On Being British

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Why are we so ashamed to be British? Is it some form of post-colonial guilt? Do we still agonise about the empire-building activities of our great, great grandparents? Are we just influenced by the fact that the extreme right has done its level best to claim the Union flag for itself? Is it that we never had a clear enough idea of what it meant to be British that once the movie clichés faded into nostalgia, we lost our cultural compass?

No matter. The Government has now decided for us what it means to be British and, much to my surprise, it has made a pretty fair stab at it.:

BBC NEWS | Politics | Citizenship classes for new Britons

New immigrants to the UK will have to pass a quiz on what it means to be British and the knowledge needed to thrive in this nation. The guidelines include issues like British history since 1945, sexual equality and understanding of representative, parliamentary democracy. all good stuff. All excellent stuff, in fact. It’s just a pity that so many existing British citizens don’t understand it.

My wife grew up in one of the worst estates in Bristol and possibly the country. How she got there is a long story and not mine to tell. However, visiting her childhood home has opened my eyes to an area of society I knew nothing about before that point. People tell you that widespread dole scrounging is a myth, that all people want to work given the chance. This is not true. These people exist.

You can argue about the reasons they exist. Some would say laziness, others the lack of opportunity. Still others might say the failure of the education system or the demotivating effect of the welfare state. I suspect that there’s no one reason and that the explanation varies from person to person.

Yet, there is a point of commonality. The majority of the people on this estate understand society in the simplest form — obligations to family and neighbours — but fail to understand the mechanism of society in the broader sense. Take the money they survive on. To them , it comes from the government, which can afford it. The government, and its members they see on TV and in the tabloids, is a wealthy thing, available to be milked. Hell, it’s their right to have the money. The link to the taxpayer is broken. They don’t see that their money is my money and possibly your money. That’s a failure of our education system, a failure to teach people how society on a national scales functions, a part of what it is to be British today. This intellectual disconnect is visible at all levels of society, it’s just most evident amongst those who rely on the state for their existence.

I think these questions of Britishness — and the implicit training to function in our society — are a good thing. I just begin to wonder if we’ve failed many of our own existing citizens in this regard.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.