Being British: Some Practical Benefits and Spiritual ElementsTweet
What is it to "Be British"? In this speech, Alistair McConnachie describes some practical benefits, and some spiritual elements, which are interwoven throughout the British identity.
It was presented at a "Britain Awake" meeting held in the Lollard Hall, Wilson Street, Burnbank, Hamilton on Thursday 20 February 2014 at 7.30pm.
Posted on this site on 21 February 2014.
Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen for coming along tonight. I am always very happy when I'm invited to speak, because I know that will require me to set aside several days to concentrate my thoughts on a particular theme.
I want to use this evening to speak about the British identity because the referendum is very much about identity. Despite the efforts of some Scottish nationalists to claim otherwise, it is clearly – for many of us – about our identity.
Many people will be voting to stay with the Union because they appreciate that a British identity is a useful identity.
We know it benefits us in various ways – some of which I will be speaking about tonight.
The more people who come to appreciate the British identity then the better for us all.
The better not just for the short-term goal of winning the referendum overwhelmingly, but also the better for the eternal goal of living together peacefully on these Islands.
In the first half of the talk tonight, I want to describe briefly some practical elements of "being British" and to describe some ways of thinking about what it is to "be British".
In the second half of my talk, I want to identify some spiritual elements of the British identity and in particular I want to concentrate on 3 of them.
PRACTICAL BRITISHNESS and the BRITISH IDENTITY
In December 2013 I wrote an article entitled, "These are Some Things, Some Things that Britishness is Made Of".
In it I listed some elements of Britishness which are part of everyone's daily experiences, and which are part of a British identity, even though a person may not think about it in that way.
I listed them because some Scots will say that they personally are "not British" without realising that they are taking part in all these British things every day, and that they depend upon all these British things in their own lives.
Britishness is working for them, even though they are not aware of it, or appreciate it.
They have a functional Britishness which is working for them in a practical way, and which is useful in their lives, but they do not appreciate the related identity of being British.
I put it this way: For a lot of these people, their Britishness is really like their internal organs. Ignored, not understood, perhaps abused, but absolutely vital for their lives.
I won't rehearse what I said in that article – you can read it at my website aForceForGood.org.uk or I can send you a copy if you give me your address – but I will illustrate what I mean by giving you an example.
I recently watched a programme wherein a man said that he was Scottish and not British. He was at a cattle market. I don't know if he was a farmer or if he was one of the workers at the cattle market.
He said that the only reason he was British was because it said so on his passport.
"Really?", I thought to myself.
You know, here is what I will say to him:
You say you are not British, but Britishness is working for you. You live and work in Britain. Your work and your wages depend – if they are to continue – upon the marketing of your product – which is beef from cattle – to the Great British consumer throughout the United Kingdom. Without that commercial relationship you will be out of a job.
You, like the rest of us, are presently nestled in the arms of the Great British welfare system – our NHS, our social payments if we are put out of a job – all of which are supported by our fellow British taxpayers throughout the United Kingdom.
You, and we, are dependent upon Her Majesty's Armed Forces and Security Services, for the protection of ourselves and our families, every waking moment of our lives.
You will get a British pension when you retire…paid for by the British taxpayer…
I could go on.
My point is that if you participate in those elements of Britishness – as this chap does, and as we all do – then you do have a British identity albeit a functional one; that is, something serving a practical function.
Even though you are not, apparently, emotionally…or spiritually…connected with the identity, you could, and should at least acknowledge that British identity, stop pretending you don't have it and that you don't benefit hugely from it, realise its value and importance in your life, and understand that it will be lost…and you will be disadvantaged if it is no longer there.
This person couldn't live without that practical identity. But somehow he has never been able to become aware of that fact.
As I say, it really does seem that, for a lot of these people, their British identity is like their internal organs. Ignored, not understood, perhaps abused, but absolutely vital for their lives.
Here are some more practical benefits of being British, which we can all appreciate…
MORE PRACTICAL ADVANTAGES OF BEING BRITISH
Being British is…not having to think about "a border" separating us from our family members in the other parts of the UK. Being British is not noticing a border when the train passes through Berwick upon Tweed.
It's about not noticing a border when you're driving up the A74, crossing into Scotland, or heading over to Larne. It is about appreciating that…and not wanting to erect a border – not even a border in our heads!
Being British allows one to possess, what I am calling, broader bonds of attachment. Meaning, that, through participation in a British identity – everything that is particularly English, Welsh or Northern Irish is also the inheritance and possession of someone from Scotland (if you want it to be).
It means, England is as much a Scotsman's home as Scotland is an Englishman's home!
