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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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