My passport is British.
I identify as British.
My heritage is Caribbean but I see myself distinctively as British.
The census identifies me as Black British (?)
My cousins in the Caribbean and America see as me as British.
But really what does being British mean? Is there a general consensus that identifies what it means to be British or a member of the United Kingdom? Is being British no longer relevant when those members of the union such as Scotland and Wales are making distinct moves to be recognised as separate entities all together? What does the British National Party mean when they say “Native British are now treated like second-class citizens in our own country”? Do I have to be a monarchist to be British?
So many questions.
2012 has brought a lot of these question to the fore for me. The Jubilee. The Olympics opening ceremony. The pomp and ceremony. Yet still with little answers over this struggle of identity and whether or not it actually matters. Whilst I do admire the sense of pride so many take in their countries/identity, proudly waving or pledging allegiance to their flags, on the flip side such patriotism scares me too, including here in the UK. That said let me unpick what being British means to me!
I was born in St Mary’s hospital Paddington in London. The son of Caribbean migrants, both holders of British Commonwealth passports. Whilst my heritage is important to me and something which helped to shape me I have always seen myself as a British citizen. My loves of cricket and football. The dry sardonic wit of British comedy still influences any attempt at humour I make. The festivals at Harvest and Saints Days and of course the very odd Boxing Day. My admiration and allegiance to the monarchy and the notion that hard work and education could somehow get you further up the social ladder of class which so dominates our culture.
As I got older however I realised that many of my early concepts of what it means to British were steeped in white middle/upper class interpretations of this ideal reinforced through school, media and the culture I grew up in. I was ignoring a much larger more diverse contribution to British culture. The arts, education, traditions, food and drink of other migrant cultures which were formerly part of the empire (a term which has always grated on me) were just as important. That even outside of the traditional dialects other hybrid dialects formed and shaped part of the British experience. I realised that I veered more to being a republican than a monarchist and to this day have no interest in Queens Honours system, something for me which reinforces the class divide. Being British was something much bigger than dancing around a may pole, perfecting Queens standard English, being called Smith and wanting to get in the enclosure at Ascot. I come to these wider definitions of being British in part because of the struggle we all seem to have in this tiny union to define a common identity around what it means to be British. Mainstream parties never seem to know what it means, whilst extreme political parties will creatively use vernacular to suggest that is about being white, Christian, not foreign and independent of Europe.
Yet for me having been born, educated, married, now raising children and probably end up dying in this country being British is about being a citizen of the United Kingdom. Adhering to the laws of the land, notions of democracy and equality. Freedom of speech (to a greater extent). Paying taxes to the government, a welfare state which will support not just those who can afford it but freely accessible to all, give or take a need for review and reform. Being British has nothing to do with my colour, I still don’t get what Black British means, but everything to do with my attitude in the wider community that I find myself in. It is a freedom to acknowledge the history that has brought us here. Both the good and the bad. A history that embraces the contribution of all who would call themselves citizens regardless of ancestry or migration. An understanding and appreciation of those who believe different to me, whether spiritually, economically or socially. It is being part of a wider community that recognises that we have rights, but with rights come a certain amount of responsibility. It is more than waving a flag to demonstrate pride of being part of that community and it doesn’t require me to bow down at the feet of any other human being.
That being said, with Wales and Scotland seeking their own identity I wonder if being British is still relevant? Is my answer or definition for this answer somewhat redundant? Am I actually talking about being English? Do I need to start all over again. Hmmmmm.