I don't want to wake up on 19 September having lost two-thirds of my home, two thirds of my country! 1
This attitude – knowing that as a British person, the entire UK is your home – enables one to possess a broader, and very rich, historical and cultural inheritance, and with that enjoy a wider sense of social attachment…with one's fellows in society.
It enables one to bond more easily with anyone else throughout the UK. There is no doubt that a British identity does this.
For those of us who do not have any emotional or spiritual attachment to Britain and Britishness, it cannot reasonably be denied that a British identity is, at least, a very practical identity in those ways.
TO BE BRITISH IS TO…
How else can one describe what it is to "Be British"?
There are different ways of doing so. Let me give you some of my suggestions:
(And I should say here, when I speak about Britain, or Great Britain – that is my shorthand for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)
To be British is to believe in Britain and its potential.
To believe it has a destiny to be united.
To believe it has a purpose to do good at home and on the world stage, and to know that if we are split apart we can never achieve that destiny and purpose.
To be British is also to believe in Scotland. To believe that Scotland is a great nation. One of the world's great nations.
And it is to believe in something even greater than Scotland.
It is to believe in Great Britain – which is even greater than Scotland because it includes great Scotland...and it includes great England, and great Northern Ireland and great Wales.
To be British is to believe that Scotland's destiny and purpose lie in association with the rest of Britain.
To be British is to value our unity…which transcends our diversity. To know that unity makes sense; that disunity makes no sense.
In practice, this translates, as I mentioned earlier, into not feeling any different when we travel from Scotland to another part of the UK. It is to know that England or Wales or Northern Ireland is a Scotsman's country too, and vice versa.
To be British is to realise that what we have in common is greater than our differences.
It is to know that the whole of the UK is greater than the sum of its parts – "yet the parts are all essential and contribute something vital." 2
To be British is about togetherness – to think about what is best for all of us together, and to act on that. It is not about thinking primarily in terms of what is best for the English, Northern Irish, Scots or Welsh separately.
It is to know that together…we can work things out.
To be British is about belonging. Belonging to an extended family, where we put the interests of all the family first. We don't put our own personal interests before the interests of the family. It's to value that sense of commonality and community.
And to be British is to Make the Choice to Live Together. 3 We will all make that choice, one way or the other, on the 18 September.
All of this is to have an identity which has spiritual elements interwoven throughout it.
When I use the word "spiritual" here, I'm not speaking particularly about any religion, but rather I'm speaking about "spiritual" in the sense that the word means those aspects of life which lie behind the practice of things, which we sense to be meaningful, and which often defy our powers to define them.
SOME SPIRITUAL ELEMENTS OF THE BRITISH IDENTITY
So…to help illuminate the spiritual elements of the British identity, I want to concentrate on 3 elements, in particular, which have a spiritual flavour.
TO BE BRITISH IS TO BE A SUBJECT, NOT JUST A CITIZEN
Some people who affect to be modern will say things like "We need to be citizens of the state instead of subjects of the Queen". As if to say, it is better, on a moral level, to be a citizen rather than a subject.
Well, that is just so wrong.
Sure, we can, and should, be "citizens" in the sense that it is important to have a legal contract with the state – whereby we enjoy the legal protection of the state, in return for doing our duty as good citizens.
My point is that to be only a "British citizen" is only to have a legal contract with the state.
At its most basic level, you hear how boring that can be when you listen to those few Scots who will say, "The only reason I'm British is because that's what it says on my passport."
For them, being a British citizen is just to have a very mundane, and apparently meaningless relationship with the British State.
However, to be a British Subject is of a different kind of personal identity entirely. And it is of a different order of personal participation in society entirely.
Here is what it is about…
It is about having a relationship – which we could describe as "spiritual" or "mystical" – with the symbols of the nation, for example, with the Queen, the flag; with the institutions of the nation, for example, with Parliament, the Armed Forces, the Churches; with the rituals of the nation, that is to say, the ceremonies; with the art, the craft, the culture, the products and the people of the nation.
It is about cherishing those things, taking pride in them, loving them, respecting them, having loyalty to them, understanding their value, defending them, fighting for them even.
It is this relationship which gives one a sense of belonging to the nation and the national family of people; which gives one a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself; which gives one a sense of togetherness with our fellow Britons; which gives one a sense of meaning in one's life, and a sense that together we have a destiny and a purpose in the grand scheme of things.
So, being British is about more than being a citizen. It is about being a Subject who has a valuable, life-enhancing, life-affirming meaningful spiritual relationship with the symbols, institutions, rituals, art, craft, culture, products and people of the nation.
