Don't break the bonds of Britishness
Traditional values: Our heritage, or what remains of it, is under threat from Romania and Bulgaria
When immigration becomes the great issue of the day, remember this: a common cultural heritage is a pearl beyond price. It is not lightly to be tampered with.
Our heritage, or what remains of it, is under threat from Romania and Bulgaria. We already have so many classrooms where English is not the first language. Or indeed whole communities where English is rare. This will get worse.
One of the inestimable merits of a common heritage is that it tells you what your neighbours will be like, for good or ill, even before you meet them. You know what to expect and what they will expect of you. It makes for stability. It enables people to live with their differences.
Certain things can be assumed in what we think of as Britishness, a clumsy word with many meanings. At one level, it signifies a tolerably uncorrupt public life, a centuries old tradition of parliamentary government, a largely unchanged and unchanging constitution. In short, we like to stick with our old institutions. When we do make changes, it is by peaceful means, not by the violent overthrow which has been so common across the Channel.
Britishness at a personal level encompasses a variety of values: the stiff upper lip (another name for self-control), a strong sense of fair play and a (lingering) sense that how you play the game is as important as whether you win. Tolerance is a key virtue. Good manners and even the instinct to queue matter.
Apology comes easily, even obsessively. Was there ever such a people for saying ‘sorry’? We are not as hard-working and diligent as the Germans, but neither are we as excitable as the French or the Italians.
We are insular, unsurprisingly, as is our religion. The casual Church of England suits us, the Catholic Church with its rigidities and its urge for power does not.
Our quiet way of life was expressed in George Orwell’s words, which John Major borrowed so shamelessly as he thrust us further into the EU. Britain would always be a land of maiden ladies bicycling to church, of lengthening shadows on long lawns and cricket matches and warm beer.
Orwell himself devoted much effort to observing and living down his own Britishness — Eton and the Colonial Service. It was another characteristic of our race, that instinct to apologise.
When we made the error of joining what was slyly called the Common Market, I was intrigued by the foreign-sounding names of those who, like me, campaigned against it.
Way of life: George Orwell himself devoted much effort to observing and living down his own Britishness - Eton and the Colonial Service. It was another characteristic of our race, that instinct to apologise
Their roots may have lain across the Channel, but in Britishness they had found the model of tolerance and moderation they admired. UK citizens simply took it for granted. But that is, after all, what you often do with a common heritage.
‘The English have something special,’ a politician of foreign descent once told me, ‘and only the English seem not to understand that.’
You may say that the virtues I described in Britishness exist largely or only in the imagination. But that is where we spend much of our lives.
Cameron is confused: 'Yes' to Indian students but 'No' to benefit-hungry Eastern Europeans?
One day Ed Miliband may be our prime minister, though I would prefer not. His father battled to get to Britain from Belgium. He knew enough about Britain to assume, correctly, that his Marxist passions would be endured in some leading British university.
Orwell saw huge importance in language. Would you, could you, understand Britishness with all its fault and virtues without the English language? Yet here we are with large areas where foreign tongues prevail.
You do not know what your neighbours are likely to think or do. The means by which we live with our differences have been seriously curtailed.
We are now told that, American-style, we must have Polish areas, Muslim areas, Indian areas, West Indian areas. Have we then lost our once-so-valuable common cultural heritage? Probably. Can we regain it? Probably not. And that is before we even get round to the Romanians and Bulgarians expected to swarm onto our hospitable shores.
The Government flounders as it studies ways of curbing this influx. Cameron is confused: ‘Yes’ to Indian students but ‘No’ to benefit-hungry Eastern Europeans?
We know that many of the changes suggested to discourage immigrants would fall foul of the EU rules for free movement. No 10 concedes this.
Now Cameron knows what powerlessness feels like. Britishness he never understood anyway.