Don’t worry, I’m not racist. A follow-up to ‘Burying Thatcher...’ this article addresses the question of British Identity, and whether it really belongs in the hands of those who claim it.
I studied my first year of university in a little Welsh town called Lampeter. It’s the oldest degree awarding institution in Britain after Oxford and Cambridge, and was founded in the middle of nowhere – a region locally known as ‘The Vale of Melancholy’ (not in the prospectus) for its inordinate quota of annual rain – by monks who didn’t want their initiates to be able to party or escape.
It’s a startlingly odd place. You can walk from one end of the town to the other in around 5 minutes. The populace is an unlikely mix of Welsh country folk – many of whom are oddly resentful of the students-who-bring-their-town-into-existence – and, of course, the university students themselves. Of the student population, at least a third are the type that are obsessed with playing goblins and swords.
When I arrived at Lampeter, I moved into a twee little grey-stone hall of residence and immediately met with another third of the populace (not all of them at once, thank God) – young Conservatives (also not in the prospectus). They had the previous year made our communal kitchen their centre of operations, and decked it out [in]appropriately with pictures of Churchill, Kitchener, the queen above the clock, and a giant Union Jack covering the wall that faces the window.
That year was interesting; there were numerous ideological battles and some racist occurrences, the victims of which fought unsuccessfully against a bigoted SU and administration. At one time we were at an SU forum discussing new policy to ensure inclusion and integration of ethnic minorities at the university. My young conservative friends stood up and stated that there weren’t many ethnic minorities so it wasn’t worth bothering (the final third of the student population, more or less, was Chinese, around four of whom were living in our tiny hall, along with a black girl and a Jewish one. When we asked right-wingers not to see colour, this was not what we had in mind). The motion didn’t pass. The leader of the MOBO society was repeatedly dismissed when she made requests and accused of “playing the race card” when she complained, and my Malcolm X poster was graffitied with Imperial-style monocle and moustache (because the culprit couldn’t bear the sight of a proud black man, which admittedly was the only reason I procured the poster for the kitchen in the first place).
This epoch in my life left me with a fomented attitude of anti-patriotism – if these people represent Britain, then I for one could not call Britain ‘Great.’
After that, it took me some time and distance to develop a more rounded attitude towards being British. I remember adjusting my reading of British identity favourably during a period of voluntary work for the Refugee Council (before that my only patriotic feeling was for English mustard).
My exposure to the people who worked there, how they tirelessly strived for the most vulnerable in this world, to undo the prejudice surrounding refugees, to ensure that they had the support they need to adjust to an alien country that they never asked to come to (a great number of refugees are brought to their country of refuge without having any say in the matter aside from “stay where you are and die, or come with us”). Thanks to these people, in the face of the tabloids, we have a world-class system on human rights – and this is something we should be proud of.
Russell Brand said something intelligent (no really) in regards to the demise of Margaret Thatcher,
‘Her refusal to stand against apartheid, her civil war against the unions, her aggression towards our neighbours in Ireland and a taxation system that was devised in the dark ages, the bombing of a retreating ship – it’s just not British.’
And it’s true. The ideas and imagery of Britain that we’ve been media-fed these past 30 years-or-so through the turgid filters of neoliberalism are wholly un-British when you pull down those filters and have a look at the bigger picture.
After all, we’re not a nation composed of bigoted Lords and bootjack bullies, who ruin our towns on Friday nights and our international image when they choose to holiday abroad. Sure, we have those people in our society, but they are severe minorities and utterly non-representative of – in fact they go against – what it means to be British.
Let’s rip down this neoliberal filter when we look at our history. Asked to explain British history at a glance, many Britons may give you something along the lines of (counter-chronologically) “WWII, WWI, Industrial revolution, Imperialism, ancient history of Romans and kings”. There is little mention of the great leaps forward we’ve made socially and intellectually in that description.
Britons can feel a lot of cultural shame in the acts of conquering, brutality and slavery that occurred during British Imperialism. I’d like to suggest that – like this current era of neoliberal rule – that era also was one in which the governing faction did not support the views of the British people. For this reason they were among the world’s first, and certainly the strongest campaigners, for the abolition of slavery.
