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12 Nov 2008 : Column 301WHcontinued
Special activities, events and celebrations could be encouraged on that day in villages, towns, cities, islands and counties throughout our green and pleasant land with voluntary organisations, churches, youth groups and sports clubs organising their own unique events based on a British theme. Local authorities and public services could also play an important part in facilitating those celebrations. Schools could lay the ground for what I hope would be a spectacular weekend of parties, pageantry and patriotism by giving pupils a greater understanding of the importance of celebrating both the Queens official birthday and the new day for Britain. There are all sorts of possibilities for a Britannia day with activities all over the country. I believe that it would be a magnificent weekend that would strengthen and reaffirm our sense of Britishness.
It is a privilege to have this debate today, because the issue is important and needs to be addressed if we are to prevent British traditions and identity from being eroded or even hijacked. In recent years, the number of people who identify themselves primarily as British has declined. Instead, more and more people are arguing that their identity of Scottish, Welsh or English takes precedence over the notion of being British. In England, 39 per cent. of people said that they were British, which is down 9 per cent. from the previous year. In Scotland, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, just 3 per cent. of people said that they considered themselves to be only or mainly British, which is down from 9 per cent. three years earlier. As I have said, I doubt whether that is really what they believe, but those are the figures in the survey.
According to John Curtice, who is professor of politics at Strathclyde university, the evidence shows that most people are still content to define themselves as having a dual nationality:
There is no doubt that in Scotland and in Wales, national identity is ahead of British identity. In England, the two are in competition with each other. But in all three countries, a lot of people recognise both.
The values of Britishness are clearly still very much alive and therefore vital to vast swathes of our population. However, we need to cement the bonds of our identity and it is important to give people legitimate opportunities to discuss and debate this important issue.
As I have said, a British day cannot be an occasion that is imposed from above. Individuals and communities within society as a whole must be the driving force. Support for our British identity is dependent upon the people coming together to share in their celebrations, and we must offer the guidance and support to create those opportunities. Empowerment is at the core of the issue; we should give people the power and ability to rejoice in themselves and in what they believe is important to the rich tapestry that makes up the great family of British people.
In an era when the notion of Britishness may appear to some to be ambiguous or even outdated, the core values of tolerance, respect, pride and patriotism, which form its foundations, live strong in the hearts and minds of the people of our nation. Most other countries acknowledge the need for such celebrations and celebrate their nations with immense pride, passion and enthusiasm; so should we. In so doing, we would give all our people the opportunity to celebrate all things British.
Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): We have 36 minutes left for Back-Bench speakers. Three Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so there should be plenty of time for everyone.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure and privilege to take part in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on obtaining it because, as he has eloquently stated, we should discuss this subject. I shall begin by daring to refer to the perhaps ill-chosen words of Anne Robinson, who famously said about Welsh people, What are they for? Hon. Members will be pleased to know that that is not a sentiment with which I agree. However, before we rubber-stamp British day in any shape or form, we should clearly establish what we want such a day for. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should not impose such a day from above in a uniform fashion.
I shall discuss some of the background to why the debate about a British day has been so interesting and important in recent years. I and members of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills, which conducted an inquiry on citizenship education, discovered that a significant number of people do not think that we should try to define or argue about Britishness. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who is in the Chamber today, was present when that inquiry took place. Such people are concerned about what some people might conclude from such a debate. I remember having a vigorous discussion with the representative of the British Youth Council, who appeared before the Select Committee to talk about that issue.
I do not agree with the view that the matter should not be discussedin fact, there are compelling reasons why we need to debate what it means to be British. Some of the issues relating to identity are shared globally by other countries and some specifically relate to the United Kingdom. Of course, these matters are related toalthough they are not the same asconcerns that all hon. Members have had in recent years about participation in the electoral process, particularly by younger people.
Those concerns also relate to the changing nature of Britishness. That is a simple statement of fact; it is not something that we can say is a good or bad thing. The nature of Britishness has changed, particularly in the past 20 to 30 years. We are now a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society in a way that we were not, even 30 years ago. We live in a post-devolution Britain with all its intriguing complexities and tensions. Whether some Members like it or not, we live in a Britain that is intimately connected to the European Union. A new role and relationship for the monarchy is being carved out and debated. The heir to the throne is openly talking about whether he wishes to be defender of the faiths as opposed to simply defender of the faith of the Church of England. Incidentally, the wonderful historical fact that that wording was originally given to us by a Roman Catholic monarch is not often commented on.
On top of that, all hon. Members have a generalised concern about the sense of atomisation and the lack of social and community cohesion. As Trevor Phillips and others have pointed out, that is not just an issue that affects the new ethnic communities in the United Kingdom;
it is a big issue that affects traditional white working-class communities as well, because a range of social and economic changes have taken place in past 20 to 30 years. In additionthis was one of the reasons why I pressed my colleagues on the Select Committee to carry out an inquiry on citizenship educationthere has been ongoing soul searching about the implications of the events of 7/7 and what they mean in terms of the need for us actively to strengthen a sense of community cohesion.
