What does it mean to be British?

The Government has been talking this week about the need for us all to embrace “British values”. The Prime Minister kicked off the debate in the Mail on Sunday with a call for us all to embrace traditional British values such as the union flag and fish & chips. Perhaps we should ignore the fact is that fried fish was actually introduced to Britain by Portuguese immigrants while chips are a Belgian invention.

Many of the things that are regarded internationally as being essentially British – cricket, public schools, cucumber sandwiches on the lawn – are English institutions, not British. Large sections of the UK population, particularly in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, do not regard themselves as British.

It’s difficult to think of anything that does unite all Brits; we can’t even get behind one national football team. In his book All Played Out, Pete Davis tells of the England team at the 1990 World Cup sitting in front of the TV in their hotel and cheering on Costa Rica against Scotland. Ironically the Scots will get their revenge next week when Costa Rica deliver the coup de grace to the present England World Cup team.

Part of the problem is that there is no real pan British media. The BBC regularly broadcasts local programming on its two main TV channels in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, while both Scottish Television and Ulster TV have schedules that are very different to the rest of the ITV  network. National newspapers often struggle to find an audience the further away they get from London, for example The Independent sells just 2,600 copies a day in Scotland.

Cultural, political and religious values across Britain are widely different, which is why it seems to me that any Government campaign to instil a sense of British civic pride is bound to fail. Instead we need to recognise that our main strength is that we value that diversity. Vive la difference!



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