Britain is over a year after the Brexit vote. The rest of Europe appears to be looking on wondering what exactly it is that ‘Britain’ wants. I think that the answer is that we don’t know. The opinion polls over the past year have remained steadfastly around the 50:50 split on the Brexit question, no consensus has been reached, the British media is still awash with uncertainty and many variants of an answer to the Brexit question. The UK seems to have voted for Brexit with no idea about what to do with it. If there was a clear objective, that would be so different to the confused mess we seem to find ourselves in.
Looking back at the arguments for Brexit, they essentially pool around the idea of greater powers for the UK government to enable a reduction of net immigration. I am all for a decentralisation of political power, though I would argue that the UK is the wrong level for this, I argue for bottom-up democracy and more power for local councils and the Welsh government. However the Brexit debate wasn’t really about this dry constitutional stuff. The emotional side of it and much of the rhetoric of the Brexiteers centred around the idea of British sovereignty, to restore a sense of Britishness.
Which is just plain strange. I am British, born and raised, but being British is only a small part of my identity. I just don’t see the point of trying to expand/ restore the prominence of this identity it once had. The identities of the people of Britain are many, varied and complex, so it isn’t clear exactly what this Britishness we are perhaps supposed to support is.
Many associate Britishness with the British Empire period. The period of history where Britain went around trying to control as much of the world as possible, mainly to create markets for British goods and services, to provide ever increasing wealth for the elite. Some good but a lot of harm was produced though this imperialist period. It is now history and is not going to be replicated anytime soon and it isn’t anything to feel particularly proud of anyway.
Is it the sense of unity, of a united nation of the British people that had suffered together and won after the UK was dragged reluctantly into the two world wars of the last century. Ever since 1945, the forces unifying the country have been in decline. I can quite understand people wishing to restore the sense of a country working together in common cause again. However, it is difficult to see what exactly this common purpose would be. Politically the UK is a very divided society, it is just very hard indeed to imagine unity for common positive purpose.
Or is it just to be British and increase the common bonds between the peoples of these isles? What I have noticed as I have grown up in Britain is that so many of the common cultural ties have been steadily eroded. Partly this was the result of Thatcherite government and the whole concept of ‘there is no such thing as society’; if there is no society that what is being British and supportive of the state? Bizarrely it has seemed as though it has been the Conservatives who most want to restore this sense of Britishness, yet their party has been the one that has allowed this force to decline, through a promotion of market fundamentalism and corporate power running riot over local needs. This is what makes the Brexit debate so very strange to me.
It is only really possible to truly understand your cultural identity when you go away from home, to experience other cultures, where you begin to appreciate some of the peculiarities of your native culture. you discover exactly what are the common bonds between the British.
One of the first things I noticed was that I was more Welsh than British, that I come from a community that cares more about preserving traditions and culture than a typical British person. I am from a genuinely conservative culture. Yet it is meeting other Britons abroad that is the real eye-opener. You realise that you share a hiraeth, a homesickness and start yearning for some quintessentially British things. These British things are quite traditional, but in themselves are mere nostalgia, things such as tackily British brands of sweets and chocolate, ale, proper cider, tea, greasy curries, cake and other foods. Then while seeking these things with a fellow Briton abroad, you end up discussing the children’s television programmes of our youth. Yet apart from childhood comfort food and comfort television, what else is there, that is British?
As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be as much that is shared in common. Delving deeper, I begin a hiraeth for Welsh culture when away from Wales, and I can only share that with Welsh people and it connects me with my roots. I wonder if the millennial generation, who are much more fervently against Brexit than my generation is, perhaps have an even weaker sense of Britishness than my generation of Generation X has.
Arguably children’s television has become more international, less focused on British cultures. Whilst there may be a shared nostalgia, there is little specifically of British culture in it. I grew up with such programmes as the Trumptonshire series and Bagpuss, which took their cultural references from Britain and a culture that was in itself nostalgic, of a culture under attack from government policy, (after all Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a punk song about it, the ‘Trumpton Riots’ !). Yet such programmes gave a snapshot into the essence of the country, albeit a middle class one as if you help children learn about their culture. This seems much less in today’s children’s television, no sense of what Britishness is espoused.
Sweets have changed too, there seem to be fewer uniquely British varieties of sweets available. So, really what common British culture do the millennial generation have? Perhaps it is because everything has to have appeal to international markets, that exposition of the native culture is over-ridden. There just seems s little left of a common British culture.
I have always believed that it is important to understand and support your own culture. In Wales we have this preserving tradition bug with our language, our music. Yet I also feel an urge to experience other cultures, to listen to other musics. I prefer folk music to the more sanitised global music brands. Today, I was listening to the wonderful Canadian folk song ‘Blackfly’ this led to an exploration of other Canadian folk songs, which was wonderful, I get the songs despite not having been lucky enough to visit Canada. I believe that to appreciate other cultures you also need to understand and appreciate your own culture too [I discovered this guy, from my area of my country at the weekend, I just get his songs so much]. I suppose I grew up being taught both the value of preserving traditions whilst being open to other cultures and new ideas.
In appreciating literature something similar happens. You learn to read, usually with stories about your own culture and then open up with experience to the huge breadth of international literature. I really got this with Science Fiction being my favourite genre. In Science Fiction the very basis of the genre is to speculate and imagine living in different cultures and indeed different kinds of society.
So, recently it has been strange to revert to learning to read books again in another language, Welsh. There is a literary tradition in Wales and books continue to be published in Welsh. It’s fascinating to learn to read again, but also interesting because there are so many fewer professional writers in Welsh compared to English! There is no Welsh language Science Fiction for me to read. So I read books in genres I wouldn’t normally read in English, which is exposing me to new ideas on literature, which is fascinating and helps me appreciate literature in English more too.
I seem to be the anti-thesis of the Brexiteer, the person arguing for more of a British identity. I think cherishing native culture is important and being open to understanding and supporting other cultures, other traditions too. The Brexiteers seem to be a group that value a single narrow definition of Britishness, be against any other culture and want people to conform to their narrow view, including native British cultures. I don’t really get it, it just doesn’t seem British to me.