Britishness has always been a thing. But isn’t it time we left it in the realm of post-war nostalgia and faced a new dawn?
Covid-19 has proved to be a great revealer of our times. Not only did the pandemic show the worth of our country’s low-skilled workers, and the ineptitude of a government built on one main campaign promise in a time of crisis, but it also showed what a country that voted 52 per cent Leave to 48 per cent Remain can, and cannot, come together on.
Boris Johnson‘s platitudes, proffering the public to use ‘good British common sense’ when dealing with the latest easing of restrictions, backfired so spectacularly it would have been a satirist’s heaven of hilarity if it wasn’t the backdrop to such a serious situation. Yes, terms like these that many Brits unironically use to stereotype their national character no longer ring true. It no longer rang true when people were stockpiling pasta and toilet paper at the onset of the pandemic, leaving supermarket shelves bare for the elderly and key workers; it no longer rang true on the particularly hot days that saw Bournemouth beach packed to the point where Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to threaten to close beaches; and it certainly no longer rang true even on nostalgia-driven days like V.E. Day — a celebration of a time that birthed many of these stereotypes — when swathes of people were out mingling on the streets with infection rates soaring.
Yes, this idea of Blitz Britishness has remained unchanged for so long that it took a pandemic to show us that these dated sentiments of being British no longer unify our diverse, modern and multicultural nation. But if not this, then what? Is there anything left culturally to unite the United Kingdom?
Uniting the kingdom
In strenuous times like these, one could argue that the monarchy should show their value by taking up that unifying role. Indeed, when Britain was only 21 years away from having endured the horrors of trench warfare, King George VI made it his mission to overcome his lifelong stutter so he could be the person announcing to the nation that they were once again heading to war. He enjoyed great popularity until his death as a result of his actions in WW2. Yet perhaps due to the Royals being mired with recent questionable publicity, including Prince Andrew and his ties to paedophile Jeffrey Epstein; feelings that the first BAME Royal, Meghan Markle was singled out with racism from the press; and the fact that up to 25 per cent of people from different age groups support republicanism, it seems the Royals likely no longer hold the same sway they once did with the nation.
You have the pub, of course. A tradition still so lived that it’s almost a cultural establishment — with countless Brits spending many of their weekends and celebrating their most important social occasions there. But pubs prove less popular with Muslims, who are forbidden to drink and make up as much as 5 per cent (or 3 million) of the UK’s population.
Football seems to do a pretty good job when it comes to uniting disparate people. But this mainly holds true when teams play nationally. During particularly tight Premier League seasons or Champions League games, it can have the opposite effect and see fans from two teams of the same town hate each other in a vicious form of tribalism.
Applause, and agreement?
But one thing that seemed to captivate the public, traversing race, class, social and cultural lines, was the weekly 8 p.m. Thursday clap of appreciation for the tireless efforts of the NHS. Despite it being nothing more than a gesture, and with some pointing out that the energy could be better spent in a practical way, the clapping went on for weeks and demonstrated the positive sentiments of thousands for the health service. And it’s no surprise. The NHS is consistently voted as one of Britain’s most popular institutions. The coronavirus pandemic has likely only strengthened these feelings. Obscure anniversaries like the recent 72nd year since the health service’s creation for instance, revived the clapping ritual that ended weeks ago.
So perhaps we can still come together. And it can still be seen as Britishness. But the coronavirus pandemic has shown that this intermittent unification won’t be through the usual channels, and may have some surprising sources. Indeed, a thorough re-examination might be necessary and the NHS can be used as a starting point. This way, we can begin to discover new and mutual ideas which prove to be just as powerful, more meaningful, and wholly befitting of where our nation is today.