Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Nov 2008 : Column 307WH—continued

12 Nov 2008 : Column 308WH

Pete Wishart: I do not know what goes on the Prime Minister’s head, but when he made that comment, the tartan army and all Scottish football supporters baulked at the suggestion. The Prime Minister may have been impressed by the goal, but it was not a clever thing to say in terms of his support for the Scottish national team. We are having this debate not because of any great desire within the political class to have a Britishness day, but because this is a problem that the Prime Minister wishes to resolve.

I believe that there should be a proper relationship between England and Scotland, but the way to do that is not by having a Britishness day. I want to celebrate my national days in my country. That is right and proper and there would be big problems if a Britishness day were to be imposed upon the Scottish people. The English should celebrate St. George’s day.

My last point is about what unites Scotland, England and the rest of the United Kingdom—the social union. That is important and we must recognise it. We need a proper, mature relationship between England and Scotland that reflects and respects our 300-year journey. I have time for that and I have full respect for fellow Scots who still refer to themselves as British—that is fine and totally legitimate. We have a shared social union that has carried on for 300 years, but we do not have political constitutional arrangements in place to reflect it properly. That is what we should be moving towards.

Andrew Rosindell: Is that not exactly what I said earlier? Any proposal for a British day—whatever it is to be called—would not be a United Kingdom day but would encompass all people from the British isles and all those descended from the people of these islands, wherever they live in the world. I understand that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with the concept of the United Kingdom, but should he not separate that from the idea that all of us, himself included, are people who come from the British isles? Surely he can see the difference.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is on steadier ground with that proposal and I have no great problems with it.

There is a great social union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly England. However, I disagree with the idea that we should suddenly put out the Union flags. I say candidly to the hon. Gentleman that the Union flag barely exists in Scotland any more. There is an obligation for some councils and Government buildings to display the Union flag, but otherwise, it is never used voluntarily. If the hon. Gentleman is ever in Scotland he will see that.

We must ensure that the social union is remembered and factored into the relationship between our two nations. A Britishness day will not achieve that. We must move our two nations towards mutual self-respect and a new constitutional arrangement that reflects the aspirations of both our nations. That is the way to foster good relations between our two countries.

3.34 pm

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this timely debate. For
12 Nov 2008 : Column 309WH
the past two years, I have been involved in this issue on behalf of one of my constituents, Bruno Peak, who is passionate about bringing about a Great British weekend, rather than just a day. Both he and I have met with the Prime Minister’s advisers and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), when he was Immigration Minister. This idea could capture the imagination of a lot of people.

Many comments have been made today extolling the virtues of the past and stating why we should celebrate Britishness—except obviously for those made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I would like to concentrate on a comment made by the hon. Member for Romford when he mentioned the idea of a weekend. We can talk about whether that should be in June or at a different time—that is up for debate. However, we must first clarify whether the Government like the idea of celebrating a Great British day—or indeed weekend—and will push forward with it.

A document has been presented to the Government by my friend and constituent Bruno Peak. I shall read some extracts from it that extol the virtues of having a Great British weekend and promote the view that such an event would help in other areas:

It goes on to mention the Queen’s golden jubilee weekend in June 2002 and the millennium celebrations in 2000, both of which Bruno Peak was heavily involved in organising. The document continues:

That would equate to UK plc receiving about £18 million more from inbound visitors, with a potential £46 million from domestic residents spending their money inside the UK rather than overseas. It could therefore provide an overall boost to the economy of up to £64 million. At this time, that would be a welcome boost to many places in the country, certainly seaside resorts such as that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), and my own constituency of Great Yarmouth.

12 Nov 2008 : Column 310WH

The document continues by saying that the Great British day, or weekend, would become

All in all, the idea of a British day or weekend is excellent. It is one that the Government should embrace, despite some of the views that have been expressed today. We heard that only 3 per cent. of people in Scotland feel British; I believe that we have to get back the British identity, so that people know that we are a united and unified country. Other countries were extolled by the hon. Member for Romford for celebrating national days. I believe that we should move with all haste, perhaps in 2012. The Government need to make a move.

12 Nov 2008 : Column 311WH
3.42 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing the debate. It was been most interesting, especially for me, as I was an historian in a previous career before being elected to Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman identified a number of key points for a national day that resulted from the recommendations of the citizenship review. Indeed, countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and a string of others have such a day. At the heart of the discussion that he said was necessary is what it means to be British, and I shall return to that question.

Among the things offered by the hon. Gentleman as definitions of Britishness included sport—the Ashes, the Olympics and Wimbledon. However, although the TV schedules would lead us to think so, not everyone is fixated on sport. Remembrance day and the monarchy were other suggestions, and I shall return to those.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), a former colleague on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, was an historian—he had a proper job before becoming a Member of Parliament. He offered a thoughtful and erudite contribution, as I would expect from an historian. In particular, he pointed out that any such event would not have to be imposed from the top and be not a divisive but a pluralistic event that recognised the complexities of British society and the various mixtures that make it up. Otherwise, it could be counter-productive and against our intentions.

We heard a plea for Scottish independence and the separation of the two nations, although I am not sure what the Welsh or the Scots think about being lumped in like that. We also heard a good exposition of the fallacy that something such as Magna Carta, which came top of the poll, was a defining British event. However, it was nothing to do with Great Britain or the United Kingdom, or any of the other tags or descriptions; it long predated the appearance of such a political unit.

We historians could make a long argument about Magna Carta being an important event, but much of it is symbolism. As I used to tell my classes, at the end of every part of Magna Carta—when dealing with the freedom of the individual and saying that the Englishman’s home was his castle—it should have had a few words in parenthesis saying, “but not if you are poor” and “if you are a peasant, this does not apply to you.” We can analyse these great historical events, and come up with all sorts of interpretations. We also heard an appeal for a great British weekend or something similar to boost tourism, at the same time as developing the idea of Britishness.

