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Angst in Albion

- January 27, 2008

bq. “Once Mighty, Slightly Used.”

bq. “At Least We’re Not French.”

bq. “We Apologise for the Inconvenience.”

bq. “No Motto Please, We’re British.”

These were some of the suggested national mottoes submitted to a “cynical” content sponsored by the Times of London. The contest was provoked by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposal for “pride-bolstering measures”:

bq. The government’s plans also include coming up with a definition of British citizenship; formulating a “bill of rights and duties” for citizens; and even considering writing down a constitution (it is currently unwritten, an accrual of precedents). There is also talk of a “British Day,” similar to Independence Day; a “museum of Britishness”; and a revisiting of the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” one of whose later verses advocates annihilating the “rebellious Scots,” which is not very nice to the Scottish.

The story is here.

These cheeky mottoes were, in my estimation, better than some bandied about in the House of the Lords. They ranged from the puerile to the pompous:

bq. Play up, and play the game.

bq. Keep right on ’til the end of the road. (From the Birminghan City Football Club.)

bq. Nemo me impune lacessit. (“No one attacks me with impunity”)

bq. Dieu et mon droit. (“God and my right”)

Brown has apparently been influenced by the “strong sense of national identity” in the United States. By contrast, in Britain, people are proud to be British, but do not know what it means to be British.

Interestingly, some survey data suggests differences between the US and Britain in their levels of national pride. In the World Values Survey, people were asked “How proud are you to be [American/British]: very proud, somewhat proud, not very proud, or not at all proud?” In the US in 1999, 72% said “very proud” and 23% said “somewhat proud.” In Britain in 1999, 49% said “very proud” and 41% said “somewhat proud.”

But the question of what it means to be American or British is, of course, more complex. Indeed, some research in the US suggests that Americans hold no straightforward view:

bq. A complex and contradictory set of norms exist, and it is difficult to reduce them into a single measure of “Americanism.”

This is from a very interesting article by Deborah Schildkraut (here, gated). If her conclusions are any indication, the content of British national identity may be similarly difficult to pin down.