Right Wing British Member of Parliamnt Douglas Carswell is a fervent patriot – but we all know what Dr Johnson said about patriotism! The problem with Mr Carswell’s “Doesn’t it feel great to be British?” in a recent Blog in response to the Queen’s Jubilee is not the statement in itself but the extension that some (possibly including Mr Carswell himself) might append to it. For us Brits it is unremarkable to celebrate our Britishness – just as it would be unremarkable for a Frenchman to celebrate his Frenchness or a Tongan his Tonganess. Most of us have a measure of pride in our nationality – it’s much of what we are and a large part of what we know. I have lived for a significant time in my adult life outside of England – in Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and even Scotland! But when I retired I chose to come back to and make my home in England – it is where I feel at home. But in no sense did I return to England because I believe, as Flanders and Swann memorably put it, “The English, the English, the English are best!” England is better for me not because it is intrinsically a better nation than others – but because it is mine.

The Jubilee (and last year’s Royal Wedding) have been partly characterised by the conceit that “only the British have the ability to put on such a show”. This is patently untrue. Virtually every nation or city can put on big events these days – Sydney’s New Year’s fireworks, Beijing’s Olympics, South Africa’s Football World Cup and so on. What makes us different is not the show but the symbolism. The symbols are, by definition, from the past – entirely backward-looking. Every now and then the crowns, and the coaches and the burnished barges are polished and used – and we all congratulate ourselves for doing it. But then we return to the drabness of our lives until another opportunity presents itself.  But this love of history has a downside as well. That is that people will say “It was better then” when we were confident as a nation and not subsumed into the mediocrity of being part of the European Project (dread words). It is 1953 and the young Queen is on the throne and Churchill is in Number 10 and Hilary is atop Everest and Bannister has broken the four-minute mile. And we still have an Empire (or bits of it). Oh, and by the way, it’s illegal to commit a homosexual act, and we hang murderers, and divorce is a sin, and sex out of wedlock is immoral, and the Lord Chamberlain tells us what we can watch on the stage and its legal to put a sign outside your hotel saying “No Irish or Blacks” – and we all wear hats.

Over the past few days of celebration there has been plenty of pumping out of chests about the merits of Britishness – which is fine. But there has also been a fair bit of “Greatest Nation on Earth” hyperbole – which is not. Our modern world is a massively interdependent one. No Nation – and certainly no Nation of the size of the United Kingdom can possibly go it alone. National economies are fused together not just because we choose that they should be – as with the European Union – but because that is the modern reality. In the Anglo-Saxon world we long ago contracted out much of our manufacturing to countries like China and India. And more recently much of our service provision has been contracted out as well – the ubiquitous call centre for example. We may hark back to the happy days when there was a Riley on the drive and a Post Office on every High Street and the Doctor and the Postman called us “Sir” – but it’s gone. Only the Pageantry remains – occasionally to be wheeled out to make us “Feel great”. Part of the pageantry is the military and religious subtext. There was really no need for the Royal males to wear uniform for the River Pageant and there were too many echoes of past military actions and triumphs around – from the Chelsea Pensioners to the Dunkirk little ships. Backward-looking again. Similarly there was a presumption that the Christian Britain that was perhaps the norm in 1952 was still the same. So there had to be a church service in St Paul’s and the faintly absurd position of the Queen as head of the established church to be emphasised. But today the vast majority of her subjects are not members of that church – less than one fifth of adults claim adherence to the Church of England and most of us practice no religion at all.

If we can recognise the modern realties and be forward-looking rather than backward-looking arguably we will grapple more successfully with change. The Britain of 2012 is quite dramatically different from the Britain of 1952. I would argue that with a very few exceptions Britain is immeasurably better than it was 60 years ago and only those stuck firmly in the past would disagree. But over the past few days the pageantry has inevitably been nostalgic with the gathering of the tribe festooned in medals on their uniforms and with a symbolism probably unchanged not just from 60 years ago but from the last Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Albert Einstein said “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” The Pomp and Circumstance of the Monarchy is all about people and things and the only goal is to have more of the same.

Do we have the capability to celebrate our Britishness but also to look forward to our future rather than back to our past? This is a future based not on the Britain of 1952 but on the Britain of today – modern, pluralistic, liberal, undeferential and pragmatic. There is no automatic assumption that the status quo of our constitutional monarchical system is right for the future. And, arguably, there are few lessons from our Royal, Military, Christian, Imperial and Hierarchical past that can help us meet the challenges of the future. Economically and socially Britain is facing extraordinary problems – lack of Growth and High unemployment bring not just poverty but social disorder as we have seen recently. With problems like these we need a new paradigm and those who argue that we should batten down the hatches, gather deferentially around our Monarch, retreat to our Island and try to recreate our Nation as it was once, decoupled from Europe and bestriding the world stage as a Great Power, are in fantasy land. Albert Einstein also said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And it’s such new thinking not wistful nostalgia that we sorely need.        

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