Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Britishness Day - an alternative suggestion



Remember that idea? Gordon Brown was a huge fan of it. Thankfully it never happened, and hopefully it never, ever will, but I thought I'd just lay out me feelings on why I think it is so utterly and fundamentally wrong, and what we could do instead to make everyone feel like they 'belong' as a truly valued citizen of the United Kingdom.

The UK is not a 'nation'. It is a 'family of nations'. This is a concept that many people seem to struggle with - we are not bound together as a 'Nation State' as some other European Nations became bound together (in various ways) during the 19th century development of the modern states. Of course, as a family we inevitably have some areas of broad agreement, and have adopted some of the elements of the cultures of our close neighbours, but we remain distinctly different, with cultural backgrounds of our own.

This has ALWAYS been the case - these islands have throughout history been the very definition of a 'cultural melting-pot'. I think it is fair to say that we have now generally settled into a pattern of 'nationhood' around the current borders of the different nations that comprise the UK, although anybody who underestimates the importance of identities such as those in Yorkshire and Cornwall, for example, do so at their peril!

There are, I think, two main factors that seem to have driven the modern campaigns for 'Britishness Days' and similar attempts at making us all 'feel' like we are 'One Nation', and all 'the same'. One is the fear of the rise of so-called 'Nationalism' (there's a whole world of difference between borderline-xenophobic 'Nationalism' and civic 'Secessionism', but the details of that's a subject for a different post!) among those pesky smaller UK nations, and the other is related to immigration and how to 'integrate' those with roots and origins in, perhaps, far distant lands and their cultures.

Both of them, though, essentially hark back to a massive mistake of the past, and in some cases quite recent past in dealing with the differences between the 'internal Nations' of the UK. In the past governments have made many efforts to 'unify' the UK in various ways, trying to force everyone to 'assimilate' to the prevailing 'culture' (and language), which is always, of course, the dominant culture (and language) of the majority in the largest of our nations, and the 'governing class', so very much based on that of England (John Major, for example,was fond of using 'cricket on the village green' type language for 'our national traditions' in his 'Back to Basics' campaign, but then calling it 'British' as an attempt to be 'politically correct' with regard to the other nations of the UK - he missed the point quite spectacularly!).

Any attempt at assimilation, particularly state-sponsored assimilation, will only achieve two related outcomes - resentment and resistance. Such attempts are morally wrong, of course, but they have also been shown historically to generally be pretty ineffective in the UK context. How many generations of Welsh people were told that their language barred them from holding official office, or even just held them back in life? How many attempts were there to wipe it, and its associated culture of Wales, out 'for the good of the people'? Coming on for a thousand years of trying to make the Welsh 'become English' in one way or another, and, despite the effect on the language in particular, all of them have failed. Likewise the idea of banning the visible vestiges of Highland 'Scottishness', and so on (different context, of course) - utter failure. These things do not work - the people of the UK do not all conform to the same identity of 'Britishness' - they never have, and they never will.

The more that someone tries to make them do that, the more they will rebel against it and hold on to their cultural 'roots', and rightly so - nobody has the right to impose 'culture' on others, or to tell them that the culture they are imposing is either in some way 'superior' or 'necessary' if they want to live in a certain place or get on in the world. Indeed, I have little doubt that the same is true of those who (quite rightly - why shouldn't they?!) hold on to elements of their own cultural identities that may have come to these islands relatively recently. It's human nature - people are generally wanting to be part of a culture in which they feel they belong, so to speak - one that is 'evolving', of course, but 'evolving' is not the same as 'disappearing', and even that is not the same as being 'pushed out'! Pushing people to 'conform' to an imposed view of 'identity' is only playing into the hands of those who would like to cause trouble (on all 'sides') - it builds resentment, and from that it creates the circumstances for reaction and resistance (and counter-resistance, of course, and a rise in the far right in politics).

The real strength of the UK is that we have thousands of years of experience of such cultural diversity - it might not have always been dealt with very well, of course, but we can learn from those mistakes. We can do things differently. In order for everyone to feel like they 'belong' in the UK and are welcomed as UK citizens, and even have some kind of affinity for the UK as a state entity, we don't have to make them feel like they all need to be culturally the same - quite the opposite, in fact. We need to demonstrate that our strength lies in our diversity.

The absolute worst thing we can do to preserve our 'national unity' is try to artificially create some kind of 'national unity', as we would be doing with any kind of 'British National Day' - that might sound counter-intuitive, but we need to understand that people are diverse and different, and that that is how it should be in a free society where people come from many different kinds of cultural backgrounds. Instead of showing our 'unity', we should be actually celebrating our diversity.

So how do we begin to change that understanding in a tangible way? Well, I'm going to suggest an alternative to 'Britishness Day', based on the example of one commonly-celebrated occasion in the calendar of many people across the UK, regardless of their own cultural identities and origins. We all, I'm sure, know about the 'plastic paddy' brigade who come out to celebrate 'Irishness' on St Patrick's Day, with the cheesy marketing nonsense of particular drink brands, and the inevitable awful accent attempts and leprechaun outfits. As much as I'm sure it slightly irritates many Irish people, I think it's actually a very positive thing to be positively celebrating the culture of a fellow nation, even if it is in a very 'plastic' and 'false' way, and is based as much on 'friendly banter' as on real understanding (and as a family, we should be able to enjoy a bit of mutual banter between ourselves, and I think most of us generally do!).

