Losing identity after Brexit?

New York Times' Steven Erlanger ruffles feathers

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What does it mean to be British?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

Britishness is an elusive national identity, slipping from our grasp when we finally believe we have caught a definition. Consult a dictionary - Britain's own Oxford English Dictionary - and it will describe Britishness as "the quality of being British or of having characteristics regarded as typically British". But that's not particularly useful when you do not quite understand what it means to be British in the first place.

The concept of Britishness can often be seen through the eyes of Hollywood, when an establishing shot - always in London, as though the rest of the country does not exist - presents Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Queen's Guard, cups of tea, and you would half expect Dick Van Dyke to pop up with his God-awful Cock-er-ney accent. It's a lovely image - apart from Mr Van Dyke - but that's not the reality for Trish and Trev in Stoke-on-Trent, or Nigel in Nantwich.

The BBC's Home Editor Mark Easton argues that defining Britishness is "like painting wind". It cannot be nailed down, he observes, because, like all identities, it is "evolving and re-forming with every movement". Easton notes that British has often been described as "shared values of tolerance, respect and fair play, a belief in freedom and democracy", but adds that view may be a little insulting to our friends outside of Blighty - it is "a little smug" to claim an international patent on virtue.

Historically, in the 18th, 19th and parts of the 20th centuries, there was a clear answer to what Britishness meant. To be British, the New Statesman reports, was to be Protestant. "It was to read the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, to share in a national myth of a heroic people, almost a new Israel, set apart and protected by God, and it was not to be Catholic," they write. As Catholicism started to be accepted in the UK, along with other faiths over time, this version of Britishness ended.

The white Protestant hold over the national identity has been loosened, and Britishness is now a "plural set of identities". It encompasses not just English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish strands, Samira Shackles argues, but British Asian, British Caribbean, British Jewish, and many other ethnic and regional identifications.

Britishness is an attractive tag to those with a mixed cultural heritage, the BBC argues, as it has "always been an accommodating label, tolerant of complexity and difference". The increasingly mobile and cosmopolitan society, with this thought, sees the British identity become more popular than it has been in its 300-year usage.

In the last census in 2011, the British identity was found to be more attractive to younger people than the elderly - with only 13 per cent of over 75s marking the national identity box with "British". Overall, 20 per cent of the population describes themselves as British - with 63 per cent of people in England preferring to call themselves English, rather than British.

Despite the intentions of politicians, national identity is not something governments can invent, according to History Today. It is "more a feeling than an opinion, and not a policy statement". A recent example of a politician attempting to define national identity is Theresa May, when she claimed that Britain is "profoundly internationalist". Whether or not the prime minister is correct in this statement, and while she may be in the highest office in the UK, it does not mean she has the authority to define what Britishness is.

In other words, we are not terribly sure what Britishness actually is - and we're awfully sorry about that. Your guess is as good as mine. No, no, after you, old boy. No, no, I insist. After you. Time for tea?

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New York Times

Opinion | No One Knows What Britain Is Anymore

Many Britons see their country as a brave galleon, banners waving, cannons firing, trumpets blaring. That is how the country’s voluble foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, likes to describe it.

But Britain is now but a modest-size ship on the global ocean. Having voted to leave the European Union, it is unmoored, heading to nowhere, while on deck, fire has broken out and the captain — poor Theresa May — is lashed to the mast, without the authority to decide whether to turn to port or to starboard, let alone do what one imagines she knows would be best, which is to turn around and head back to shore.

I’ve lived and worked for nine years in Britain, first during the Thatcher years and then again for the last four politically chaotic ones. While much poorer in the 1980s, Britain mattered internationally. Now, with Brexit, it seems to be embracing an introverted irrelevance.

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