I remember it well: It was in a 2008 debate on whether we should establish a ‘Britishness day’, when many of us were crammed into Westminster Hall to consider this question of great national importance. It was about the same time as Gordon Brown’s much mocked ‘British jobs for British workers’ and there were, therefore, many ongoing debates about what Britishness was supposed to mean and how it could be celebrated. During that debate I said that, (as we move towards independence) ‘all vestiges of Britishness may go and I don’t know what Britishness is’.
Pretty unremarkable, but these comments are now starring in any number of unionist productions, publications and columns (including Spectator blog posts) as the worst example of ‘Nat’ duplicity.
I was, in fact, in good company that day because—such was the general confusion about what ‘Britishness’ meant—the day that emerged as the favourite for this ‘Britishness day’ was the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Now, this is indeed a supremely important day in history – but unfortunately not in ‘British’ history. The signing of the Magna Carta was in 1215, some 500 years before the idea of cultural Britishness even existed. The idea was quietly dropped.
It seems typical of the debate about Britishness. As an identity it truly is a peculiar construct, and one that is extremely difficult to define.
For Michael Portillo it is simply ‘anti-fanaticism’. For nearly everyone else it’s about institutions such as royalty or things such as fish and chips.
While it is a curious social construct, Britishness is absolutely essential to the UK state. It was a necessary invention to ensure that a cultural sense of togetherness could incorporate the divergent ‘British’ nations with their own indigenous cultures. Because it came from the year zero of political union, cultural Britishness has become entwined with shared heritage and historic landmarks such as World War 2 and the founding of the NHS.