A range of factors have propelled the issue of Britishness to the fore. I pay tribute to the Government and, indeed, to the Minister here today, who has taken a leading part in the process, for recognising that and taking forward the subject for discussion. The hon. Member for Romford referred to comments the Prime Minister made in 2006 when he was Chancellor. I was privileged to be present at the Fabian Society seminar, in which he made various comments, and I shall quote from those later.
In addition to the Select Committee inquiry, Lord Goldsmith has carried out a citizenship review and, importantly, within the former Department of Education and Skills, a report was published by Keith Ajegbo. That report discusses some important points about how, if we are to talk about how we became the sort of people we are today, we must do so in a broad and pluralistic way. In his report, Ajegbo echoed what we said in our Select Committee report when we talked about how the sense of Britishness or arguments about Britishness should be covered. Our report states:
Such coverage should rightly touch on what is distinctive in the inheritance and experience of contemporary Britain and the values of our society today. But it should not be taken to imply an endorsement of any single explanation of British values or history. Indeed, it should emphasise the way in which those values connect to universal human rights, and recognise that critical and divergent perspectives, as well as the potential to have alternative and different layers of identity, are a central part of what contemporary Britishness is.
Again, I agree with the hon. Gentlemans comments that celebrations of Britishness or a British day cannot be imposed from the top down. Governments might provide a frameworkwhether it is a public holiday or notbut the celebrations cannot be imposed from the top down. I would not want to see that done from the top down, because the sense of citizenship or Britishnessthe two are not entirely interchangeableis learned best when learned in the community, through voluntary activities, schools and discussion. We may want to have a set of symbols and values that cement those discussions, but the impetus should always come from below.
Some of the most interesting discussions that I have had on the question of citizenship, which I took forward after our Select Committee inquiry and which related to the subject of Britishness, have been in my local schools and colleges in Blackpool, where I have talked to large numbers of young people about their sense of identity. What I have learned from that, and what I am sure many other hon. Members who have delved into this issue in their constituencies have learned, is that people often find their sense of identity through engaging first with their local communitiesthrough their families and extended relationships. They then relate that to the broader regional or national identities with which they choose to identify themselves. If we are to have a Britishness day, there are a number of different levels at
which we need to think about that and how to celebrate it. There is that extraordinarily successful television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, which incidentally Keith Ajegbo said we should try to replicate in terms of activities at least once a year in this country. We can see that that is a key motor for this debate.
There is no single form of Britishness. Let us consider how Britishness was defined historically. As Linda Colley and various other historians have said, it was defined often in antagonistic waysI am thinking of the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1801. Englishness has often been defined against other things. In the middle ages, we defined ourselves, I am sad to say, initially against the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh. We subsequently defined ourselves against the French and ultimately against the Spanish. That was associated with the myth of divine providence:
God blew and they were scattered,
as it said on the armada medal. Englishness, liberty and Protestantism were the holy trinity that took Englishness forward in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was only later that the Scots and the Irish were co-opted into Britishness as part of the project of imperial expansion. I am not saying that we should repudiate that. I mention it merely to underline the fact that Britishness and the sense of Britishness has always been a process of constant reinvention. If we are to have a British day or a Britain day, it must be a pluralistic day and recognise the inheritances of all the people who now live in this United Kingdom today.
When the Prime Minister spoke at the Fabian Society seminar, he quoted George Orwell and talked about how George OrwellI agree entirely with himridiculed the old left for its attitudes towards patriotism. Orwell said something very important about patriotism: he said that the difference between patriotism and nationalism was that a nationalist was someone who thought his country was always better than anybody elses, whereas a patriot was someone who loved his country and who, because he loved his country or she loved her country, could understand how other people could love their countries. I would not want to see any celebration of Britishness that did not take that into account.
We have too many examples in our history of mountebanks who have taken Samuel Johnson at his wordhe famously pronounced:
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
One thinks on this occasionthe 90th anniversary of the end of the first world warof Horatio Bottomley and his famous set of tricks with John Bull, which ultimately put him in prison. In the famous story, the Home Secretary came in, saw him sewing mailbags and said, Ah, Bottomleysewing? and he said, No, Home Secretary, reaping. I do not want us to reap, in the things that we might do for a Britishness day, things that would give succour to people in the British National party and elsewhere who would sow division and hatred. If we are to have a Britishness day, we have to take on board all those issues.
