Britishness - Useful or Redundant?


The text of the Conservative Christian Fellowship’s 2008 Wilberforce Address delivered by Dominic Grieve QC MP in May.


I would like to thank you very much for the invitation to come and speak tonight and to give the Wilberforce Address. 

Let me show you some pictures.

1. Moment of victory in the FalklandsFalklands_exp


2. Kelly Holmes and the union flagKelly Holmes_exp


3. Golden JubileeGoldenJubilee_exp

I wonder – would these images have been so memorable if the Union flag had not been so prominent?

These people carried their flag with them in their moment of victory because, I suggest, their sense of achievement was complete by associating themselves with not just a personal success but one for their community - their country.  They felt British, they were proud to be British, proud to associate themselves with being British, and proud to be contributing to being British. In short they identified with Britain. This archetypal symbol of unity added to and expressed their sense of self worth.

In contrast we also hear about some unfavourable displays of Britishness. The British disease in the 1960s was a bye word for careless, expensive and uncommitted workers. More recently, anything that is seen as unfavourable or undesirable tends to earn the same epithet. Put the “British disease” into Google and out come references to alcoholism, gambling, yobs and even bad teeth.  Indeed, anyone who has been in Prague on a Saturday night will see displays of behaviour by British men, in particular, which could not be described as edifying.

Beaconsfield Parish Church with the flag of St George:Beaconsfield_exp

Here we have something else- a British community landmark associated with a multi ethnic religion and a national flag which is not the flag of the state.

Reconciling these images and trying to construct a theory of national identity is proving to be quite a challenge for politicians. Many have had a stab at it and many have failed. So when I learnt that the topic which was being suggested to me was “Britishness” my political antennae quivered a fair bit at the prospect of a minefield.

But it is a responsibility of politicians to address difficult subjects. Quite apart from anything else we are engaged in promoting Britishness. We attend civic functions and make official visits to churches and chapels and now synagogues, mosques and temples. We spend public money on and participate in ceremonies like the State Opening of Parliament. We ought therefore to be able to justify what it is we are trying both to be part of and to celebrate. 

That there is now confusion about Britishness is without doubt. Part of the confusion comes from muddling different concepts. “Britishness” is an identity whereas British Citizenship is chiefly seen as a portal to the consumption of State services with little requirement to subscribe to a common identity as such. These two ideas have clashed. In contrast, my father, in the early 20th century, was brought up in an environment where British identity was assumed. Travellers did not even require a passport. It relied, of course, on stereotypes, but it was no less powerful for it. As writers on national identity such as Amartya Sen have shown, imagination and shared emotion play a key role in minimising difference and creating at best a comfortable and sustaining environment for all sections of society from which he and his contemporaries benefited.

In recent years despair that there is any collective sense of national identity has set in for some. As a Member of Parliament I receive several letters a week from constituents telling me that they can no longer identify with the country that they are living in.  These range from older people, who say that they are planning to go to live in Spain or France, to younger ones who indicate that they are intending to emigrate, usually to the United States, Australia or New Zealand.  In virtually every case the moving force does not seem to be economic. Rather it seems that their emotional attachment to this country has disappeared. It’s like the breakdown of a personal relationship.

Some bemoan the loss of “traditional British” values.  Others talk darkly about immigration and feeling they are foreigners in their own land.  But what is clear is that they feel robbed of what they thought was common property. They believe that they will have more freedom to maintain their old values and express their British identity better in Torremolinos, the Dordogne, Sydney or Ohio.

Yet others have welcomed change.


For a long time there has been a consistent pattern of those on the Left attacking national symbols and culture for anti - establishment reasons – arguing that they reinforced traditions and hierarchy and were thus inimical to socialist progress in creating a new society. They have sought to deconstruct theculture. And as social revolution has been resisted by the innate conservatism of the population - look at the popularity of the National Trust- the preferred weapon has been the imperative need to adapt Britishness to diversity by multiculturalism.