How do we define Britishness? We heard that the national groups—the English, the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish and the Northern Irish—have distinct approaches and attitudes to sport, as to everything else. However, more recent groups now form part of our society.

In Sheffield, where I grew up, and in Derbyshire, where I have lived for 30 years, and also in Lincolnshire, Poles and other eastern Europeans have a strong presence. They first came here at the start of the second world war. Indeed, members of the Polish Parachute Regiment trained at Hardwick hall just outside Chesterfield. They were based in Lincolnshire before flying to participate in battles such as Arnhem. Many of them settled and
12 Nov 2008 : Column 312WH
married locally. After the war, we had an influx of Poles and eastern European refugees fleeing Soviet dictatorship in eastern Europe. Many came to places such as Sheffield, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire because they had contacts among those who were in the armed forces during the war.

We have other groups. Sheffield and Chesterfield have people from the Caribbean and the Asian subcontinent, formerly parts of the British empire. The recruiting message after the second world war—a junior Minister by the name of Enoch Powell was involved—was that those who had fought for the mother country in the greatest war, the war to end all wars, should now come to work for the mother country. They were invited and encouraged to work in the national health service, British transport, the steel works in Sheffield and other jobs across the board. Those people all form parts of our culture and our Britishness. We cannot divide the nation into English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish.

What events or characteristics should we choose for the British day or the British weekend? A number of things have been suggested. We heard that a number of former colonies, including Angola, have a national day. However, those countries are recently independent; they were born and achieved independence on a specific day, and it was often the result of bloody contests and struggles. They have a clear recent event that can be treated as their national day—the start of their nation. For many, the event is within living memory. That is clear cut.

We heard of countries that became independent in rather happier circumstances. I think of New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Those countries have a clear-cut event, but do we have a similar event to lock on to for Britishness? As an historian, I wonder whether we should go back to the first unification of the British tribes, when the Romans conquered the country. Should we go back to the conquest of Romano-Britain by the Anglo-Saxons from Denmark and Germany?

Andrew Rosindell: We should not make things too complicated. If the hon. Gentleman were to check, he would discover that most embassies and high commissions have national day celebrations to which local people are invited. They always use the Queen’s birthday weekend as a British day. I suggested that we could consider many days, but why not stick to that weekend? We already have the great pageant of trooping the colour on the Queen’s birthday. Sticking to that weekend would make things simple, and we would not get bogged down in a multitude of options that would cause conflict and argument.

Paul Holmes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I have two comments. First, as has been suggested by a number of hon. Members, this is more complex than simply rallying around a royal day or a day for the monarchy. It has to be more pluralistic and representative than that.

As an historian, I spent many years teaching A-level students in particular, but also younger pupils, to beware people bearing false facts and saying, “Well, it’s as simple as this—and there are no other views.” As we have heard, there are many different views about history, nationhood, Britishness and so on. Should we look to the Vikings who part-conquered the country but left a very strong trace in the DNA of people in Scotland, the north of England, including Yorkshire, and in coastal
12 Nov 2008 : Column 313WH
areas? Should we look to the Normans, who conquered us in 1066? Should we look to 1649 and the end of seven years of civil war, when parliamentary democracy triumphed over an attempt to impose a dictatorial, absolute monarchy? That was an important event in British history. Should we look to the 11 years of the republic that followed the civil war, or to 1660 and the restoration of the monarchy? We all have different opinions. History is not a nice, neat, simple, linear process ending at a point that everyone agrees on.

Should we look to the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Again, that is not so simple. The revolution was glorious, because it avoided another seven years of civil war, such as the one from 1642 to 1649, but it was not quite so glorious in Ireland, where all the conflict and fighting took place culminating in the battle of the Boyne. However, it was glorious on the mainland, because we got away with almost no casualties. Near Chesterfield is Revolution house, which at the time was a small remote cottage on the moorlands, where the Duke of Devonshire and others plotted their illegal rebellion against the legal King of England to replace him with a Dutchman, William of Orange, who then fought his battles with a Dutch army against a mainly French army at the battle of the Boyne in Ireland. History is a bit more complicated than simple labels, such as “the Glorious Revolution”.

Should we go for the traditional drum-and-trumpet history that the Victorians espoused and look to great battles, such as Trafalgar and Waterloo? Those are slightly further back in history now and so perhaps not quite relevant enough to be national unifying events. Should we use traditional events, such as the signing of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, which we have already mentioned, or the Bill of Rights of 1689, which we desperately need to update? On the other hand, some people say that we should celebrate things such as the Chartists and suffragettes, who brought democracy from 2, 3 or 4 per cent. of rich landowning men to the whole population, regardless of wealth or sex. That was probably the most important step in British history.

The USA was not mentioned in the list of countries with national days, because as one of the most patriotic countries in the world—admirably so in many ways—it does not need a single national day. It recognises that it has a very mixed community. Consider the events that it does have: the third Monday in January marks the birth of Martin Luther King; the third Monday in February marks the birth of George Washington, although it is more generally known as President’s day; the last Monday in May is memorial day, which started with decorating the graves of civil war casualties; and the fourth day of July is independence day. However, as the Americans fully recognise—the election of President-elect Obama perhaps sets the seal on this—the glorious independence day and the declaration of independence, which said that all men are born equal, should have had “unless you happen to be non-white or female” in brackets at the end. In that respect, it is similar to the Magna Carta. But things have moved on. The Americans also have labour day, which is rather like our May day, Columbus day, veterans day and thanksgiving day. They have a sequence of events celebrating different seminal events in the development of that great multiracial, multinational nation that is the USA. Perhaps we could learn something from that.

Next Section Index Home Page