Without Identity, we are mere Dust on the Surface of Infinity

United Kingdom Fingerprint Walking out of Liverpool Street station in London recently, I gazed at the brass monument to the Kindertransport, commemorating the events whereby 10,000 European Jewish children were rescued from near certain death at the hands of the Nazis and taken into homes in Britain just before WWII. I felt proud to be British looking at the touching statue of refugee children, marking where they arrived in safety at this station after a long perilous journey.

I’m not feeling very proud of Britain right now

In contrast, I haven’t felt very proud lately of being British, for the way we have behaved in such a small minded insular way to Brexit. And especially because of how it seems to have encouraged in some of us, baser instincts of fear, prejudice and sometimes, outright racism. This is not confined to Britain of course. Otto Scharmer in his recent One World, Two Social Fields, Huff Po article, has called this kind of closing off, a social field of absencing, with the qualities of prejudice (closing the mind), anger, blame (closing the heart) and fear (closing the will), as opposed to what he terms a socio-emotional field of presencing.

I’ve just written a book where one of the main points is how liberals and post traditional Brits could actually come to feel proud of being British. So ok, that’s a little problematic right now, but I am convinced that a deeper knowledge of our shared story as a country is more valuable than ever: the many centuries of struggles and setbacks and the incremental gaining of rights, dignities and freedoms. What we don’t value, we are in danger of losing.

On the more positive side, when Sadiq Khan was recently elected Mayor of London, the world press made a huge thing of his being a Muslim. But for myself and many people here who voted for him, we were initially surprised by all the fuss. We weren’t focussed on his ethnicity and weren’t particularly swayed by what religion he adhered to, or didn’t; it was just which candidate we felt was best for the job. That was the kind of understated British value that I am referring to – which is easily overlooked – and which we are in danger of losing.

Remembering Our Human Values

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former British Chief Rabbi, a renowned philosopher and theologian who I greatly respect, wrote movingly about what Britain has represented to Jews. He said (and this was in 2006 in an anthology commissioned by Gordon Brown about what being British might mean) that Jews knew tolerance when they saw it in Britain and they recognised that their lives and those of their yet unborn grandchildren, depended on it.

‘For Jews, Britain epitomised a deep-down decency, a refusal to let hate be the final word, a residual, understated, yet unshakeable, humanity. For many years I did not know how rare this was and is.’

Jonathan Sacks is not blind to anti semitism and is aware of over romanticisation; he notes the prejudice including the anti-semitism which could be heard at dinner tables or in pubs in Britain, yet he notes that it wasn’t heard in public discourse.

‘Political parties did not win elections by campaigning against immigrants or minorities. England lacked a rhetoric of hate. That was the difference and it was all the difference. Somehow the body politic in England has built up an immunity to the darker forces of human nature. I say this because we are in danger of forgetting it, and what a nation forgets, it loses…….. Why, when a whole continent from Paris to Moscow was convulsed by die Judenfrage, the Jewish question, was Britain – not quite, but almost, alone – immune?’

Yet clearly at the moment, we are in great danger of losing this ‘immunity to the darker forces of human nature’ which Sacks refers to, and seriously degrading our public discourse.

We can’t Outsource our Memory & Conscience

To continue in the same vein, I was very pleased to hear that Lord Sacks had been awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize, and his acceptance speech is a powerful overview of the deep challenges we currently face in British and Western society. I want to give a longer quote from this speech since, in my opinion, what Sacks says is crucially important.

“I want to look at one phenomenon that has shaped the West, leading it at first to greatness, but now to crisis. It can be summed up in one word: outsourcing. On the face of it, nothing could be more innocent or productive. It’s the basis of the modern economy. …..The question is: are there limits? Are there things we can’t or shouldn’t outsource?

There is, though, one form of outsourcing that tends to be little noticed: the outsourcing of memory. Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories,… while our memories, and those of our children have got smaller and smaller. In fact, why bother to remember anything these days if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia?

