U.K. struggles to define 'Britishness'

LONDON -- Alarmed that Britons don't know what it means to be British anymore, the government is proposing a range of measures to remind them.

For starters, a new report suggests, how about asking graduating high school seniors to say a pledge of allegiance, and scheduling a national patriotic holiday?


The result has been a wave of veddy British irritation.

Among young and old, liberal and conservative, religious and not, the reaction to the recommendations on boosting "citizenship" have been overwhelmingly dismissive: Real Brits don't do oaths of citizenship, say some. It's "too American," say others. Why, republicans ask, do we have to promise to be loyal to a monarchy many don't even support?


Perhaps not surprisingly, Scotland, always threatening to bolt the United Kingdom, made it clear it wasn't inclined toward pledging loyalty to the queen. Wales was also not overwhelming in its enthusiasm.

"I think in this day and age of a global world, I would find it very hard to swear allegiance to one country," said Clarissa Williams, vice president of the National Association of Head Teachers, who said she was not certain her students would want to take the pledge.

"I honestly feel we are citizens of the world, not just one country," she said.

The "Britishness" issue has dogged the nation through the last decade, as the increasing autonomy of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, combined with major immigration from Asia and Central Europe, has watered down traditional symbols such as tea, rugby and an addiction to the soap opera "EastEnders.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, and thus by definition somewhat mistrusted in England, seized on the Britishness issue like salve on a wound the moment he took office. The July 7, 2005, bombings on the London transport system, committed by British Muslims, made the issue of what it means to be a British citizen a matter of crucial national security, the prime minister said.

"While the British response to the events of July 7th was magnificent, we have to face uncomfortable facts that there were British citizens, British born, apparently integrated into our communities, who were prepared to maim and kill fellow British citizens, irrespective of their religion," Brown said last year in calling for this week's report.

"This must lead us to ask how successful we have been in balancing the need for diversity with the obvious requirements of integration in our society," he said.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.