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Saturday, August 06, 2005


Britishness? (part two)

First, the word ‘Britishness’ is not, according my spellchecker, a real word. It offers me the option of replacing ‘Britishness’ with ‘Brutishness’, which, I admit, would be an accurate description of Gerald Howarth and those who share his thuggish ideas of what it means to be British.

Second, when David Davis calls for Britain to adopt the American model, he makes a whole handful of mistakes. On a simple level it seems that he thinks that Britishness can be imported. I have no problem taking good ideas from beyond our borders. But then I do not express reverence for the Britishness of values. On a more serious level, we cannot be sure whether he is speaking of the reality or the myth of US integration policies. Does he mean the US where people routinely describe themselves as Italian-American, African-American, Irish-American and so on? Or does he mean the US of myth, an immigrant nation where successive waves of new immigrants did not simply assimilate into some native population (who were kept out of the way on reservations), but took an active part in shaping the cultural, social, economic and intellectual landscape of the developing nation? I think that David Davis is talking about neither. I think that he is calling for us to adopt the ‘American model’ is merely a rhetorical trick. He calls on ethnic minorities to “respect the British way of life”. No description of how, as Britons, they will take part in shaping ‘the British way of life’. So does he mean the ethnic identification that is a routine part of American life? No, he criticises the promotion of “distinctive identities”. So which America model is it that Davis is speaking of? None whatsoever, except the one that he has invented through his imaginative powers to serve his political purposes - an invention that mirrors the creation of definitions of Britishness.

Third, we have the Liam Fox on the Today Programme stating that adherence to the idea of a free market economy is an essential part of British values. Well, that rules me out of being British then. When you have a nominally socialist party in power, to state that an adherence to the idea of a free market economy is an essential part of being British is to make a tremendous number of people within the borders of Britain non-British. Or even anti-British. Traitors, as Gerald Howarth calls them*.

But then, these are two sides of the same coin. Howarth is, after all, a resolute defender of General Pincohet, who certainly made an adherence to a certain brand of free-market values a requirement for living as a free Chilean.

This is the problem with the debate about what it means to be British – it is necessarily exclusionary, and as the debate is a political one it is very far from being an attempt at arriving at an objective statement of what Britishness IS, but a statement of what Britishness OUGHT to be. This must exclude people, marking them as un-British solely on the basis of a definition that conforms to the desires of political and media opinion formers. We ARE British. Britishness is what we do. British values are those that we hold. Any other definition, any definition that attempts to paint some British people – including me, it seems – outside the borders of Britain is an exercise is wicked political rhetoric. To even take part in the debate, except to point out the absurdity of this brand of discourse, even if your aim is to express a liberal view of Britishness, is to bolster the legitimacy of exclusionary definitions.

*The Conservative Party appears to be doing a clumsy job of disassociating themselves from Howarth’s comments. While stressing that Howarth was expressing a personal opinion rather than a party position, Tory HQ have performed a cack-handed defence of his ‘traitors’ remarks by saying that he was speaking solely about suicide bombers themselves, not Muslims who may hold critical opinions of British society. Of course, this is nonsense, and more than that is nonsense spoken in the full knowledge that the speaker is peddling a line in pap.

He said; “If they don’t like our way of life, there is a simple remedy – go to another country, get out.” With regard to the British born; “Tough. If you don’t give allegiance to this country, the leave. // There are plenty of other countries whose way of life would appear to be more conducive to what they aspire to. They would be happy and we would be happy.” Do these sound like comments aimed at suicide bombers? No, these comments are clearly aimed at people who are critical of the British way of life. And, as I said before, Gerald Howarth is one.

I am not unsympathetic to your riducule of the notion of 'Britishness', if only on the grounds that I feel it is rather un-British to attempt to define what is 'Britishness'! Surely it is somewhat similar to pornography, difficult to define, but you know when you see it. Thus, if your brand of socialism, say, entails the wholesale nationalisation of everything, then I would brand it as un-British in that it goes against the whole history and culture of this country. Similarly, if some Muslim decides to slaughter us wholesale in an effort to convert us to Islam, I would like-wise define that as un-British for the same reasons; and in neither case would I feel it encumbent upon me to define what being 'British' is. (That is the sort of semantic nonsense best left to those continental philosopher chappies!)

As for Gerald Howarth's remarks, they are, of course, entirely unexeptional and sensible. He is merely stating the obvious that if foreigners detest everything about this country, they have the option to leave. Likewise, if they are British-born. I have not read anything from him that insists they should be *forced* to leave, only that they have the option, and that *most* British people would be happy to see them go. Why you should require the smelling salts for such a re-statement of the 'bleedin' obvious', I do not know?
"...detest everything about this country". "...goes against the whole history and culture of this country."

Who is defining the 'everything', the 'whole'? I mean, you dislike a hell of a lot about this country, as do Fox and Howarth. Indeed, I'd guess that you, Fox and Howarth have rather more complaints about the culture of Britain at the present time than I do.