But here, I think, we made a mistake. We confused history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.

Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want. It’s what Adam Smith signalled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. …And Jefferson when he said, ‘A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.’ At some point the West abandoned this belief.”

We British could do well to ponder on these points and to reclaim our story. There are deep embedded values from our long national story which are very much worth remembering and integrating. We can’t outsource conscience and moral responsibility. It’s not his-story, it’s our story, my story. And it matters; it really, really matters.

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

http://templetonprize.org/pdfs/2016/20160526-keynote-sacks.pdf

 

Healthy British Pride?

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT – LONDON – FRIDAY 8TH JULY – COME AND MEET CHRIS!

Toxic Nationalism
The vote for Brexit has regrettably unleashed some pretty unsavoury nationalist sentiments and downright racist incidents. And raw nationalism can be a very divisive and destructive force that can appeal to our baser natures. All countries are susceptible to it and such hateful nationalism needs to be robustly repudiated. Yet I feel that if we Brits can come to a more healthy sense of self acceptance as a nation, then we will be able to cope in a more humane and reasonable way with the very real issues of immigration in Britain that many Brexiteers are concerned about. Can we have a healthy national pride or patriotism rather than a toxic or fear based nationalism? Those of us on the Left especially need to grapple with this issue.

George-OrwellListen to George
Patriotism and nationalism are not necessarily the same thing at all. Listen to what George has to say – and I mean Orwell not Osborne!

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Of course I must, as a caveat, note that the term ‘nationalism’ can and is used in different ways, and there are many nationalists who are not seeking power at the expense of other groups nor have any xenophobic attitude, in the way that Orwell suggested.

Patriotism Reloaded?
I feel that we actually need to rehabilitate patriotism, so that we can again allow ourselves to feel a certain pride in our country: that inclusive and multicultural Britain – that country which so many have struggled for so long to incrementally create its important values, laws and culture. Billy Bragg calls it progressive patriotism and he is a rare voice on the Left advocating it, since any kind of patriotism is anathema to the Left for obvious postcolonial reasons. Sensitive liberal Britons find it hard to come to any kind of acceptance and integration of British Empire history.

There’s of course more to the picture in regards to our current British national psyche. Long forged qualities such as fair play, human decency, tolerance and acceptance, have quietly informed the British over generations. Britain has a praiseworthy history of toleration and respect for human rights. Yet our recently increasing feeling of disconnection from any national historical narrative, along with increasing erosion of faith in government and civil institutions, is undermining this very positive legacy of ours. And what a nation forgets, it loses.

I’m OK, You’re OK
I’m not talking of that backward looking sense of identity and patriotism which abhors change and is fixated on keeping everything as it was (or was imagined to be) in the past. A positive sense of our own national identity can give sensitive Britons the confidence to not react out of post colonial guilt towards the subject of immigration, feeling that we have no moral right to restrict the influx of immigrants into Britain. We clearly can’t have uncontrolled immigration in a small crowded country, yet we can be confident enough in our identity to recognise the great invigoration and economic and cultural benefit continuously brought in by new immigrants. Also we can have the self confidence to assert the positive reasons for why we want and need some degree of integration of new immigrants. Knowing being British is not about race or blood but is elective and about hard won shared values gives us positive reason to want and expect a degree of integration without being at all racist. Social cohesion is a precious commodity which we need to safeguard and nurture, as it’s fragile and once lost, hard to regain. If we as British don’t respect ourselves and our nation, then we can’t expect new immigrants to respect us either. Lack of self respect in our British national psyche is much more likely to lead to unhealthy degrees of self chosen segregation in new immigrants.

A Healthier National Psyche
In one way, it is very simple. All I am really talking about is a healthy national sense of self acceptance; just like as an individual you would ideally want to be able to accept yourself fully, without hating or feeling embarrassed or guilty or avoiding whole chunks of yourself. Well, the same goes for a healthy national self sense; we need to accept and integrate our national history with all its dark shadows and great achievements, and move on.
Let me finish with another quote from Orwell to ponder upon:

“Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.”

