On being proud to be British
In the wake of the attack on Friday by a knife wielding attacker. Despite the horror, and the tragic loss of life, I saw a photo of the assailant being subdued by two members of the public that was so wonderfully absurd and which, in that moment, so perfectly encapsulated what it means, in my mind, to be British.
What is pictured are three men. The attacker and two people tackling him. One with a fire-extinguisher, one with a 5ft Narwhal tusk.
It could be a Monty phyton sketch, and no doubt in Germany, comparisons will have been made to the strange sense of British humour. It’s is, without doubt, an extraordinary act of heroism.
On the face of it you might stereotypically define this as British. But dig deeper and it becomes more complicated. One man is polish by birth, another a convicted murderer undergoing rehabilitation, and the third, a British man who has either lost touch with the society in which he grew up
The absurdity of British pride
Of course, the statement is a contradiction in terms. Being ‘proud’ to be British is, curiously, and stereotypically, not very British at all.
It wouldn’t do to get overtly patriotic, or overly emotional, or to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Typical stout resolve, a steely stare to the middle distance. Pride is something abnormal for a people known around the world for their reserve.
Unless it’s the last night of the proms or someone in a pub inexplicably starts singing the first verse of Jerusalem. The heart instinctively swells, painfully, in an unfeeling and restricted chest unused to abnormal enlargement.
Then the Union Flags wave in the air, patriotic, even nationalistic, fervour is unleashed. All very seedy and unseemly and heavily frowned upon in any theatre, except the theatre, or the stage of a battlefield or the orchestral crescendo of a football pitch, perhaps. Best quickly overcome.
What Britishness is not
Britishness should not be confused with that sort of passionate belief in their own race’s superiority. That is nationalism, of a cruel and unusual kind, which has only further infected the body-politic since the summer of 2016.
It is patriotic and, therefore, stands distinct from nationalism.
Being British isn’t about where you’re born. It’s something you can adopt, bathe in and mould to your experience. It’s not dependent on your accent, or your skin colour or even your beliefs. It is a debate. It isn’t exclusive of others and it doesn’t equate to a worldview which stands isolated either.
Being British is a patriotic state of mind, or, as Orwell described it “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.”
It is perhaps too easy to forget that being proud of one’s culture, and intrinsic quirks, one’s community and sense of belonging, or ones sense of pride in one’s neighbours and their endeavours is not the same as blind, unthinking pride in one’s superiority. One can be proud of one’s sense of place, without resorting to base assumptions about exceptionality.
Being British is to be inclusive
Being British is to be multicultural; embracing differing ideologies, peoples, thoughts, motivations, hopes and dreams, churning them up, and forging something new from it.
It is, after all, a byword for the political union of two different nations — England and Scotland — and the inclusion of two more, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Britain and Britishness go beyond geographical boundaries –since peoples could whisper their histories down the generations, this has never been a culture set like stone in time.
The Arthurian legend has its roots in Britons occupying land in Wales abandoned by Rome and facing foreign invaders. When people talk of Anglo-Saxon roots, that was a tribe which migrated to these islands from Germany. Windrush brought the empire and culture Britain had sailed out to the world, being welcomed into the homeland with a new spin.
Our language was twisted up in Latin, Germanic, Nordic, Norman and French centuries before Shakespeare inserted his prose and redefined the language again.
Our favourite dish is an Indian curry. Our go to Friday meal, fish and chips, was invented by a Jewish immigrant. I have a standing theory that we forged the empire purely because we can’t cook.
So, is the fact that one of these men is Polish something which detracts from my pride? No. We forget our history of the brave polish airmen who fought over London’s sky’s and I am proud of a culture which adopts others as our own — just as the English patron saint, was a figure from Georgia. To be British is to be welcoming and find renewal.
Stereotypes and steel
But then defining Britishness is a debate with no borders and no end. It changes, and reshapes, and rotates, and reorders itself from day to day, year to year, generation to generation.
Many faces, many communities, one cultural response. Florin, from Romania, threw a crate at the attacker. Lukasz smacked him with the Narwhal tusk. Tom, a passing tour guide, was just a “Londoner doing his bit” when he stamped on the attacker’s wrist then went to the pub to “shake it off.”
It’s not uniquely British to react this way, but there is something quintessentially British about the whole affair.
If this was America, no doubt there would be open carry narwhal tusk legislation before a Congress recalled from Thanksgiving. The only other country I can think where you might get a headline with such an absurd facade is possibly Russia.
The explainer about the British from the WWII era GI handbook for Americans serving in the UK perhaps captures what I mean:
“The British Are Tough. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.”
Idiosyncrasies and challenges
This all still leaves two huge problems in the narrative. James Ford is the man wielding the fire extinguisher. He murdered a 21-yr-old who had learning difficulties in 2004 for which he is coming to the end of a lengthy life sentence.
He happened to be at the same event on rehabilitation on day release and helped to stop another man murdering more than he managed. What does it say about Britishness? Are we unredeemable? In another age he would have been put to death for his crime, he’s no hero, but does he, and we, deserve a second chance?
And then there is the attacker. Usman Khan. Previously convicted for acts of terrorism in 2012. Clearly unredeemable and incapable or rehabilitation. Yet, he to, was British and part of our story.
I’m not, could never, be proud of his actions. He is the villain in the piece. But we still have to understand his motivation, his place and why he felt isolated.
His was a toxic form of ideological religious nationalism, not unlike those Orwell identifies in the same essay like Nazism, Communism, “political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism.” We should take care to separate the negative, nationalistic feeling some take from religion from the religion itself.
The challenges never change in the great debates of time, just the beliefs.
A very common failing
Of course, all of this ignores a very simple point. That upon seeing that photo, and the story it wove, I myself, trespassed.
The photo and the incident itself are a rich tapestry — it displays treachery and hate unmitigated and unceasing, a man born abroad, working, living, perhaps loving upon foreign shores. A man who has committed terrible evils who seeks what? Redemption?
That story is complicated and easily tempts simplistic re-telling. On an individual, and very personal, level — I submitted to the sin of pride.
After all, pride is the deadliest of the seven sins. “I am convinced that it is very common; indeed, that human nature is particularly prone to it.”
Be still. My beating heart.