Giving consideration to what being British means has proved challenging. At an instinctive level I feel I know although a neat definition is proving illusory.
The philosopher, Descartes, 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 Britishness? In a wider sense what is it that forms our identity?
First are the factors over which we have no control and, of these, our parents are fundamental. At the instant their biological material fuses, 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 and thus overwhelmingly Caucasian (white). So does being British simply mean the traditional population associated with these islands? Recent immigrations have posed a direct challenge 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.
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 the start of that war, we still live with the bloody consequences of those fault 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 which 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.
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, at least superficially, a national character that gave rise to an unrivalled adventure of global consequence and historical significance. Whilst recognising it wasn’t without fault, I remain proud of what this extraordinary ‘little’ country achieved.
We insist on being treated as individuals and equals but usually from within the comfort and protection of an approving tribal construct. In the final analysis I believe identity is what makes us feel happy and safe, in a place we value and would protect, where we feel we belong, shared with like-minded people. It is what we believe we are and, by comparison to others, what we are not.
I think, therefore, I am British. I know I am not European.