Up Yours!


A Dog’s Dinner of a Brexit
So much has been said about Brexit already that I don’t want to add more. Instead I’d like to reflect a little on our confused national sense of ourselves. I feel this underlies our attitude to how we British make choices like Leave or Remain. The thing is, we’re not sure who we are anymore as a nation, and we don’t want to be subsumed and become ever more lost within the faceless EU. And ok, we may have made a dog’s dinner out of brexiting, but dammit, it’s our mess and we’re in control! (Though of course we’re not really in control).

Cantankerous Brits
Let’s face it, we British are stubborn, difficult and pig headed; no one tells us what to do.
Nearly all the economic experts told us that it really wasn’t in our interests to Brexit; all the hard facts were against it, but we didn’t want to listen to ‘experts’ with all their fear mongering. Sod it! We’ll decide for ourselves, thank you. To hell with the consequences. Many people didn’t necessarily think things would improve at all with Leave, but went ahead anyway as a protest vote. We stand alone; the Dunkirk spirit.

Now there are also positive aspects to these qualities as I just mentioned. Our dogged determination served us well in the Blitz or when facing IRA mainland bombings and after the 7/7 attacks. No panic on British streets, it just hardened our resolve. Character traits are double edged.

Union Flag-Flowers-WEBWhere’s My Country?
Any positive sense of national pride in post-Empire Britain has become very problematic. Any expression of patriotism has been ridiculed and condemned as racist and living in the past. Think ‘white van man’. People felt their country was being taken away from them, and don’t even know what it means to be English or British now. We were Great Britain and The Empire, and now we’re…… dunno… sort of nothing. Many from outside of booming metropolitan areas, like those who live in the North and Midlands, have endured the numbing spectre of decline, disappearing jobs and hopelessness.

No National Story Anymore
People very understandably want to be respected, to have self respect, and yet they felt that the government and the elites have abandoned them. So they exercised their independence with Brexit, sometimes not even caring if they themselves will suffer for it (which they likely will). ‘Taking back control’ cleverly spoke to our feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, and promised independence and self respect, though in reality, it is just an artful slogan delivering almost nothing.

And also in well to do areas too, especially older people feel they are losing their country – Britain or England – and have made a stand with a self-determining gesture in protest. I was struck by this spirit in well to do areas of the East Riding in Yorkshire, where I visited recently.

The Scottish have a positive national story which all sections of the population feel they can embrace. In contrast, we British or English don’t now possess any positive national narrative; at best our story is vague, self deprecating and an embarrassment to us. We’re just not sure of our identity anymore, and this plays into the allure of ‘taking back control’, somehow fighting back and restoring respect.

It’s not really about the EU
We are a difficult bunch. Britain arguably had the best deal with the EU of any country. We paid less per head than all other nations with rebates secured by Mrs Thatcher. We had special exclusions, from the single currency to the Schengen passport free zone. We had all the benefits and less of the costs. It was us who chose to follow neoliberal policies; that didn’t come from the EU. So we managed to have free trade with less constraints than many, especially southern European countries. Yet we were always complaining (which of course is a British national habit). Our attitude towards the EU has always been argumentative and extremely self serving.

Much of what we do is not very rational. The sovereignty which many felt they were reclaiming by voting Leave, was largely fictitious. Hanging onto notions of sovereignty is understandably appealing to many of us Brits who feel our country has been taken away from us. Yet if we had more confidence in our national identity, I feel that we would recognise that there can still be sovereignty along with cooperation and interdependence.

This is why I feel it is important that we come to terms with our past and come to a healthier and better integrated national psyche, for all our sakes.

Come and meet Chris, hear what he has to say about the referendum results and get a signed copy of his book “Being British: Our Once and Future Selves” on 8/7/2016

It’s Getting Better all the Time….or is it?


Glass Half Empty low res 250The Glass is Half-Empty
Isn’t it hard to be objective about our own country? We British tend towards a glass half-empty view of our nation, and sometimes even to a glass almost-empty view. Our wonderful media (plus some politicians too) find that it sticks better to come up with catchy emotive phrases, rather than to examine the facts. According to them, Britain has been variously, ‘Going to the Dogs’, ‘Broken Britain’, or at ‘Breaking Point.’ I’m convinced we need a more balanced view about Britain.

How positive or negative do you feel about Britain in general if you had to rate it on an online survey? Of course the mood changes and how we as a whole tend to feel about our country and its prospects, does fluctuate.

Losing our Religion
The NHS is a good example of glass almost-empty. The NHS is often spoken of as the closest thing to a national religion that we have left in Britain. But if so, then we are losing our religion. The media gives us a daily drip feed of tales of the NHS collapsing, being ineffective, making dangerous mistakes, and it taking ever longer to get appointments. Exposed to this relentless barrage, you might think it’s safer not to go to an NHS hospital at all; like in Victorian days when your survival prospects could be diminished by hospital treatment – the surgeons wearing their infection-spreading blood-stiffened aprons as a badge of honour.

