I’ve had a number of discussions recently about Britain and what Britishness is. The current issue is what makes a Brit a Brit, and whether or not it is compatible with being English or European. Mrs G (an American) is also having to teach British Values (democracy, freedom of speech, respect for the rule of law) that are not unique to this island.
Other friends have commented on certain aspects of British life, is it that all our food is bland and boiled (both of which I refute, it’s hearty and fried)? What about the way we look at class, or is it the fact that as a nation we are able to laugh at ourselves (a trait that only seems to be shared by Canadians, Australians or New Zealanders – perhaps having the Queen as Head of State gives oneself a good dose of self-deprecation).
What better way to look at it than with a list of things that seem to be Britannic specialties. So grab your warm beer and Union Jack bowler for, in no particular jingoistic order, my list of what I consider to be our most famous institutions:
The tea interval at the first test of the summer at Lord’s.
Perhaps starting off with cricket would be unsurprising to those that know me, but how British can you get with tea, cricket and private member’s clubs? I remember trying to explain how a sporting event stops for 15 minutes for (what was traditionally) a cuppa and a piece of cake (most likely a Victoria Sandwich). The first test match of the summer is always played at Lord’s, and in a sport that is quickly forgetting its traditions it is still one that shows no sign of being changed. Mainly due to the fact the game is run by the MCC, a member’s only group that are the custodians of the game’s laws and fairly resistant to change.
The last night of the Proms.
The Proms themselves are a pure slice of Britishness in themselves, but the final evening of the season is littered with ‘patriotic’ tunes such as Rule Britannia and Jerusalem. The sight of hundreds of middle class twerps in Union Jack waistcoats bobbing up and down to sea shanty’s and songs extolling the virtues of Empire never fails to bring a tear to the eye, both in embarrassment and the wish I was there as well.
The FA Cup.
The oldest cup competition in the world and (depending on the broadcaster du jour) “The Greatest Cup Competition in the World Ever”. Allowing any football team in the country to enter and dream of playing the final (or semi-final) at Wembley gives the cup a romantic feeling that means everyone tries that little bit extra. Unless of course you are one of the big teams who are more interested in Europe of playing in Fifa’s mickey mouse world tournament.
The House of Lords.
Imagine living in a democracy with a bicameral government, where by the lower house is elected by the people and then have to pass these laws to the upper house to amend and ratify. Then imagine that this upper house consists only of unelected members placed there by previous governments as thank-yous and long service awards. Or perhaps they are bishops there to represent less than 50% of the religious beliefs of the nation or have their seat due to the hereditary nature of the position. An upper house that cannot be held to account by the electorate or has to answer to anyone and has the power to suppress the will of those sent to parliament to represent the public. Congratulations…you have created the House of Lords.
The respect and lack of respect to those in power.
We still have a deference to those in charge, and will give a certain amount of respect to the position that they may inhabit. Whether you are the Prime Minister or a Policeman, the role you hold is still treated as something that is deserving of the nation’s admiration and should be protected and not abused. That is not necessarily the case for the people who actually fulfill those jobs, there is a long history of lampooning the person (if not the position) and it has been argued that this lack of censorship has given Britain a certain level of political stability over the past few centuries. Just because you hold the most powerful position in the land doesn’t mean you cannot be mocked, in fact it is more likely that you will be made a fool off whether it was in the pages of Punch magazine or on Spitting Image.