The ex Mayor of London, Mr Livingstone, has been a supreme champion of multiculturalism. He devoted a large budget to encouraging compartmentalised self expression in each ethnic or religious grouping under his patronage. The justification was that each has been a victim of discrimination and requires support to assert itself.

Such a policy subtly creates inimical divisions. Minority groups like the Jews who do not want to be treated as minorities and resist the patronage offered. Majority groups such as white working class young males, whose attitudes are held to require change.

Under Labour multiculturalism has further infected Whitehall departments - although much of it started long before in municipal government. For example Government Directives from the Department of Education have insisted on the relevance of any distinctive national history being played down. The Department of Communities and Local Government provides grants based on racial and religious groupings rather than general objective tests of need.

Don’t misunderstand me. The presence in Britain of people of many cultures is an enriching fact. In our age of global population movement it is vital that we understand and respect the contribution and value that other cultures can bring us. I believe that familiarity with diversity can add to our national well being, a larger pool of talent encourages creativity and broader comprehension of the human condition.

But most immigrants arrive here with the culture of their own country of origin and usually, little knowledge of our own. Instead of the State taking active steps to help harmonisation; under the creed of multiculturalism, the opposite happens.

The result which we are seeing is that, in too many cases, the children or grandchildren of the original immigrants appear not to have come to terms with the culture of the country in which their family is settled. I have been chilled to discover at meetings with young educated Muslims, the level of alienation from and with it, anger, with the society which has nurtured them through its state education system which some of them show. A few so dislike their fellow citizens that they are quite happy to kill them to achieve their ideological end of an entirely different kind of society based on the re-creation of an imagined 7th century civilization, their concept of which owes far more to myth than to reality.

Trevor Phillips, once chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and now Chairman of the Equality Commission, has summed up the effect of current multiculturalism as “sleep walking into segregation”. He saw, as many are now realising, that multiculturalism endangers societal cohesion as it emphasised group rights over national collective wellbeing. This is incompatible with the maintenance of a British national identity.

We then witnessed experiments in trying to substitute a brand new national character. Remember the Cool Britannia project?  This was a politically motivated plan to re-brand our national identity that found its best expression in the Dome - that supreme White Elephant. As avoidance of anything traditional at the Millennium was de rigueur it ended up pretty dull. It did not work any more than did the experiment to “globalise” the British Airways livery at about the same. It is interesting to contrast this with the Carnaby Street era of the 1960’s when British symbols, from the flag to the policeman’s helmet were hijacked naughtily and with wit to promote creative new ideas. The humour played on the underlying importance of the national symbols represented.


The disaffection felt by many Britons clearly shows, that neither new synthetic symbols nor multiculturalism, have provided adequate compensation for what is felt to have been lost.

This isn’t surprising. While Labour Governments and left leaning commentators have earnestly emphasised the contribution of other nations and cultures to our polity, the one group that has received a disproportionate amount of opprobrium is the English and the English make up 85% of the population.

Margaret Hodges’ recent attack on the Last Night of the Proms serves to highlight the problem. She said she disliked this vibrant cultural event, which gives enjoyment to a large number of people, because it was not inclusive enough. She was far from clear what it was that she wanted included which would remedy this deficiency. The National Eistedfodd in Wales, which one might reasonably argue is much more exclusive, was not attacked. Nor is the custom of my Punjabi constituents to dance to Bhangra music (as I did last week) in celebrating Vaisahki. The Eistedfodd is seen as an important cultural manifestation of being Welsh, Bhangra and Vaisakhi of being Punjabi. The Last Night of the Proms is with its folk songs, sea shanties, and patriotic hymns quintessentially English. That is what upset her.

The relentless undermining of English national consciousness has been marked. English heroes and heroines from King Alfred and Henry Vth, through Nelson, Florence Nightingale, John Wesley, Shaftsbury and Lawrence of Arabia are largely forgotten. Children are left with vast areas of ignorance as to how their country has been shaped by the contributions of their forebears. In contrast it remains fashionable to celebrate a Scottish hero such as William Wallace even in an historically inaccurate film epic.

