Define Britishness. Go on, you know you want to. If the challenge is good enough for Gordon Brown, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
British identity and values have become a kind of political shorthand for an orderly, respectful society that at the same time is dynamic, intelligent, entrepreneurial, courageous.
But just as few of us measure our Englishness by our capacity to devour bacon, eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, fried eggs and optional black pudding every morning, so few of us have any clear conception of Britishness or British values, other than the fact that we’re here, usually by an accident of birth, and for the most part we quite like it.
This is important because there is a consistent message from government that our way of life is under threat from those who do not share our background and beliefs.
So this week Tony Blair announced £1m to train imams in the UK, assuming that clerics educated here will be more open-minded, more in touch with British-born Muslims, and less likely to preach extremism. There are some interesting ideas to unravel there.
Similarly, communities secretary Ruth Kelly and immigration minister Liam Byrne are calling for a ‘national British day’ and new citizenship rules, including a contract whereby migrants could lose points for antisocial behaviour. Should native-born Brits also have their citizenship revoked if they terrorise their neighbours?
And what test of Britishness should be set – a quiz on the antics of Big Brother contestants, or the football careers of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney?
What ministers are trying to promote are not British values but ethical and social values: respect for the rule of law, honesty, courtesy.
These values are upheld, tested and refined within communities that take on multifarious identities: religious, cultural, national, local.
We should have learned enough about diversity by now to know that we work towards shared values by respecting such identities, not by trying to subsume them under one flag.
And people’s thinking changes as they are given space to talk and to be heard, to challenge and be challenged – not by making acceptance conditional on conformity.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine