British Day? Let's have lots of them

A British Day would mean an extra day off work, so why should we stop at just one?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the possibility of having a ‘British Day’. Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne, in a Fabian Society pamphlet, are proposing this as a new public holiday, and have stimulated a wide debate and many headlines along the lines of ‘What is Britishness anyway?’.

The Daily Mail was on fine, frightening form, ridiculing the emphasis on better community relations in the ministers’ statement, and wondering how a government that banned fox hunting could lay claim to any kind of national pride. Hmmm.

More reflectively, Derek Wall, my counterpart as Principal Speaker of the Green Party suggested 1 May as a candidate for a British Day. May Day is at least an ancient festival, and its modern-day connotations of progressive protest are also appealing, but I reckon we have got enough holidays in the spring already.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the proposal has hardly been mentioned. We are being offered a new bank holiday, and not before time. Workers in the UK get a raw deal on public holidays compared with almost everywhere else. With eight a year, we’re on average three days behind Europe, and even America trounces us with eleven federal holidays plus a range of state holidays on top (Texas has six!).

We also work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe, and our mental and physical health suffers as a result. One in three British employees thinks they are less healthy thanks to their working patterns and a 2006 survey showed that the average lunch break had declined to under 20 minutes, with most people eating lunch at their ‘workstations’.

And the bosses are as badly off as the rest of us, at least in their work-life balance: one in five managers in the UK works the equivalent of a seven-day week.

We are badly in need of more time off. So, if we can’t agree on what to celebrate with one new bank holiday, why not create three or four?

There are plenty of ideas already out there, with various campaigns taking advantage of this week’s debate to make the case for a public celebration of their cause. Alex Salmond called for St. Andrew’s day in November to herald the start of a winter festival, and campaigners for a St. George’s Day holiday in England also seized the chance to speak up, citing the fact that "in Ireland they go berserk on St Patrick’s Day". Apart from everything else, 23 April is also part of the spring glut, so this one doesn’t get my vote either.

From a practical point of view, July has to be the prime candidate for an extra day off. It's the month that usually has the best weather and – frustratingly – is a bank holiday-free zone at present. If it was given to me to decide I think I’d pick my birthday, name it ‘Lido Day’ and then put plenty of Lottery funding into making sure everyone had the chance to lounge around at a nearby pool.

There’s a lot about local communities in the ministers’ proposals. So, another suggestion of mine, for the similarly blighted run up to Christmas, is ‘Buy Local Day’ where shops selling plastic and electronic goods from the far east are closed and we visit independent shops to buy locally made, seasonal presents.

The day would of course be finished off with a huge feast of local food and a pint of local beer.

So that’s two sorted out. How about a national vote on the other two, pitting the nationalist campaigners against those in favour of commemorating Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday, the Magna Carta, Waterloo or the day we invented Blu Tack? That would keep us occupied for a while, and might result in some interesting choices.

I don't think it really matters what we go for. Finding things to actually ‘celebrate’ is a bit of a minefield, as Ruth Kelly has found out; and whatever you choose is likely to raise someone’s hackles.

Perhaps instead we should have holidays to promote things that are still works in progress, such as peace, justice, democracy, or indeed protecting the environment. Or, given our chronic need for rest, why not just pick a few dates at random and call them ‘days off’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.