Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Accidentally British

It doesn't surprise me in the least that a Facebook test on Britishness showed that the Polish are more British than we are.

Having always found the whole idea of national loyalty idiotic, I find it quite predictable that so many natives haven't a clue how often the Cabinet meets or how many people live in Wales. Who gives a toss anyway?

Apart from the fact that my Britishness is a complete accident, since I had no choice where I was born, surely the important question is not how British you are but how civilised you are - meaning how much you care about fairness, equality and democracy.

What's the point of knowing the Cabinet meets once a week if you're also a narrow-minded bigot who wants all immigrants to be deported and all homosexuals to be castrated? If that's being British, I'd rather not be thought of as British myself, thanks very much.

In fact I've never seen myself as British, there are far too many British traits I'm either indifferent to or hate intensely. At the same time there are many features of other countries that I admire hugely, like Italian cuisine and the Irish lack of a monarchy or honours system.

It makes no sense that I should be loyal to a particular country whose boundary is a mere historical quirk. If things had gone differently, we could just as well be part of France or Spain - or Russia.

And I find it most encouraging that Poles (and also the Finnish, Swedish, Germans and New Zealanders) know more about Britain than we do. It shows how many people are looking beyond the narrow confines of their own countries and seeking inspiration from the cultural diversity of the entire planet.

See also Jenny's post "Me a Nationalist?"

Footnote: I dedicate this 100th post to the one and only Medbh, who has just put up her 1000th post!


  1. Congratulations on your 100th post Nick!

  2. I have always believed that political boundaries were, as you so succinctly put it, a historical quirk.

    It makes as much sense as the fact that on a map, every country is a different color.

    The only things that matters to me are decency toward all as well as fairness, equality and democracy, to quote you again. And of course, Italian food, French pastry and the Japanese aesthetic sense.

  3. This is always such a funny issue and one I find a lot of Brits in particular talking about.

    I am personally proud and glad to be Irish. This does not however mean that I think it's better than anywhere else. For me it's more to do with culture and heritage. The Dutch have very little national pride and I find that very very sad. They fear it almost - perhaps because of the war? For me being proud of where you're from is a wonderful thing. Also having lived away for so long I can tell you I'm a million times more Irish than Dutch and that will never change. The country you were brought up in definitely shapes you hugely, for better and worse.
    As for boundaries being a historical quirk I only have to point you to Ireland's history with the UK to say it's not as simple as that. Despite all the boundary 'issues' we've had the Irish have always remained Irish throughout.Culture and identity run very deep in all countries - some just find it easier to express and accept than others.

  4. Heart - But although boundaries are ultimately just a quirk, some people will praise everything inside that boundary to the skies, even if it's obviously negative or destructive. Completely irrational.

    Con - Some strong feelings on the subject! If you're proud and glad to be Irish, that's great, provided as you say you don't think you're superior to everywhere else. I wish I could say I was proud to be British but in all honesty I can't. And of course I'm well aware of the tangled and blood-stained history of Ireland and the constant struggles to keep out invaders. But the current boundary of Ireland is still a historical anomaly. It could have ended up part of another country or even divided into numerous smaller countries like the UK. Though I think it's true that islanders usually share an island-wide identity wherever that island is.

  5. What are "British traits" - the ones you don't want to have? I've been living in London for 35 years now, maybe I've picked some up without realising. My kids used to mock me for my "african traits" but I never recognised them either, I just am who I am - to quote Popeye.

  6. Hi Herschelian. What are British traits? Good question. I lived in London myself for 53 years so I ought to know! Let me think off the top of my head - what do I dislike? Unfriendliness, two-facedness, heavy drinking, beer, cricket, bland food, expensive public transport, the monarchy, status-seeking, private schools, suburbia (I could go on). Of course there are positive things as well, like the arts and the NHS (what's left of it) but the negative ones are pretty prevalent. And african traits - what're they?? Yes basically, I'm with Popeye.

  7. Well, that's because people are irrational. And also insecure, which makes them terribly competitive, as if putting down "the other" while elevating all who fall within ones particular parameters will actually make them better in some arcane way.

    We are a miserably deluded species which, after millions of years on the planet, still have no clue.

    We have so many natural gifts which we are either wasting or misusing.

  8. I have a lot of pride in being from Chicago, being half black and half Irish, etc., but none of that comes before my love and appreciation of all people regardless of where they come from.

    Having never been to England, I can't make any educated commentary about whether you all are more two-faced than folks in LA supposedly are, but my guess is not! ;)

  9. Heart - you're right, lauding your own group while putting down the 'other' is a classic way of dealing with insecurity. And yes, it's the flowering of people's natural gifts that's important, not which nation they happen to belong to.

    Liz - that sounds like a healthy mix of local pride and appreciation of others. Yes, I bet there are plenty of two-faced people in LA - the UK has no monopoly!

  10. Congrats on your big 100th post, Nick. Keep it up and you'll be at 1,000 in no time.

    Nationalism gets a really bad reputation, and I confess that years ago I considered it a form of petty tribalism. Yet after doing the research and writing my dissertation, I came to argue that it's the highest form of the social contract which fuses people together under an affective and reasoned commitment to protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual along with the collective. Ireland in particular saw the combination of the nationalist and feminist movements in their modern bid for sovereignty in a manner which was both inspirational to a host of liberation groups and produced some of the best literature of the twentieth century. Oops. I'm blabbing on.

  11. well done on your ton......

    also if BEING british means that we deport dying women then nah I'll just be staying as I am....which is a waiter....a waiter without national identity....

