On Britishness

Having that debate

Artillery Row

Ask a Frenchman. A Turk. Ask a Maghrebi. Ask an uncontacted tribesman from North Sentinel Island.

Ask him this: What does Britishness mean to you?

He will say it in many tongues. You might not speak his language. But you’ll know exactly what he is saying, word for word, every single time.

“Sportsmanship: Footie and Fair Play. The NHS. Diversity and Inclusion. And above all, Free Speech.”

He continues.

“Being British is about having that Argument. In the spirit of the Enlightenment. Rational, reasoned debate, totally unbridled by superstitions. Within carefully approved parameters which broadly conform to the moral values of the post-war consensus.”

“An Overton window, stretching from Iain Martin of the Times of London, all the way to David Aaronovitch, also of the Times of London. Within which, vigorous debate abounds.”

“We MUST sanction Mr Putin, on that much we MUST agree.”

You nod.

“Immigration. That old chestnut. I love my curries, from the Sub-continent and the Caribbean. But listen, we have to be Robust on Radical Islam. Free Speech demands it. How? Well, by writing opinion pieces in broadsheet newspapers daring to defend Salman Rushdie and those Satanic Verses — replete with full-throated denouncements of Tehran.”

“And if that doesn’t work? Integration. We’ll just integrate them. You press a button called ‘integration’ in Whitehall, and suddenly, every single person in the country adopts the same outlook as Times columnists in their early 60s, viewing religion principally as a means of getting kids into a good Church of England School.”

Stop questioning my commitment to free speech! You are under arrest!

You are impressed by this speech. A stranger to your country, who knows it better than you.

Britain. It is not the literature or the landscapes. Nor is it the architecture or the thousand plus years of history. Nothing that you need to engage with intellectually. It is simply a set of abstract Values that could be applied in any international context.

You speak.

“Thank you for your wise counsel. I see now. We British must always speak the truth to power.”

He replies.

“Yes. Always hold power to account. It’s the very least the public deserves. He ate that Cake. He Lied. He Broke the Law.”

“So should I tell the public about government abuses of power? About how the US government is illegally spying on your communications with the active complicity of the British government?”

“No. No, you’ve got this all wrong. We’ll chase you to the ends of the Earth. Ground flights, force you to take refuge in ‘totalitarian’ countries.”

“Oh. I see.”

“And listen, if you even dream about publishing compromising information about cabinet ministers and their conflicts of interests, I will crush you under the weight of our mighty libel laws.”

“I just think that some people might … ”


“I … ”

“You are menacing me with an obscene communication! Stop questioning my commitment to free speech! You are under arrest!”

Before long, you find yourself in the back of a police van. Gary, a thirty-four year old man who throws axes in his spare time, has some bad news for you.

It would be an honour to die in a European land war

“Look, mate, we are nearly at the station, mate, and I’ll be honest, mate, it’s not looking good. The Team has already been through your tweets. It looks like you made some ‘unsafe’ comments without being a recognised journalist. That’s now against the Law, thanks to the Online Safety Bill.”

“What is a recognised journalist?”

“That would be journalists who work at big legacy media organisations. People who socialise with politicians and need to keep on their good side if they want to keep getting stories and advancing their professional careers.”

“I see.”

“They are going to throw the book at you, mate. I’ll be honest, it’s probably going to be prison for life.”


“But, look, mate, don’t be afraid to talk about your Mental Health. Talk to your mates. Your new ones. The various rapists and murderers you will be spending the rest of your life with in HMP Belmarsh.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you never know. If we end up at war with Russia, we might end up ‘doing a Zelensky’, and send prisoners in to fight. A chance to redeem yourself for your failure to guess what might and what might not be harmful in someone else’s subjective opinion.”

“It would be an honour and a privilege to die in a European land war to protect this wonderful country from a military force a mere 1500 miles from its border.”

“Indeed. Valhalla awaits. British Valhalla. Dingy corridors of grey municipal buildings, full of women in their early 50s wearing itchy cardigans and eating endless biscuits.”

“I can’t wait to hear about Julie’s trip to Tenerife.”

“I hear she went all-inclusive.”


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