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How to be truly British

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Tony Travers considers a Damos pamphlet from Home Office minister Liam Byrne about what it is to be British.

This document is the government’s latest effort in a long and often confused attempt to give a shape and content to the notion of ‘Britishness’.

Explaining his proposals, Mr Byrne stated: “Parties need a ‘soft power’ strategy that connects with those who can renew a vibrant civic fabric”.

The minister evidently believes that an element in being British is a “vibrant civic fabric”.

“Civic” is a word with clear meaning. It is concerned with the duties and obligations belonging to a community and also with local government.

The word appears in the pamphlet over 40 times. ‘Local government’, though, is barely mentioned. There are one or two references to ‘councillors’ or to ‘local’ as an adjective, but that’s it. Though at one point he comments on the way an “affinity to local places is part and parcel of people’s attachment to our country”.

However, Mr Byrne praises Birmingham’s civic history, citing the Chamberlains and Cadburys. He explains how the city fathers created a good schools system and then reformed it until it was a model for the rest of the country.

Today, the minister believes his city has a similar opportunity, listing a series of Whitehall school building and housing funding initiatives.

But there is no recognition of the difference between the ‘old days’ when Birmingham raised and spent its own ratepayers’ money and today’s need for the council to bid for London-controlled cash. In the city’s glory days, the corporation was, without question, an example of British constitutional progress something to be proud of.

In today’s Britain, 95% of all taxation (100%, with all council tax capped) is determined by the chancellor. Making regulations about, say, cattle grids and traffic cones in Whitehall won’t create a “vibrant civic fabric”. All the government’s efforts to reinforce Britishness will be damaged by an utterly un-British addiction to centralism.

So, here are a few thoughts that might help both migrants and British born residents to fully understand what ‘being British’ is all about.

First, showing a healthy disrespect for efforts to define or promote Britishness is at the core of ‘being British’.

Second, most people simply don’t care unless there is a threat to our national way of life, and then they rally round bravely. Third, most people think the Queen does ‘British’ better than anything or anyone else.

The government should support an initiative to strengthen the local institutions that contributed to our 1,000 years of evolved democracy. Hand power back to cities, counties, districts and parishes.

Reinforce civic identity with the power to raise taxes and make decisions. Take us back to the power-structures of this country’s extraordinary past. That would be a real demonstration of what being British is all about.

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