Nigel Farage famously directed his question at an anonymous, unelected man who had gained a powerful and influential EU job. Given the continuing debate about immigration, nationality and nationhood I wanted to try to distil the spirit of what it is to be British – and it has proved challenging. At an instinctive level I feel I know but a neat definition is proving illusory.
Descartes, the philosopher, tormented himself trying to discern the essence of the human condition. The result of his exertions was “Cogito, ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. After prodigious mental effort, Einstein revealed the fundamental correlation between matter and energy in his famous equation, E=mc2. Complex issues succinctly and precisely expressed. Can the same be done for nationality, for Britishness? In a wider sense what is it that forms our identity, that primary sense of who we are?
First are the factors which none can control and, of these, our parents are fundamental. At the instant their biological materials fuse, our physical characteristics and basic personality traits are broadly determined. At that same instant we also become connected to a genetic chain reaching back to an unknowable point in time. We have no choice about being created nor where or when we are born. The heritage UK population is an amalgam of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans thus overwhelmingly Caucasian (white). So does being British simply mean the traditional population associated with these islands? Recent immigrations have posed a direct challenge and, given the current scale, a threat to this notion.
Next are upbringing and environment. In our young years we are strongly influenced by our parents, other authority figures and the culture in which we live. So pliable are we that abuse is all too easy to perpetrate. St. Francis Xavier is attributed as saying, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. This recognised the power of indoctrination to generate obedient adherents who are dismissive of all other possibilities regardless of undeniable evidence to the contrary – in a word, brainwashing. Although a condition more common in our ignorant and fearful past, it is still at work elsewhere today.
And what of nationality? Is it merely a passport? Empires wax and wane but nations are a human concept. As WW1 progressed the western allies planned for the demise of Ottoman rule, which led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. Its grasp of the situation on the ground was dismissive, poor or non-existent and, at the conclusion of the conflict, many new states of the Middle East were arbitrarily defined. Lines, often artificially straight, were drawn on maps with little regard for ethnic group, tribal loyalty, linguistic continuity or religious reality. A century on from that agreement, we still live with the bloody results of those fault lines. Most African nations were conceived along similar lines.
Austria and Germany tried brief but unhappy unions so remain distinct despite sharing both a language and a border. Canada was born of the wish of some American colonists to remain loyal to Britain, in contrast to others, who wanted independence “in order to form a more perfect union”. Conversely, Spain’s South American territories struggled for their sovereignty, then disintegrated into multiple new nations that fought among themselves. Even with much in common there was still an overwhelming need to feel different. The rise of nationalism in the indigenous Celtic fringe exposes the disunity long latent within the UK. Add to this the deliberate, cynical and divisive policy of multi-culturism and even more fractures appear. President Kennedy wished to see an end to what he called hyphenated Americans, those who prefixed their US status with antecedents, e.g., Italian Americans, Polish Americans and so forth. Identity is so important in certain immigrant societies in this country that they choose to live in voluntary apartheid.
Our island nation, last invaded nearly 1,000 years ago, has much to do with the concept of Britishness. It made us geographically distinct. The sea alone shaped and changes our borders. Shakespeare wrote that it serves as ‘a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands’. We stood apart from the troubles on the continent, involving ourselves directly only when necessary. Over time, in our island fortress, we developed a national character that gave rise to an unrivalled adventure of global consequence and historical significance. Whilst recognizing it had its faults, I remain proud of what this extraordinary ‘little’ country achieved and could still achieve.
We insist on being treated as individuals and equals but usually from within the comfort and protection of a familiar, approving tribal construct. So, have I been successful in answering my question, “Who are we?” Others must judge, but I believe the essentials of identity arise from:
- Speaking a common language
- Inhabiting a place, from choice, which makes us feel happy and safe; one which we value; one we would fight to protect
- Enjoying it with like-minded people possessing a distinctive national character
- Governing ourselves as we wish, not at the behest of others; creating our own laws
- Sharing a history that gives us roots; shapes what we believe we are; shows what we know we are not.
Therefore I believe I am a British citizen. I know I am not, nor would ever want to be, a citizen of a European super state. Thus, if we are not to be subsumed in stifling similitude, mired in mediocrity and mangled by mismanagement, we must vote to leave the European Union.