What went wrong
What would you say if you had to define your identity in a sentence? I’d tell you my name’s Henry and I’m from Reading, I speak German, I’m European, I’m a Homertonian, I’m a liberal and a Cantab. The top of that list should say “British”: I’m British and proud of it. Yet recently I’ve felt increasingly ashamed to tell people that, and it leaves me wondering why “British” has become a dirty word.
Recently liberal Brits like me have become scared of patriotism. We’ve treated it as a dirty word. In my mind it’s due to one reason and one reason only: Brexit. The Leave campaign was based on what they thought modern Britain should be, they took the word “British” and defined it with a yearning for a past that exists only in the offices of a political spinster.
But it’s taken them seven years to do this and few have fought back. I can put a figure of seven years on that, because I know when I last felt properly proud to be British and to share that joy with other people: the London 2012 Olympic games. I sat in front of my TV and watched an opening ceremony full of the diversity that makes up modern Britain, I watched as our history and culture (like our NHS) was paraded and broadcast to the world. London was open, Britain was open. We were a tolerant beacon, welcoming people from all nations, of all skin colours, of all sexual orientations and genders to our country and we were proud of it. Had you asked me I would have sat there and told you, with typical British understatement, that actually being British wasn’t that bad.
In the years afterwards we occasionally allowed ourselves to build on that Britain we presented with the first same sex marriage taking place on 29th March 2014. We were open, we were united. We were a country that wouldn’t dare revert to the times when we forced the horrors of colonialism on the world or have taken those same people getting married and forced them to take chemical castration (like the forefather of my subject, Alan Turing).
However, not all was good under the surface. Successive parties refused to back the Britain we presented in 2012; successive politicians blamed real, concrete, solvable problems on those least able to fight back. There was a race to be the first to blame anybody that couldn’t fight back. Benefit cuts? Blame the EU. Doctor fully booked? Blame immigrants. School’s full? Asylum seekers.
It was becoming a dirty word for liberals to be proud of a Britain that could do that. I wasn’t proud. Liberals like me retreated from the battlefield. It became trendy to say: “What even are British values?” and then laugh a bit. We said to those who felt their identity was slipping away that we weren’t proud of anything they could relate to anymore. The jobs are gone, the town’s crumbling, the youth club’s closed. Being British? don’t be proud of that, not anymore.
The battlefield was empty. Leave marched right on and the campaign that was waged filled the identity void. It yearned after a Britain of yesteryear. We allowed UKIP and the far right to take British identity and trash it. To make it normal to call politicians “scum” and “traitors”. To make it normal to say that immigrants don’t belong here. We allowed the nasty fringes of the far left and far right to make it perfectly OK to be anti-semitic and islamophobic in our main two parties.
To this I say: enough is enough. Liberals need to stop being afraid of being “British”. We need to reclaim the word and be London 2012 British again.
Why taking it back matters
We don’t win the fight against intolerance by allowing an intolerant version of Britishness to thrive. We shouldn’t allow it to take root where once there was hope of something better. We can’t go around saying “actually I’m European now”: it won’t solve the identity crisis this county is going through and it won’t make us the country we want to be.
Identity is a patchwork and we need to make sure we don’t invalidate one part of a person’s identity by allowing it to be taken and turned into something nasty. Having decided to abandon the battlefield, every time we tell somebody that it isn’t OK to say that they’re British we make them want to go back to the imagined time that those trashing our country present. Reclaiming Britishness means we stop those on the far-right, those xenophobes and racists from claiming it for themselves. It means ensuring that part of my identity and that of other liberals currently afraid to say they’re British isn’t trashed. It means ensuring that who we are isn’t being trashed on the international stage.
Secondly, once we’ve reclaimed British identity, we can make it as inclusive as London 2012 showed us it actually is. The imagined Britain of yesteryear that our opponents sell is a very white Britain with undertones of colonialism. That’s not what modern Britain is. British isn’t something that should depend on skin colour, or where your parents are from or what religion you follow. It’s something that should be open to all. Take being British to mean the diversity of cultures and traditions on show at that London 2012 ceremony and the athletes of all different backgrounds competing for team Britain. We can reclaim it and have zero tolerance for discrimination on any metric.
On the world stage we can take our proud vision of being British and defend those rights and values where they face being impinged. From Saudi Arabian bombings to Brunei’s stoning gays to death to Israel annexing territory from Palestinians. We can say no because we’ve reclaimed being British and aren’t afraid of ourselves anymore. We can use our permanent UN security council seat to defend the rights of people all over the world. Once we’ve got people back believing in the rights and freedoms we’re lucky to have in this country rather than yearning after some former days we can be the Britain of the future on the world stage. This image will help attract investment, bolster research and at home make us a proud nation again. Let’s not look to a supposedly prouder past, let’s build a prouder future.
I became a Liberal Democrat because I want everybody to have freedom. Freedom to pursue opportunities, freedom from poverty and ill health, freedom to be who they want to be without fear of persecution. I want to be in a Britain that believes these things.
Now let’s make everybody free to call themselves British again.