Monday 4 June 2018

"Ashamed to be British"

I’ve been mulling over for a while blogging about an oft used phrase “makes me ashamed to be British (or English)”. As usual Nigel Farage has tipped me over the edge. The BBC has a survey about attitudes towards Englishness in which it appears that young people are likely to be less proud of being English than older people.  The BBC then approaches its man for all comments, Nigel Farage, who says “It’s as if we’re teaching young people that any sense of English identity is racist.” In the replies below the Beeb’s tweet about it, several people say Farage makes them ashamed of being English.

I will leave Farage alone, and I will also leave alone the issue of the framing of questions. The choice in the Yougov poll was about whether people feel “proud” or “embarrassed” to be English. National identity is a complex thing, and there are lots of other possible feelings, and lots of other ways of contrasting being proud.

(In what follows below, for “British” you could perfectly well read “English”. That does not mean that I think “English” and “British” are interchangeable – that is a con trick we English have been pulling on the rest of the world for centuries. It still works on most Americans. It only means that, whether you are using the frame of “Britishness” or “Englishness”, the mechanism is the same.)

I am struck by how regularly people respond to events by saying something like “makes me ashamed to be British”. Nigel Farage has that effect – not surprisingly. So have the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, Brexit, the state of our prisons, the prevalence of foodbanks, to name only a few. I suspect that a lot of people who say it don’t actually mean it – it has become a trope, a cliché, a standard reaction to the many shameful things we see around us.

And I wish people would stop saying it. There is no need for any of these things to make us feel less positively about our nationality. What we should be ashamed of are the people who make us feel like this. I am shamed by the political schemers who have been so brutal towards the Windrush generation. I am shamed by the liars, cheats and charlatans who stole the EU referendum result. I am shamed by the succession of home secretaries who think that prison is only about punishment. I am shamed by the poisonous attitudes towards unemployed and disabled people entrenched at the DWP by Iain Duncan Smith and embraced by all of his successors. I am shamed by the many people who insist that Dunkirk was a “British” victory and who ignore the 18,000 French troops who died standing between us and the German army in order to give us a chance to escape.

I am shamed by such people, but I am not ashamed of who I am. I am British and English, and proud of both. That does not mean that I think I am better than anybody else. It is a fake, brittle patriotism that can only love its country if it can pretend that its country is better than anybody else’s. I am simply proud to be British, and I will not be shaken from that by the liars, thieves, pretenders, charlatans, bullies, bigots and bloats with whom I share my nationality. The fact of sharing with such people sometimes dismays me. But we do not get to choose with whom we share our nationality, and our nationality is bigger than the character of any of its undesirable holders. So, I am ashamed, dismayed, perturbed, troubled, sometimes grieved, by the antics of people such as those mentioned above. But they will never make me ashamed of my nationality.