By Mike Gonzalez
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The Culture of Discontent

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What is "Britishness"?
Issue 259

So David Blunkett has decided, like Norman Tebbit before him, that immigrants should be tested for their responsiveness to British cultural values! In Tebbit’s case, the key test was cricket. A British person was a man (note!) who knew his cricket, who understood the world of cork on willow, and the deep significance of taking tea and cream scones on the village green. It was a favourite image of wartime Britain too, evoked by Agatha Christie and E G McDonnell’s England their England along with the romance of the ‘plucky’ home guard and Rupert Brooke’s Old Vicarage Grantchester. This was what we were all defending – this timeless world of rural villages and picnics by the river.

In 1940, though, the government began to realise that it had a problem. No one was responding to its propaganda messages, and all the talk of teamwork and our ‘finest hour’ was passing most British people by. When it got Tom Harrison’s Mass Observation organisation to take weekly polls across the country, it hit the government that most working class people just didn’t recognise the country that the ministry of information was urging them to defend. They didn’t play rugby, and most of them had never seen a village green. Needing its cannon fodder, the government had to change its images, and began to show the lives of factory workers and the real houses that they were living in – they even introduced regional accents into the BBC, calling in Yorkshireman Wilfred Pickles to read the news.

It turned out that the nation – the country whose culture we shared and were being asked to die for – was not one place, but many. It was country mansions and urban tenements, it was hill farms and back to backs, it was racehorse owners and ferret racers, it was bankers and night cleaners. What values, what ‘deep nation’, as some people called it, could tie together Lord Beaverbrook and the woman who scrubbed his floors? That’s the question that Blunkett has to answer.

Which Britain is he telling new immigrants to learn about? Should we demand that every immigrant child learn the acceptance speech for his or her local Masonic lodge, or the Catholic creed, or the national anthem? But why not the words to On Ilkley Moor Bah’t’Hat, or Freedom Come All Ye – Hamish Henderson’s glorious anthem to the socialist agitator John Maclean – or Bertrand Russell’s brilliant anti-nuclear speech at the Albert Hall in 1960?

Or we could even talk about cricket – not the amateurs and gentlemen at Lord’s, but the Lancashire Sunday leagues where working class players made up their own savage version of the genteel game. Or, even better, let’s ask the children of Britain to learn by heart the names of the members of the glorious West Indies team of 1963 who beat England for the first time and shocked the establishment?

The reports on the Oldham and Burnley riots have produced a procession of wise commentators rattling on about ‘core values’ and language. When they are pressed, they trot out again all the old assertions that get an audience from Tunbridge Wells roaring on Question Time – ‘British decency’, ‘the sense of fair play’, ‘modesty and reserve’, ‘getting on with your neighbours’, and so on. It is a well recognised fact, of course, that no other nation in the world believes in decency or consideration, that every other community on the globe is deeply committed to inequality and injustice, bends the rules and cheats at every opportunity – not to mention that well known foreign tendency to speak loudly in public places and give way to emotion at the drop of a hat. Whereas we British…

Well, we British have shown time and again how committed we are to those ‘core values’ – why, we’re doing it now, as we bomb Afghanistan and bring home with (restrained) force the importance of decency and fair play. We conquered empires and enslaved a thousand subject peoples in the same spirit, and enthusiastically protected the most powerful people in our society from unfair criticism and excessive taxation for the same humane reasons.

A sense of community

The really odd thing is that while the rich and powerful encourage the rest to exhibit all those eternal values, they lie, cheat and abuse each other and everyone else at every turn. On the other hand, there are groups of people who do seem to be driven by a sense of community, loyalty and unselfishness. When the miners went on strike against a ferocious Thatcher government, tens of thousands of people found ways of expressing solidarity. No national industrial action affects everyone equally, yet there is unity against the employers. When fascists attack a young man walking home from school because he’s black, the shock and revulsion echoes across people in hundreds of different communities.

Solidarity is born of shared experience and common needs – it may be expressed through a single language or through many. When the students of Paris marched to the striking Renault factory in May 1968 they carried posters in eight languages calling on workers in the factory to come out together. Here the boss was French and the workers a motley army of immigrant labour. De Gaulle tried to mobilise the mystical nation that bonded workers to employers, and divided workers by race and colour. Material solidarity came face to face with national unity – and won!

Britishness can’t meld together the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless – it can’t conceal the vast differences of access to education, health, jobs or wages that are the reality of Britain. Learning the British way, for Blunkett and his ilk, means refusing to see the material divisions in our society while imagining that there is another kind of equality. Trouble is, if you’re poor, working class or black, or all or any of these, there is no equality at any level. Like heaven, the nation is impossible to find – you just have to believe in it. And like heaven, the nation persuades us that the important things are beyond our grasp, eternal and impossible to change. As the Levellers put it 350 years ago, ‘The clergy dazzle us with heaven then they damn us all to hell.’

The thugs that paraded around Oldham with their Union jacks were the stormtroops of a ruling class happy to let them protect their material interests. The communities created out of persecution fought back against the myth of nationhood.

The workers have no country. They have no loyalty to a ruling class that exploits them and represses them while claiming some higher unity. The irony, of course, is that the driving impulse of capitalism, to seek out and control both markets and sources of raw materials, has embraced the whole planet. The violence of that process has filled the planet with terrorised fleeing refugees, leaving behind their starving brothers and sisters who will later fill the sweatshops and the farms, and travel the same planet as they follow the global system’s shifting demand for labour.

The real problem is that the shared experience of those workers creates the conditions for a class solidarity across frontiers, traditions and languages that will recognise how nationalism has so often divided them against one another. So this global capital does two things at once – it creates the endless restless movement of human beings across the face of the earth, and it creates hostility, racism and rejection wherever they go.

There is a liberal argument which suggests that all the ‘Britishness test’ means is an encouragement to learn the host language. We should all try to speak one another’s language – there should be classes in Urdu, Mandarin, Spanish, Serbo-Croat available in every community. But learning English doesn’t really mean that – because Blunkett wants to make it a condition of acceptance, a ticket of admission. But to what? To a community divided, riven with conflict and inequality? And which English shall we teach – Caribbean English, Scottish English, the language of Canada, Australia, Trinidad, Nigeria?

The irony is that all this talk of inclusion denies and crushes the dynamic variety of the working class. We all belong to groups, to collectives – their voluntary combination and exchange of experience is what makes a decent, humane society. The irony about Britishness is that it will exclude most of society by redefining it in terms of a mythic village community existing in a bubble beyond some misty lost horizon.

A world worth building will find the future in difference and diversity. That will be the ‘better world’ that thousands of voices are calling for, from Brussels to Porto Alegre. Blunkett’s tests of Britishness will make that impossible and lock us up in a cell with people we’d never choose to share a desert island with.

Jose Emilio Pacheco, the Mexican poet, put it like this, in his poem High Treason:

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendour is beyond my grasp.

But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life for ten places in it, for certain people,

seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,

a run-down city grey, grotesque,

various figures from its history


(and three or four rivers).

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