general election, and 90 per cent voted to remain in the EU.

How to resolve this? Exclude more working-class kids from university? The problem with The Road to Somewhere, which I predict will become a private manual for Theresa May’s conservatism, is that it underplays individual historical events to portray a seemingly inevitable shift. And, having done so, it does not quite provide a convincing solution for the problem. Had we not had poor financial regulation just before the globalisation of the money markets, leading to the financial collapse of 2008, public hostility to the top class of financiers would be nothing like as strong as it is now. Nor do I think that Somewheres (or anybody else) would have been as contemptuous of parliament, had it not approved the Blair government’s armed intervention in Iraq in 2003, and had this not been followed by the relatively minor local scandal of MPs’ expenses.

And then, of course, if David Cameron hadn’t decided to hold the referendum in the first place, the voters wouldn’t have had their chance and Goodhart et al wouldn’t be writing books of this sort now. Without the wonderful opportunity of the referendum, the Anywhere/Somewhere divide would have remained buried, if perhaps pullulating, inside the bodies of our political parties. In short, the Brexit rebellion arose less from the vast forces of modern globalisation than from the awkward decisions, wrong turnings and mistakes of specific British politicians from the early 1980s onwards.

Nor is it quite the case that the elites have snootily ignored the cultural conservatism of those left behind. As Goodhart acknowledges, the British enthusiasm for large, crammed prisons, the tone of the debate on immigration, growing hostility to international aid, and an increasingly tough line on welfare are all wins for the supposed Somewhere mindset. One of my BBC colleagues argues that Tory Britain is now hopelessly divided between the conservatism of the Daily Mail and that of the Economist. It’s a neat formulation and, if it is so, then Paul Dacre seems to be winning (and he has his Prime Minister) while the Economist is losing (and doesn’t have the premier it wants).

Where next? Many of Goodhart’s proposals are already close to the heart of the May administration. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links for northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall. Other ideas, such as restricting public-sector housing to people who have been living in Britain for at least five years, or trying again to introduce proportional representation in an effort to put a wider range of voices in the Commons, are unlikely to enthuse many Tories yet.

But there is one idea mentioned in the book which is certainly on the way. After we leave the European Union, and particularly if Scotland breaks away, Britain is much likelier to bring in a system of compulsory identity cards. That would make it easier to check who was working where, and would be used to restrict access to public services to British citizens, too. It could even make Labour’s new idea of a varied, regionally based immigration policy workable. ID cards were mooted by the New Labour government in 2002 and roundly rejected, but if there really is a gulf between the globalised elites and those determined to assert the value of locality and community in fast-changing times, this could become the signature policy.

So, watch this space. And as you do, start to follow the progress of the Somewheres and the Anywheres in British political debate. There are still some holes in Goodhart’s thesis, but The Road to Somewhere has the feel of a book whose timing, at least, is pitch-perfect.

From The New Statesman:  http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/03/anywheres-vs-somewheres-split-made-brexit-inevitable

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available from: http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british


“The Problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team”



I felt to post this entire article below from Cambridge Uni professor Nicholas Boyle, because it is particularly clear. He argues that Brexit is the result of an English delusion, a crisis of identity resulting from a failure to come to terms with the loss of The Empire and the end of its own exceptionalism. Similar points are made in my book, yet Prof Boyle’s focus on England rather than Britain, makes it especially hard hitting.

“There is a great lie peddled about the referendum: that it expressed the will of the British people. The pattern of voting showed up a colossal divergence between England, with its Welsh appendage, on the one hand, and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other.

This was far more significant than any division between ‘metropolitan elites’ and ‘those left behind by globalisation’. Are there no elites in Edinburgh or Belfast? Is no one left behind in the Scottish or Irish hinterlands? Even if such a division is present across the UK, and indeed the whole of the Western world, and it plainly is, why only in England did it express itself as so powerful a revulsion from the EU?

To explain the referendum result as a ‘howl of pain at austerity’ is a pious flight from reality. It is to ignore, to cover over again, the wound, festering below the threshold of public consciousness for two generations, which the referendum opened up to the air.

Those who voted Leave in the referendum were not voting about globalisation or stagnating living standards or austerity and declining welfare payments, they were voting about the EU, and it is condescension to pretend otherwise. But they were not being asked by the Leave campaign to express a preference for a particular rationally argued and practically feasible economic and political alternative to membership of the EU – that is evident, for none was offered before the referendum and none has emerged since. They were being asked to express an emotion about membership, and the English, but not the Irish or Scots, felt so urgent a need to express it that they threw reason and practicality to the winds.

The emotion central to the Leave campaign was the fear of what is alien, and this trumped the Remainers’ Project Fear-of-wholly-foreseeable-damage. The true Project Fear was the Leave party’s unrelenting presentation of the EU as a lethal threat to national identity, indeed as the stranger and enemy who had already stolen it: give us back our country, they said, our sovereignty, our £350m a week, let us control our borders, let our population not be swamped by immigrants or our high streets by Polish shops – and to vote against the EU was to vote to recover what we had lost. The voting pattern, however, revealed that appeal to that emotion, and that vision of the EU, worked only in England.

