Friday 20 February 2009

What IS Britishness? Or What Was it?

In 1965, the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson made a major concession to the French speaking people of Quebec.
He changed the national flag of Canada to the one we are all familiar with today, the Maple Leaf flag. Probably one of the better known and obviously recognisable national flags in the world.
It's a striking flag.

More instantly recognisable than the flag which had preceded it.

Nevertheless, not everyone was happy.

The state legislatures of Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia all responded by adopting provincial flags with the Union Jack in them.

Of the three, the anger at the flag change was strongest in Ontario. Because in Ontario, the history of what Ontario started is, is not forgotten. For over two hundred years now, the descendants of the rebels of 1776 have stared across Niagara Falls to see, fluttering in the wind, the red ensign. The descendants of the loyalists have flaunted their descent from those who stayed loyal to the crown. And whatever Lester Pearson decided, the people of Ontario had no intention of letting their southern neighbours forget. That on Crossing Niagara Falls, a part of the Americas was entered that stayed British.

And so the Union Jack flutters still above the turbulent waters of Niagara Falls, a reminder that the second largest country on the globe was founded by those who walked away from the American Revolution.

History as rewritten by Mel Gibson in The Patriot omits it, history tend to ignore the fact that the American Revolution was a civil war. In some states, both sides were evenly matched. And at the end of it all, there was a mass exodus. The loyalist exodus. Those who refused to stay in a land where rebels who had treacherously allied themselves with the French of all people, were now in control. It was just too much. After all, only a few years before, they'd been fighting the French. To these loyalists, the triumphant rebels weren't just Un-British, they were Un-Amercian. The loyalists had American accents as much as did the rebels. They were Americans through and through. it was just that they couldn't accept not being BRITISH Americans. And so they decamped by the thousand. They headed north. The British- themselves- had beaten the French only years before and Canada was now British. In part of it, the part now called Quebec, many French settlers lived. But the rest, what is now Ontario, was unsettled. They could live there.

And there were so many of them, that right from the start the exiled loyalists outnumbered the French settlers. Ontario became the new hub of British North America. The roots of Canada as we know it, are in the rejection of America. For the settlers of Ontario, the great victory was the British victory against France in the seven year war, the victory that made North America British and drove out the French. They were merely carrying on the American identity that their rebellious countrymen had turned their back on.

Of course, in a sense, one might argue it's stopped being relevant. I doubt any Canadians today see themselves as British. The interesting question is- when did they stop?

And one realises that really, the point is that what has actually happened is that British identity has ceased to exist. At some point between the second world war and the early seventies, a huge retraction in what the term British meant collapsed, leaving many high and dry and confused.

We do not realise half the time, I think, how massive a sea change that was. Nor was it envisaged. Something happened that nobody foresaw and nobody really noticed it happened.
Because everybody started doing it. The term British stopped meaning the Commonwealth and simply started meaning the United Kingdom. And it was a two way process. It wasn't planned and there isn't a legal point which defined it. It was a change in attitudes.

One notices it most with Australia. But the Dominions generally are a case in point. When i was younger I was always puzzled when Canada became independent. Because I had read it became a Dominion in 1867. Yet there it was in twentieth centuries maps of the Empire. so through both world wars, it was counted as British. As was Australia. When did they stop being counted as British?

Answer; they didn't. Not on their own. They're still Dominions today. What happened was how we saw Dominions changed. All the colonies have become independent now. But what no one foresaw, seemingly was that the Commonwealth would cease to mean British. The only difference is that in the nineteen thirties the inhabitants of Commonwealth countries believed that they were in the Commonwealth and that was what made you British, not living the UK. Canadian was British and England was British. They didn't see being British as implying subjugation, quite the reverse. They weren't ENGLISH, they were British. Dominion status made them equal partners to the founder nations, England and Scotland. A bit like Alaska didn't see being upgraded to a full US state as stopping them being Alaskans.

The Second World War was a major change, especially down under. After all, the Second World war was brought on Australia for no other reason than that it WAS part of the Commonwealth. In those days, all dominions unquestioningly joined in the wars of the Mother Lion. It was just how it worked. In a sense, I think the Second World War was the watershed moment for Australia in terms of thinking of itself as being a country. Up till then, I still think it had seen itself much as a US state sees itself. It's people were British first and Australian second; after the war that changed.

But I think perhaps a major sea change we fail to understand is the effect the collapse of Empire had on the Indian subcontinent. Asian immigrants here have had a hard time. There has been this sense that they're not British, they don't belong here. And yet...

Most British Asians came here in the sixties and seventies. To a foreign country, you might say. Certainly most of the 'native' British thought so. But where was their native country? Their parents had been, so often, loyal subjects of the White Emperor, George V, King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Emperor of India.

