Gordon Brown and Britishness

I have been feeling rather sorry for Gordon Brown recently (not a sentiment I often feel). His recent speech on Britishness has received a fairly hostile reception. A lot of commentators claim that it was just a political ploy to reconcile people to him as a Scottish Prime Minister. This seems to proceed from the fallacy that since many Scots don’t see themselves as British, any Scot who does think he is British must be faking it. I don’t think Brown is insincere on this matter, since he’s talked about the subject before. And after all, if Britishness is going to mean anything, it should be equally open for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to discuss it as well as the English.

The more interesting thing is what Brown actually said, which again was fairly badly reported. The emphasis was all on one small portion of the speech about flags and national days. I actually found a copy of the speech (http://www.fabian-society.org.uk/press_office/display.asp?id=520&type=news&cat=43) and its main thrust was to argue that Britishness was best defined by values rather than institutions. This is a more left-wing/liberal take on Britishness than some, but no less valid for that. I was less convinced by his choice of the values he saw as defining Britishness: liberty, responsibility and fairness.

This is clearly closer to French slogans (liberty, equality, fraternity) than American (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). I can see fairness as being a reasonable substitute for equality, allowing for the British tradition of being less keen on grand abstract nouns, and more on warm fuzziness. Fairness, like justice, is one of these things that no-one could possible be opposed to. What I’m less enthusiastic about is ‘responsibility’. This seems to me to be used in a rather double sense. When Gordon Brown discusses this as a trait of Britishness, he’s essentially focusing on voluntary associations and civic-mindedness: in this way it’s very like fraternity or possibly solidarity. But he’s using responsibility not just to approve of such voluntary taking up of duties, but to imply that everyone can have responsibilities imposed on them, which is a very different matter. It feeds into the authoritarian streak in this government, which claims that you can have no rights without responsibilities. L is currently completely irresponsible, like all toddlers – does that mean that she should have no rights?

Apart from this, the speech is largely a Whig take on history with a few socialist twists: so we get Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and also the Levellers and George Orwell. If Tony Benn has given a similar speech, as he could well have done, he might well have been ignored, but it wouldn’t have regarded as some kind of impudence for him to discuss the matter. There’s an interesting debate to be had about what British values are/should be. I just wish that we could have that debate rather than simply condemn patriotism outright or think its discussion must be left strictly to English conservatives.


One thought on “Gordon Brown and Britishness

  1. The American and French formulations of belief arose in the context of declaring national independence or overthrowing an old order. We have never been in that situation – having to make manifest what we hold dear. Our beliefs are implicit.

    Maybe that’s why Gordon Brown’s telling us that we need to be more British caused hostility. He claims that, “In a recent poll, as many as half of British people said they were worried that if we do not promote Britishness we run a real risk of having a divided society” – I don’t believe it!

    I don’t disagree with much that he said but his tone was imperious:

    …you must have a clear view of what being British means…
    …we in our party should feel pride in a British patriotism
    …So the British way forward must be…
    …I believe it is imperative that we…

    National pride and values can’t be instilled by force.


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