June 25, 2021

“We are Britain and we have one dream to unite all people in one Great Team”. So declares the One Britain One Nation campaign, the group behind today’s catchily named OBON (One Britain, One Nation) Day. To mark this date of national unity children are encouraged to clap for front line workers and sing a patriotic song that features the stirring chorus:

“Strong Britain, Great Nation
Strong Britain, Great Nation
Strong Britain, Great Nation
Strong Britain, Great Na-a-a-tion”

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The lyrics do rather make it sound like it could have been an anthem from some Balkan or central Asian country which has repeatedly suffered military humiliation over the past centuries. (Although to be fair, it was written by a group of primary school children so I don’t want to get too Simon Cowell about the whole thing.)

Since OBON day got the support of the Department for Education, the idea of children singing the country’s praise attracted the usual measured response. Some compared it to North Korea, while others, inevitably, reached for the only historical analogy that every Tory initiative reminds them of. “One country? Sounds like EIN REICH, Read this article on ‘14 signs of an upcoming fascist takeover’.” One Scottish nationalist MP compared it to Soviet imperialism in the Baltic.

There were few fans, and just as Orwell observed that Britain could never become fascist because we laughed at military parades, so today we could never become nationalists because any official attempt at unity would make everyone cringe.

Sure “Strong Britain, Great Nation” is not quite “La Marseillaise”, but then the cynics are hardly sympathetic. In particular, I have little sympathy for complacent ageing liberals who guffaw that such things are “Not British”; a lot of things that happen in this country might once have appeared very un-British, and you didn’t do anything to stop those. Times change.

Indeed, our historic lack of flag-waving reflects the confidence that comes from having an ancient political history, the kingdom of England being almost 1100 years old; it comes from being a country which until the mid-20th century had little racial diversity and no memory of foreign rule. A country like that didn’t need its schoolchildren to sing about the dream of unity; it went without saying.

Multicultural countries in contrast need to shout about what they have in common, which is why the United States made such an effort to enforce a secular national faith, making children salute the flag and forcing poor southern European immigrants to deny the obvious superiority of football and instead pretend to enjoy America’s incomprehensibly boring national sports. Multicultural Britain needs to do something similar, rather than relying on ancient cynicism and irony.

Unlike most modern patriotic movements, which tend to be funded by big Quaker organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, OBON is authentically grassroots, organised by a Yorkshireman called Kas Singh, who arrived in Britain at the age of six and rose to become a police inspector.

With the unjaded patriotism often found in immigrants, Singh aims “to create a spirit of inclusion with a collective purpose and a common future where we all seek to eliminate hatred, intolerance and discrimination of any kind so that all our people can feel and develop a strong and shared sense of belonging in order to showcase their pride, passion and love for our great nation”.

Rather than being a Tory creation and a sign of the upcoming fAsCiST taKEoVER, One Britain, One Nation dates to the later Blair era, when the idea of teaching “British Values” in order to unite the nation was first proposed. It had became a government concern when it became clear in the early 2000s that significant numbers of second generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi Britons held views well outside the mainstream on gay rights, anti-Semitism, terrorism and the role of sharia. What was most concerning was that the younger, British-born generation often seemed to have more hardline opinions than their parents, a reversal of the expected pattern of assimilation.

Yet the whole idea faced contradictions right from the start, namely that Britain was still in the midst of a cultural revolution that was completely overhauling its own values. The most obvious absurdity was the claim that gay rights were linked to British Values. It was only in living memory that Iran was more tolerant towards same-sex couples than Britain, while France and Italy legalised same-sex relations over a century before us.

True, the Sixties might seem a long time away, but some schools even list “combatting transphobia” as a core British value, something that wouldn’t even make sense to someone during the Blair era. Last year British home cinema channels began issuing trigger warnings before films, stating that they reflected the values of their time — including films made in 2019. How can such a society teach values when its own values evolve more quickly than Covid?

What British Values tended to mean, and this wasn’t exactly an accident, was liberal or progressive values, ideas that plenty of people of all backgrounds might feel completely alien to them. Beyond that the things they emphasise — tolerance and respect — are worthy, and something we’d like to teach our children, but they’re not particularly British.