It would be interesting to do a study of motivation behind the first generation of British Asians. And see how much of a factor independence was in their migration. How far perhaps, the desire to stay LOYAL to a tradition, their own history even. Especially in Pakistan which had so radically changed. British India lasted a long time. It seems a little perverse to ignore that if one wants to talk about Indian traditions, the Raj was a very long lasting tradition. Many British Asians might well feel that the British India was the more traditional India. In other words, that the culture of British Asians is no less a British culture than the culture of the English. After all, the cultures of the Indian subcontinent were part of the Empire for so very long.

Is the Image below Indian tradition?
Or British tradition?

So Tebbit's cricket test is daft really. British Asians never pretended to be ENGLISH. They do however perhaps feel that they were British before 1947 just as they were Indian before 1947. Now they just want to carry on preserving their true Indian culture, but India is turning it's back on what to be Indian means. But surely in Britain they'd value that distinctly Indian culture, which was and surely is still a proud member of the British federation of unique cultures? Surely the English don't mind having the Indian culture side by side with it? We're all British cultures after all? These Congress types, Indira Gandhi and her ilk, they don't see that. That by destroying our British roots, they destroy our INDIAN traditions.

That, in my view was a certainly a factor in how many first generation British Asians felt. They're loyalty isn't to Britain the island, but to that old traditional concept, British India. They have recreated it, the India their grandparents knew. Is it wholly a coincidence that the parts of our cities they have made their own are in fact those places infected with thirties imperial architectural style, where nineteen thirties borough councils initiated the colonial buildings of the Raj? Small Heath probably looks more like nineteen thirties Delhi than Delhi does today.

The BNP and their ilk are perhaps foolish to call themselves loyal to Britishness. Because those they denounce and tell to 'go home' came here perhaps, to keep home alive. The India they loved was the India they have built in our cities, Indian but British. What they showcase is just as British as the white suburbs down the road. If the BNP really understood the idiocy of their rhetoric, they'd stop flying the Union Jack. Because it belongs just as much to the Sikh in his full ceremonial dress as it belongs to the Anglo-Saxon sterotype.

The racist thugs have forgotten that it is they themselves who don't get what British was. British Asians remember what it was, and what it was will always include them. As it includes Afro-Caribbeans, as it includes Hong Kong Chinese, as it includes all the descendants of about a quarter of the world's population, people of almost every single ethnic group who for good or for ill had their fates mapped out for them by membership of a polity that flew the Union Jack.

The people of the British Isles suffer from an ignorant lack of history in believing themselves the sole heir to this polity, believing that only their ancestors were part of it. And that they therefore, are the sole heirs to the symbols of its past. And perhaps that's why those symbols now seem somewhat degraded and a touch dirty. In the hands of these people, the Union Jack has attained an odour not dissimilar to the Swastika.

Perhaps we really do need and end to the United Kingdom. Once this strange unit, this dregs of Empire that exists goes and we give Ireland back to the Irish and this unhappy marriage with Scotland ends we give the Union Jack a proper funeral, and fighting over who and who isn't British becomes pointless, we'll see what Britishness was.

It was part of a family. Part of a development in world history, one of a new kind of polity, a benevolent Empire, a Roman empire of it's time, not just a plundering and subjugating empire, but a group of people with a deal to offer. A deal so many peoples across the globe accepted. The deal was;

'Join our family. You won't be our equals at the start, but it's damn site better than what you've got. Join our family. You'll live longer, have schools, have railways, have hospitals, have roads. And laws. No tyrants, no castes, no human sacrifices. Yes, we'll be the masters, but we're going to give you the tools to build things up yourselves. So it won't always be like this. Of course we're here because we want something. But consider this like a training a programme. We're going to train you up to make your country like ours. The freest country in the world.'

And no, it wasn't all fair. A lot of it was full of stupid fanfare and patronising attitudes. And worse. It had a dark side in many ways. And I think if the bit we're proud of is all the conquering we did, we miss the whole point about what was good about it.

We allowed everyone to take part in it. We wanted them to.

Do you know when the first Asian MP was elected to Westminster?

And he was elected for the Tories. For a London seat. Finsbury, I think.

That's what was good about it.

It was only racist in the sense that to start with it was one or two races- English and Scottish- selling the deal. But the deal was about a better world, a better way of living. Progress, Democracy, Freedom, Laws.

Ultimately, it hoped for peaceful, democratic world government.

So who really, are the heirs of Britishness?

Not just the people who still live in the islands where the idea started. Pretty much everyone is.

Britishness is multiculturalism.

Britishness was the ideal of many different races retaining their own unique cultures and blending them, it was about finding the best of all worlds, but ultimately always believing in the right of people to rule themselves. It was the idea that people make governments, not government makes peoples.

It's not a birthright. It's a dream.

1 comment:

wonkotsane said...

A well written post but I'm not British, I'm English. I think the union is dead and Britishness only exists in the minds of old conservatives and career politicians.