Europhobia was shown by the referendum to be a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity. That crisis has had two phases, roughly two centuries apart.

In the first phase, in the eighteenth century, the English gave up their Englishness in order to become British, the rulers of the British Empire; in the second phase, in the middle of the twentieth century, they lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are.

England sank its identity in the unions with Scotland, in 1707, and with Ireland, in 1800, which gave rise respectively to Britain and to the United Kingdom. From then on the English had no need of a separate identity, for as metropolitans, first of the United Kingdom and then of the British empire, they dealt with no one on equal terms. They were characterless, because they never met anybody who could impose a character on them: they were masters of the seas, they could travel round the world without setting foot outside imperial territory, and economically the empire was, potentially at least, self-sufficient.

While Ireland, Wales, and Scotland became, for the English, slightly comic regions of ‘Britain’, ‘England’ became for them the sentimental ideal of ‘home’, the image of the green and pleasant mother-country that concealed the brutal realities of empire from its agents and possessed nothing so sordid as distinct political or economic interests of its own.

The destruction by the USA of the British empire, after its finest hour in 1940, was a traumatic blow to the psyche of two English generations, from which they have never recovered, largely because they have never recognised it.

The psychoanalysts, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, famously attributed various collective psychological traits of post-war Germany to an ‘inability to mourn’, an inability to recognize how much emotion they had invested in the love of their führer, to mourn his passing, and so to escape from his influence.

Similarly, we could say the English have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it.

Over three centuries the needs of empire shaped England’s systems of government, national and local, its Church, its schools and universities, the traditions of its armed and police forces, its youth movements, its sports, its BBC, its literature, and its cuisine.

The end of empire meant the end of all this. And because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss, it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism, the end of the characterlessness the English had enjoyed as rulers of the world – with no need of distinct features to mark them off from their equals since they had no equals, embodying, as they did, the decency, reasonableness and good sense by which they assumed the rest of the world privately measured its lesser achievements and to which they assumed it aspired.

The trauma of lost exceptionalism, the psychic legacy of empire, haunts the English to the present day, in the illusion that their country needs to find itself a global role. Of course it is an illusion: do roughly comparable countries such as Germany or Italy or Japan have such a need?

Putin’s Russia does, but Russia suffers from the same trauma of imperial amputation, and there are traces of it too in the French defence of worldwide francophonie. The traumatic loss is all but explicitly acknowledged in the repeated demand that around the world ‘Britain’ should ‘punch above its weight’ – why not be content with your size and weight, live within your means, and cultivate your garden, rather than make yourself ridiculous like little Vladimir fanatically developing his biceps in the corner of the gym?

The psychosis, the willed triumph of illusion over reality revealed by the referendum result, is most damagingly still at work in the determination of the English to cling on to their old exceptional status as anonymous masters of the United Kingdom and of the other nations with which they have to share the Atlantic Archipelago.

For the English, the United Kingdom occupies the psychic space once filled by the empire: it is the last guarantor of their characterlessness, it is the phantom which in the English mind substitutes for the England which the English will not acknowledge is their only home. They will not acknowledge it lest they become just another nation like everybody else, with a specific, limited identity, a specific history, neither specially honourable nor specially dishonourable, with limited weight, limited resources, and limited importance in the world now that their empire is no more.

That is the terrifying truth that membership of the EU presents to the English and from which for centuries the empire insulated them: that they have to live in the world on an equal footing with other people. From that truth they seek shelter in the thought that really they belong not to England at all but to something more imposing, or at least different: the UK, or, less accurately, ‘Britain’, within which they can cocoon the non-identity they took on in 1707 as the imperial adventure was beginning.

Hence the paradox that the political party that exists to express fear of the EU represents itself as an Independence Party for the United Kingdom, but its entire affective vocabulary, its cultural, historical, and mythical points of reference are English, and it has virtually no following in Scotland or Northern Ireland: in the 2015 general election UKIP won 14% of the vote in England, but only 2.6% in Northern Ireland and 1.6% in Scotland.

Like the Conservatives under Theresa May’s Leaver administration, UKIP is a party of English nationalism that dare not speak its name. To acknowledge that it exists to minister to a specifically English anxiety would be to break England out of the UK on which the English depend to protect themselves from reality – the reality that a nation with three-quarters of one per cent of the world’s population cannot claim significant, let alone exceptional, global status, and cannot survive on its own.

The Scots and the Irish are ‘divisive nationalists’, according to May, for wanting a say in negotiations with the EU, but she does not notice the English nationalism in her claim to speak for the Scots and Irish against their will, or in her imposition of the English nationalists’ vision of the EU on the Scots and Irish, whom the voting pattern in the referendum showed not to share it. (Wales, much earlier and more completely subjugated by England, and never a kingdom in its own right, has always ultimately been willing to accept the role of the afterthought that follows the conjunction in ‘England-and-Wales’.)

