Last night’s opening ceremony for the thirtieth modern Olympiad was an attempt to showcase Britain, and define what it values, by lensing its quirks through the form of a historical spectacle. It was gloriously esoteric, and I feel a little sorry for the global audience. As a ceremony, it was certainly best parsed by the peoples of the host nation. Mostly it felt like a lovely acknowledgement of the total weirdness that pervades these lands which, to my mind, was wonderful. Yet it also felt somewhat elegiac – a tribute to something that is both cherished and fading, and I think that thing is the traditional conception of Britain, it’s place in the world and what it means to be British.
A decade ago, a BBC World Service reporter stopped me in the street and asked me: “Do you think immigrants should make more efforts to be British?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” That’s something everyone broadly agrees with, right?
“Uhuh, and what does being British mean? What is Britain?”
‘Err….that’s not something I have a stock answer to…it takes some thinking on” I blustered, feeling faintly embarrassed. I think I offered some vapid waffle about tolerance, about respect. The reporter looked pretty smug. What a mugging.
Since then, I haven’t stopped thinking about what it means to be British. It crops up in nearly everything I write. Trying to grasp national characteristics feels a little like trying to handle water – tangibly possible, but proves hopelessly elusive in practice. So many different subsets, a Cornishman will have different codes and experiences to a Geordie and to a Brummie and to a Mancunian and to a Londoner. There are then socio-economic subsets within those geographic ones. What a total mess – how do you pull some axiomatic truth of identity from there? Nowadays, having had all these thoughts, one of my more popular party diabtries is pondering the future of Britain, and how its fate is reflected in its relationship with immigration.
It’s all very well asking immigrants to integrate, to become more British, but that is only possible if you loosen any ideas you have as to what it means to be British so as to include them. Knowing some history, knowing some traditions, knowing some language – these are all requests that I think are reasonable to make of those who come to live here. But you can’t accept people into a country and then demand that they suppress their past selves entirely and submit to a different, ill-defined national character. That is how you get caricatures, not citizens. National characteristics aren’t top down impositions on the whole anyway – mainly, they are generated and renewed by the people of a country and new people means new ideas. Identity will always be fluid, and there will always be notions that you do not like or expect to catch on. When my grandparents arrived in this country, being British seemingly involved disliking homosexuals and being all for state execution. Now we are supposedly known for our tolerance and kindness as a people. The NHS that was vaunted at last night’s ceremony, accurately, as an institution beloved by the population and recognisably British didn’t exist within the lifetimes of some Brits alive today. Faces, landscapes and culture – these have always shifted and will go on shifting. The mass immigration that occurred during the middle of the the last century was just a highly visible, fast paced demonstration, which is why it was terrifying to some. There was so little lag time in which to adapt. Then we got the internet, lag is mere milliseconds, and the world has never been more primed for, or vulnerable to, change.
Of course, in these isles, there has been one Big Constant for the last couple of hundred years on which people hung their national hats: Empire. The strain of militarism and a respect for obedience that allowed for that global “success” still lingers in much British tradition. It resisted and even co-opted many of the radical changes and changers of the Sixties and Seventies, though it feels that now, at last, that too is becoming obsolete. The opening ceremony brilliantly depicted Britain as a state that, for better or ill, broke and remade the world in its own image. Yet tucked in there was an acute realisation that for all the wonders (and horrors) “classic” Britain has given the world, it is now in a greater flux than ever before and from this uncertainty a different image is forming, a fresh thesis of what Britain is and will be. I have come to see identity as a dialogue. To be British, to be any nationality, simply means to be a person who partakes in that discussion, even if it’s just through your day-to-day actions, and I believe that if you wish to isolate a national character, it can be found in the confluence of those ideas. Some voices are louder than others and for decades – for centuries! – the roar of Britain as the grand, glorious, global military, economic and cultural superpower dominated.
That hegemony is nearly gone, this year’s double whammy of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics were the final salutes, and I feel that, right now, it’s my generation, a generation aware of Britain’s Greatness as a history lesson not a way of life, a generation comfortable with fluidity, with plurality, whose voice is growing. I don’t know what it’s saying yet, I’m not a hundred percent on all the values being thrown up – I guess you can only be sure of those in hindsight anyway – but I do know that this country is emerging into a turbulent, but exciting, era and that it’s a fascinating time to be part of the British Conversation.