Alexandra Runswick’s post on Our Kingdom discusses an RSA / Heritage Lottery Fund lecture entitled ‘Britishness – A values based approach is not enough’, a contention precipitated by Labour’s attempts to draft a ‘Statement of British Values’. Keynote speaker, Dame Liz Forgan, argued the importance of culture to the formation of national identity, noting “that while values are fixed, culture is porous and constantly evolves”.
She raises an important point. Certain cultural commonalities are naturally key constituents around which an identity coheres. History, language, common institutions and indeed common values undoubtedly help forge the culture which we share. However, I would add two notes of caution to Forgan’s analysis. Firstly, as I have already intimated, values, culture and institutions cannot be easily separated. Rather the three interact and mould each other.
The values which are inherent in Britishness have necessarily been shaped by the UK’s constitution and the institutions which underpin it. Whilst we need not formally define those values, and whilst a formal process of defining those values may not accrue any great benefit to the coherence of the United Kingdom, nevertheless a strong sense of Britishness should be characterised by a sense that our constitution ensures rights and freedoms which are important.
Secondly, Forgan is correct to assert that culture is porous and mutable. It is true to say though, that some cultures are more porous than others and that a characteristic of nationalism is its discomfort with changes which might occur within the culture to which it has attached itself. That is not to propose that nationalists are always hostile to other cultures, or cannot move easily enough between them. But the core culture to which nationalism adheres, is to its nationalists, a very definite edifice possessed of certain specific characteristics and explicitly excluding others.
Britishness is not possessed of such prescriptive confines and unionists must not be tempted to capitulate to nationalist demands that it should be, if it is to exist as an identity at all. The British identity is in its essence a porous and heterogeneous construction and to define it by the prescriptions which nationalism requires is to distort it beyond recognition.