In Ireland, the EU, the essential framework for the Good Friday agreement of 1998, appears as the guardian of nationhood, the guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of the island’s two fractions: in Tyrone, Fermanagh, or Armagh, when you cross into the Republic at the end of your lane, it is the EU, not London, that tells you you are still in Ireland.

Similarly, in Scotland, to vote for the EU was to vote for the distinctness of Scotland as a legitimate fellow-occupant of the island of Great Britain and for its equality with England as a fellow-member, alongside Germany and Malta, France and Cyprus, of a larger union than that centred on London.

Only the English could not see the EU in these terms: as the protector of the identity of relatively small nations in a world of conflicting giants. Because only the English could not see themselves as a nation at all.

Hag-ridden by their unassimilated imperial past, by their failure of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the English refuse to think of themselves as a nation in the same sense as Scotland or Ireland and have constructed a constitution for their United Kingdom which denies the obvious. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have their variously titled national assemblies, but England has none – not out of self-effacing modesty nor out of an altruistic desire to spare taxpayers the cost of supporting another stratum of politicians, but in order to claim for itself the exceptional position of anonymous master of its now diminutive empire.

The absence of a separate English parliament reduces the nations granted devolved assemblies to the marginal status the English gave them in the days of glory, as those slightly comical regional variations on a Britishness of which England – invisible and characterless in itself – was therefore alone representative. The decision of June 23, then, was not a decision taken by ‘the British people’ because ‘the British people’ do not exist: ‘the people’ is not a meaningful political concept and ‘Britain’ is a figment invented by the English to disguise their oppressive, indeed colonial, relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland.

But because the English are still wedded to the lack of identity they enjoyed in the imperial era, and so, like other psychotics, have no sense of equality with others, or responsibility towards them, the most important issue of all was not raised in the campaign that preceded the vote: did the UK have a duty to remain? Did voters have a duty to consider the effect of their actions on their neighbours, as they might if they were deciding to plant a hedge of leylandii on their boundary or to stop contributing to the maintenance of a shared access road?

Like other small and medium-sized actors on the world stage, the European states are not sovereign independent agents. Their attempts to define themselves as such have, in the era before the EU, always led to violence and war.

By their submission to jointly authorised supranational institutions they have found a way of growing together which has given them peace and prosperity and has been an example to the world. The European project is not complete and is not intended to be: the union is only to be ‘ever closer’; there is no specified political or institutional goal, let alone a conspiracy to set up a ‘super-state’. (As a proportion of GDP, the European budget would have to be nearly 50 times larger than it is for the Union to qualify as a state in the same sense as its members.)

England has never wanted to join in the process of growing together, not because it rejects the goal of a ‘super-state’, which exists only in England’s fearful imagination, but because it rejects the idea of collaborating with equals – it doesn’t want to be just another member of a team, for then it would have to recognise that it has after all an identity of its own.

The referendum vote does not deserve to be respected because, as an outgrowth of English narcissism, it is itself disrespectful of others, of our allies, partners, neighbours, friends, and, in many cases, even relatives. Like resentful ruffians uprooting the new trees in the park and trashing the new play area, 17 million English, the lager louts of Europe, voted for Brexit in an act of geopolitical vandalism.

Two pillars of the unwritten British constitution collapsed on June 23. The sovereignty of the Westminster parliament was seriously challenged, and possibly overturned, by a referendum that should never have been called. And the attempt of the Unions of 1707 and 1800 to create a single British nation to rule a global empire was finally shown up as a self-deceptive device by the English to deny the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.

Any recovery from this collective mental breakdown will involve treating both these symptoms, in the light of their deep historical causes. Specifically, the role of parliaments in the United Kingdom will have to be reconstructed so as to give England at last the distinctive adult political identity it has shunned for 300 years.

The slogan ‘English votes for English laws’ was a first sign that resurgent Scottish self-confidence was provoking the English to emerge from narcissism into a recognition that the world – indeed, the island of Great Britain – contains people other than themselves. However, not until there is a separate English Parliament, giving expression to that separate English identity, will the delusions that led England to Brexit finally be dissipated by contact with reality. And perhaps then, with their psychosis healed, the English will apply to rejoin the EU.”

Nicholas Boyle is Emeritus Schröder Professor of German, University of Cambridge


Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available :http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british

Only in Britain

‘The shop, which sells a range of “quintessentially British items”, ranging from plastic figures of the Queen to English mustard, had provoked criticism even before it opened, with people claiming it would instil hatred following the “divisive referendum”.’

Only in Britain would an innocuous gift shop cause such outrage. We still haven’t integrated our national past history. really-british

From The Independent: A man has been accused of inciting racism after opening a gift store and naming it ‘Really British’. Chris Ostwald, 54, who opened the independent British-themed shop in Muswell Hill, North London, on 26 November, said the reaction to the store was “political correctness gone mad”.

The shop, which sells a range of “quintessentially British items”, ranging from plastic figures of the Queen to English mustard, had provoked criticism even before it opened, with people claiming it would instil hatred following the “divisive referendum”.

