to SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage
The more we learn about ourselves, the more we
find we have in common
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
Filed 29 Jan 07
article, which was originally published in the Opinion section of
Scotland on Sunday on 28th January 2007, is reproduced on Land-Care
with the kind permission of the author and the newspaper
FROM the stage of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre
on Friday night, Joan Bakewell was talking about being English.
At the age of 73, still perfectly poised and elegant, this icon
of British broadcasting told her attentive audience that she had
no doubt as to what it meant. "What I have increasingly seen
as intrinsically English is a modest, discreet, seemly society,
little given to expressing emotion, but doggedly confident that
the values they lived by have been hard won and would not be shaken."
Then she added: "I still hold fast to that Englishness from
which I sprang, ashamed of its faults, proud of its virtues, but
- and this is the point - never in doubt as to what it is."
For her, there was no distinction between being
English and being British. Their values were the same, their traditions
of tolerance, equality and respect for the law sprang from the same
roots. There was no dissent from Bakewell's listeners. But even
as she spoke, I wondered whether this cut-glass version of what
it means to be British would be recognised in the classrooms of
today. How does that vision of modesty, discretion and seemliness
sit with a society which seems sometimes to have abandoned those
values, which lurches drunkenly through the streets of our towns
on Saturday nights, which watches contestants scream obscenities
at each other on Big Brother, which has lost respect for law and
order, and which has seen the scars of racism spreading across urban
communities? Multiculturalism, which was meant to encourage tolerance
and understanding towards ethnic minorities, was severely tested
last July when the London bombers struck, and, as we are now learning
from the current Old Bailey trial, the same might well have happened
Late in the day, the government has recognised that the values which
Bakewell spoke of are not necessarily embedded in the minds of today's
schoolchildren. Last week, it announced a scheme to teach the core
values of Britishness in English schools. A report set up in the
aftermath of the London bombings said that there was not enough
emphasis on British identity and history, and that multiculturalism
was threatening to swamp our ideals of free speech, tolerance, mutual
respect and equality before the law. Alan Johnson, the Education
Secretary, said teaching pupils the values of free speech, tolerance
and respect would now be compulsory.
It will be an uphill task. It comes just at the
point where the English have begun to discover their own identities
as distinct from being British. They are finding - as the Scots
did - that the concept of Britishness is a vague and amorphous one,
and far less easy to grasp than the simplicities of nationhood.
A recent poll showed that a majority of people in England now think
of themselves as English first and British second. The easy assumption
that there is no great distinction between the two, which has been
the hallmark of English self-confidence over two world wars and
back through the days of empire, has finally begun to recede. It
will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
The Scots, of course, are to blame. Devolution,
which gave Scotland its Parliament, has begun to make itself felt
beyond the Scottish Borders in ways which were not always predicted.
Resentment about the rights of Scottish MPs to vote on English matters
at Westminster, once confined to a clutch of political commentators,
has spread wider; the number of Scottish ministers has become a
bone of contention, and the prospect of Gordon Brown succeeding
Tony Blair as Prime Minister has added to the suspicions that the
Scots are taking over; meanwhile, the idea that Scottish taxpayers
receive a far more generous subsidy per head than their English
counterparts has begun to take root.
The question now regularly put in opinion polls
has a simple attraction about it: "Now that the Scots have
a Parliament of their own, do you think that England should have
one too?" It is a question that seems to demand the answer:
All this adds up to a mounting sense among the
English that their separate identity matters. That is no bad thing.
Rediscovering the English traditions of fairness and equality, even
the seemliness and modesty that Bakewell talked about, would be
an excellent antidote to the raucousness that we have grown used
to at football grounds or on the streets of English towns at closing
time. In some ways it has been a debate that has been too long in
coming. There has always been a gap in the argument when it comes
to assessing the impact of devolution in Britain - the Scots and
the Welsh have grown more aware of their separate identities, but
until now the English have never felt the need even to think about
it. Now they have begun to, we should welcome, not resent it.
If, however, it leads to notions of separation
and divisiveness, then we are all the losers. An English Parliament,
if such a thing were ever to come about, would spell the break-up
of Britain. Federalism, which some commentators speak lightly about,
cannot work where one country - England - is 10 times the size of
its neighbour. There may be an injustice about the inability of
English MPs to vote on Scottish matters at Westminster, but it is
a small one compared to the alternative, which is the abandonment
of a political system which has held the United Kingdom together
for 300 years.
I doubt if we will ever feel as British as Gordon
Brown would like us to, and though the aim of teaching it in schools
is an admirable one, I would question whether it can reverse the
growing sense that the Scots, the Welsh and now the English have
of their own separate identities. Rather than seeking to curb that
self-awareness, the better approach would be to allow it full rein.
Because in finding out more about ourselves, we may come to the
stunning conclusion that we share the same core values, and it is
those that hold us together far more firmly than any definition
of what it means to be British.
This article: http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=145862007