Tuesday, January 17, 2006

That is the point

This is so good, I had to reproduce the whole thing. From today's Times.

No Great Britain day, please, we're British
Martin Samuel
If the Chancellor thinks he’s on to a vote-winning idea, he simply doesn’t grasp the essence of our culture

THERE IS AN advertising billboard at Upton Park, home of West Ham United Football Club. Visit Britain, it says. Now what is the point of that? Who is going to read this message and think: well, that would make a nice change of scenery. One would imagine by the time a person had reached the lower end of Green Street, bought a ticket and taken a seat in the West Stand, he would be somewhat aware of his location on the globe.

True, the nationality of the right-back might create confusion, but it is fair to say nobody, except perhaps an illegal immigrant previously stowed away in the load of a driver with a shaky grasp of the geography of northern Europe, could reach London E13 without having some awareness of being on British soil. And illegal immigrants cannot afford to watch Premiership football, anyway. Much like the rest of us. Visit Britain was this country’s silliest and most redundant instruction, until Gordon Brown unveiled his plans for an outbreak of Britishness. Celebrate our culture, Chancellor? We’ll do that every day if you let us.

We’ll do that by not visiting the churches of England (unless in a white dress or pine box), by not planting flags on the front lawn and by going about our business without showing any great desire to force our way of life upon the rest of the world (well not anymore, anyway) or even upon our own citizens. Now that indicates a strong national character. This Government, and Brown is a significant voice within it, may wish to promote Western democracy globally, but the majority of its people just want to be left alone to get on with the ironing, which has been stacking up all week. And that is what makes us uniquely, spectacularly, superlatively British.

Nobody has ever strapped on a bomb and taken a carriage-load of innocents to oblivion on behalf of the main religion within this country. Nobody ever will. Spitting Image captured it best. There was a knock on the door. A man answered. “Do you believe in God?” he was asked. “Of course not,” he replied. “I’m Church of England.”

Now there is a faith worth promoting.
Some religious leaders spew hatred. Ours organise jumble sales and coffee mornings. When my uncle died recently, the vicar began: “Sid didn’t believe in God. So I’m hoping that wherever he is now, he’ll be very surprised.” The service included the deceased’s favourite song, Ruby, by Kenny Rogers, no hymns and ended with Dean Martin singing Little Ol’ Wine Drinker, Me. No other religion on earth could have given that man the send-off he deserved. Now there is a culture worth preserving.

Not with self-conscious bank holidays or a flag in every garden, as Brown thinks. There is a cross of St George flying three fences down from me, and it looks as ridiculous and misplaced as “Visit Britain” at a football ground in East London. You want a commitment to Britain? Just pay your taxes. Why should a bloke with a 200 grand mortgage, giving almost half his income to the State, waste good money on a flag? What more does he have to prove?

The cliché is that everything America gets happens here ten years later — apart from The Larry Sanders Show broadcast at a sensible time on a channel somebody watches — and if Brown wants us wrapped in a flag annually, then that is another bad idea imported bang on schedule. America loves a flag. Every house, every car, every public building, a giant Stars and Stripes flutters above. Means nothing. When members of Congress and Senate gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing God Bless America in patriotic solidarity after 9/11, they held tiny flags given to them for the ceremony. Made in China, every one. In all, even before the attack on the World Trade Centre, 1.3 million Old Glories were Chinese-made and that number is unlikely to have decreased in the frenzy of flag-flying, sticker-affixing and apple pie baking that has accompanied the war on terror. Even now, the iconic stars and stripes flapping over a Rockwell-like white picket fence could well be a boon to a burgeoning Communist economy. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

Like Brown’s eye-catching, vote-winning patriotism, America’s flags are a stunt. One on the lawn there, two in the yard next door, a whole row above that stoop and, my, look at the local Cadillac dealership, there must be a hundred. Jeez, those guys love our country. And they’re offering the best deals in town. This is not patriotism; this is marketing.

Brown wants us to work too hard at being British, which is not British at all. Leave us alone and we’ll show you British. Christmas. Trees and lights and little nativity plays, all the stuff that makes your council twitch. The right to laugh at everybody and not watch what we say, which means laying off Jimmy Carr and football fans going to Germany, now being piously lectured on not mentioning the war.