‘Really British sells a range of ‘quintessentially British” items (Daniel Kraemer)

Mr Ostwald told The Independent: “It began as soon as I started setting the shop up a few months back. People would walk past and complain when they saw the sign saying ‘Really British’ that it was divisive.

“Since we opened things have got even worse. Yesterday was quite a low point. Four people came in and complained. Sales have gone down since when we opened.

“A woman came in and said the word “British” should be banned altogether because of murder of Jo Cox because her killer shouted: ‘Britain First’. It’s ridiculous. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

The shop owner has also been targeted on social media, with one Facebook user and fellow Muswell Hill resident, MichaelWright, suggesting it was inappropriate to give the store such a name in the “current political climate” following the “divisive referendum”.

Mr Wright wrote: “While I applaud you setting up a business in Muswell Hill and employing local people I’m curious as to why you decided to call your shop ‘Really British’ (besides the obvious point that you will sell British made goods)?

“Like many people I live in London because of its international nature, and for me personally having a big sign on the Broadway saying ‘Really British’ makes me feel you’re implying that other local businesses in the area are therefore somehow ‘not really British’.

“Some will no doubt say I’m over-sensitive but I can’t help thinking that given the recent divisive referendum and the current political climate you might have chosen a more inclusive name in 2016.”

Another member of the group, James Walpole, said: “’Really British’ is a bit of an odd choice so soon after the referendum in a area that voted remain, and I think it will put a lot of people off.”

Tales of Poundland (formerly GB)


“Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century. It must be as appealing to some who have voted for Trump and Ukip as it is to the supporters of Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.”

George Monbiot

Human beings seem built to emotionally relate to stories. It’s a primordial and powerful urge – and a valuable one too. Everyone has some kind of narrative which helps to orient their lived experience, even if they claim that they don’t have one. Yet especially in Britain, our current lack of a healthy national story, has created a kind of void which has been filled by the story of neoliberalism. The ‘counter narrative’ to that – if it can be called one – is the reaction to the consequences of neoliberalism by a very substantial section of the population: by which I mean the disempowerment, frustration and anger people feel about seemingly having no control over what happens in their own country following unfettered globalisation.

As George Monbiot has described well, the neoliberal narrative has been much more successful in guiding and dominating British society since the Thatcher years then any other narrative. And part of the consequences have been to contribute to a degradation of traditional British society and culture – and most especially, of meaning –  for many people, especially those on lower incomes. The ‘Left Behind’ have become vast swathes of the country.

The far more caring social democratic narrative has fallen flat as a story which can still inspire many of us Brits. The Third Way of Blair and Clinton came to be seen as just a mild cherry picking of neoliberalism. British left leaning internationalism with its focus on postnational human beings and ‘global village-ism’ certainly has a narrative, yet  unfortunately leaves many Britons feeling excluded, alienated and lacking belonging. It may be ok if you’re a left leaning internationalist living in London or other big cities; the changes may not feel threatening but instead, exciting and optimistic, reinforcing your narrative about multicultural progressive development. But for many in the hinterland, it’s ‘what happened to my country’ as Great Britain becomes Poundland. So we end up with no other grand project or story to share together other than that of neoliberalism, and the often inchoate and understandably angry reaction against it.

The crucial social cohesion of communities in Britain is being undermined by all this. And now of course, the blame for our predicament often falls unfairly on immigrants. Key uniting British values such as tolerance, acceptance, fair play and moderation, are regrettably becoming hollowed out in this time of division and alienation. And it is values like these that I cherish most about being British. Qualities like these give Britons a healthy sense of identity, and yet these long forged values are being eroded by the knock on effects of neoliberalism. This not only is making our society less compassionate and less decent, but is also degrading our formerly more healthy sense of national identity.

There is no simple solution, and I do feel there is a gritty resilience in the national spirit, which can help us weather these difficult times. Yet it would help us if we could come to a new embrace of localism, of belonging, of heritage, of continuity, connection, and identity. We need a new inclusive national story.

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available :http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british

Becoming both more Traditional and less Traditional

English Book

‘A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation….Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.’

Ben Okri

We British are in need of a new story. Our old story of ‘Great Britain’ – or much more commonly these days, our truncated story of ‘Declining Britain’ – doesn’t match reality, and is depressing. It leads us, in our confusion and perceived loss of national identity, to think that we can somehow ‘take back control’, by doing things like rejecting the EU and going it alone like buccaneers of old.

Here we are, a postcolonial Britain, unsure of who we are and still coming to terms with our loss of premier status in the world; a Britain disconnected from the thread of its long history, where the teaching of history in schools has become ever more reduced and relegated to isolated factoid bundles about Henry VIII or Hitler; a Britain which currently has lost its faith in our political elite and the two party system; a country now finding itself adrift with an unbalanced and overly negative view of itself.

