Saturday, February 05, 2011

Britishness 101

I claim I can talk about what Britishness means with some sort of authority. It is always easier to talk about something seen from outside - I was not born British and only settled in Britain later in life - as, from that perspective, only the really distinguishable characteristics can be seen. For a nation, if Britain can be said to be one, it is a collection of people with individual characteristics from inside; from outside, the common eccentricities stand out and define the collective.

All this is very relevant after David Cameron let the penny drop now and said that Muslims in Britain must learn Britishness. Now, it will be his responsibility to explain what it is, and he should get cracking possibly after he finished explaining his last big concept - great society - to the public. One can indeed make light of his recent statement and say that he was only trying to please Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who recently said Multi-culturalism has failed in Germany. David Cameron repeated her words.

Whatever was his intent, he would face some difficulty to set the standards for Britishness. Agreed, Englishness would be easier to explain, along with Scottishness and Welshness. However, such details aside, there is one graver problem in making Britishness override the varieties.

I remember being asked, while appearing for an interview in the process of acquiring my visa to come to Britain, why I chose Britain and not America to migrate to. I said, since I love Cricket but don't get Baseball, the choice was quite obvious. I got the visa. That was a prepared answer, I must admit: I rehearsed enough to appear spontaneous. The point was not about the relative merits of the different sports, I read, the point was to be humorous. In effect, before I even set foot on the British soil, I knew that humour was the defining characteristic of Britshness.

I further learned that it is a particular kind of humour which is very particularly British: The ability to laugh at oneself. Coming from India, this is something I needed to learn. In India, you always laugh at others and never really at yourself. In fact, laughing at yourself is seen as a weakness and is therefore assiduously avoided. Before coming to Britain, I did not know the endearing value of the polite self-deprecating humour.

I remember seeing a range of Cartoons when this concept of over-riding Britishness started making rounds. This will be around the end of 2006 when the Government first proposed a test of Britishness for immigrants and then the talk of a British National Day started. One cartoon showed a closed door, apparently of an examination centre, with a board with 'Q Here' message outside. In another, two characters discussed what else to consider other than binge drinking for a test of true Britishness. In another country, the Cartoon artists may have caused serious public displeasure; in some, they could have been imprisoned or had fatwas issued. In Britain, of course, they were regarded a 'good laugh'.

This leads to the other defining aspect of Britishness, as seen from outside. As a student steeped in romantic socialism, I was fascinated by the fact that world's emigres converged in Britain. I saw London as the ultimate meeting place of men of ideas, free from fear of persecution, converging on exciting and non-conformist conversations of all sorts. Indeed, I was disabused of my romantic notions about the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park during my first run-in with the assorted loonies and born-agains who currently reign there, but freedom of thinking and expression as the central idea of Britishness lived on.

Also, coming from India and all too familiar with the terrors and genocides of British imperial administration, I never bought the popular notion of Britain as a relatively benign imperial power, but was educated to contrast the genteelness of Britishers at home and their savagery abroad. This neatly fitted into my notions of a decent working class, which was made up of those 'jolly good chaps' who worked hard to earn the daily bread, and a conniving elitist aristocratic class, which, unlike their continental counterparts, understood the joys of commerce earlier and better, and triumphed through an alliance with the working class men. So, Britain to me was never about grandeur and pomp of the palaces (in fact, I found the British castles small and distinctly unglamourous in comparison with the Mughal heritage of India), but the decency and ingenuity of the working class.

Coming back to David Cameron, he has to find a Britishness which isn't defined in the terms as above, but something more defined, contained in watertight formulation, almost Prussian. He can't replace multi-culturalism with Britishness if one accepts Britishness is about tolerating variety. He can't laugh while he is trying to make this a serious matter. And, indeed, he would have no time for working class decency and inclusiveness, but instead would stick to his vision of Britain as a place of privilege, arrogance and exclusiveness. He is starting at a good place, though: He may look out to the famous twentieth century Austrian corporal who tried to do something similar and almost ended up destroying the world.

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