Of course it’s right to highlight faults and negligence, but to put these very real troubles in perspective, the NHS is by far the largest employer in the country, with 1.7 million employees. Yet such is our general pessimism regarding this much maligned national organisation, that it is hard to let in that the NHS is ranked by independent international surveys  as the number one best health care system in the world; and also the most efficient health care system. Doesn’t compute in the British brain, does it?

Going to the Dogs
There are underlying currents of semiconscious sentiment that get passed down generationally and are absorbed osmotically. To take an example, the 1970s were hard economically in Britain (as they were all over the West – though we don’t take that into account). Our general sentiment in those times became very pessimistic, and I am convinced still carries over to this day. This was the time of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the 3 day week, a sense of general decline, and Britain as the ‘sick man of Europe.’

Here’s what the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had to say in 1974, (from historian Dominic Sandbrook):

‘Even Callaghan himself seemed to have little faith in his native land. In November 1974 he told his colleagues, “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength – and that is running out. And,” he went on, “If I were a young man, I should emigrate.” ’

If even the Prime Minister himself had such a view of his own country, it shows just how deep the currents of negativity and cynicism had begun to run in Britain.

Never had it so good?
And interestingly, although times have changed since back then, we’ve never quite got over that glass half-empty mindset. Because despite continuing poverty for some, and even widening inequality, it is a fact that most people in Britain are better off, are healthier, have longer life spans, more opportunities, better safeguarded rights and more leisure time than ever before in the whole of recorded history; and far in excess of that available to the great majority of the world’s population today.

Do we feel fortunate? Rarely, for most of us, most of the time, if we’re honest. That’s part of why I feel that as a nation, we need to come to a more balanced view of ourselves: a healthier national psyche.

Come and meet Chris and get a signed copy of his book “Being British: Our Once and Future Selves” on 8/7/2016

Lost – Anyone Seen Britain?

Book Launch Event 8 July 2016

WHY BRITS ARE GOING BANANAS OVER BREXIT                           

Just what it means to be British these days is actually quite hard to pin down. The old stereotypes of us as warm-beer swigging, tea drinking people who are reserved, saying “sorry” all the time, is superficial. And more than that, it’s not even true today. A few years ago, an eminent panel was asked to come up with an official handbook for aspiring British citizens. Tasked with the question of what does being British mean, the main conclusion of the experts was that living in the country was the definition of Britishness – which seemed ridiculous.

I know it sounds old hat but we still haven’t gotten over The Empire. When the British Empire dissolved, it left us unsure of who we were. And we still haven’t got used to being just a country, because for centuries we had been an empire. In the Empire days, the very different races of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish were brought together in a new identity: being British. So an unexpected positive benefit of Empire is that for a long time now, being British has not been based on race, blood, ideology or religion. Instead, being British is based on liberal values and institutions like the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, free speech and individual liberty. This means people can chose to be British if they are born here or live here. So our being indefinite about who we are can be a good thing and is actually a British quality.

BUT – there’s also a big downside to this sense of indefiniteness as to our identity as Britons. After the Empire, we were left adrift with a big dose of feeling in decline and unsure, which still remains. This is not so conscious but affects how we approach the EU referendum. We seem to be going bananas over the Brexit question and we’re not rational about it. All the arguments about the economics of it seem like rationales. The real reasons are deeper and not very conscious, having more to do with being unsure of our identity. We’re afraid of losing our sovereignty. The Brexit question brings up a visceral sense that our barely surviving nationality is under threat and must be protected. Raise the drawbridge and let’s trade independently with the rest of the world instead. This view is sincerely felt but is irrational, since the UK is actually the 5th biggest economy in the world, and not in any danger of disappearing.

Both right and left have their own version. Traditional Tories are often passionately for Brexit. These are often people who do care about Britain and our heritage in their own way. But generally, being in support of Britain is equated as independence from the EU and Europe.

Then on the left, there’s a peculiar lack of passion about Britain and the EU. Labour seem surprisingly wishy-washy about staying in the EU, although on paper, the vast majority are in favour. Where’s the passionate internationalism you might expect from the socialist movement? Yet, post-Empire, the left is uncomfortable about asserting positive national identity of any kind. Or supporting anything with even the possibility of a whiff of pride in Britain; to them it might so easily smack of Britain’s past colonialism.

We still haven’t gotten over The Empire nor integrated that whole period into a healthy national psyche: one where we can feel reasonably self assured as Britons and not feel threatened by the EU or Europe. Really, it’s ok. Britain’s doing pretty well generally, all things considered.

Come and meet Chris and get a signed copy of his book “Being British: Our Once and Future Selves” on 8/7/2016