Letter from London 16th January 2006
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and most likely next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently suggested that we should create a "British Day" on which we celebrate our nation. Whereas most other countries have their "Fourth of July" or their "Bastille Day" the British do not - hence Brown's suggestion. On the face of it is a reasonable idea that we should have a "National Day" - after all we are past masters of nationalistic fervour and celebration when we feel like it. So a day on which we our encouraged let our hair down to fly the Union flag might be fun. The problem, however, is that none of us seem terribly sure what it in reality means to be British, which might cause a degree of uncertainty about what it is we are actually celebrating. This confusion about our identity has led to a plethora of recent initiatives that seek to define "Britishness", and to popular television programmes such as "Great Britons" which tried to identify who our most notable countrymen have been.
I am unsure as to whether all this ballyhoo about Britishness is a consequence of a national inferiority complex, or the opposite. Are we being asked again to indulge in that game once mocked by Ogden Nash when he said, "Englishmen know instinctively that what the world needs most is whatever is best for Great Britain"? Nash was writing at a time when Britain was most distinguished from other nations by its Empire. True a little local difficulty in North America in 1776 had meant that we had long since lost one of the Jewels in the Crown, but much of the rest of the world was still coloured pink. And we still felt confident to sing "Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be spread" to Elgar's great tune in "Land of Hope and Glory".
It is at least arguable that the reason that we have no National Day is that in our DNA is that character trait that, with varying degree of subtlety implies "The English, the English the English are best", and goes on "I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest". (Flanders and Swann). Why do we need a Day every year to simply state the obvious? This vanity can be mercilessly mocked as Noel Coward did when he said "It seems a shame when the English claim the earth, that they give rise to such hilarity and mirth" and we might feel that it has long since been consigned to history. But, to be serious for a moment, I am not sure that this is true. In the years since we lost an empire we have too often been reluctant to give up the conceit not just that as a Nation we are different (a truism that applies to all countries) but that we are "unique" and by implication better. Tony Blair has claimed a "unique" (his word) role for Britain because we are able to be both Atlanticist and European at the same time. The danger, of course, is that we end up neither comfortable with Bush's America (much of which is alien to many of us) nor with a more bureaucratised and united Europe. And so we bumble on professing our uniqueness and occasionally waving our flags but, it seeking to be friends with all, we are actually friends with none.