Even William Wilberforce was, until last year, a peripheral figure in our national consciousness outside of academic and some political or religious groups. Even his re-emergence has been partial. His role in the abolition of the Slave Trade is of course of worldwide significance but it was his zeal for the Reformation of Manners grounded on his religious beliefs that lay at its heart. That is a subject likely to make modern progressives rather less comfortable. But it certainly helped shape the next 150 years of British social history.

I also noted with amusement that last week that Martin Kettle, an apologist for New Labour attacked Gordon Brown for St George’s Day flag waving. He demanded “the potent English traditions that have nothing to do with flags and everything to do with the tradition of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Blake, Shelley, Morris and Orwell - of a free, shared and inspired England that has never existed but remains, in the Albion of our imagination, the England many of us desire.”

I could not agree more. But the trouble is; who knows of this aspect of the vision today?

This is in stark contrast to the experience in other European countries. By the time I finished my French state infant schooling in London, I had been provided with an overview of France’s “story” replete with key figures from the cavemen to De Gaulle, of which I can still recite large chunks. It is still the same today.

The English have also lost out on political governance. The British state in its old constitutional form was the English state adapted to encompass the diversity of new participants. But that is a different thing to what we now have after devolution. There is a widespread perception that England is now disadvantaged and disempowered by new national institutions that give special privileges to all except the English. It is this as much as the narrower West Lothian question that produces problems. Lord Irvine argued that these would go away if we stopped thinking about them. But you can’t stop people thinking.


We should not be surprised then that British identity has decayed seeing that the English contribution has always been its single biggest component by virtue of population, language and history. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, who have not suffered the same cultural neglect as have the English, appear to be more comfortable with their own identity and better able to celebrate it than the English. Dual identity is and has always been at the root of the British state. Polling research shows that by 2003 a sense of equal dual identity had declined to 41% of English, 23% of Scots and 29% of the Welsh. If dual identity cannot be maintained in old established relationships there is no pattern for newcomers to our country.

Where there is a void of this kind it is inevitably filled by something else– and this has happened with unfortunate consequences. Where a new breed of citizen was intended, freed of the shackles and constraints of the past and, therefore, more accepting of radical ideas and difference, we have instead Englishness as yob culture. History is littered with ersatz national cultures produced to fill the gap where cultural continuity is repressed or broken:  Russia at the end of the Soviet period, and Germany in the 1930s spring to mind.  As an unconscious understanding of time and place, and one’s own position in it, disappear, so self-confidence erodes and with it, the ability to both welcome, understand and tolerate difference. It creates the politics of cultural despair - the recruiting ground of the BNP and Hizb Ut Tahrir.

I see this when meeting people, and particularly younger people of all backgrounds from recent immigrant to long established white British. They tell me they do not believe that they live in a society that has any defining ethos at all and have no concern for Britain save at best as an environment for the pursuit of narrow self-interest.  When it is suggested to them that they live in a country where there are shared values which can enhance their quality of life, they are uncertain what these are. They cannot see any great necessity in nurturing them.  Responsibility for the collective well-being of the country may lie with others but not with them.

 And I suggest that this is where it has all gone wrong for New Labour. As they are finding, it is easier to abandon, destroy and negate than it is to create. There is a frenzy of activity to re-define and re-invent Britishness in an attempt to pull people together again.  We have seen numerous constitutional proposals by the Government and, indeed, the possibility of a Bill of Rights and Obligations.  We have also seen many attempts to define citizenship culminating in Lord Goldsmith’s recent report “Citizenship: Our Common Bond” with some interesting ideas amongst others much less good. We now know that Gordon Brown vetoed the idea of a national song but there is still the national motto – the best suggestion for which I have heard was “Mustn’t grumble”.

The problem with this all this effort is that, however worthy, it’s artificial as was made so clear by the hostility to Lord Goldsmith’s suggestion of having citizenship ceremonies for all 18-year–olds.  There was no resonance with its target audience.