  12. Interesting debate. And with a slimey first minister like Alex Salmond in Scotterland, I am thinking of emigrating.

  13. Medbh - Hmmm. I must say I err on the side of petty tribalism myself. A social contract which fuses people together? Nationality doesn't seem that way to me. There are so many groups in the UK constantly sniping at each other or even doing violence. I think the legal system and local community ties probably bind people together more effectively. I'm not sure how much help nationalism has been in Ireland either, considering its part in the colossal bloodshed of the Troubles. All in favour of feminism though, that's been a real progressive force through all its phases.

    Manuel - Yes, I could have mentioned that as well. Our record on deportation and treatment of immigrants generally is appalling.

    Hullaballoo - You're thinking of emigrating? I thought thousands of people were moving into the country because of all the free public services coming online. And is Alex Salmond any slimier than many other politicos?

  14. Congrats X 100 Nick!
    I don't know how I missed this post, my Luddite tech-skills! I think there are good and bad traits in all nationalities and feel strongly, as you do, that we need to celebrate our similarities rather than our differences. I identify equally as Irish and as Canadian and also now as Newfoundlander but that to me is a passport, in the nicest sense, into a similar culture of song and poetry and oral tradition of story-telling, etc. Snobbery and class distinctions are something I can't abide and unfortunately I find this philosophy pervading everywhere. A step backwards to British colonial days.

  15. That's a good way of putting it, www, celebrate our similarities and not our differences (though the differences are also what make life interesting of course). Intriguing point about British colonialism. In fact the widespread classism in Britain is a sort of internal colonialism - getting the natives under the control of the ruling elites.

  16. Hi Nick,

    "And I find it most encouraging that Poles (and also the Finnish, Swedish, Germans and New Zealanders) know more about Britain than we do."

    Insert the U.S. in the above passage and it would probably be true. Most Americans are incredibly ignorant about the U.S.

    Every time someone does one of those “on the street” interviews and asks questions about the U.S. government or geography we get to see how amazingly clueless Americans are.

    Here in the U.S. I think it's partly due to a terrible public education system and arrogance.

    Americans like to brag about The U.S., but ask them a few questions about their country and you are liable to get a black stare in return.


    Congrats on #100!

  17. Yes, MDC, I saw a video once of Americans being asked questions about the USA and their colossal ignorance was just astounding. The fact that they're so ignorant and yet brag about their wonderful country shows how vacuous and bogus the nationalistic impulse often is.

  18. Well done on #100. Hope you are enjoying blogging as much now as you did in the beginning.

  19. Oh definitely! And the more you've written, the easier the writing seems to get. I particularly enjoy all the very perceptive comments I get in return.

  20. I'm English by birth. Still love the place when I visit. Now a naturalised Aussie. (Means I can vote). I have a sense of Australian nationalism although not over the top. I'm proud to be an Aussie.

    I think the British beat themselves up quite a lot for their historical imperialism and stiff upper lip. HI have to say though, maybe people are unfriendly in London but move further afield and I've not found that to be so. Then again, everyone is willing to talk cos most have a relative in Australia and want to know if I've met them!

    .And believe me . . "Unfriendliness, two-facedness, heavy drinking, beer, cricket, bland food, expensive public transport, the monarchy, status-seeking, private schools, suburbia" are not just British traits! Although we have increcible food we also have all the others.

    Take it easy on yourselves, relax and live a little. Let the Americans take the flac for a change! And it beats living in Pakistan!

  21. Ooh and congrats on meeting the ton!

  22. I think if you've lived in a country a long time you can go two ways - either you get thoroughly disillusioned and critical or you get fanatical about the place and won't hear a word against it. Obviously I've taken the first path! But you're right, people are much friendlier outside London where the sheer size and anonymity make people retreat into themselves. Yes, I'm sure most of those traits can be found in other countries - which is why I have no particular national allegiance. I certainly take a relaxed attitude to British imperialism - oppressive as it was, it was nothing to do with me after all.

  23. Thanks to you all for your congratulations on my 100th. Not sure I'll reach 1000 like you Medbh, at the current rate it's a toss up which comes first, post 1000 or shaking off my mortal coil.

  24. I used to hold a British passport now I hold an Irish one.
    I can go and change passports agin does that mean I change nationality?

    I'm me and where I come from formed me in some ways but not in others.

    I could say that North American culture has been exported to all other english speaking countries. This has most definitely affected those cultures as can be evidenced by language, music and clothing styles.

    I live on the island of Ireland but politics puts me in the North.

    Our culture here is different from the South and from anyhwere in the UK.

    Do we get our own passport now then?

    I feel I'm rambling here.

    Ton up Nick!

  25. Muddy, the Americanisation of their culture is another thing the Irish complain about. I guess it's okay as long as it means creative ideas but unfortunately nowadays the States stands for any number of deeply negative things, like invading other countries and promoting fast food. BTW, Jenny is actually dual nationality and has both British and Irish passports. So what does that make her??

  26. Nick,

    I too could hold both passports but am staying away from the new biometric British passports as a matter of principle. I won't have much choice if I want to travel in the future as the entire EU will head down that route.

    I wasn't being overly critical of American culture as I do enjoy quite a lot of it myself! In fact I think that the USA makes better TV programmes than the UK and it didn't used to be that way.

    I regard myself as Irish as British is something that is bandied about even though there are three devolved governments in the UK. Someone from Scotland may be viewd as being British but they will tell you that they are Scottish. Nationality is a very emotive subject and people here get very hot under the collar about it and their perception of what it means.