World Class Anxiety (part two)

Saturday 29 March 2008

(Continued from part one, which concluded with Lord Goldsmith’s proposal that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day.)
Like Australia, Britain has lately been questioning the nature of its national identity. Also like Australia, Britain’s leaders have been unsure of their own country, enough to look abroad for ways to bolster its sense of self. The British press and public response – almost completely derisive – to Goldsmith’s report, has been mostly focused on his recommendation that feelings of national pride can be instilled by having school leavers pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. (Strangely, even those sort of in favour of a pledge suggested that instead of the crown, allegiance be pledged to the state, using Australian citizenship ceremonies as their model.)
The irony of affirming one’s country’s uniqueness by becoming more like another country was allowed to go largely uncommented, as was the idea of Britain’s national day being modelled upon a day commemorating another country’s annexation to Britain. As an Australian, I suppose I should be thankful that the idea of Britain being expected to emulate one of its imperial outposts was spared the general ridicule with which Goldsmith’s report has been greeted.
This bizarre idea that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day also overlooks the fact that the holiday is not at all the unifying force the British naively assume it to be – either geographically, socially, or politically. This sticking point has not been noticed at all in the British media, neither in commentary against nor (less commonly) for Lord Goldsmith’s proposal. It would immediately, unavoidably become an issue in the newly-devolved Union.
The proposed British National Day shares another feature with the way Australia’s political leaders have recently sought to redefine their country. Beside the tenuous connection to the monarchy (an institution just as remote from modern British values as it is from Australian), the national day also attempts to make an equally tenuous connection with sport. In an attempt to find a common national ground which avoids any uncomfortable social, cultural, or political debate, Goldsmith and his political cronies have sought guidance from the way Australia has resorted to sporting achievement as a stand-in for patriotism and national identity. This last concept is a relatively new one in Britain, at least in the extent to which it has been pursued in Australia, and the suggested substitution of sporting values for national values has been met with suspicion and revulsion among what Professor David Flint would call “the elites”.
As for the question of pledging allegiance, such oaths are regarded by most as an American import, as alien to modern Britain as they are to Australia. More generally, Britain’s true attitude to national identity is much the same as the one inherited by Australia: “Defining Britishness is rather un-British.”

The idea of a national motto (or “national statement of British values”, as they insist we call it) has already attracted derision on a glorious scale – and there’s nothing more British than the refusal to be defined. Times readers chose as their national motto: No motto please, we’re British.

British national identity is becoming more and more like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody can do anything about it. And come to think of it, it is especially like British weather: so tepid most of the time that it is difficult to describe.
This is not necessarily a problem…
What is most interesting about these objections to Goldsmith’s ideas, to an Australian at least, is that they come from the right end of the political spectrum; the left or centre-left has generally made a less reactive, more open-minded response to the questions of citizenship and identity raised by the report. While the British right has adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards national identity, the Australian right has been busy for the last decade or so formulating an increasingly prescriptive idea of what “Australian” means, a narrow definition centering on feelgood thoughts of diggers, battlers, bronzed Olympians, cockies and brave pioneers, the flag.
Since the Nineties, the Australian government and its supporting institutions have served up this dumbed-down constructed identity, rejecting the conflicts and complexities that the world has brought to bear upon making Australia what it is today. Britain has built up a rich and nuanced understanding of itself, the legacy of a history of being good at accommodating such complexities. This makes it all the stranger to see Britain’s Labour government entertaining plans to borrow this Australian model and impose a banal hurrah for sport and monarchy as the best means to appreciate its place in the world.
If there is a common impulse between the two nations, it is in the perceived need to further withdraw from the world, to deny the shaping forces of globalisation, immigration, and multiculturalism, and become resolutely inward looking, turning one’s back on the outside world while also loudly asserting one’s mastery over it.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)