The Government is again equating State citizenship with Britishness. People cannot be told to be British, they have to feel that they are British. Being British is to accept as part of oneself an identity that includes one in an historical process, recognises the legacy of shared past endeavour, celebrates the present benefits of Britain and looks with hope to a shared future. From it comes a willingness to accept the constraints that allow that future to emerge through the democratic process.

People can be told that they are citizens and that by being so they have certain rights and civic responsibilities symbolised by being given a passport or an ID card. But it is what the “citizens” then do and think which has and will creates a national culture – it is this way round.

A national culture, externalised as a national character, is organic – it is emotionally charged, theatre in the round enacted every day in our national institutions. For too long the majority have been told their values and institutions are unworthy. Forty years of political correctness and the Socialist denigration of the past has left people with little to hang on to.  By denigrating the essential ingredients that constitute a national character such as institutions, traditions, ceremonies and history Labour has removed the architecture of Britishness. The result is that we have lost confidence in what has made us British.  While that loss of confidence lasts, no amount of State invention will adequately substitute for it. Loss of a shared sense of Britishness is not a cause but a symptom of the real problem.


So returning to the question posed to me Britishness- useful or redundant? Should we and can we restore a sense of Britishness?

I believe that the things which unite us in common bond and can bring us together and command respect are still there but they are hidden beneath the surface.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Today Scottishness is heavily underpinned by cultural manifestations based on a "Gaelic" identity. In fact most of Scotland has never spoken Gaelic and the tartan kilt, modern bagpipe and cult of Scottishness has few links to the culture of the country as it existed before the eighteenth century. It was as Hugh Trevor Roper revealed in his essay “The Highland Tradition of Scotland” an invention of the 19th century. But so what? There is no doubt that its success was due to the new identity going with the grain of public feeling. The Scots were seeking to produce a rope from the strands of their past to guide them, a sense of time, place and belonging in a period of great change during the industrial revolution and they succeeded. What rope of collective identity can we now twist which might go with the grain?


Whether it is PC or not to say, within the Union, historically, the English have made the foremost contribution to our British political values. It was not for nothing that Lord Palmerston in his famous 1850 statement “civis Britannicus sum” said

“so also a British subject in what ever land he may be shall feel confident that the watchful eye and strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong”

He knew where the strength came from. It’s the thing most often raised with me by immigrants as a reason for coming here.

The fundamental English contribution to Britishness lies in our law and in our freedom under it. From the Saxon moot court, Magna Carta through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and onwards, freedom under the law has been central to what English, and with it British national identity, is all about. During the course of the eighteenth century and thereafter our national identity was built around the concept of limited government. In the eighteenth century as Dan Wilson so graphically illustrates in his book “The Age of Cant”, there was a willingness to tolerate considerable levels of anarchy and disorder in the belief that any attempt at remedying it would remove freedom at the same time. Only the English could put the slogan “Wilkes for Liberty” on a teapot. We exported these principles to America where they remain vibrant-some think too vibrant! 

But freedom under the law is being eroded. In the last ten years we have seen willingness by government to by-pass basic legal principles in the name of administrative efficiency and control.

The proposed power to detain a suspect for up to 6 weeks without charge; control orders, a plethora of criminal justice legislation, trying to remove judicial review in asylum cases, the attempts at various times to limit trial by jury and to change the burden of proof in some criminal cases to facilitate conviction, all highlight this transformation.

We have also seen the rise in administrative penalties without trial, be they ASBOS, or fixed penalties, and the arrival of intrusive powers to acquire and retain national databases detailing information on the law abiding.

The law is also now dominated by trivia, devoting time to regulating minor matters.

These are all things that bear the hallmarks of tyranny. Some of them were prohibited in those ancient laws such as the Bill of Rights 1689 and Habeas Corpus in 1674 and the Five Knights Case of 1628.  As someone who is half-French I now find myself astonished that there appear to be increasingly fewer safeguards in this country for individual freedoms than in France; something that I would never have considered possible thirty years ago. Indeed with the absence of a written constitution, the abandonment of unwritten conventions on the way the state operates in relation to the citizen is easy. We are a conventional nation. It’s just not done. Abandoning convention you abandon the nation.