" neither case would I feel it encumbent upon me to define what being 'British' is."

of course you need a definition of what is 'British' if you are to go around calling things 'un-British'. The difficultly of formulating a definition is a demonstration that the use of 'British' in these contexts are simply methods of painting ideas as alien - deligitimising them before they are considered. Of course, you may take the line, that, like art, 'Britishness' is a subjective (though collectively created and thus constantly shifting) definition. In this case, you must be explicit that your demands that something be prevented or opposed on
the grounds that it is un-British are value judgements. And if that is all the argument that you can manage, it is a flimsy, worthless case that should be rejected out of hand.

More than that, are you being deliberately foolish when discussing Howarth's 'get out of Britain' comments? They re-use the 'old send them back' rhetoric (part of an old British tradition), with just enough wriggle-room to allow defenders like you to put together an argument that they are not rascist.

Let's think about it. Is he really suggesting that I leave Britain? I don't think so*. He is demanding that brown-skinned people leave Britain. Not just those who 'decide to slaughter us' - if that were the case then he speech is redundant idiocy. His use of 'tough' when discussing the British born (and that ought to mean me, and I guess, you) suggests that he feels that this 'emigration' ought to at least be 'encouraged'.

*If he is demanding that all people (not just brown-skinned people) who are critical of the state of Britain ought to leave the country, then he ought to be on the first plane out. If he is demanding that all people who disagree with him ought to leave the country, then he is a totalitarian.
Well first of all, I am glad that you occasionally drop a few typos which makes me feel slightly better about mine!

To your mainpoints. Howarth (and me!) are not forbidding anyone from detesting the whole, or part of, our country, merely suggesting a way out.

You write, "[O]f course you need a definition of what is 'British'" No you don't! There exists a broad, undefined spectrum of views, many of them opposed to each other, that can be described as being in a sympathetic relationship to the history and culture of this country. This changes gradually over time which is exactly why no-one with any common-sense would waste time trying to define it. French and German 'intellectuals' might wish to bore each other (and us) struggling to answer the question: 'What is it to be French/German?', but us Brits, being pragmatic (on the whole), have more sensible ways to waste out time. However, the minute we see or hear something 'alien', we know instantly that it is not 'British'. For example, the idea of nationalising the means of production and distribution; or suggesting that people who blow themselves up in crowded trains are martyrs, that sort of thing.

Finally, Andrew, I try (but don't always succeed, I confess) to read *exactly* what people say rather than putting my personal spin onto what I *think* they are trying to say. I suggest you do the same, it will save you a lot of angst!
"I try to read *exactly* what people say rather than putting my personal spin onto what I *think* they are trying to say."

This is one of the most ridiculous things you have ever written. How on earth do you read 'exactly' what someone has said? The whole point of reading to derive the meaning of the utterance. The words alone are out of context and largely meaningless (the meaning of words is itself a social construct, so it should be no surpise that the meaning of an arrangement of words is not some kind of permament etching on iron) on the page or screen. Utterances only have meaning within the context of a particular historical and social position - this meaning is dependent on the position of the speaker/writer and the listener/reader - and in Howarth's case he was playing with the idea that some British people are actually alien.

This is an idea with historical precedents - whether it is the Catholics, Protestants or the Jews that are a threat to British values - as his suggestion that these alien Britons ought to leave. To borrow a Tory soundbite: "What part of send them back don't you understand?"

Why should the nationalisation of the means of production be a un-British idea. Britain has a rich history of socialist movements, and even Marx and Engels were based in Britian for the most productive parts of their lives. If it is simply bone-headed conservatism that denies the 'Britishness' of this idea, then why aren't you complaining about votes for women, or even the enfranchisement of the common man? At one point, these ideas had no heritage in Britain. No, what you define as un-British are simply ideas that you do not like. And it is fine not to like these ideas. But by defining them as un-British you are performing a dangerously lazy shortcut to delegitimising these ideas. These ideas ought to be opposed through argument, not by accreting to yourself the power and status of an ever-evolving nation to lend credence to your own, unargued, tastes and values. You are not 'Mr Britain'. I am as British as you. As is the someone of Asian descent in Bradford or someone of Afro-Carribean descent in London. If you don't like my values and ideas, or their values and ideas, argue against them. Do not deploy the totalitarian and thoroughly ignorant tool of classing them as alien.

Incidentally, am I to understand that the "history and culture of this country" that you have a "sympathetic relationship" to is that of religious intolerance?
Alas, your first paragraph confirms my most pessimistic forebodings. If true, of course, it makes debate, or even conversation, impossible. We might as well try communicating via a series of clicks and grunts like Kalahari bushmen, if you are going to 'socially construct' everything I write, and if you are also going to analyse your perception of the social position vis-a-vis, you and I, in order to derive what you *think* is the 'true' meaning of anything I write. If I do the same to what you write, we'll be here until Christmas 2020, if I should live so long!