It is within that mysterious and spiritual relationship that we find the thrill of Britishness. 4
Another aspect of the British identity which can be described as "spiritual"…
TO BE BRITISH IS TO HAVE FAITH IN OUR INSTITUTIONS
By "faith" I mean, having a deep belief in the intrinsic goodness of a certain thing, and the ability of that certain thing to ultimately succeed.
To be British is to have faith in our national institutions – which involves realising when they are in error, but having faith that they can be made better by us.
We have this faith in them because we have this spiritual relationship with them.
I want to contrast that kind of faith with, what I'm calling, the "republican attitude", which is the attitude of the French Revolutionaries, or the communists, and to an extent, some of the people who want to separate and break up the UK.
British faith says, "We may have a problem with this institution, but this institution is fundamentally a good thing and so we are going to work with it to try to make it better because we have faith that this good thing can, and should, flourish in future."
The republican attitude says, "This thing isn't working. We're going to tear it down and start again. We're going to sweep away the past, and we're going to start at Year Zero."
So, we see this attitude with some of the people who want to break up the UK today. When confronted by the various failings of the British State, their response is to leave it all behind and start anew.
The British approach is not to start again from scratch.
The British approach is to have faith in what we have.
Just because Britain is going through problems at the moment does not mean that we should throw the British Baby out with the Bathwater. Just because there are problems in Britain right now does not mean we should give up on it and walk away.
If we are agreed that Britain is a good thing in the first place, then let's work with what we have and do our best to improve it. Let's work together…to make it better.
Arguably, it is this spiritual element of Britishness which has allowed us to develop our political institutions without, relatively speaking, the violent upheavals suffered by other societies.
This brings me to the final and third positive aspect of Britishness which has a spiritual flavour – and I stress, this is not a definitive list of elements, but only 3 which occurred to me at this time.
TO BE BRITISH IS TO VALUE OUR UNIQUE SENSE OF CEREMONY
Enemies of the United Kingdom will always try to mock or complain about our unique forms of Ceremony.
Whether that is the State Opening of Parliament, the various conventions of Westminster, the pomp and circumstance of State Occasions, the ceremonial marching and music of the British Armed Forces, the Honours System.
Certainly, several countries have things like these, but Britain does them especially well. We are uniquely good at it. Indeed, several of the countries which do them today, have copied them from Britain.
But ceremony serves a strong purpose. And that purpose is as much spiritual, as it is practical.
The Daily Telegraph journalist, Christopher Howse made some good points in an article recently.
He said: …"Unspeaking things mean the most."
He spoke about the uniforms of the Brigade of Guards, and then he spoke about the ceremony of marriage:
"Wedding dresses are to civilian life more remarkable than even a trumpeter of the Life Guards' uniform of gold brocade. For wedding dresses are worn only once. By the same logic which would cut [the funding to] ceremonial aspects of [British Armed Forces] Service life, brides' dresses would be the first thing to cut in a recession. Why not get married in a little black dress that would come in handy in future? Few people do, because they understand the unspoken language."
Of the people who want to abolish ceremony he says:
"They know not what they say. For an absence of ceremony is not silence. It just speaks a nastier language, like the streets of the former East Germany. Brutalist architecture is bad not just because it is windy and leaks, but also because it looks ugly – an outward sign of inward disgrace." 5
What he is saying here is that - the physical doing of the ceremony, conveys in its activity, the spiritual meaning which underlies it.
So if you reduce the substance of things – in this case, the ceremony – then you reduce the spirit of them too. Similarly, if you want to build up the spirit of things then you must also build up the substance of things.
We can apply this insight to the state of the Union today.
TRANSMITTING BRITISH SPIRIT THROUGH BRITISH SUBSTANCE
If we want to build up belief in the United Kingdom then we must give the nation substance. We must create the physical things in the UK which will transmit the British spirit.
In that regard, many of us are at the mercy of our unionist politicians who make those substantial decisions – or who don't bother to make them.
Some of them don't seem to understand that if we are to hold the Union together, we need the substance not only the fine words.
For example, you could try to "save money", inverted commas, by running down the amount of ceremonial duties performed by the Armed Forces, but you will ultimately run down Britain – and the Union – because you are removing the daily practice of things which conveys the spiritual meaning to everyone who views them, who hears them, who learns about them.
By closing down the practice, you close down the meaning…which gives it the value…which makes it worth the while.
Another example: The Scottish Regiments were one of the main ways in which a sense of Britishness was transmitted and made manifest throughout Scotland. Yet, it was the "unionists" – Tories and Labour – who wound them all up.
If you shut down the physical practice, then you will ultimately shut down the spiritual meaning which holds it all up in the first place.