It won’t work for us just to invent a story; we need to reconnect with the national thread of our country in a different way, and then we will find we actually do have an authentic and serviceable story. Not by just harking back to the past, nor by only looking to the future, but rather by being both traditional and post traditional at once; becoming more traditional and less traditional, if you like. I think we need to connect with the stream of our country; with that elusive beast of Britishness. For thoughtful people today in Britain and elsewhere can’t help but feel at least to some degree partly alienated. We just don’t belong like we used to in the distant past when the village was our life and community and the stars and planets were like the enveloping and comforting raiments of our hermetically sealed world.

Yet we are our country. it’s part of who we are, whether we like it or not, or whether it fits in with our political or intellectual persuasions or not. All the influences of the past carried forward through our culture, absorbed in our formative years and reinforced by the sheer immersive field of unspoken collective societal agreements, transmitted by example all around us. We are shaped and formed by the past, by the struggles, failures, sorrows and achievements of those who have collectively made a shift in the glacial flow of shared human – and specifically in this case – British culture. You could write a similar narrative for any nation of course, but I’m focussing on the specific British one, because it’s me; it’s you. It’s us.

It’s your civilisation, as Orwell said. You can deny it, avoid it, make fun of it, convince yourself with fine words that you are beyond it, but you will still be influenced by it. Reacting against it is still being under its influence. You can move to another country, be an expat for life, but you will never escape it – you will always be British whatever you do. You can no more remove yourself from your nationality than you can remove yourself from your physical body. You can’t not be your nationality. We are our history, our country, our landscape. This living beast of Britishness is always changing, ebbing and flowing, yet a thread remains and holds a collective identity.

We are not in any way separate nor superior to all the struggles and developments in humanity which have come before. The more we are conscious of what is forming us, the various stages and sets of values buried deep in our cultural and collective consciousness, and yet still living within us and influencing us – or being able to be reactivated at any moment – the better integrated we can be to have a healthier outlook to meet the challenges of the next moment. So that we don’t merely react to the past.

Now we can value the great emergences of the past without looking back at them in any way nostalgically. We can see the value of such past qualities now in contemporary society – upgraded and relevant to our situation; not reaction and rejection, but rather transcend and include and integration. We can recognise again the importance of qualities such as heroism, forcefulness, order, self sacrifice for a greater cause, conviction, passion, achievement, progress; and also of the qualities of kinship, belonging and a certain re-enchantment of life – not in the way they originally emerged but in a re-contextualised manner for our own life conditions. All these qualities restored healthily in our emotional palette would be invaluable for the Britain of today.

And as I mentioned, in an interesting way, this does point to us becoming both less traditional and more traditional together. This conscious embrace widens and deepens our psychological and ethical capacities and palette. This is an expanded sense of our own development which is not linear, but expands out more like a sphere with greater breadth and inclusion and which stretches back through time all at once.

Weren’t you moved by those human footprints recently discovered on the Happisburgh beach in Norfolk? It is the oldest record of humans outside of Africa anywhere in the world, nearly one million years ago. The first Brits? Perhaps hard to label them as Britons, since Britain was still part of the continental landmass back then, this apparently family group would have shared the estuary of a river thought to be that of the Thames earlier course with the megafauna of the time: mammoths, hippos and rhinos. The footprints – men’s UK size 8 – (or 42, since he may have been European) and smaller ones of children, were soon washed away by the tide, but they gave us a tantalising glimpse into our far distant past.

We carry and embody the achievements of those generations who came before: the hard won learnings of millennia of living and surviving on these northern islands; the desires, fears, dreams and imagination of earlier ancestors; the great strides in perspective and understanding. History lives in us and we live in history. This is our story and human beings have always told stories, perhaps unconsciously and intuitively because our existence actually is a story. As eco-theologian Thomas Berry said,

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.’

There is never a break in history; it is the story of our lives, our struggles and our development, pushing improbably against the entropy of the universe, to create ever more ingeniously, instead of the to-be-expected gradual settling into dissolution. Modern thought breaks up experience and history into discrete events and dates. It’s a useful shorthand, but also a fiction. Reality is, and always has been much more of a stream, a process where everything influences everything else, and one ‘occurrence’ flows into the next in an endless succession of becoming.

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves

available :http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british

His-story or Our Story?


It’s a shame that we don’t have a serviceable living story as a country any more. Although people might think of the British as being wedded to tradition and ceremony, this isn’t really true for the majority of us any more. History for most of us is a disconnected his-story: a few fragments of Henry VIII and Hitler. It’s not our story. Historian Simon Schama has said that modern history teaching is threatening “to cut the cord of our national memory”. Our historical psyche went into a kind of amnesia as a reaction to the aftermath of The Empire and never really recovered; and in the process, severing the connecting thread. We don’t have much sense of how we got here and what happened to help form our values, culture and identity. And we’re impoverished as a result, with effects on our view and judgement about national decisions. Having a living story has value.