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

Up Yours!

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT – LONDON – 8TH JULY – HEAR CHRIS’ THOUGHTS ON THE REFERENDUM

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?

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT – LONDON – 8TH JULY

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.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
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.

Bananas-low resGOING BANANAS OVER BREXIT
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.

CLOWNS TO THE LEFT AND JOKERS TO THE RIGHT
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

Book Launch Event – Friday 8th July 6pm-8pm

cropped-book-cover.jpgJoin Chris Parish for the launch of his seminal book “Being British: Our Once & Future Selves” a fascinating journey into modern British culture and identity:

 

EVENT DETAILS
DATE/TIME: Friday 8th July 2016 from 6pm to 8pm

VENUE: Waterstones, 51 Greenwich Church Street, London, SE10 9BL;
(Nearest Stations: Cutty Sark DLR or Greenwich BR).

Over drinks and canapés, Chris will be signing books and answering the questions “Who are we?” and “What does it mean to be British in post EU Referendum Britain?

To attend the event:
Please RSVP to chrisparishwriter@gmail.com detailing names and email addresses of all attendees in your party.

Click here to buy the book

 

E: chrisparishwriter@gmail.com
W: www.chrisparishwriter@gmail.com
Blog: https://beingbritishbook.com/

British Identity

 

pp-sadiq-khan-1-getty

“I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.”

So said Sadiq Khan, the newly elected London mayor, in a recent interview with the New York Times. His victory generated great interest and comment around the globe, and mainly for the fact that one of the greatest Western capital cities had elected a Muslim as its mayor by overwhelming popular vote. Flying in the face of the widespread fear and divisiveness swirling around the whole subject of Muslims in the West, the result stands as a powerful symbol of unity amidst difference; a testament to the sanity of the general electorate in not being swayed by prejudice.

It made me feel proud to be a Londoner, and also I was reflecting on Sadiq Khan’s quote: how it expresses ease at holding multiple identities, and the sense of healthy belonging that goes along with that. It’s healthy to hold a nested hierarchy of identities like a Russian doll: you can be a Sikh, a Liverpudlian, a Briton, a European and a global human being, for example, with no inherent conflict.

I live in a bastion of Britishness, a borough where one of the highest proportions of all its residents identify with what they consider their country – Britain. I also very much consider myself British and am very happy to think of this as my primary national identity; so I guess I live in the right place. Where is this stronghold of Britishness in our Sceptered Isle? Well, what might come to mind could be somewhere like Tunbridge Wells or a small village in comfortable Hampshire or Dorset, or any location where the Daily Mail or Express dominates the dailies. But Royal Tunbridge Wells residents are far less than half as likely to identify themselves as British than in my home borough. It’s the London East End borough of Tower Hamlets, which doesn’t have a ‘Royal’ epithet either.

Data from the most recent national census of 2011 shows very clearly that all the boroughs in the country with the highest number of respondents picking British as their primary identity are London ones. And it pretty much correlates with the much greater ethnic diversity of these boroughs. It’s repeated outside London too, where the ‘most British’ places are Slough, Leicester, Luton and Birmingham – all places with high levels of ethnic diversity. Elsewhere in England, much greater percentages of the population picked being English as their primary identity: in Tunbridge Wells, 63% picked English in contrast to Tower Hamlets’ 25%. Interesting, isn’t it?

My wife was canvassing in Tower Hamlets for the recent London Mayoral election. She told me something interesting in how she had door knocked several flats where the Bengali woman of the house couldn’t speak English. Their children translated and the ladies turned out to be well informed about the election and planning to vote Labour. But what was particularly interesting to me was how they were unanimously against Britain remaining in the EU; this was because they didn’t want foreigners in Brussels telling us British what to do. Although they didn’t speak English, they clearly had a very strong sense of Britishness and of belonging.