Heavy industry in Britain is another way in which the British spirit and the identity associated with it were spread throughout Scotland and Britain. But Labour and Tory have both been responsible for running it down.
An example: Right now, we have 4 large tankers being built for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – which is a civilian-manned fleet, owned by the MOD, which supports Royal Navy ships, including refueling them. That's a major production order of around half a billion pounds. Yet, these ships are being built – not on the Clyde or in Portsmouth – but in South Korea!
They should be built in Britain – the money "spent", inverted commas; which should be thought of as an investment rather than a "cost" – should be circulating in the British economy, not in the South Korean economy!
I mention ship building: Let me give you an example of how heavy industry can provoke spiritual feelings of patriotism in our hearts and souls.
I was researching recently the history of "Red Clydeside" for an article which I shall publish, possibly later in the year, and I was reading an interesting autobiography of one of our Glasgow politicians at the time, the socialist MP, David Kirkwood. He was partly responsible for getting the Queen Mary built and launched at Clydebank.
The best chapter of his book is on his efforts to get it built, which also involved meeting with the Prince of Wales at the time (who became Edward VIII).
His long fight to get the ship built culminated when it was launched on 26 September 1934, and he says in his chapter in the book, when he was watching the ceremony…and he described this in a very poetic way, and in a way which helps to illustrate the point I am trying to get across:
"And on that day I felt that the whole nation was built into that ship. Throne and Parliament, Commerce and Industry, Arts and Crafts, parts of one great unity. And I remembered how in a former day this feeling had been expressed:"
He then goes on to quote Shakespeare's "Royal Throne of Kings" verse, and says that he wishes Shakespeare had ended it by saying this blessed spot, this earth, this realm, "this Britain". 6
I wish that too! Although today, there is nothing to stop us quoting that verse and saying that instead, if we want...
Flying the Union Jack is another practical thing, the doing of which conveys the spiritual meaning at the heart of our Union.
Stop flying the flag and some people can forget that Britain even exists in the first place! Then, after a while, it can become too late because we have ceded that ground to the nationalists.
Remember the old days in battle? The flag always had to be picked up again when it was dropped.
It's time for us to pick up the flag again.
Thank you for listening.
(1) The UK's land mass is 94,060 square miles. Scotland's land mass is 30,414 square miles.
(2) Ian Bradley, Believing in Britain: The Spiritual Identity of Britishness, [Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008], p.28.
(3) Bradley, ibid at p.47.
(4) Thank you to Ian Bradley and his book above for developing my thinking on the difference between a "citizen" and a "subject", especially pages 236-239. Bradley has also written God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy, [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002].
(5) Christopher Howse, "Don't surrender the martial arts of ceremony", The Daily Telegraph, 4-2-14, p.18. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10614856/Dont-surrender-the-martial-arts-of-ceremony.html
(6) David Kirkwood MP JP, My Life of Revolt, (London: Harrap and Co, 1935), pp. 251-262 at 262.
"Family Portrait" is a famous short documentary film made for the Festival of Britain in 1951, by Sir Humphrey Jennings. While the visual imagery of the film is very dated now – indeed, its depiction of British industry and workers seems almost like a foreign country – we nevertheless thoroughly approve of its spoken sentiments, which are timeless. It develops the narrative of Britain as a family, involved in a common project. It can also be bought from Amazon, included as one of several films in a DVD entitled "London In Festival Year 1951". Here are just 3 of its paragraphs we want to highlight:
"Perhaps because we in Britain live on a group of small islands, we like to think of ourselves as a family. And of course, with the unspoken affection and outspoken words that all families have. And so the Festival of Britain is a kind of family reunion. To let us take a look at ourselves. To let the young and the old, the past and the future, meet and discuss. To pat ourselves on the back a bit. To give thanks that we still are a family. To voice our hopes, and fears, our faith for our children. Where to begin…"
..."We can only thank heaven we produced a Blake, a Shaftesbury, a Dickens, to proclaim love, and health and light.
..."We like pageantry. But then pageantry in Britain (believe it or not) isn't put on by a sinister power to impress anyone, nor just to have fun. It's part of the pattern of life. The year itself swings round in a pattern of events. The secret is that we created these things ourselves, gradually, but as Milton warned us, not without dust and heat. The banks of Runnymede, the heights of Edinburgh, the Palace of Westminster itself, were once battlegrounds where the burning ideas of other civilisations were bitterly adapted to the climate at home."
If you like what we say, please support us by signing-up to receive our free regular Update email - which will keep you informed of new articles and relevant pro-UK information - by entering your details in the 'Subscribe' box at the top right of this page. You can find out more about Alistair at the About Alistair McConnachie page. And here is a link to Alistair McConnachie's Google Profile.