Certainly there have been many dreadful episodes in our history as there have been throughout the history of humankind in general, but there are also key moments which have marked genuine progress. To give an example of such a historical event which is barely known to many of us, take the Putney Debates. This pivotal episode did much to help create our modern world today; so much more than the romance between Victoria and Albert winning the ratings war on ITV at the moment. The Putney Debates took place following The English Revolution of of the 1640s. It needs a bit of detail to bring it into relief. The dramatic change precipitated by the temporary abolishment of the monarchy opened the door to a dazzling variety of experiments, some whose influence can still be felt in our present times. The revolution unleashed forces in the flow of ideas which all the later conservatism couldn’t re-cork back in the bottle.

The Putney Debates etched themselves into my mind ever since I first heard about them and  gave me a glimpse into that revolutionary world and the utopian possibilities which emerged. I never learned about this in history lessons at school. It’s an event which, while strangely not widely known today, nevertheless affects each of our lives today. It took place in 1647 in Putney, then a small town outside London, in the small fifteenth century church of St Mary the Virgin, on the banks of the Thames and has become known as the Putney Debates. Here’s what historian Paul Johnson said of the debates,

“The ideas flung across that communion table – then in all the exciting novelty of their pristine conception – had in the meantime (since the Putney debates) traveled  around the world, hurled down thrones and subverted empires, and had become the common, everyday currency of political exchange. They are still with us. Every major political concept known to us today, all the assumptions which underlie the thoughts of men in the White House, or the Kremlin, or Downing Street, or in presidential mansions or senates or parliaments through five continents, were expressed or adumbrated in the little church of St Mary.”

In the church today, inscribed large and prominently on an inside wall where usually there might be scriptural verse, are these striking words,

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.’

Spoken by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough in the mid seventeenth century, these were radical words indeed, and doubly so, coming from a high ranking officer way back then. For it was here in this very church on the 28th October 1647 and for the following two weeks, that a group of men from the New Model Army plus civilian representatives, met together in debate. The choice of venue wasn’t significant – the army was camped nearby just outside London, and the church was convenient. Having destroyed the King’s armies in England’s First Civil War or English Revolution – depending on how you want to look at it – the future was now inconceivably wide open; an opening which had never before existed in history. What kind of England, what kind of society and constitution did they want to see?

The New Model Army was arguably one of the first armies in history to initiate democratic debates which included all its ranks. Fortunately we know about the debates in considerable detail since they were recorded verbatim. The forty or so participants in the debates were representative of all classes and included the full spectrum of opinion from right to left. There were distinguished generals like Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton; commanders like Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who were of humble birth but had risen in rank through the wars; there were ordinary soldiers such as Edward Sexby and farmers and small tradesmen who had never before had a voice; one attendee is only identified as ‘Buff-Coat.’ There were civilian political radicals, Levellers, on the radical left, who had come to help the soldiers state their case. Though today levellers would be seen as social democrats, back then they were extreme left radicals. Politics and religion can’t be separated in those times and nearly everyone in the debates was a Puritan – but a particular strain of Puritan who were known as ‘Independents’. They believed in freedom of conscience and in freedom of worship. No one, they felt, should be compelled to attend church or forced to conform to another person’s beliefs.

They had fought wars for a just cause, for high principles, sacrificed much, and eventually after great bloodshed, won. What now was to be the future of England?  Why should voting be limited only to property owners as it always had been?  What about universal suffrage? Should there even be a King or Lords? Would such radical democratic changes lead to anarchy? This historic gathering tackled these immense issues head on, and for the first time, common people had the opportunity to make their voices heard. Hard though it may be for us to understand today, it was taken for granted in those times that voting should be strictly limited to those who owned property; it seemed as obvious as day that only such property owners could be responsible citizens, those people of means who had a material stake in the kingdom.

The grandees such as Cromwell and Ireton could not defend by mere logic, the justness of this ancient order of voting rights based on ownership of property. They could only protest that the changes calling for universal suffrage were too radical and flatly would not be accepted by the general populace; they would result in anarchy and a return to the old monarchy which none of them wanted. The radicals maintained that the concept of the ‘freeborn’ was more important than the concept of the ‘freehold’. At one point the common soldier Edward Sexby famously spoke powerfully and bitterly after hearing the reluctance of the leaders to grant universal suffrage to all men.

“Do you not think it were a sad and miserable condition, that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here — both great and small — do think that we fought for something….. I think there are many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom of their choice as any that have great estates…….It was the ground that we took up arms on, and it is the ground which we shall maintain.”

In the end, a fudgy English kind of compromise was reluctantly agreed upon whereby all those who had helped Parliament and fought in the revolution would have the vote but that it was not yet to be extended to the whole population. Nevertheless, the importance of the Putney debates is that they actually happened and the genie would never again be able to be fully put back in the bottle. This was a very significant advance in British democracy and constitutional reform and paved the way for many of our civil liberties we enjoy today (or we would enjoy if we realised how they had been fought for in the past and what a momentous struggle it had been).

An amazing story, isn’t it? And it’s part of our story.