Yet  we have the interesting situation where long established or native Britons – indigenous Britons even? – I can’t find the right word for the older white British stock – are not as sure as more recent immigrants of their own sense of Britishness.

At roughly the same time as Sadiq Khan’s interview with the New York Times, I read an interview in the Times (of London) with the ex-minister of finance for Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, . Yanis Varouvakis is always insightful and brilliant and he has a very good understanding of the British, having lived for many years here at one point in his life.He volunteered in the interview that:

‘The British seem to be ill at ease with their Britishness. It’s always confused me. The Germans are not ill at ease with their Germanness, or the Greeks with their Greekness. But the Brits are constantly itching. They are always at war with their own nature. I find this adorable But, at the same time, puzzling.’

Now Yanis’ statement doesn’t surprise me at all, having spent a long time studying our peculiar country. In my experience, immigrants do tend to be more at ease with their Britishness than native Britons. Why that might be so, is a whole other subject and one which I’ve attempted to explore in my book, Being British: Our Once & Future Selves.

 

Advance copy of book

Me with advance copy of my new book. It will be released at the end of June and I will have a book launch in London around then – details to follow soon. Happy to finally complete this project!

20160423_182846

British Grand Narratives (and not such grand ones too)

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What’s our story? Do we even have one as a country, and anyway, does it matter? As one attempt at an answer to these questions, I had the interesting experience recently of visiting the imperial splendour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall (the FCO is tactfully able to retain its abbreviation with the ‘C’ now standing for Commonwealth rather than Colonial). The occasion was a conference on the notion of British ‘decline’ and questioning this as a national historical narrative. Jointly organised by Queen Mary University, the Mile End Institute and the FCO, the conference examined the notion of ‘decline’ which is so commonplace in British historiography since 1945 that it seems questionable whether historians can even talk about Britain in this period without producing a narrative of ‘decline’.

Decline is a concept that has been the post-war lens for examining a variety of aspects of British life, including decolonisation, diminishing world influence, gradual erosion of manufacturing and exports, and a stagnating domestic economy plagued by industrial dispute and heavy debt. Sounds sort of familiar to many of us Britons growing up in the second half of the 20th C, doesn’t it?

Key speaker at the conference, Prof David Reynolds, examined several British grand narratives – and as he put it, some not so grand ones. Of course, number one was ‘decline’, followed by Europeanisation, and then multiculturalism. They all have their problems for becoming an attractive narrative. Britain is always the ‘awkward’ European and ambivalent about our relationship to the main continent, so it’s hard for Europeanisation to become our grand narrative in the way it has for France and Germany. And ‘multiculturalism’ can seem an attractive new narrative for Britain, but in order for this to work, we would first need to come to terms with with our Empire history; and we’ve hardly begun to do that.

Decline is still the way the British story is usually written and thought about. Yet it is not just a simple story of the rise and then subsequent decline of The Empire and of Britain. Yes, the vast Empire is gone (thankfully), but what is less well known is that from about the second half of the 19th C onwards, The Empire was more of a financial burden to Britain than an asset. Policing the seven seas to protect The Empire cost more than it gave back in return.

Now, far from having sunk into oblivion, Britain is actually the 5th largest economy in the world. London is one of the top financial cities in the world with huge reach. Britain also has great global influence in the creative industries these days, rather than in the old manufacturing sector. And despite our continuing inequality, Britain has really rebounded pretty well since the devastation and bankruptcy of the country following WWII.

What seemed to really cement the post WWII and post Empire notions of decline as our narrative, was the decade of the 1970s. Stories from the 70s of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, our being ‘the sick man of Europe’, the 3 day week, rubbish rotting on the streets, bodies lying unburied during a gravediggers’ strike, all somehow crystallised a British myth of decline that has never left us. A poignant quote from historian Dominic Sandbrook writing about the 70s, and the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan is worth pondering for a moment to let it sink in,

‘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.”