Most people, of course, don't think the Irish are all ginger-bearded leprechauns who just go around all day saying 'begorrah' to each other! They know it isn't real - in a sense it doesn't matter, though - it's not actually reinforcing a stereotype because it is all knowingly false, and it is a very positive celebration that generates positive feelings towards Ireland, and can be used as a vehicle for introducing other, more genuine cultural elements to the wider world. In fact, it is probably one of the reasons why Ireland has become so successful in marketing itself and its culture to the wider world.

Nobody feels in any way either an 'outsider' or a 'traitor' by being 'plastic Irish' for the day, and nobody feels embarrassed celebrating a culture and nation that isn't their own, and that is how I think cultural diversity should be celebrated. At the moment it's almost as if we all seem to be too afraid of causing offence, or too prone to taking offence, if we are seen to be celebrating something other than 'unified Britishness' (or see others doing that), and I think that is completely the wrong way around.

So why don't we follow the same principle towards other nations within the UK? The people (and politicians) of Wales have long been calling for a bank holiday on St David's Day in Wales, but that has been blocked by politicians from over the border in the neighbouring country. I'm suggesting we go further - let's make St David's Day a bank holiday celebration across the whole of the UK, and do the same for all of the 'National Days' of the generally accepted nations of the UK. It will be cheesy, it will contain banter, it will all be 'plastic' and 'false', but ultimately I don't think that is actually a bad thing at all. Of course, it would mean rearranging our bank holiday calender, but it's probably about time that that was looked at anyway, since the distribution of them through the year makes little sense at the moment.

Yes, I'm sure certain large breweries will take it as a marketing opportunity and produce inflatable coal miner hats, plastic dragons and sheep, and all the rest of it - do you know what? Good! If a Welsh producer does well out of it, that's good for the economy of Wales, but, more importantly, if the people of the UK spend a day celebrating 'Welshness' in a positive and enjoyable way, even if it is largely based on silly falsehoods, I think that's a good thing for the UK as a whole. Let's face it - it's not like we Welsh are immune from such things as silly dragon and daffodil hats on international match days anyway, and I can assure you the Scots aren't shy of a bit of blue facepaint either (and English tinfoil 'knights' aren't exactly unknown too)! As much as they are 'false', these are not actually 'offensive' things to us - it's the stuff we do ourselves in our less serious and more celebratory moments, so why shouldn't we all join in together with each other doing it a bit more? Of course, other elements of more genuine Welsh culture can be brought into the equation over time to create a more genuine understanding of our unique culture and identity within the UK, but primarily it is all about celebrating our DIVERSITY!

And as a Welshman, might I just say that I've got no objections to wearing a kilt on St Andrew's Day and wandering around with an inflatable set of comedy bagpipes branded by some brewery or other Scottish company. I know that that isn't really what Scotland is all about, but that's the whole point - it's all just about us as a family of nations having a bit of harmless fun together in the way that any good and strongly-bound family unit would. I'll even wear the leg-bells on St George's Day, and spend my time morris dancing to the tunes of Sir Arthur Sullivan while reciting Shakespeare, or whatever! It's a bit of fun that is nothing more than a harmless bit of banter in celebrating our family of nations, and that can only be a good thing, in my opinion. It can promote a positive view, and over time even a greater understanding of why these kind of silly cultural stereotypes are so silly. In fact, we would be making fun of ourselves for our stereotypes about other more than we would ever be making fun of them doing this kind of thing!

Diversity is a good thing. Being a happy family who can celebrate our diversity is a good thing. We can't ram a the Urdd Eisteddfod down everyone's throat and tell them 'this is Wales', of course (most of Wales would rebel if we tried that, let alone everyone else!), but neither can we ram Her Majesty or World War II down everyone's throats and tell them 'This is Britain - now be proud'! That kind of nonsense just doesn't work - we have to do something that celebrates the variety of diverse cultures and traditions that we are lucky enough to have in the UK, so let's do it in a way that we already know, from the evidence of St Patrick's Day (which should also be one of our UK bank holidays, of course), will actually work!

Of course, this doesn't directly celebrate the many other cultures and cultural elements we have here on these islands, but by showing that we have a positive and celebratory attitude to cultural diversity we can encourage people to have a more relaxed view of the idea of us all being one family with different identities and cultural elements that we can all happily celebrate together. We can encourage other cultural groups to hold their own celebrations for others to join in, without the fear of forcing anything onto anybody (and, for those for whom it would be a potential issue, of course they don't all need to be alcohol-based celebrations - there are lots of other things that people can enjoy!). That's not just restricted to cultures originating more recently overseas, either - it can also relate to modern cultural developments, and so on, too - nobody has only important (to them) cultural elements from one single source.

For as long as we talk about 'Britishness Day' and the like, we are sending a message that it is somehow 'wrong' to have an identity other than the government-sanctioned idea of 'Britishness' if you live in the UK. We have got to stop doing that - it is only creating a problem of mutual suspicion that doesn't need to be there. Let's do the opposite - let's actually have as many celebrations of our diversity as we possibly can.

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