According to Prime Minister David Cameron, we Britons should stop being “bashful” about our Britishness. Instead we should engage in what Cameron terms a more “muscular promotion” of our nation’s culture, values and institutions.
Cameron was only weighing in on the issue at all because of an unseemly recent political row over alleged attempts by a group of small-c conservative Muslim governors to shape the academic agenda of a selection of schools in Birmingham.
The education secretary Michael Gove, fresh from sending in the inspectors to assess the situation, led calls for democracy and for tolerance to be taught on the syllabus. Cameron has echoed the sentiment – calling for tolerant values that can be “inculcated into the curriculum in any school in Britain”.
Tolerance in this context is – perhaps like the nebulous concept of “Britishness” itself – rather tricky to define. What constitutes a tolerant society appears to be largely dependent on who’s doing the defining. That goes for what it means to be British, too.
This has long been a symptom of the UK’s post-empire struggle – especially when compared to our friends across the Atlantic. The US is a country that has rights and responsibilities of citizenship set out in black and white. Perhaps that is why the US is better at assimilating migrants, at sharing a national sense of self and having a clearer view of its place in the world.
But I think that the UK’s lack of a codified constitution can be and should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. It’s more flexible; it allows for a more nuanced worldview. Cameron and his doom-mongering colleagues in Westminster should consider the country’s soft-power reputation – Team GB is consistently ranked highly by Monocle as being among the world’s most effective exponents of this subtle art. If the politicians had a little more confidence in the country’s ability to let its accomplishments speak for themselves, instead of pandering to populists on the right, then perhaps we could save the next generation of students a turgid lesson in national identity.
“A belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law,” are the true British values according to Cameron. And they’re as “as British as fish and chips,” the PM says.
I beg to differ. Instead of being muscularly assertive or bashful, I think the people here should have some quiet confidence in the message that the country’s culture, institutions and history convey. Maybe, after all, it’s just not very British to try and define Britishness.
Tom Edwards is executive producer of Monocle 24.