Alex Massie

What is Britishness?

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Commenting on this post in which I suggested that the BNP's electoral tactics are not dissimilar to those employed by Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland, NDM asked that I clarify what I meant when I wrote: "Research shows just 20 per cent of working-class Brits believe that being white is an ‘important factor’ in being British." Maybe this isn't a surprising statistic and perhaps I've spent too much time living in rural Scotland or multi-coloured cities respectively but I'm not sure I'd have used the word "just" in relation to this depressing statistic."

Re-reading this, I can see how it might be misinterpreted. My writing wasn't as clear as it should have been. But, just in case there's any confusion, I should say that my view is that skin colour or ethnic background are entirely irrelevent when it comes to determining whether someone is British. The genius of Britain and Britishness is that it is indeed a multi-cultural state. It has been for more than 300 years. This necessarily involves tensions and, from time to time, may indulge certain animosities but there it is. Britishness is a construct and, as such, something that takes time to take root. It is a layered sense of identity that can be as complex and fragile and contradictory as it can be satisfying.

And it is the better and the more valuable for being that. The Idea of Britishness, difficult and sometimes opaque or mysterious as it can seem, matters precisely because it is so amorphous and capacious. It is open to anyone even, no precisely, because we do not make a fuss and dance over it. Nor, happily, do we make a big deal out of it. That's not the British way. But the Idea of Britain and Britishness is a powerful thing and though we do not, being British, fetishise this, it is open to all. As it has been in the past and as it is now and will be, let's hope, in the future. Rergardless of race or creed or colour.

Britain is a complex place and a complex idea. As I say, it has been a multi-national place from the beginning and perhaps I should have been clearer in arguing that it is utterly depressing that there are those - and seemingly so many of them - who feel that Britishness is somehow a "whites only" thing. Bugger to that, say I and not only because I suspect that a good number of these nincompoops would also claim that British=English. Not so, knuckleheads, not so. If you think that then one can only conclude that you don't understand Britain or Britishness at all.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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