|© The Spectator|
Britain, in many ways, remains a great nation and, yet, in so many other respects is trapped by a fair amount of cultural inconsistency. The run-up to the vote on Scottish Independence has got me thinking about British identity and what is at the root cause of so much of our irrational and idiosyncratic behaviour. Seemingly, unbeknown to much of the contemporary world, the UK has actually been a unified country (1707 (Scotland) and 1800 (Ireland, now Northern Ireland)) for much longer than some of its well-known European counterparts like Germany (1871) and Italy (1815-1871).
British identities are largely influenced by countless notions that are culturally entrenched in our generalised ideas about class, types and regional stereotypes, and, yet, have little tangible basis in reality.
Britain’s deeply saturated class culture means that even a supposedly free-thinking media seems wedded to using class stereotypes to illustrate its points in what could be argued as a terrifically lazy manner.
I hear all sorts of ridiculous things from English people about Scottish and Welsh people; and equally peculiar things said by Scots and Welsh people about the English; and the worst is usually exchanged between Northerners and Southerners. But, when all is said and done, deep down we have this strangely committed affection for each other – demonstrated at London 2012. The thing I find most odd, is that, like me, most of us probably have family connections to all four corners of the UK (and beyond) – making us a much more integrated nation than we will admit to ourselves from day to day.
However, what seems to divide us the most is not geographical borders, but the British obsession with class. A lot of cultural, social and political discourse in this county is reduced down to class-driven public debates.
To be clear, when I refer to class and snobbery, I don’t just mean views of people who live in stately homes or on council estates, I am also referring to the act whereby one individual preforms a detailed analysis of every little part of another person’s being. No matter what part of the class spectrum we fall in, when we Britons interact with others, we have a habit of automatically “placing” them based on an internal analytical process of cultural assumptions and judgements. (I would confidently bet that many of you will be doing just that in relation to my background as you read this blog – right?).
And of course, we all know very well that these judgements are based on: your accent, your language, the colour of your skin, your gender, your masculinity and femininity, your religion, where you were brought up, where you went to school, which university you attended, where you live, where you shop (Asda, Harrods or Waitrose), which newspaper you read (Daily Mail, Financial Times, Guardian, tabloids), how you dress, your general appearance, who your parents are, who their ancestors were, your titles, what job you do, which car you drive, what your house looks like, where that residence is located, what postcode is at the bottom of your address, whether you live in the country or a city, which religion you follow, how many children you have, how old you were when you had children and so forth.
This all reads rather crudely and uncivilised when written in black and white, and yet civility is supposed be the substance on which British civilisation was built.
The aforementioned cultural process seems to have been passed down from one generation to the next and is, therefore, a residue of imperial snobbery, which really ought to have died out in the 1920s world of Downton Abbey with the rise of the labour movements. If that wasn’t enough, then, the great levellers of the world wars should have stamped out this relatively meaningless British ritual. And yet it persists to only hold back our collective potential. As a nation, we are our own worst enemy.
I reached maturity in the New Labour years of the 1990s and onward. This was a time by which one would have hoped that Britain would have got over its obsession with class. However, I cannot count the number of times I have heard people use phrases like “he should know his place” or “she should know her station in life”. Even recently, I have heard people talk about those from the south and describe them as all being Tory-toffs, as if there are no ordinary people south of Birmingham; and likewise I have listened to others rant on about all the “dole-scum” socialists in the North, as if only Northerners and socialists can fall on hard times.
To be honest, I am kind of tired of hearing these binary, inaccurate, lazy, polarised overtones being espoused. In this new millennium, we should be so much further beyond class than we are. We should be looking at one another as unique non-classable individuals and thus take each other on a case by case basis, without passing unnecessary judgements.
How exactly can you class people when one considers the significant mix of diversity embodied in Britain in this day and age?
For example, I have described myself as, an American influenced British, academic, writer, ex-ballet dancing Tory politician, Christian, openminded, yet somewhat traditional, logical and pragmatic thinker, with a distaste for snobbery (regular and inverted) and a diverse life and career experience on both sides of the Atlantic, who enjoys arts, media and technology and marine and country sports. I am for peace, sustainability, opportunity for all, a classless secular society, gender/LGBT and racial equality; with Eurosceptic tendencies - believing in freedom, free will, free speech, free enterprise, personal responsibility, philanthropy, loving both thy neighbour and thy enemies, legislation to protect vulnerable groups and well state-funded healthcare, education and arts sectors. I could go on…!
Now, if you focused down on one fragment of that description, and took it out of context, you could get the wrong impression of me and place incorrect stereotypes onto my character (believe me people do).
If you know me as a church attending libertarian Eurosceptic Tory politician, you might place me in the right-winger (about to jump to UKIP) category; or if you know me as a free thinking former ballet dancer who is in favour of a secularised and equalised society, then you might place me in an anti-Christian socialist-leaning category. But the truth and reality is, I, like every other individual, am constituted from a countless number of influences that makes placing me within categories, classes and labels virtually impossible and totally inappropriate when you have a deeper understanding of the holistic fabric of the individual.
What is perhaps more pertinent and concerning is that so many of us have emotional and irrational reactions to our judgements of others.
I know lots of different types of wonderful people, many of whom like to think of themselves as good, nice people. Some like to do work for charity and they like to do things to “help the environment”. Some of these same people also like to judge others who don’t approach life in exactly the same way as them - and can say some surprisingly unkind things about people who don’t ride the same high horse. Equally, I know people who proclaim to be Christian libertarians and yet espouse often hurtful racist and homophobic views that would infringe on the freedoms of others.
No matter how justified such people think they are in their views, there is something sinister about their attitude to others and often their emotional reactions to human differences leads to an automatic or instant dislike.
The underbelly of British culture is dominated by such distastes for seemingly opposing groups. If you go to a public school it is likely you could have a certain negative attitude towards people who live on a council estate. If you live on a council estate you could have a dislike for those who go to a “posh” school – perhaps not recognising that some of those people could have worked hard to get a scholarship to attend a public school and be from the very same council estate in which you live.
These very real British attitudes that we see and hear every day are rooted in fear, lack of understanding and jealously as a result of our unequal society. It leads to bullying on estates, in playgrounds, on university campuses, in the workplace, on the sports fields and indeed in the House of Commons. The essence of this uncivilised distaste for one another grows in to clashes and fights in our towns and cities – and much of it seems to be rooted in class and snobbery.
I do not know how we stamp out these undesirable and negatively-charged cultural leftovers from another age. But what I do know is that we need to be having calm and honest public conversations about it in order that people from all walks of life can begin to better understand one another.