Banality, insecurity, snobbery?

The UK government's idea to create a 'national statement', or even a motto, about being British has been met with derision - and class hatred.

Emily Hill

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Topics Politics

In Belgium, Eurostar has launched a new advertising campaign to get holidaymakers onto trains heading to London. One of the ads shows John Cleese en route to his Ministry of Silly Walks, others show Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair bursting Union Jack balloons. But the one that is generating controversy here in the UK displays a shaven headed, shirtless hooligan with the St George’s Cross tattooed on his back, pissing into a china teacup.

Asked by the Guardian to explain the rationale behind the advert, a spokesperson for Eurostar said: ‘What is unique about Britain to Belgians is the amazing mix…Some Brits seem offended, but the Belgians totally get it.’ (1)

Proof, if any were needed, that the Brits won’t get it, was provided by a survey in The Times (London) last week. The newspaper’s comment editor, Daniel Finkelstein, a follower of Gordon Brown’s new wheezes to promote ‘participatory’ democracy, decided to help the prime minister by promoting his scheme to create a new ‘national motto’, which will define and make us proud of our ‘Britishness’. Finkelstein asked Times readers to come up with their own mottos. And what came in was a quite startling scattergun of class hatred. Being British, it would seem, is all about hating the sort of people who might feature in Belgian Eurostar posters.

‘Dipso, Fatso, Bingo, Asbo, Tesco’, the list goes; ‘Land of yobs and morons’; ‘Yeah, but no, but yeah’; ‘Robbin’ hoodie and Jade Goody’; ‘Drinking continues till morale improves’, and so on (2). The best we can say for being British is ‘At least we’re not French’ or ‘At least we’re not American’. Middle England rejects the whole premise with gems such as ‘Promoting ahistorical unity myths since 1066’, ‘West Lothian was my undoing’, ‘Britain will always be England’ or ‘Britain is dead. Long live England’.

So worried was Gordon by the bad smell wafting from page three of The Times, he had a minion telephone Times columnist Matthew Parris, a staunch critic of Brown’s patronising ‘participatory’ projects, such as citizen juries. In the course of their conversation, Michael Wills, the minister of state for constitutional renewal, explains that the ‘motto business is a red herring’ and the government is really seeking ‘a National Statement of British Values’.

Parris writes: ‘The statement could be as short as France’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, he tells me, like a motto (“but we never used that word”) but it could be as long as a thousand words. A Citizens’ Summit – convocation of a thousand people – will deliberate on this and make proposals.’ The outcome will be voted on by parliament.

As Parris notes, this faux notion of participation is even more preposterous than the idea itself. ‘How will these thousand citizens be chosen? Will they be paid (ghastly thought) or people selected because they have the spare time and enthusiasm to volunteer (even more ghastly thought)? How dare they frame what Britain means to you and me? Can MPs propose amendments? Will citizens have to learn it by heart?’

And why does anyone need Britishness defined for them? This whole initiative seems like Gordon Brown’s own constitutional, bureaucratic version of painting white lines around how and where the dead body was found. If we stare at it long enough, perhaps it will help us solve the puzzle that confronts us.

And however much the mottos created by Times readers sum up the contempt that it is ‘OK’ to feel for the working class, the scheme itself sums up the contempt with which the government treats us, the British people. Throw them some citizens’ juries, toss them a citizenship test, let them create their own motto – give their little minds the chance to participate on a level they can handle.

The whole affair is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s initiative to allow us to petition Downing Street online. The Great British Public gnawed on the bone thrown to them by demanding that God Save the Queen be replaced as the national anthem by Spandau Ballet’s Gold, that the government standardise umbrella sizes and that sadomasochism should be recognised as ‘a sane sexual practice’.

In a similar vein, the calls for a national motto are being met with the only appropriate response: outright derision.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill described new licensing laws as a license to bash the masses while Mick Hume took a look at the killjoy National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy. Josie Appleton examined the new citizenship tests and Mick Hume took a look at Downing Street’s e-petitions. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.

(1) Diary, Hugh Muir, Guardian, 16 November 2007

(2) Dispso fatso bingo asbo Tesco, Greg Hurst, The Times, 12 November 2007

(3) My perfect national motto, Matthew Parris, The Times, 17 November 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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