Britain Explained: taking a scalpel to identity
PUBLISHED: 08:00 07 June 2017
Drill down into Britishness and what do you find? Is it from institutions like the BBC, the NHS or the OU? Or are we British because of common schooling experience and a love of Shakespeare? asks Hornsey author Martin Upham
Who do you think you are?
It used to be so simple. I’m British, English, Catholic, Labour: you’re British, Scots, Jewish, Conservative; I’m from the country and support a county cricket team: you’re a football-obsessed urbanite.
In north London, such multiple identities are familiar, perhaps overlaid with film, stage or music interests, extended or shortened education, white- or blue-collar status, ethnicity, media selection, private or state schooling. All this apparently thrives side by side, but it creates a false sense of ease. The 2016 Brexit vote shocked many Ham&High readers. London might be capital of the UK but it is also capital of an England that views the world very differently.
I’ve taken a scalpel to identity in my new book Britain Explained. While writing I remembered the many young Americans I once taught as a study abroad director. They would spend a semester here, attracted by a hazy notion of ‘Britishness’. As strangers they noticed things we don’t: CCTV, an absence of identity cards, barristers in funny wigs. They also arrived thinking the NHS was just for the poor. The BBC – somehow public but not run by the government – baffled them. Much of their mental imagery drew on a past shaped by costume drama.
You can learn from visitors. Drill down into Britishness and what do you find? Is it from institutions like the BBC, the NHS or the OU? Or are we British because of common schooling experience and a love of Shakespeare? Several politicians – and the Department of Education – have cast around for an umbrella ‘Britishness’ embracing all the nice positives: tolerance, mutual respect, multi-culturalism, the rule of law. The trouble is that a stretched fabric tears. That shocking referendum vote might mean a majority aren’t signed up to this official version of Britishness.
England’s ten other regions (a majority of two million English voters) were saying something when they voted Leave. Perhaps they saw it as a way to stop immigration. Perhaps they just got tired of being ignored. If so they have a point. There is a giant unfairness in the way the country is run. While Haringey Council is licking its lips about Crossrail 2 it takes four hours by train to reach Liverpool from Hull. This non-car owning Hornsey-dweller spends much of his life on the 41 bus. If I miss one there’s another just behind; bus-users in the shires can’t be so sure.
Some now suggest that older identities matter more. For a decade the Scots have been governed by a pro-independence party; while half of Northern Ireland seems more British than the British the other half isn’t British at all. This UK emerged with a British Empire, now long gone. Perhaps like the Empire it has had its day? A new state could emerge from England and Wales (maybe) and with London less of a First among Equals. This ‘rumpUK’ might allow individuals to fall back on self-identifiers and worry less about what we share.
Yet powerful common factors endure. Our political system may count votes in a peculiar way, but it survived the rumbustious 20th century. Our language is the one everyone else learns (while we never speak other peoples’). Almost all obey the law and even the most hardened racist loves a curry. What is valuable might yet be salvaged if London stopped elbowing its way to the front, if the arts, public transport and health resources were evenly distributed. The social care controversy might yet lead to a new national system to be proud of, as the NHS once was. And if centralising control freaks would just let go, a new national identity might emerge in which each had an equal stake.
Martin Upham lives in Hornsey.
Britain Explained, published by John Harper Publishing (£12.99), is available online from Waterstones and Blackwell’s
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