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Shaping our island story

21 December 2012

David Reason looks at a history of pageantry, exemplified by the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies, and reflects on what it means to be British


Jolly good show: the tribute to the NHS in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics appealed to British pride and its love of pageantry

Jolly good show: the tribute to the NHS in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics appealed to British pride and its love of pageantry

AT CHRISTMAS, the ties of family and friendship are rebooted, and the TV slumbers on the periphery of festivities, waking up only at choice moments - moments that often come to be part of domestic ritual, individually adopted, though shared by many.

Perhaps the Christmas dinner must end before the Queen's Christmas broadcast, and everything else is put on pause as the family gathers around to watch those programmes that are linked to that special day. When I was a child, it was The Morecambe and Wise Show; now, it might be the latest Wallace and Gromit cartoon, or a repeat of The Snowman. And, once upon a time, it was distinctly British to focus celebrations and the exchange of gifts on Christmas Day itself.

The passing year is often revisited, perhaps prompted by the ritual review in the media of the year's memorable highs and lows.

The achievements and legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics, and the competing athletes, will figure prominently this year. Many things will be said, no doubt, but it would be surprising if someone didn't observe (and others nod in jovial agreement) that this was an example of the British at their best. Indeed, the occasion was shot through from the opening to the closing ceremonies with the very spirit of "Britishness". But it is not easy to say what this Britishness is. 

ALTHOUGH "British" is believed to be in our language from its very beginning, "Britishness" is coined no earlier than the mid-18th century. It was forged largely during the 18th and 19th centuries, from conflict with Roman Catholic France, the signal success of the British Empire, and shared Protestant religious and cultural traditions. It provided an umbrella under which the distinct cultures of the Union were invited to shelter.

During the later 19th and 20th centuries, Britishness became associated with distinctive institutions of liberty and parliamentary democracy (unlike Europe in general); and the creation of a welfare state - especially a National Health Service has been a source of national pride, as it was in the Olympic opening ceremony. As these shift and change, so the character, clarity, and salience of Britishness alters.

None the less, by the beginning of the 20th century, Britishness seems to have eclipsed the notion of a distinct "British character", the one that will encompass all citizens, institutions, fashions, and beliefs of the British people. In short, the emergence of Britishness coincides with the development of the modern state, and, in its apparent inclusiveness, mirrors the view that the nation-state is one people, one culture, and one language.

It is also a term whose usage reflects a certain anxiety at possible threats to national autonomy: not only a mirror, but also a shield, a weapon of defence. Where the penetrating powers of the European Community, the creeping Americanisation of British culture, the regimenting of the high street, and a progressive dependence on foreign investment and management set the pace, the invocation of Britishness is rarely far behind.

The notion, vague as it is, has arguably been given an enhanced significance by recent demands for Scottish independence, as well as "moral panics" about the fragmenting effects of unbridled immigration, with consequent cultural diversity. The United Kingdom is no longer united. National identity - Britishness - is threatened. Things are falling apart. Even the Established Church of England is in conspicuous disarray.

SO THE story goes - not, perhaps, finding an assenting ear everywhere, but listened to eagerly enough in some powerful places to require a response designed to draw us together again, pulling on the threads of history and honour that we trust to link us.

That response takes the form of other stories, tales designed to enthral us, that will buttress, and even instil, a shared sense of Britishness. The where, when, and how of the telling of the stories conspire to give them popular appeal.

At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, at a time when the integrity of the British Empire had been questioned by war, and familiar social ways were challenged by a tide of modernity, the local historical pageant emerged. Records indicate that the first of these was held at Sherborne, in 1905, soon followed by a magnificent civic pageant in Oxford, in 1907.

The passion for pageants was contagious, and most of the country succumbed to "pageantitis" (as one wag dubbed the craze) within a decade. England - for this was very much an English affliction - experienced annual spasms of this pageant fever well into the 1950s.

The general form of the pageant was the same everywhere: a succession of dramatised historical scenes interspersed with historical tableaux whose content was drawn from myths of origin (Arthurian legend, for instance); the bric-a-brac of popular memory (memorable dates - 1066 and all that - and resonant moments plucked from whatever passed for local history, and mythology); and timely reminders of historical antecedents that were intended to help shape contemporary attitudes.

THESE colourful affairs depended on the participation of local people, and, in drawing on the burgeoning middle classes with enough leisure and money to be able to take part, pageants clearly depended on the very modernity to which they offered a critical mirror, an anti-dote to a troubled and anxious present.

Above all, they were an engaging spectacle, in which the audience played their parts, both directly, as a community, putting on a theatrical entertainment, and indirectly, by proxy, inserting themselves into the representation of their history.

Thus the stories that it is hoped, will reintegrate a fragmenting social order are told not with words alone, but with ceremonies, "traditions", and spectacles.