What truly makes a country great is not some puffed-up ceremony, stage-managed to further a man’s political career, but the fabric of its daily life: the humour, the tolerance, the kindness displayed by British people of all colours and faiths, who feel no need to wave a Union Jack or launch into speeches about our great democracy. It is because of this that we remain perplexed by the rise of Hitler and the motivation of suicide bombers.

We are so happy in our skin that we do not need Great Britain day. In fact, let us alone and every day can be Great Britain day again. Nice idea, Chancellor. But to coin a very British phrase: bollocks to that.


Hey Skipper said...

by not planting flags on the front lawn

Funny you should mention that.

We, as do probably a fifth of my neighbors, continuously fly the US flag on the front of the house. Never thought much about it until now.

Not that any thinking I'm doing at the moment is of much help, since it doesn't look like getting anywhere close to an answer.

Except possibly for this: I once lived in Duns Tew. The house, judging from the date carved on the archway was about 500 years old. And for all I know, there were people 500 years ago bragging about living in 500 year old houses.

That length of history might give a different outlook ...

Brit said...


Much as I love the States, for a visitor the 'patriotic-er than thou' thing that goes on with the Stars and Stripes is pretty wearing. There's almost a desperation, or hysteria about it.

I may have been looking out for it more, but when I visited (Boston) post 9/11, it did seem to be even more the case than pre-. I went to a conference and it seemed like every available space had a flag draped or hung or pinned to it.

To outsiders, it looks like mass insecurity, but I do have sympathy for it. The States is unique because of the nature and shortness of its history. More than anywhere else really, the States is a concept or ideal as much as a country, so the need to visibly demonstrate one's loyalty to that concept is consequently unique. Nothing wrong with that - possibly people from the Motherlands take their countries and values too much for granted.

Although, as Samuel points out in the article, if absolutely everybody does something, it can lose its meaning.

Brit said...

Incidentally, I saw an interview with Arthur Miller before he died in 2004, in which he claimed that there was an insidious movement amongst the Religous Right to align Christian belief with patriotism. In other words, to portray atheists as being un-American or unpatriotic.

Since you both a patriot and an atheist, I'd be interested to know if you have detected this at all in your experience. Are you happy you tell your neighbours that you're not a Believer, for example?

Oroborous said...

As an American, I too often find the flag deal a bit affected, (especially right afer 9/11), but at its heart isn't "insecurity", i.e., a need to belong, it's an affirmation of a willingness to belong, to support those ideals which are usually associated with the flag by Americans.

In the case of the American flag, the symbol doesn't give strength to the supporters, (although it often gives comfort), it's the supporters who give the symbol meaning.

Peter Burnet said...

Yes, I'd be careful here, Brit. There is nothing defensive or hysterical about the American attachment to flags and bunting. It bespeaks a simple, measured, profound pride, for which I'm very grateful. While I agree with you that government fiat is a poor catalyst for this, there does come a point where the trappings of national pride reflect the real thing and where their disdain by the brights is problematic.

We were friends with the British air force attache to Ottawa and his family for a few years, who was much impressed with American and Canadian (contrary to our image, we too are actually quite the flag-wavers) overt demonstrations of national pride. The "we're above all that" attitude he saw in Britain bugged him mightily. He was particularly sore about the fact that British forces don't wear their uniforms in public anymore because of IRA threats. In the panicky days just after 9/11, Canadian forces were ordered to do the same. Very rational, but the order was almost immediately rescinded when the government found it was about to confront a mass mutiny. Anyway, he returned to Britain and resigned and is now doing well in Calgary. One for us.

This strikes me as a chapter in the eternal "America simplistic, Europe sophisticated" debate. It's like how British spy and crime novels love to explore the subtleties of character and the thinness of loyalty, while the Yanks like their flawless heros to get the bad, bad, bad guys. Fun to laugh at in safe times, but when the dark clouds appear, I'll take "God Bless America" over Monty Python or the Eurovision Song contest.

Brit said...


Maybe, but when has Britain ever had a problem dealing with the dark clouds?

There's room for Monty Python and "We'll fight them on the beaches."

If hyperbole is the norm, there's nowhere to go when something really matters.

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