Being British: Our Once & FutureSelves available: 


The Undigested Empire


We British haven’t digested our recent past history, and this still contributes to our confused national sense of identity. And by history, I’m talking about the British Empire. We’ve never dealt with the reality of the drastic change Britain went through in only a couple of decades in the mid 20th century. The largest Empire that there had ever been in human history just disappeared, without fanfare and for the most part without much bloodshed. Embarrassedly, we quietly dismantled it.

 Jeremy Paxman in his Empire points to the effect that our disconnection from the past has on our own psyches.

‘Instead of trying to grapple with the implications of the story of empire, the British seem to have decided just to ignore it. It is perhaps possible that this collective amnesia has nothing whatever to do with the country’s lamentable failure to find a comfortable role for itself in the world. But it is unlikely. The most corrosive part of this amnesia is a sense that because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again. If only the British would bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world.’

Owning our past, finding belonging, can do much in my opinion to open the sluice gates of our national psyche and spirit, letting it flow and connecting with a new story of our times. We will then more easily discover our organic and effective role in the world as well a more sane relationship with the rest of Europe, the continent we are actually a part of.

Incidentally, as well as the effect on our national psyche, the legacy of the Empire is not at all distant or academic. I experience it every day in Britain. We all do. Sitting on the tube I am endlessly fascinated by the sheer extraordinary diversity of people, nationalities and languages in every carriage. More in one single tube carriage on the Victoria line than a great Victorian explorer of the past would be likely to meet in a lifetime of travel. Sixty countries worth of former Empire plus (at least for now) another twenty seven countries worth of the EU all mixing in London and all over the country today. This is one very real and tangible consequence of the Empire.

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available:http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british

Humour: a Funny link to British Creativity


Creativity is clearly important to all of us and I think that, as a nation, we British have much to be proud of regarding this key quality, both in our past and also very much in evidence today. One possible element, when looking at what factors are conducive to creativity, and particularly in relation to Britain is: HUMOUR. An odd connection? Bear with me.

It’s surprising to me how we often don’t tend to recognise the value or centrality of creativity in British life; yet if we tend towards a cynical bias, we are more likely to perceive decline wherever we look, and in doing so, miss the presence and ongoing value of our nation’s creativity. Of course I’m not suggesting that the UK has some unique monopoly on creativity compared to any other country.

Creative sector is the second largest sector of British economy

Although we tend not to think so, as a nation we British have been and still are remarkably creative. I’ve frequently heard it said that after the combined sector of banking, financial services and insurance, the creative sector is the second largest sector in the economy, although I am unable to substantiate this claim. It’s difficult to come up with hard facts about a nation’s relative creativity. Britain is credited with having one of the largest creative sectors percentage-wise of any country. To get a sense of what is technically meant by ‘the creative industries’, this is usually taken to include writing, art, design, theatre, TV, radio, films, marketing, advertising, fashion, product development and certain types of scientific research and development.

Today Britain is internationally (even if not always nationally) known for creativity in terms of design, media, fashion, writing, architecture, popular music, theatre, TV programmes, film – especially documentaries, comedy, computer games and the arts generally.

We’re all comedians here

The British sense of humour is intrinsic to the national character and has been honed to a fine art and aesthetic. In one way or another, nearly every British person is a self styled comedian; you have to be. It’s simply part of our upbringing and conditioning, and is a way in which we navigate social intercourse. As well as being needed for social acceptance, it also supports  emotional strength. Ironic, subversive, surreal and quizzical, humour here is the great social lubricant: the way pomposity, pretentiousness and authority is cut down to size in low key and backhand ways. British comedy with its trademark understatement, self-deprecation and deadpan delivery is renowned throughout the world from the many British comedy programmes that are exported.

Absurd & surreal

One particular hallmark of the best British humour is its often absurd, eccentric and surreal nature, seen for example in Monty Python or The Mighty Boosh, with a cultural pedigree owing much to the Goons, and stretching back through Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. And it is this surreal aspect of British humour which I think could be quite relevant to creativity in this country. There is an interesting link between humour and creativity and there exists quite a body of thinking as well as research on the link between these qualities. And if you stop and think for a moment, it’s not surprising that there are strong, shared characteristics. Humour, and especially the absurd, surreal British variety, involves juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas, seeing things from novel vantage points, and not surprisingly that’s also seen as the basis of all creativity. Take this classic one-liner from much loved, eccentric comedian Spike Milligan, in its juxtaposing of unrelated contexts.

Spike: There’s only one cure for seasickness

Somebody: What’s that?

Spike: Climb a tree

Or Eric Morecambe’s, ‘My neighbour asked if he could use my lawnmower and I told him of course he could, so long as he didn’t take it out of my garden.’

Humour, the most significant behaviour of the human mind.

Attempting to explain jokes is not at all funny and best avoided. You either are tickled pink or you’re left untouched and perplexed. A lot of British humour is an expression of inventiveness rather than formal jokes. Edward de Bono, the originator of ‘lateral thinking’ and authority on creative thinking, says in his book, I am Right, You are Wrong,

‘The significance of humour is precisely that it indicates pattern-forming, pattern asymmetry and pattern-switching. Creativity and lateral thinking have exactly the same basis as humour.’ In the same passage he asserts that, ‘Humour is by far the most significant behaviour of the human mind. Why has it been so neglected by traditional philosophers, psychologists and information scientists?’

