Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

‘Britishness’ debate: can you do Magna Carta without also doing God?

Was anyone terribly surprised by the Social Attitudes Survey published today suggesting that most people thought that, in order to be British, you should be able to speak English? Some 95 per cent thought so; the only curiosity being that in 2006 the figure was as low as 86 per cent. Nor indeed is it terribly odd that, as the authors point out, the threshold for Britishness is getting higher. As the survey from January points out, three in four people think immigration numbers should be reduced; the question of identity has to be seen in that context.

One interesting aspect of the survey is the decrease in the numbers of people who think Christianity is an important component of Britishness – fewer than a quarter do so, down from 32 per cent in 1995 – or nearly a third. Now obviously, Christianity can’t be a pre-requisite for Britishness but the larger question is whether it’s an important component of the culture. I think it’s self-evident that it is: prior to the Reformation, as a Catholic culture, after it, as a generally Protestant one. And, since the PM was obliging enough to pin British values to Magna Carta last week, it’s worth taking a look at the very first bit of the text, the preamble, which is stuffed with references to God and his church, and the first article, which is to do with the freedom of the church – with which, unfortunately, Henry VIII played fast and loose.

Here’s a translation of the first bit:

‘Preamble: John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishop, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciaries, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greetings.

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