If (and please note the 'if') Howarth did mean that some British born "are actually alien", then, of course, he was quite right. Unless, that is, you are able to build a 'social construct' to show that blowing yourself up on a crowded train (or encouraging others to do so) is all part of the everyday warp and woof of British life and culture.

Perhaps we could test your theories by reversing the argument. Should we encourage people, British or foreign, to make public pronouncements praising suicide bombers and insisting on their right to turn us all into Muslims at the point of a sword - or bomb? If so, why not encourage their brothers and cousins and uncle bin Cobleigh and all, to come over and add their 'social constructs' to the public debate?

It might be difficult to hear them all, what with the sound of bombs and sirens going off, but in any event, we, the Anglo-Saxon element of this population must just sit tight and say nothing. And should we have the temerity to mutter something under our breath, we must accept that fancy-dancy 'intellectuals'(?) will then tell us what we meant by the words we uttered, even if we never actually said them.

So, here are some plain words from me for you to 'socially construct'. I dislike the religion of Islam and oppose its influence in Britain. I would expel or jail any of its adherents who by word or deed threaten the peace in this country. And you can substitute the word 'Islam' with the compound word 'Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism' and that would be true of my views, too.

Now, is there anything in there that is not crystal clear?
Good stuff here Mr Bartlett. "Britishness" is not a helpful word to be throwing about.

Remember how during McCarthyism, the crime one was tarred with was that of being "unamerican"...?

David, I have a question for you. You said: I dislike the religion of Islam and oppose its influence in Britain. I would expel or jail any of its adherents who by word or deed threaten the peace in this country. And you can substitute the word 'Islam' with the compound word 'Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism' and that would be true of my views, too.

May I ask why you didn't just say: I would expel or jail anyone who by word or deed threatens the peace in this country?

I would happily agree with the latter statement, but your insertion of reference to Muslims and members of the Trot-Lot makes me wary, because of what you didn't say.
David, in other words, to answer your question: yes, there's a lot there which isn't crystal clear, namely to what extent your dislike of Islam and Trot-Lottery should be taken into consideration when drafting legislation (or for that matter if one was wasting one's time defining "Britishness").
All very interesting. Just a couple of quick points. It’s hilarious to see someone arguing against the socially constructed and culturally situated nature of language, so thanks for giving me such a giggle on that one. Oh and by the way, it’s more in the analytic than continental tradition to debate semantics, so it’s all pretty ‘British’ actually, no need to worry about those silly French or German fellows. The other thing was about Marxism and Marx, Radio 4’s favourite philosopher. Please, for the sake for good sense, do not conflate Marx with all the things done in his name – very silly indeed. Duff, you’re committing a Roger Scruton sized cock-up, so slap yourself on the wrist and have an early night with a mug of warm milk.

I have been observing this controversy from a distance and certainly without the detail you have.

I rather see it in a conflict between to models of how to handle immigrants and minorities. Both of which have supporters with good intentions. Though for obvious reasons of geography and upbringing I prefer the more traditional American model. And I may be completely missing the way you are using the terms.

The historic American model has been the “melting pot” all the groups contribute to a make something new. Keeping mind that for any new group it is a multigenerational experience. As the saying goes there are some pretty big lumps in the pot. But even so the original English culture predominates.

So my Mexican neighbors will fly a Mexican flag (this has increased since 9/11, perhaps as a way of saying “I’m not Arab”), visit grandparents in Mexico and speak Spanish and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But in ways they do not realize they are Norte Americano of Mexican descent not Mexicano It rather reminds me of my grand parents discussing what it was like for the German immigrants. But I am American not German or English and do not even think of the idea unless something brings it up. Moving to live in a new culture is an implicit statement that over time your family is going to be come a part of the new culture, but the immigrants also add to the receiving culture to make it richer.

The multicultural model seems to be that each group keeps it’s own culture no matter where it’s people go. It is distressingly reminiscent of the excuses (which may not have been the real motive) for the Jim Crow laws in the US and the apartheid policy in South Africa. The immigrants get to be servant class to the original population, with no hope of any thing else. Of course the “powers that be: from all groups get to stay in power through playing both ends against the middle by exploiting the resentments that develop.

While having several cultural groups in a restricted area can lead to controversy and even violence, it would seem to me, and a good number of people on this side of the big pond, that the melting pot model leads to an eventual integration where as the multicultural model leads to perpetuation of the problem.

Of course I know you mean “multiculturalism” as treating people of all groups fairly and justly as I am sure most of it’s proponents of multiculturalism. But as it is usually described multiculturalism seems to work to the opposite end.
Sensible comment from Hank, up above, but the crucial point which causes us so much trouble over here, is contained in his remark: ".. all the groups contribute to a make something new." This is relatively easy in a new nation like America, but hideously difficult in Britain with a national history a thousand years old. Actually, I am constantly amazed at how well we have all (including the immigrants) coped with the mass immigration that has occurred.
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