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

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