enter this autumn with the echoes of the Olympics still reverberating, not
least because they made us all think about what it means to be British in 2012.
Politicians and academics have been grappling with “Britishness” for years, as
the unprecedented levels of immigration allowed by the Labour Government meant
that this country found itself suddenly with large numbers of residents who had
no British history or daily habits as instinctive reference points.
of this latest debate was sparked by the opening ceremony, attacked by a few
for its “multi-cultural” content. The exact opposite seemed to me to be true.
The reason the opening ceremony hung together so well was that it was
mono-cultural, while revealing, and indeed revelling in, the breadth and depth
of modern British culture. Shakespeare, Brunel, village greens, the NHS, rock
music and grime (the musical form!) all played a legitimate part in the
national pageant, revealing the variegated nature of Britishness to the world.
No other country could present its most famous rap singer with song called
“Bonkers”—a word straight out of school fiction from the 1950s.
should, but apparently does not; go without saying that Britishness has changed
over the centuries. Any Tory who cares about British history will accept this.
At various stages in the last few hundred years it has become possible to be a
patriotic British citizen without being a Protestant (which is good for Catholics like me),
without indeed having to be Christian, (which is good for Mo Farah), without
having to be white,( which is good for half the England football team) and
without having to be born here (which is good for a wide range of people from
the sons and daughters of Empire to an increasing number of modern Londoners).
you do have to be, though, is committed to the underlying values, habits and
institutions of Britain. These are not immutable, and over time they evolve,
but the national discussion that leads to this evolution is itself a key
It may at times be raucous and even rancorous, but it is a discussion between
free individuals who are entitled to their say. It is not violent, it does not
incite violence, and if laws need changing they are changed in Parliament, and
then signed into effect by the Monarch. You are free to campaign that this
should be not be the process, but if you want to change it you have to do it
using these rules.
basic rule of political and social discourse is only one way in which being
British differs (sometimes subtly) from
being a citizen of any other advanced democracy, whose values we will largely
share. One of the ways we intend to
approach the wider definition of Britishness will become clear in the new
version of the document the Home Office produces to go with the “Life in the
UK” test which new citizens have to pass.
previous guide was too much about how to interact with the state and not enough
about the wider context of Britishness. We have changed it radically to give a
proper sense of British history so that new Brits can understand how Britain
has grown into what it is today. The guide is unashamedly patriotic and
explains the daily life of British people, including cultural and leisure
activities, so that no new citizen should feel inclined to stick to a parallel
section titles of the new Guide give a good clue to its overall direction. They
include “The values and principles of the UK”; “A long and illustrious
history”; “A modern, thriving society”, and “The UK Government, the law and
your role”. It will also set out clearly
the fundamental principles of British life, including democracy, the rule of
law, individual liberty, and tolerance of those with different faiths and
beliefs, and participation in community life.
is important that these principles are not regarded as motherhood and apple
pie. They entail stopping some behaviour as well as allowing some. A variegated society needs some taboos, or it
just becomes parallel societies occupying the same piece of land.
publication of the Life in the UK Handbook will I hope provoke another round of
debate on what it means to be British today. The more we can bring together our
permanent values with contemporary mores the likelier we are to achieve a
relaxed and coherent society.
This article has been published in the ResPublica Fringe magazine, a collection of articles and essays from our party conference partners.
Damian Green MP will be speaking at ‘Immigration and integration
in civic life’, a ResPublica public fringe event co-hosted with Barrow Cadbury
Trust and British Future at Conservative Party conference: Sunday 7th
October, 8.00pm – 9.15pm,
in the ResPublica Marquee, the ICC Birmingham (secure zone).