Britishness is a complicated and enormous thing—what different people see as meaning different things. It can mean one island, a group of islands off the coast of Europe, or it can mean the British Empire—at times it means all those things. Politicians, and the rest of us, define it in different ways at different times.
David Cannadine, historian
The debate about Britishness is promoted by the extent of our post-war decline. We are no longer kept together by the need to fight wars, we are no longer all Protestants and we do not have the self-interest of belonging to a massive global empire.
Linda Colley, historian
If I had to think of one thing to symbolise Britishness it would be the cenotaph in Glasgow—it represents the wars, which I see as a very British endeavour.
Kirsty Wark, broadcaster
I suppose an essential aspect of being British is not liking others very much. We are set apart by our lack of French-ness, German-ness or Italian-ness. Still Britain is one of the few places left in the world which still has real beer.
Terry Jones, film maker
Britishness….is also drunken yobs following a football team. It’s patriotism which verges upon nationalism if encouraged.
Julian Critchley, former MP for Aldershot
The one thing that always strikes me is that people are pretty much reserved. Things take a long time to change. People a really scared to let go of hundreds of years of history and keeping things in. It’s partly to do with having so many people squeezed into such a small place. The overriding thing about Britain is that people are very reserved, the same attitudes prevail because of the way we are educated and our parents are educated.
Gillian Wearing, artist
This country is epitomised by surprise—nothing is as you expect it to be. Unlike a police state, there is a tradition of allowing eccentricity and variety in Britain. The language is terribly important. Of course they speak English elsewhere, but it does not have the same reverberations. That, for a writer, is one of the most important aspects.
UA Fanthorpe, poet
I increasingly think we should abandon the idea of Britishness and acknowledge that we’re really talking about what it means to be English. Scotland has its own identity. To me the best things about English people are originality, tolerance and, most of all, understatedness. Sadly, I only manage two out of three. The place that best sums up England is the English countryside, particularly Oxfordshire and the Pennines.
Derek Draper, radio presenter and former lobbyist
For a lot of people, I suspect that Britain is epitomised more locally than William Hague’s assertion. People define themselves as coming from Yorkshire or Lancaster, or as being cockney, like I am, rather than coming from Britain as a whole. There’s a certain snottiness in trying to define “Britishness”. If anybody asked, I would say I am a Londoner and a European.
Claire Rayner, writer and broadcaster
Britishness is the countryside, individual liberty, unbroken tradition, and no revolutions. For the British countryside I would pick out the West Highlands, the Lake District and the West Country. There is a strange mistiness alight, such as Turner picked up on so brilliantly. It is a country of poetry.
Shirley Williams, Liberal Democrat peer
Every political party is in the identity business. Getting your mitts on the symbolism of identity is crucial to getting into power. The Labour party have successfully associated themselves with modernity. Hague is now playing catch-up. There is not a single image. When Major evoked images of maidens on bicycles, everyone disagreed. If Britishness is about anything, it isn’t about places or people, it’s about institutions. Britishness is parliamentary democracy, rule of law, fairness and decency. It is the institutions that deliver this. It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s not the shires, it’s not London, it’s not brassy and it’s not old-fashioned.
Michael Ignatieff, writer and broadcaster
We are a naturally pragmatic people. We know how to take the influence of the likes of Scott and Austen and turn them into new things. I am tired of the frontline of swinging Britain—it’s false and artificial and has nothing to do with our inventive art, music and fashion. I don’t think we care about cream teas and old maids on bikes, but we do love our landscape.
AS Byatt, novelist
It’s tolerance, decency and a determination to talk about the weather on all occasions and a tendency, when a stranger stands on one’s foot, to apologise.
Martin Bell, MP
[Conservatives must embrace] the Britain of big industrial cities and housing estates, the Britain proud of its world class designers and good restaurants, the Britain where hundreds of thousands go to the Notting Hill Carnival and the Eisteddfod, the Britain which watches MTV and Changing Rooms, and which is fascinated by Ricky and Bianca’s ups and downs, the Britain which turns to the sports pages before the political news, where more people go on holiday to Florida than Butlins, the Britain, in other words, that has always been Britain too urban, ambitious, sporty, fashion-conscious, multi-ethnic, brassy, self-confident and international.
William Hague, Conservative leader
Being British is about singing Karaoke in Bars, eating Chinese noodles and Japanese sushi, drinking fresh wine, wearing Prada and Nike, dancing to Italian house music, listening to Cher, using an Apple Mac, holidaying in Florida and Ibiza and buying a house in Spain. Shepherds pie and going on holiday to Hastings went out about 50 years ago and the only people you’ll see wearing a Union Jack are French movie stars or Kate Moss.
Malcolm Mc Laren, pop impresario
It’s a good time to be British, especially for an artist. I wouldn’t say I’m proud to be British, but for the first time, I’m not ashamed to be British. Britishness is looking out of a bus window, seeing sexy, stylish people laughing.
Tracy Emin, artist
Britain is about energy. We are a tiny little country and yet we exercise so much influence, particularly in the worlds of fashion and music. Britain for me is the designers—McQueen, Galliano, Ozbek—and the music. Someone like the band 4 Hero, an amazing fusion of jazz, soul and drum’n’bass.
Lisa i’Anson, Radio 1 DJ
The thing that comes to me immediately is the song of the thrush, which we have lost along with so many British things. Now Britain is the sound of guns on a Saturday and pheasants tumbling out of the sky.
Clara Lane, writer and animal rights activist
The Conservative strategists have yet again grossly miscalculated if they imagine that an appeal to the “British way of life” has any resonance. It is so childish. Most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate “Englishness” with everything that is most backward in this country.
David Hare, playwright
I think Britishness has died off in my lifetime and nothing has replaced it. When I as a child, it was Winston Churchill, beefeaters and lots of pink on the globe. Now it’s an irrelevant concept. Personally, I’m a Londoner living in Europe.
Jon Snow, broadcaster