For the Olympics, the opening ceremony, "Isle of Wonders", in particular, was surely a broadcast spectacle, and a modern pageant, designed to speak to a national audience and remind it of proud moments; and to an external audience, beaming out an event to evoke not "Great Britain", but an essence of Britishness both heady and hearty.

It was inevitably one-sided, editing out some of the more contentious events (the Peasants' Revolt, the Peterloo Massacre, the Clearances in Scotland, and the imperial slaughter of indigenous Tasmanians, for instance), that would have focused on division, not unity; antagonism, not harmony; and duplicity, not honesty.

Although some reports of the ceremony in the foreign media highlighted a certain smugness, most accounts conveyed a more flattering picture: in the foreground were inventiveness, creativity, eccentricity, and a self-deprecating sense of humour (both the Queen and Mr Bean went down well around the world).

IT SEEMS to me that the idea of Britishness, to have any usefulness at all, as a prop for "national identity", must be more than merely descriptive - it must inform ordinary life. Complex dimensions of time (such an identity endures, pre-exists the individual, and forms the foundation for the present) and place (a national identity implies territory and frontiers, a meaningful landscape, and a characteristic built environment), and "custom and practice" (the taken-for-granted realm of social habits, customary behaviour, unremarkable values) - all these play their part in stitching Britishness into everyday life.

The sense of a national identity does not derive from a set of shared characteristics among the population. Rather the converse: the use of the category of national identity invokes a sense of shared characteristics, and speaks to a moral injunction to "belong in the homeland". In this way, nationality becomes more than a simple identity, it becomes a lived identity.

Every time I write a British address on an envelope, I am caught up in a net of reminders not only of the distinctiveness of our forms of address (line by line from the most particular to the most general; these things are done differently in, for example, Russia), but also of my ties to a nation and its history through the medium of mundane street names, for example, which commemorate places, battles, national heroes, and the like.

Nationality, however, penetrates us more deeply than we are normally aware. The rhythms and cadences of speech, familiar idioms and clichés, what it is about us that marks a service "masculine" or "feminine", as well as our implicit assumptions about just behaviour and good conduct - such matters as these are usually invisible to us, but are sure to reveal themselves as soon as we try to get to grips with living in a foreign culture. No one is as doggedly "British" as the British abroad.

Britishness is lived differently at different times, and many surveys have noted that there seems to be a difference between generations and regions concerning the pertinence and pull of Britishness. In this context, it is worth bearing in mind that, as David Miller argued in his book On Nationality: "In acknowledging a national identity, I am also acknowledging that I owe a special obligation to fellow members of my nation which I do not owe to other human beings."

Arguably, such "national sentiments" also play a significant part in granting legitimacy to the state - in effect, they place the state in the position of a powerful parent with the best interests of its citizen-children in mind.

OUR idea of Britishness often seems as idealised as did the view of England from abroad, and especially from the outlying colonies of the Empire. When a New Zealander used to talk of "home", Britain was being referred to.

Those with no special relationship to the UK can also contribute to our sense of Britishness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and social commentator, writing in the light of American independence, and before the torment and turmoil of the American Civil War, in his English Traits (1856) dissected the "English composite character" with an acute eye for its contradictions - contradictions that also confound any simplistic view of Britishness.

"The language is mixed," he writes, "the names of men are of different nations - three languages, three or four nations - the current of thoughts are counter: contemplation and practical skill; active intellect and dead conservatism; worldwide enterprise and devoted use and wont; aggressive freedom and hospitable law with bitter class legislation; a people scattered by their wars and affairs over the face of the whole earth, and homesick to a man; a country of extremes . . . nothing can be praised in it without damning exceptions, and nothing denounced without salvos of cordial praise." 

Britishness, then, is an idea of recent invention, the creation of particular historical circumstances answering particular historical needs, and which shifts such meaning as it has as those circumstances and needs change. It is a complex idea whose components do not always cohere, and can be contradictory, and it is selective enough for the different groups in society to endorse, reject, or amend elements to suit their purposes.

It is a political concept, deployed both externally to distinguish "us" from "them", and internally to promote a sense of cultural unity. It is also a moral concept, as it expresses standards of conduct to which we can aspire, and ideal values that can be appealed to in making moral judgements.

So it is a lived concept - one that is not simply descriptive, but that is embodied and embedded in our day-to-day experience. Its relevance and importance, and its hold on us, changes from generation to generation, in response to developing contexts and differing anxieties.

For a while, the Olympics and Paralympics were a focus of rapt attention for many, but not all. As well as cause for celebration and disappointment, it has provided us with a kitbag of things that are good to dream about, and good to think with. If this is its only legacy, then it will have justified its legacy label.

But, before we raise a glass to a memorable occasion, I will close on one question to tease, as befits a fireside tale at Christmas. Would reflection on "Anglicanism" not produce a similar account of essentially contested complexity and shifting salience?

And, so saying, I raise a glass: hurrah for the Olympics, and a happy and peaceful Christmas to all.

Dr David Reason is a retired Master of Keynes College, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Schools of Arts, at the University of Kent.

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