The sense of community is something that we would want to press. I am attracted by the ideas proposed for a community day by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the TUC and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. Many of the things that the hon. Member for Romford talked about could be incorporated in that. If people want to call it a
Britishness day as well, all well and good. I come from a seaside town, where we rely quite heavily on half-term visitors, and it would be nice to have an extra public holiday at about that time of year that would increase our visitor numbers. I mean that seriously.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has talked about associating such a day with Remembrance day, and I can see the advantages in that. Anyone who laid a wreath last weekend could not fail to be moved by the fact that that is a core part of our Britishness. The essential point about a Britishness day is that whatever it is, whatever we do and whatever we associate it with, it should energise and celebrate, not divide.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), right down to his Union Jack cotton socks, on securing the debate. I half expected to see the Union Jack come billowing out and to hear the strains of Rule, Britannia! as he was delivering his speech. I recognise his passion for the subject, but it will come as no great surprise to him that I do not share his passion for a Britishness day. That is true of the vast majority of Scottish people.
It has already been said twice, by the hon. Gentleman and by me, that only 3 per cent. of Scots now recognise themselves as British. Some 80 per cent. consider themselves exclusively Scottish, or perhaps partly British with that. That is not a very good place from which to start a debate such as this, especially when Scotland is such a large constituent part of his Britain. If such a day is not wanted, that should be respected. I hope that there would be no attempt to foist it on the people of Scotland, especially as it would not work. The fact is that since the Scottish Parliament was established, the idea of Britishness has started to wane from the psyche of Scottish people, and as Scotland moves forward to become a normal independent nation, all vestiges of Britishness will go.
However, the hon. Gentleman is right in one respect: we have to celebrate what unites us and what binds us. That is why we in Scotland have St. Andrews day and Burns night. Next year2009will be the international year of homecoming in Scotland. We will appeal to our diaspora around the world to come back to Scotland and attend one of the mass of significant events that we hold in Scotland. We will do more than that: we will make a plea for people to come back and stay in Scotland, to contribute to our national culture and economy. That is the type of thing that we want to do and the type of agenda that we have in placeto unite around what binds us historically, culturally and through our heritage. That is the way to do it.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to stop thinking about Britishness day. What is wrong with Englishness day? I see a rise in a good, positive Englishness, which has been reclaimed. I very much welcome that. The day that the Union Jack comes down off this House and the St. Georges Cross goes up is the day that our two nations will have arrived at a 21st-century relationship. I very much look forward to that day.
We have heard much about Britishness today. I have never felt British in my life. There are occasional pangs when you see Team GB in the Olympics and you are
bombarded with Britishness, Britishness, Britishness by the BBC, but I have never felt British in my life. I do not even know what Britishness is. I know what Scottishness is; I know all the things that define me as a Scot. I know what Englishness is. I can see that clearly when I study some of the great events in English history. I have no idea what Britishness is. I look forward to hearing someones description of it. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Romford and to the very considered remarks of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), but I am no clearer on what Britishness means.
I do not think that the British people know what Britishness is, either. Last year, the BBC did an exercise in which it asked its listeners to decide what day should be Britishness day. Thousands upon thousands of the British people replied to that. I was quite surprised. The day that they decided on for a national British day holiday, by an overwhelming majority, was the day on which the Magna Carta was signed. The Magna Carta is a significant historical document, but it is not a British significant historical document. It was signed in June 1215492 years before there was even a sense of Britain, with the signing of the treaty of Union in 1707, so the British people do not even know what Britishness is. That is where we are in the debate. At the time of Magna Carta, we were still knocking lumps out of each other in the Scottish wars of independence, so I would suggest that that is not an auspicious date on which to celebrate Britishness day. There we have it. We must recognise that there is a difficulty in understanding and appreciating what Britishness is.
Of course, people will want to foist this day upon us. As the hon. Member for Romford noted, the idea of a Britishness day holiday was suggested by the Prime Minister. He did not arrive at that idea through some sort of altruistic design, or because he wanted to give us an extra holiday and celebrate Britishness around the nation. He put forward the idea of a Britishness day because he is a Scottish Prime Minister representing a Scottish constituency. We now have a Scottish Parliament, and the Prime Minister recognises that there is a problem. He is aware of the agenda of the right-wing pressthe Daily Mail, the Daily Express and, it must be said, some Conservative party memberswhich thinks that it is totally wrong for a Scottish Prime Minister to be in charge of the United Kingdom. We have all seen the comments about what the Daily Mail and the Daily Express usually describe as the ruling Scottish elite.
The Prime Minister had to address that issue because it was a problem for him in terms of being accepted by the vast majority of voters in the UK. Therefore, he came up with the idea of Britishness, by wrapping himself in the Union flag and saying that his favourite sporting moment was when Gazza scored that goal for England against Scotland. He had to do that to try to impress on the people of England that he would be Prime Minister for the whole United Kingdom.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Having watched that goal, I ask him to reflect on the suggestion that the Prime Minister might have selected it simply because it was one of the most miraculous goals ever scored.
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