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:


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