On Saturday I spoke at the Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington College, where I debated the meaning of Britishness with a panel including Professor David Starkey and Laurie Penny. The debate itself unfortunately ended in acrimonious scenes between Professor Starkey and Miss Penny, which is a shame as I thought it was shaping up well. I have included below the talk with which I opened the debate, in case you might find them of interest.
I live in Walthamstow, which is east London’s last outpost before the city succumbs to Essex. A few weeks ago, to take advantage of the consistently wonderful weather, my neighbours held a Jubilee street party. The weather was predictably appalling. We were each asked to bring a dish and a present for the raffle; so I took along a tub of Ugandan satay chicken, and a copy of Secret London, a guide to some of the capital’s unsung treats.
It was only a short walk to the nearby marquee, but if it hadn’t been for my tattered English FA umbrella it would have taken hours for me to dry out. I arrived, greeted Teresa and Linda, the couple organising the party, and after a respectful pause went in search of food. In a tent, fashioned from perilously low-hanging tarpaulin, I found tables laden with steaming pots and cool bowls; quiches, lasagnes, salads, and so on; the pick of which dishes would turn out to be a masterful Massaman chicken curry, cooked up by the wife of the Scottish guy at number thirtysomething.
I shovelled a greedy amount of food onto a flimsy paper plate, and wandered back to the main tent, which was pitched high over three very long tables. Here I joined the growing crowd of guests; somewhere on my way to them, I had picked up an ill-fitting plastic hat emblazoned with the Union Jack, and every few minutes I found myself cramming it back onto my awkward cranium.
I got talking to an elderly English couple, the parents of one of the couples in the street, who’d driven in from the Thames Valley; it had taken them a mercifully short time to get here, up along the M25. Nearby, a West Indian woman and two Greek sisters were discussing whether or not the ailing Prince Philip was indeed racist, or just a habitual gaffe-maker. While they politely disagreed, a few more people turned up, including Neil, the Asian Liverpool fan who I recognised from the local pub. Stella Creasy, our local MP, came for about half an hour or so, before heading off to one of several other similar parties in the area; after she left, I spoke with a mixed-race woman who’d been fostered in her youth, and was now a vicar. I talked to her about the Queen. She really liked the Queen. If we didn’t have her, she pointed out, we’d have a dictatorship. What’s more, the Queen had had to live a life that was not her own. Later on, I found Neil, and we won the three-legged race by half the length of the field. I didn’t win anything in the raffle, but I made off with half a day’s supply of fresh cooking.
This party is how I see Britishness, I think. It’s a rambling, often cantankerous but tolerant family, at the head of which sits a distant and unknowable royal elite. It is this odd cocktail which makes Britishness as a concept so nebulous, so fluid and therefore so exciting. Since Britishness evolves so quickly, it is probably different now to what it was when I began speaking. Instead of trying to define this concept, I think that politicians should merely try to enable its evolution as best they can.