The proffered justification for all this is , of course, that it makes our lives safer and softer. Yet the evidence for this is not present. On the contrary, the changes in the relations between individuals and the State leave the former feeling utterly disempowered. They thus start to depend on the State for problem solving to an extent which is impossible for the State to fulfil. The inevitable demoralisation and irritation with authority does nothing to make people feel confident in a State that promises what it can’t deliver. It undermines all notion of individual responsibility and neighbourliness.


Freedom under law requires freedom of thought and expression.  Our country has defined itself for many generations as a place where freedom of expression, philosophical and religious, could be practiced and, indeed, the whole trend in our history for two hundred years is the gradual removal of the fetters of censorship on people’s views and, to a great extent, their behaviour, subject to the protection of others under our criminal law.

But now forces are pulling in the opposite direction.  We are being told that the price of diversity must be restrictions on freedom. As we saw with the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill and later, with the Equality Act legislation and the Sexual Orientation Regulations debate which followed from it, the trend is now to restrict freedom of thought, expression and the rights of individual conscience in the hope of achieving a greater equality and tolerance of difference across our country. A street preacher in my constituency was told by the police that he could preach the Gospel but that it was harassment to warn people that they might go to hell if they did not repent!

This runs entirely counter to what England's historical experience of living with divergent ethical, political and religious views has given to Britishness. The development of our country into a liberal democracy was not achieved through repression, although it was at times tried. It came principally through the growth of tolerance based on Christian principles and their interplay with Classical Greek humanism. Anglican Christianity in particular is as defining of the English character as it has been important to developing Britishness.

Firstly, as the Archbishop of York so rightly said in his recent Easter sermon “Our identity as a nation owes more to our Christian heritage than many care to admit. Writing in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede, “the father of English history”, wrote not only of how the English were converted, but how the Gospel played a major socialising and civilizing role in this country by uniting the English from a group of warring tribes and conferring nationhood upon them.”

Secondly, the Reformation initiated a diversity of viewpoints that moved us from religious uniformity to pluralism.  This came about through a process of polemic, debate, argument and, occasionally, violence and terror. Gradually, we achieved a state where the tolerance of the beliefs of others was seen as better for our collective well-being than imposed solutions and persecution. The Vicar of Bray may have been a figure of fun but his ability to accommodate himself and the willingness of different regimes to let him accommodate himself may be viewed as one of the more benevolent contributions to our culture. This didn't happen in Wales, Scotland or Ireland until much more recently. The tolerance of Protestant dissenters in the late seventeenth century, Catholic emancipation in 1829 and Jewish emancipation in the 1840s are key moments in the process and each has unlocked the possibility for different groups to participate in the public and political sphere from which we have all benefited.  There are English pubs called the “Live and Let Live”

As a result, our forebears were able to release a torrent of good works through institutions for the benefit of the wider community nowadays seen as being one of the key characteristics of Britishness, the under-pinning of society by independent voluntary participation.  Faith schools, charitable foundations for the relief of poverty, hospitals Dr Barnados and the RNLI, religious and secular.

To return to that excellent Easter sermon of the Archbishop of York: “Whilst it is of course true to say that such virtues as kindness to neighbour, fair play and common decency are not unique to the Christian faith just as they are not unique to Britain, it is equally true to say that these virtues have become embedded in our social fabric and heritage as a result of the Christian faith and influence on society”

