I must admit that when I first heard about British Future I was sceptical. But over the last few months I’ve been gradually won over. Here’s a think tank with a clear progressive agenda, but one that refuses to be beholden to traditional boundaries. A think tank that’s begun to do something that successive late 20th century politicians tried to do and largely failed; create a real debate about what constitutes Britishness at the beginning of the 21st century. And today it’s asking us to take part in #positivetwitterday. To celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic spirit and be positive and civil for a day. And where better to start than with Britishness itself.
John Major’s much derided 1992 attempt at defining Britishness evoked the image of “cycling home from evensong, sipping warm beer on the village green while watching cricket.” At some level it was quite endearing, but it didn’t bear much scrutiny. Conjuring up a sense of whiteness and Englishness, it was absurdly nostalgic, narrow and exclusive. In 2006 Gordon Brown, in a speech to the Fabian Society, described British patriotism as “encompassing progressive ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility.” In some respects this was much broader, and certainly laudable as an aspiration. But somehow it didn’t resonate. It felt theoretical, detached and bolted on.
The Major and Brown attempts at defining Britishness are some of the most memorable and explicit by British politicians in recent times. At other moments politicians have evoked a sense of Britishness in their responses to events. Thatcher’s post victory speech following the Falklands war spoke of the “real spirit of Britain”, of Britain having “found herself again.” In a far more subtle way, Blair’s “People’s Princess” speech immediately after the death of Diana appealed to a Britain in a state of shock and grief at her death. Earlier this year Blair was described by one commentator as the man “who more than any, tried to recreate a fuzzy sense of Britishness, post-Diana, all touchy-feely and shorn of any of ..harsh realities.”
These are just snippets of course and there have been many other attempts by politicians during recent years to capture a sense of British identity and Britishness. Some of these have been more successful, more appealing and more inclusive than others. But none has really succeeded in creating a lasting and relevant sense of a new lived Britishness, genuinely and purposively representative of the Britain we’re in today.
British Future, it seems, has been designed to avoid those pitfalls. It’s clearly non partisan, but doesn’t shy away from challenging politics. It’s prepared to engage with and celebrate the past, while being firmly rooted in the present and committed to the future. And it is unashamedly open about diversity, and in particular wants us to talk about the one thing that so many politicians both court and fear: (im)migration, the issue behind one of the most embarrassing moments of the 2010 election, the Mrs Duffy moment. And specifically one of its aims is to create greater understanding of the positive impact of migration.
#positivetwitterday is on one level a chance for fun. It’s an opportunity to use social media to create a national conversation which celebrates the moment. It’s an antidote to those who are attached to a traditional British pessimism. It says there’s value in positivity for its own sake because it can make us feel better.
But it’s more than that. This is civic #postivetwitterday. So it’s about engendering a sense of belonging, of connectivity between individuals and the collective, however and where that’s expressed. That could be a geographic community or a community of interest or within in the overlapping spaces that bring them together. If the findings of NatCen Social Research's landmark British Social Attitudes Survey in recent years are anything to go by, that’s something we could all do with.
And so it’s challenging us to be part of a conversation which helps us create our own sense of Britishness, a Britishness which isn’t afraid to shy away from difficulty, but has a reason to believe; in opportunity and in the future. And that’s why I’m no longer a British Future sceptic. I get why it matters. I don’t know where it’s going but that’s what’s great about it. It’s serendipitous, spontaneous and audacious. It’s a kind of adventure.
It’s challenging us to recognise that there’s something precious within our grasp, to recognise as Sunder Katwala pointed out in his recent blog on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, that Britishness has actually been staring us in the face all the time: it is Britain that makes us British.
And if we stop for a moment and take the opportunity to talk about it and celebrate it, we might learn something about it and ourselves which won’t just be for fun. It will help us create new ways of working and thinking together, of creating opportunities to be prosperous materially, emotionally and more. Unlike Major’s Britishness, it’s capable of being diverse and inclusive. Unlike Brown’s, it’s more rooted and practical.
British Future’s Britishness is us. In Britain. Today.