Soapbox

Dual Britannia

Twenty-one years ago, Tory backbenchers Laurence Robertson and the late John Townend incited a race row by warning against “cramming” the country with different ethnic groups and making Britain a “mongrel nation”. The then Conservative leader William Hague quickly disciplined the two and forced them to retract. Robertson remains an MP, but thankfully these days restricts his public pronouncements to promoting trade and campaigning against puppy smuggling.

Fast-forward to this month when Britain is celebrating two jubilees: 70 years of service by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and 50 years since our first Pride. While these two extraordinary anniversaries seem to speak of very distinct parts of our cultural heritage, as Philip Hensher’s delightfully funny cover story suggests (p 17), they have more in common than first meets the eye.

Above all, they show our ability to simultaneously celebrate and commemorate – the Royal Mint is issuing special coins for both – one institution that speaks of uniformity and permanence, and another that speaks of diversity and change. All without descending into cultural schizophrenia. This reveals something startlingly obvious about Britain that hasn’t been grasped by those who share the views of Messrs Robertson and Townend. For all our social divides and love of tradition and pomp, we are – and always have been – a mongrel nation.

While the history we tell ourselves is usually that of outward migration and conquest, especially the creation of the Empire, the deeper story of Britain is one of immigration. It’s a tale of Celts, Romans, and Vikings; of Angles, Saxons and Normans; of Jews, Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Africans. Evidence for these various legacies is found everywhere: in monuments and cathedrals, in surnames and place names, in our language and in our blood, for we are living examples of DNA spaghetti. Let’s not forget that even our royals are immigrants, and it was barely more than a century ago that the current dynasty changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.

None of this is cause for alarm. Most of us intuitively know it’s the wellspring of Britain’s industriousness and creativity, an ongoing source of national renewal. Likewise, when Pride takes to the streets it will be under the rainbow flag, which has come to reflect both the diversity and the unity of the LGBTQ community (see Rosie Wilby, Celebrating 50 years of  Pride). As with all rainbows, it promises sunnier days ahead for them, in terms of dignity, equality and visibility, and celebrates the victories they’ve already won against discrimination. Meanwhile, some of those waving Union Jacks in honour of the Queen might have overlooked that it’s also a flag of different stripes and colours, a synthesis of older flags designed to represent the political union of diverse kingdoms and peoples.

Exactly what’s left of that United Kingdom has more recently been called into question, triggered in particular by Brexit, which was opposed by clear majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, but supported in England and Wales. With different political parties in charge of each of the devolved assemblies and at Westminster, and with the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, its very survival is now in question (see Sonia Sodha, Johnson jeopardises Good Friday Agreement ).

But for all that, these two Jubilees highlight the things that still unite us, rather than divide us. Joan Collins once declared that we British “don’t take ourselves as seriously as other countries do.” She was referring to the live-and-let-live attitude that characterises society throughout the four nations, which (the Troubles notwithstanding) has allowed those from different backgrounds, with different creeds, identities, ideologies and sexual proclivities, to live side-by-side – if not always with overt enthusiasm, then at least with sanguine indifference.

In more recent years, the image of the affable but tenacious British Bulldog has been hijacked by the far right and linked to all kinds of bigotry. But back in the nineteenth century and until the end of World War II it was a more universal symbol of shared national values. Sometimes we only recognise the importance of these when they’re being trodden on by those in power, as has been the case under the Johnson administration. For that, there’ll no doubt be a reckoning (see Simon Heffer, Déjà Blues).

But for now it’s all Dual Britannia as we celebrate a double jubilee, with street dances and street parties, with cocktails and cucumber sandwiches, with The Village People and village cricket. So maybe it’s also time to adopt an alternative canine pin-up to represent who we are as a nation in all our diverse glory and help us face our adversities with a sense of togetherness. A much more motley mascot perhaps, a genial but doggedly determined British Mongrel.

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