I must emphasise here that I am not about to advocate trying to turn the clock back to some rose tinted past. You cannot turn clocks back and roses fade.  The nature of our society has changed recently with startling rapidity. An era of population churn and greater diversity must be recognised. But it seems to me that the zealous regulation of our conduct and belief whether moral or religious, the imposition of state-defined orthodoxy on public and private attitudes and the overburdening of law and regulation, with objectives which are unattainable have the unintended consequence of undermining the chances of creating better cohesion in our country .It is through constant contact and exchange of views that we moderate each other’s attitudes and behaviour. By this process, my practice of Anglicanism, although recognisably traditional, is nevertheless distinctly different from that practised by my sixteenth century forebears.  The same can be said of the Islam practised by Ismaili Muslims, prompted into dialogue and involvement in Western public life by the Aga Khan.  Similarly my political beliefs as a Conservative, although clearly in a philosophical tradition that can be traced back to the eighteenth century, are very different in practice from the politics of that era, as a result of being moderated by the impact of Socialist and other systems of thought that have arisen since.


I, therefore, suggest that one of the key problems we are facing at the moment is that state-imposed norms are inducing a sclerosis in the exchanges between individuals and groups, which is preventing the organic development and renewal of British national identity.  Whether it is a Scottish Nationalist or a Muslim Fundamentalist, the opportunity has never been better for those who wish to argue that the compartmentalisation of one’s existence into comfort zones with a narrow appeal is better than toleration and co- operation with others to achieve common goals.

If we want a common British identity and I believe we need one, then I would recommend that the first thing we must do as politicians is to let go a bit.  If individuals and families are freed from the constraints of regulation and the dictates of political correctness to find their own relationships with each other, then the common themes which form any national culture and identity will emerge of themselves.  We already know that, within two or three generations, immigrants’ descendants take on the accent of the area in which they live. In a dynamic society that same exchange which leads to a common voice will express a community of values as well.

We can, in government, also take steps to facilitate this evolutionary process.

Firstly, as Trevor Phillips has recognised, a cohesive nation state with shared values will be difficult to achieve as long as immigration is not limited to a rate which allows for integration to occur as a natural process. At present it is perfectly obvious from the level of discontent engendered that current levels are unsustainable. Rates of immigration are a matter on which existing citizens have a legitimate right to have a determining view. Attending to the views expressed by British citizens of every ethnic background is an essential step in promoting cohesion.

Secondly, we need to imbue citizenship with more status than it has at present. Its acquisition should not be seen as a consumer good but as a privilege that carries with it clear responsibilities to others. Both main Parties are feeling their way to a possible Bill of Rights that also may enshrine responsibilities. But if these to be effective they need to be taught as civics in schools in the context of a good understanding of our history.

Suppression of and damage to English national identity must be addressed. It is a question of restoring balance to the Union, not encouraging a English separatist agenda. Given Devolution we must deal speedily with the West Lothian question and provide England with better control of its affairs restoring a sense of purposeful nationhood in England.

We need to restore the principles of freedom and equality under the law as central to our nationhood. Just as Britishness is being undermined by perceived inequalities in the treatment of the different constituent groupings of the UK, so it is also by a system of governance that gives privileges to particular ethnic and religious groups and not on the basis of need. Celebrating our heritage of freedom under the law means maintaining it for tomorrow and reversing the trends that are disempowering the individual against the State.

If we do these things then I think it is likely that the community of values we seek to create will coalesce round those things which people naturally share in common. Britain, for all its shortcomings, remains attractive as a place to make a life for oneself and one’s family.  That some groups fail to settle is more likely to be the result of stifling the process by which individuals influence each other’s behaviour than by the inherent characteristics of any particular group.  If, therefore, we give them that opportunity, then the recreation of shared national identity will happen naturally.  It will not, of course, be the same Britishness as in the 1940s.  For that matter, Britishness in the 1940s was clearly very different from Britishness in the 1720s or in the 1850’s. But the Britishness of the 1940s was no less British for being different from that of earlier periods.

If we can set the right political conditions, then we will acquire a national identity that is vibrant, rooted in our past history, resilient and flexible in accommodating newcomers.  That will be as useful to us as the abstract process currently being carried out by New Labour to re-invent Britishness is redundant.

Dominic Grieve QC MP                     May 2008

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