Britain was the first nation to declare war on Hitler when he performed unconscionable acts. They sent their men to die in their millions and left their women to struggle under dire conditions for four years while the USA and others sat and twiddled their thumbs. Why? Because Britain had a culture that was prepared to suffer and die to ensure the future of this world was a free and better place. It was the second time in the space of 30 years that they had done so.
When the second world war was over, Britain set about attempting to right some of the wrongs their empire had caused. They relinquished lands that did not truly belong to them. They committed themselves to building one of the greatest systems for equality mankind has ever seen. Quite intelligently, they made the supposition that all human life was equally valuable, and that base judgements upon the position of another person served nothing, and with these philosophies they created the National Health Service and the Welfare State. Over the next 30 years they would decrease the poverty gap and improve the standards of living to the highest that they’ve ever been in the UK – some of the highest averages in the world.
In the fifties and sixties, Britons weren’t uniformly racist as tabloid history might infer. The British Government recognised the great potential in cooperating with the skilled people in countries like India and Pakistan, whose talents they were short on in the UK. The government invited them across in their thousands to create one of the first modern, planned multi-cultural societies in the world.
Simultaneously the poor, young, white kids in the estates were clever enough to recognise that the Jamaican immigrants were essentially the same as them, and set about defending them against racist attacks. What followed was an interchange of culture that was to inform swathes of our greatest modern works of music and art.
In 1979, Thatcherism set about deconstructing what true, thinking British people had built. Thatcherite ideas, quite easy to trace, are wholly un-British in origin; Instead they hail from the military-industrial complex culture of the US government, including a free-market model based upon a philosophy of aggressive individualism, and a neo-conservative policy of misdirecting the public through calculated lies.
But it’s not best to dwell on these terrors that have eroded beautiful British culture, what we should rather do is help to realign our consciousness back to a healthier idea of what it means to be British.
Thatcher was a villain. She wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last. What we should ask is who are our heroes?
One immediately comes to mind: Clement Attlee. Voted in 2004 the best Prime Minister of the 20th Century, it is strange how the average British Joe has never heard of him, or if so knows so little of him. Because it was he who ensured that Neville Chamberlain didn’t cut a deal with Hitler. He was instrumental in putting Churchill into power during the war, forming a coalition government as Britain’s first Deputy Prime Minister. He took control of the government after the war and created all of our greatest welfare systems, ensuring that the elderly had pensions, the unemployed didn’t starve and the sick didn’t go without care. He oversaw the developments of Britain’s economy using the mixed model system – ensuring that companies could not take advantage of the poor. Did our economy suffer? No, it just grew and grew as the poverty gap shrank. In the year before Thatcher’s rise to power, as David Lindsay says in his article Britain Before Thatcher, Don’t You Believe It, “During 1978, Britain’s standard of living rose by 6.4 per cent to reach its highest ever level: so much for the ‘Sick Man of Europe’.”
When I encounter foreigners outside of Europe (where I am the foreigner), almost invariably they want to talk about the Beatles. This is another influence Britain has had on the world stage of which it can be proud. I’m not particularly a fan of the Beatles per se, but we have exported our arts – and the rhetoric that is tied up with them – worldwide. The Beatles were, at the very least, preachers of peace and thoughtfulness. There were others, such as David Bowie, who have influenced sexual freedom and politics on the world stage. Or even heavy weirdos like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, preaching freedom of expression, just to pick a random few. We can go back and see this is nothing new: Shakespeare, Keats, the Shelleys, Blake etc. were all promoting a move towards human unity. Britain’s contribution to the arts is world-class, and these contributions have informed generations worldwide to think more deeply, or accept the minor differences between us so that we can build something upon our shared similarities, our global, communal desires to be healthy, happy, productive people.
So how would I sum up what it means to be British? I would say that Britons are people who think deeply, reflect upon life; they are forward thinkers who see beyond the trivialities of colour, creed and gender; they’re clever enough to recognise that each life is equally precious and valid and worth aiding; they’re the sort of people who meticulously tolerate their own terrible political correctness, because they realise that today their words still inform whether we go down a route of bigotry or equality, and they choose the latter for their children. In short, the best of British are world leaders on forward thinking, promoting peace, unity and equality on a level that is hard to equal.
Forget Thatcher’s Americanisation.