The Guardian has summarised Britain’s history as a litany of “Pirates, explorers, empire-makers, slavers,” and branded the British character as “insular”. Yet despite all this England-bashing, the author is surprised at the lack of pride among newcomers for their adoptive country.
In reviewing a series of art exhibitions currently taking place across the nation’s capital, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum has drawn the lesson that the history of England flows from the nation’s insular character, shaped by the geographical accident of being an island nation.
“Islanders are insular – a word synonymous with “defiant”, “separate”, “alone”, “divergent” and “self-sufficient”, he intones.
And while the sea can be seen as a great connector, a superhighway to lands far as well as near which would allow Britain to become the global trading nation that she still is, McCrum chooses to see it primarily through the prism of enabling the British to export their own culture via colonialism.
“After a slow start, they [the English] became global adventurers, half-pirate, half-pastor, planting English and Englishness across the known world from Boston to Botany Bay.
“There was something “sticky” about this language, and the ideas it embodied, so adhesive in fact that at times it has behaved more like a kind of cultural virus, self-confidently infecting all kinds of international contacts,” he says.
Of course, no mention of Britain’s colonial past – which includes among its many exports the British system of common law and concept of the rule of law – would be complete without reference to slavery.
“At Tate Britain, art and imperialism meet in the shadows of transportation and slavery. In a promotional video, Shami Chakrabarti reminds visitors that “some great things came out of the British empire, but not without a cost to different peoples around the world”. And at home, too. Millbank is the site of the prison from which convicts were deported to New South Wales. Moreover, the gallery bears the name of Henry Tate, who made his fortune from that genteel product of the slave trade: sugar.”
The article serves to summarise the conflict within the liberal mindset when analysing Britain and Britishness. McCrum notes the “disdain” that Britons hold for their own heritage –
“The impossibility of reaching clarity about our identity was illustrated in 2008 when the Times campaigned for a “British” motto: something to rival liberté, égalité, fraternité, but less embarrassing than “Cool Britannia”. Readers had a field day. Their suggestions included, for example, “Dipso. Fatso. Bingo. Asbo. Tesco.” This was closely followed by: “No Motto Please, We’re British.”
– yet then goes on to lament the failure of multiculturalism to bind British citizens of all races together under a banner of British pride:
“New Britons have many qualities – in surveys, their optimism, good humour, tolerance and a sense of fair play are ones that we identify – but pride or introspection are not among them.
“One recent Channel 4 documentary about multicultural Bradford showed a contemporary white Briton, a man, cheerfully analysing his heritage: “I know I’m a British citizen,” he said, “because I’m not anything else.””