But the main problem with all these programmes is that this is not how nations are forged. Countries don’t have values, they have characteristics, which can also change; before the 18th century the English were famous for their melancholy, while since then they have been characterised by their sense of humour (and very low suicide rate).

A country’s characteristics are a product of what does make a nation — a history, and a common narrative. And here, at least, the idea of writing a song is closer to the mark than previous attempts. Nations are stories that have been told about a people, often a story of struggle. The first thing that nation-builders do, after trying to enforce a common language, is to create a narrative history; in France, which before the Revolution was a hugely diverse place in which only 10% of people spoke French, this was far more deliberate. “Our ancestors, the Gauls” was a policy of unification to a group of people who spoke 55 different languages.

In Italy, where statesman Massimo d’Azeglio famously said that L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani — “now we have created Italy, we must create Italians” — a conscious attempt was made to turn the medieval Tuscan poets into national bards. Italian nationalists saw that if Italy were to become a nation, it needed a Shakespeare, a storyteller who helped write English identity.

Irish nationalism owed huge amounts to song, in particular rousing tales of heroic military defeat at the hands of the English, such as “The Rising of the Moon”. In opposition to this, Ulster Loyalist identity was passed down through tunes such as “Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne”, tales of defiance and courage. You don’t have to have a favoured tribe in that interminable conflict to find these anthems rousing, because that human desire to love the homeland, and to make sacrifices for it, is universal.

Similarly Scottish nationalism has been hugely spurred by narrative, in particular Braveheart, a film that did more to promote national identity than a million campaign groups, and, arguably, the folk music of The Corries. (Nationalists always have better song than unionists, I’m afraid.)

If the rulers of multicultural Britain wish to forge a nation, then songs and stories are far more powerful than ideas about values. The problem is that liberal democracies tend to be weak at nation-building, because the principles of consensus and tolerance do not provide the oxytocin necessary for group solidarity. That hormonal high is only triggered by a sense of out-group threat, and the subsequent desire to defend — and make sacrifices.

A few years back an anti-extremism programme for schools instructed teachers to watch out for Muslim boys who expressed a belief in dying for what they believed in or defending their honour by force if necessary. These weren’t “terrorist values”, though, they were the same urges that inspired every nation-builder in ours and everyone else’s history.

That programme wasn’t aimed at fostering patriotism, it was aimed at crushing any potential forms of patriotism that conflicted with the state. There was no alternative offered, but then it’s hard to build a common narrative because the different peoples of Britain in 2021 don’t really have a common history. What little they do share is often unhappy and exploitative — and cannot possibly be taught in a way that satisfies everyone. That explains the meteoric rise to prominence of Mary Seacole, a woman who lived an extraordinary life but has become a bizarrely overly-important historical figure in schools. All history is about the age in which it is written, and so it is with Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse who has become a 21st-century construction.

Alternatively, there is the desperate and inane idea of “progressive history”, featuring a parade of losers from the Levellers to the Chartists. But if a 14-year-old in a London comprehensive isn’t inspired by Nelson bleeding to death after destroying the French fleet with massive cannons, do you really think listening to Tony Benn talking about the Putney Debates is going to do it?

Historical narrative is limited by nature — collectively we can only remember a few stories at a time, which is what people forget about when they complain that they weren’t taught at school about the Benin Empire or the history of French colonial rule in Gabon. There is only a limited amount of history that can be taught in schools, yet still it’s noticeable that the organisers behind OBON Day seem to have chosen a completely random date. They could have shifted it by just a week or so to coincide with Magna Carta Day, a genuinely central event in our national history, and one that shaped who we are.

Future governments are going to have to wrestle with this issue, to teach a new idea of Britishness for a new nation. Songs are not a bad start, sneering aside, but they need to tell us something more meaningful if they’re going to move us. They need to tell a story, of heroic failure and victory, of hope for the future, and the nation united in wanting to win. It’s just a shame that we can’t use the obvious, but sadly too English, choice: “Three Lions”.