Rational linear thinking has enabled the great advances of modernity that we all continue to benefit from, and yet if it is seen as the only mode of understanding and the only mode of discourse, then we impose an inherent limitation on our comprehension of the world and of life and impose a limitation on creative activity.

Only one step from the ridiculous to the sublime?

In Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, he makes the point that,

‘The laws of disciplined thinking demand that we should stick to a given frame of reference and not shift from one universe of discourse to another …the creative act, in so far as it depends on unconscious resources, presupposes a relaxing of the controls and a regression to modes of ideation which are indifferent to the rules of verbal logic, unperturbed by contradiction, untouched by the dogmas and taboos of so-called common sense.’

Koestler’s most interesting statement on this subject to my mind, though, has to be, ‘We all know that there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous; the more surprising that psychology has not considered the possible gains of reversing that step.’

A sense of humour is just common sense dancing

Transcending common sense in the way Koestler describes creativity and humour is one interpretation of what occurs, though I also like the way philosopher and psychologist William James said that common sense and a sense of humour are actually the same thing, the difference being in their speed. He said that a sense of humour is just common sense dancing. I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering these words of James and while I can’t quite logically explain exactly what he means, I sense the truth of it. Humour does have common sense rules of logic in its own context; it just happens to mix different unrelated contexts together in rapid succession. I think I’d better stop here however before I dig myself into a hole, since it always tends to be somewhat of a futile exercise to try to analyse humour.

Who knows how much the eccentric and surreal humour of the British has been a contributing factor to national creativity? Yet in its anarchic displacing of habitual views and frames of reference, it is surely likely to be one contributing factor. As James Joyce said in Ulysses, ‘He laughed to free himself from his mind’s bondage.’
Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available: http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british

Indefinable Britishness – a Virtue?

Brexit concept

Being British means something, but what that is, seems well nigh impossible to pin down. And in many ways, I think that’s not a bad thing – which is a British way of saying that it’s a good thing. I realise it’s easy to think of  ‘britishness’ as an embarrassing colonial relic which should be quietly forgotten, but it’s much more interesting than that. Here’s political philosopher John Gray on the subject:

“With all of its drawbacks, the British state has the overriding virtue that it is not founded on blood, soil, or faith. In their ways, the United States and France are both doctrinal regimes. To be a citizen of those countries is a matter of belief; it means subscribing to some sort of civil or political religion – in other words a creed, at once highly contentious and claiming to be rationally self-evident. In contrast… no doctrine of faith is required in order to be British. The British state is a cosmopolitan regime – a state to which one can be loyal without having to belong to any particular tribe or hold to any faith. Cosmopolitan regimes have the invaluable feature that they allow identity to be largely elective, and also plural.”

Cosmopolitanism and Diversity – Legacy of Empire

This is from Gray’s essay in an anthology concerned with trying to find the values which bind British people, where he talks of this unusual character of Britain. He observes how cosmopolitanism is best realised in countries that are monarchies or are the remains of empire like Canada and Britain – multicultural, multinational places in which different nationalities coexist and mingle, agreeing on a shared practice of peaceful coexistence.

In fact, as Gray notes, the most valuable legacy of The Empire is the diverse country Britain has become. Being British is a way of life in which people with many different views can co-exist, for the most part fairly amicably with the help of still influential British values of tolerance, acceptance and fair play ( – values which are now under serious pressure, from the darker impulses released in the Brexit climate).

Indefiniteness as a Positive Quality

In a recent talk I gave in London, I spoke of the positive side of the indefiniteness around Britishness. After the talk, a middle aged woman accosted me in the corridor and said that this point had struck her deeply and had been some kind of revelation for her. Her background was Muslim and Filipino, and as an immigrant she had desperately wanted to embrace being British, but had always found it difficult, as she couldn’t grasp exactly what being British means. She mentioned how she had tried to hold on to the Queen as one sure symbol and fixed point of Britishness, in a vague sea of living in Britain. She wanted a British identity but found it hard to find one. When I had talked about the indefinability of precisely what it means to be British, and how that seeming lack of a quality could actually be seen as a positive quality of being British, she felt a certain liberation in her adopted British identity.

Britain: a Makeshift Multinational State

Britain is a old-fashioned makeshift set up which is not really a nation state at all, but a cosmopolitan remains of empire with no written constitution. You can hold any belief you like; there’s no overarching secular or religious ideology or universal principles which you have to subscribe to in order to be British. You can choose your identity. It’s a multinational state full of inconsistencies and yet which has many understated virtues – which we British tend not to recognise nor appreciate at the moment. Perhaps we can continue to muddle through, as we have always done. I really hope so. But it would help if we appreciate what we already have, before we damage or lose it.

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available: http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british