Hmm… and from no less than the PM of the time himself. Grand narratives are powerful myths and have a strong influence on all of us. A grand or metanarrative is a story about a story, which aims to encompass and explain other ‘small stories’ within totalizing schemes. How true they are, is of course, another matter.

For example, American historian George Bernstein, in his book about Britain since WWII, The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain Since 1945, comes to a very different and counterbalancing analysis:

‘Apart from the catastrophic decades of the 1920s and the 1970s, both linked to larger worldwide economic phenomena, the peacetime story (in Britain) has been one of growth and prosperity.’

Bernstein asserts from studying the economic figures, that Britain has done a remarkable job of transformation, and that the country since WWII was actually not fundamentally in decline, when for everyone here, that is an unquestioned and often unconscious given. Of course, he’s not British, which helps on a subject so close to us natives. For example, he points out that Britain’s annual growth rate from 1951-73 was higher than in all previous time periods including the most powerful periods of empire, and this growth was really impressive, given the devastation of WWII.

Of course, I haven’t given any answer to what could or should be our current narrative, if we are to have one at all. But I think it’s better to have a more conscious story than merely one such as ‘decline’ which is absorbed largely semi consciously from our culture. And I don’t think it is fit for purpose any more. Do we need a story, anyway? I think so, since we live by stories and myths far more than we imagine, and that is not a bad thing. Life is a story, after all.

Fair Play

I still remember as a child, the shock when my ordered view of the world collapsed. Strangely, while I can’t recall what was the trigger, it’s etched into my psyche how my sense of certainty and goodness was shaken that fateful day. Like realising Father Christmas wasn’t for real. It was when I woke up to the sickening realisation that Life wasn’t fair. Up until then, it had never occurred to me to question the cast iron ‘fact’ that Britain was fair, the world was fair, Life was fair. And then my awful epiphany that ‘fairness’ was not a universal quality. While similar rude awakenings no doubt happen to children all over the world, this one about fairness has a particularly British flavour. Fairness is a value we British hold most dearly. I was absolutely convinced that Life was fair – I mean, wouldn’t there be a law against unfairness?

Trevor Phillips relates how when the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which he was head of, opened in 2007, they undertook a public attitude survey to find out what the public most wanted the Commission to promote and protect.10978523354_f4823e2863_c

‘Fractionally behind a concern with being safe, the most important thing for people was fairness. Overwhelmingly respondents were more receptive to the idea of fair play than they were to the language of ‘rights’. If you think that’s uncontroversial, think for a minute how a French or American group might answer. Rights would be right up there, the rights secured by their revolutions and laid down in their constitutions. But we do things differently here. Fairness sums up our belief in cooperation for the common good. It is made possible by a robust rule of law and stable institutions.’

Foreigners make fun of our almost religious ritual of queuing and we can be duped into feeling that we are being uptight, if not severely anal about this obsessive habit. Americans don’t even have a proper word for the phenomenon apart from the rather inadequate ‘stand in line.’

I can’t bear it if someone jumps the queue and doesn’t wait their turn, and we seethe with anger at anyone who transgresses this unwritten law of Britishness. But it’s not such a weird reaction of ours. It’s because pushing ahead of others who have been waiting is NOT FAIR! And we think our society should be fair, or at least striving to be so. In a time when it often seems that we are devoid of any sense of what being British means or if we even think there is anything to feel British about, a value like fairness still resonates down the mists of time. Fair play is an article of faith across the political spectrum in Britain and we are outraged by injustice; Churchill and Orwell, opposites in many ways, both held it dearly. Fair play as a British value runs deep and has roots stretching way back into our historical development as a nation. It is part of who we are, and one facet of the elusive heart of Britishness.

From: Beng British: Our Once & Future Selves