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18 March 2008

Talk of Britishness is so unbritish

Swearing allegiance, a collapsing mine and how a bootleg liquor stall ran into rocky ground

By Jonathan Calder

About this national identity business. On the whole, I think we are rather good at it.

For centuries my ancestors coped with being English and British, and with all the subtleties those identities involve. They were there to tut and say “Well, really” when the Romans invaded. Later, they gave the Jutes a hard stare.

And new arrivals often cope better than the natives. No one gave Karl Popper, Nikolaus Pevsner or the Amadeus Quartet lessons in how to be British. But they managed it tolerably well all the same.

I admit there can be complications. Last year, down the road in a field near White Grit, an old mineshaft collapsed. It left a hole 50ft across and 20ft deep. (You will find White Grit on the map near The Bog ­- the village names are delightful round here.)

The hole turned out to be right on the border between Shropshire and Powys and neither council was keen to take responsibility for it. Argument raged over whether it was in England or Wales. And until the matter was settled I had a profitable side-line selling bootleg liquor from a stall in the field.

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But Gordon Brown’s government is not content to leave people to sort out their national identities for themselves. There is talk of citizenship ceremonies and of requiring school leavers to swear their loyalty to the Crown.

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That is an odd choice. I mean, have you met the Royal Family?

Or is it the flag they want us to respect? (It certainly isn’t the constitution – they are afraid we might find out what’s in it.)

Last year Gordon Brown asked: “What is our equivalent for a national celebration of who we are and what we stand for? And what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in the United States in every garden?”

The trouble with all this talk of Britishness is that it’s so unBritish.

Rudyard Kipling would have understood. One of his Stalky & Co school stories deals with the boys’ outrage when a visiting speaker browbeats them about things a chap just does not talk about:

“After many many words, he reached for the cloth-wrapped stick and thrust one hand in his bosom. This – this was the concrete symbol of their land – worthy of all honour and reverence! Let no boy look on this flag who did not purpose to worthily add to its imperishable lustre. He shook it before them – a large calico Union Jack, staring in all three colours, and waited for the thunder of applause that should crown his effort.”

They looked in silence. They had certainly seen the thing before – down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton sands; above the roof of the Golf Club, and in Keyte’s window, where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart.”

We are like that in Britain. Even our national myth – the Arthurian legends – is something indistinct and only half remembered. Which is why every county has a field with a few lumps in it that is rumoured to be the site of Camelot.

We have several in Shropshire. And now my bootleg liquor scheme has fallen through I may have to think of ways of exploiting one of them.