Being British

As I’ve been getting into the headspace of my new career as an intercultural trainer, I’ve been (naturally and necessarily) thinking a lot about my own culture. I am culturally and ancestrally English: born in Essex, raised in Bedford, adulthood in Sheffield. My parents grew up in the South (Sussex and Dorset), though both my grandmothers were tough Northern lasses at their roots (Salford and North Yorkshire – I like to think this is why I feel so at home in the north of England).

So I’m both Southern and Northern English, which already have their differences. (Someone somewhere once put it as in the South, people brag about how much they’ve got, whereas in the North, the competition is for how little you have and how difficult your life is, therefore how tough you are…)

I am also middle class. A lefty intellectual. A mod rather than a rocker (probably, if I’d been around then). Punk or disco queen? I’m not sure which I would have been. And I am British. That’s what it says on my passport. But what does it mean to be British? Is there such a thing as British culture? Is it distinct from English, Welsh, Scottish culture?

Great Britain is the physical island (so it doesn’t include Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, a political entity: Brexit is a misnomer. I guess UKexit isn’t quite as catchy). Great Britain is the ninth largest island on the planet and has an area of 80,823 square miles (209,331 square kilometers). England occupies the southeast portion of the island, Wales is in the southwest, and Scotland is in the north.

Though it’s hard to separate political history from culture, over time English culture* ended up dominating this island, pushing out the Celts of Scotland and Wales. The spread of the language is maybe the best example of this. Scottish Gaelic survives in the most northern islands. Welsh is a minority language and has been under threat but is spoken by more people and is now protected and promoted. And of course, the English spoken in each territory varies hugely in dialect and accent.

Despite our differences in language, food and history, people on this island do have a lot that is shared. The general culture of getting drunk must be island-wide. Innovation, poetry, black humour, moaning about the weather, drinking tea… Is this what makes us British?

Well, the only conclusion I have made is that Britishness is, by its very name, pluralistic. Because Britain is England, Scotland and Wales, for a start. The melding of three distinct but similar cultures. There are many, many subcultures, particularly concerning what music you listen to, what newspaper you read, or what supermarket you shop at (yes, we care about this). It’s very tribal, in a detailed way.

The (incredibly imperfect) British Empire sought to export British values and so bring other parts of the world into the group, so when you go to Britain now it is not monocultural. British food is international. The national dish is curry. Different groups have different versions of the language. Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church bringing us religious tolerance (in the end), so from Paganism to Islam to Sikhism, there’s room for everyone. And because of this, I think tolerance is a British value, deep down. And freedom of expression. On the whole, we like to travel and learn about other peoples. We like to sample foreignness. It’s cool that our neighbours are from somewhere exotic that has spices and sunny skies. We reserve the right to remain anonymous and live how we want. ID cards? How dare you! But CCTV and prohibitive signs everywhere? Apparently that’s OK. It’s eccentricity and the freedom to be what you want. But it’s also enormous social pressure to fit in and follow the herd. Maybe being British is being a living contradiction!

This is all just off the top of my head. I’m also European. I’m also white and female. Clearly it’s a big subject worthy of essays and deeper study. And of course it’s not necessarily unique: within a culture that you know well, you can see all the nuances. Superficially, it’s easy to lump together different characteristics of different groups within a nationality, then compare it with another set of groups from another political entity from a different part of the world, and call it a culture clash. And make stereotypes (yes, I do drink tea, but there’s much more to being English than that).

For me, it’s endlessly fascinating. I’m looking forward to helping other people think about this stuff!

*and then, what is English culture? In itself it’s a mix of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Viking, Roman, French… How do we define it? Where do we stop?

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