In a speech to the Royal Television Society Cambridge convention on Wednesday – the central theme of which was ‘Britishness’ – the now former Media Minister John Whittingdale said:
“Britishness is, of course, a nebulous concept. It means different things to each and every one of us in this room. And yet we all know it when we see it on our screens … We want to make sure that British-made content is, in fact, distinctively ‘British’.”
Of course, this fuelled – somewhat unfairly, if you read the full speech – a furious social media debate. Censorship of the arts! What makes something distinctly British? Who decides either way?
It also raised questions about how different people define what ‘Britishness’ is. I daresay that to a certain element ‘British’ equates to white (and Christian and heterosexual and so on). Maybe that was true in 1921. There are undoubtedly some people who would prefer it that way. But in 2021, that feels hopelessly outdated and irrelevant. The definition of Britishness is, quite literally, no longer a black-and-white argument.
Yes, I’m British
I am the son of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants. Other than my broad London accent, there’s no mistaking my ethnicity.
My wife’s parents are English and Australian, and both white.
If you were meeting us for the first time and we told you that only one of us is a lifelong British citizen, while the other gained British citizenship only a few years ago, you could be forgiven for assuming that I was the more recent Brit. But you’d be wrong. She now holds dual passports, but it’s Heather who had to take the citizenship test, not me.
I’m as British as the next person. I was born here. My passport is British. (It’s still EU-era red and not post-Brexit blue.) I like tea. And Wimbledon. And The Great British Bake Off. I moan about the weather constantly.
In the words of Friends’ Chandler Bing, could I be any more British?
Apparently so, in some people’s eyes. On more than one occasion (though, thankfully, not too many) I’ve been invited to “go back where you came from”, usually accompanied by some colourfully industrial language. Generally, I’ve resisted the temptation to respond with “What, you mean … Harrow?”
What does ‘Britishness’ mean to me?
To me, Britishness is about an emotional attachment to the country I call home. I consume British media and culture. Overseas friends and relatives joke about my ‘BBC accent’. (I really don’t have a BBC accent. When I’m not in professional mode, I drop my aitches just as much as any EastEnders character.) I feel like a tourist whenever we visit my family in Malaysia because, well, I am, really. I even happily – okay, not exactly happily – pay my taxes in full to HMRC. (Which, let’s face it, is more than Jacob Rees-Mogg does.)
Yes, there are aspects of being British which I don’t like, or even feel ashamed of. But British is what I am, so I take the rough with the smooth.
All three of our children are also British. It never occurs to them to identify with any other country, simply because British is their nationality. But their mixed ethnicity makes them vulnerable to being ‘othered’ on the grounds of not looking British enough for some people. Sometimes it’s not enough to be British; you have to look ‘British’ too.
A melting pot
To some people, Britishness is a matter of near-zealous racial purity. It’s a rose-tinted desire to return to a past most people don’t remember and, in all probability, never actually existed.
But to me, Britishness is about embracing the diverse, multi-cultural melting pot that is Britain in 2021. And it genuinely is diverse these days, although in terms of ethnicity perhaps less so than you might think. At the time of the 2011 Census, 86% of the population of England and Wales was white, of which 80.5% identified as White British. Asians accounted for 7.5%, black ethnic groups 3.3% and mixed/multiple/other the remaining 3.2%.
Even in London, Britain’s most racially diverse region, white ethnicities still accounted for 60% of the city’s population. We are a diverse, multi-coloured nation, yet still predominantly white. And that’s before we overlay differences in religion, region or sexual orientation, at which point our diversity is undeniable.
So, what is Britishness?
Which brings me back to Whittingdale’s words: Britishness is a nebulous concept.
It’s not something homogeneous. Nor is it something that can be conveniently defined by one or more labels. Or by conventions and customs. Even a concept as ‘universal’ as Christmas is observed in different ways in different British households.
Britishness is impossible to define precisely. US Open tennis champion Emma Raducanu, the Canadian-born daughter of a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, is immediately embraced as British. Andy Murray was a Brit when he won; a Scotsman when he didn’t. Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka were racially abused and threatened by their own fans when they missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
Even in terms of TV programming, a clear definition is elusive. Coronation Street, Dad’s Army, Top Gear and Sherlock are indubitably fine examples of very British shows. So too is Doctor Who, a series about a time-travelling alien with two hearts and a scant disregard for border controls. (Well, it’s true.) Also ‘Allo ‘Allo, a series set in WWII France with a cast of British and other European stereotypes. In their own way, The Kumars at No. 42 and Goodness Gracious Me are quintessentially British, despite their culturally different settings. It’s A Sin, My Beautiful Laundrette – the list goes on.
Sadly, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Mind Your Language and In Sickness and in Health are also unmistakably British. I don’t think there’s much clamour to remake any of these or their ilk despite being an accurate reflection of common British attitudes of their time.
Which brings me back to one evident truth: Britishness is nebulous. 60-odd million people would define it in almost as many different ways; no one is any more ‘right’ than any other. Britishness is not something you see; it’s something you feel. And I definitely feel British, no matter what some other people may say.
Is it time for Strictly yet?