What politicians should know about being British...

Our report suggests the definition of this hazy concept has become stricter


When Michael Gove spoke last week of instilling British values in schools he was not the first politician to highlight the importance of a sense of Britishness and its role in social and community cohesion. In fact he wasn’t the first in the past month.

In May, Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary, said that people who want to make Britain their home should learn English and respect Britain’s culture. While in April the Prime Minister sought to highlight the particular importance of Christianity to British values, describing Britain as “a Christian country.”

Since then the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has spoken of “democracy, gender equality and equality before the law” being central to his understanding of British values. And David Cameron has backed his Education Secretary and written about the need to be less bashful about being British.

Promoting British values may seem like an area in which politicians, whose hands are tied by the EU in terms of restricting levels of immigration, can get some traction with members of the public worried about the impact of immigration on British culture.

But with so many politicians giving their take on what British values are, this begs the question as to whether there is a universal concept of Britishness? And if, when, a politician seeks to define Britishness, do they risk alienating some parts of the electorate? This year’s British Social Attitudes survey allows us to test out the extent to which the public agrees with these definitions of British values by asking what makes someone “truly British”.

We propose nine different characteristics to participants in the survey that are commonly linked to national identity, including both things that you can pick up over time – the language, respect for institutions and laws, and those that you can’t – being born here and having British ancestry, and we ask them to tell us the extent to which they think these are important to be considered ‘truly British’.

So, are politicians getting it right on Britishness?

Britons are most definitive on the importance of being able to speak English. Agreeing with Sajid Javid, nearly all of us (95 per cent) say that speaking English is important for being British. Moreover, this has gone up quite a lot of the past decade – it already stood at 86 per cent in 2003 and 85 per cent in 1995, and now it’s near universal.

The British people are also pretty emphatic about respect for democracy and laws. You might say, they agree with Nick (and Michael) – 85 per cent say to be British you must respect Britain’s political institutions and laws. So the importance of the English language and the rule of law to British values is very safe ground for politicians wanting to promote British values.

The cultural aspects, highlighted by Sajid Javid, divide the public a little more. Here we pose our question in a slightly different way, seeking to get at the precise issue of minority groups becoming British. We ask whether it’s possible for someone from a minority group who does not share British customs and traditions to become fully British – 50 per cent of Brits say it is not. Although of course the minister for culture might argue, and fairly, that sharing British customs is a different thing to respecting them, but there are clearly some people who think that to become British it is not necessary to adopt British customs.

This ability to “become” British, which politicians emphasise when they call on migrants to the UK to adopt a British way of life, is debateable in itself. Many British people seem to doubt whether it is possible for a first generation immigrant to be British – three quarters say you need to be born here to be considered British, while half of people say it’s important to have British ancestry.

In our assessment of whether politicians have been on the money in their definitions of British values it’s the Prime Minister who is widest of the mark. His description of Britain as a Christian country seems to be most out of tune with the public. Only a quarter of people see Christianity as important to being British, down from a third a decade ago.  

So it’s a bit of a mixed report for the politicians. But they are right to be engaging in the issue, since our report also gives some hints that the British public have become stricter in their definition of Britishness.  

More people said you needed to speak English and have lived your life in England to be considered truly British. And we also saw small increases on the importance of being born here, and having British ancestry to be truly British.  

However, for many people, being British is not a club that you can just join. It seems it’s not just enough to adopt British values. In particular, for the three quarters of people who believe that you must be born in Britain to qualify as truly British, no amount of education in British values would be enough.

Penny Young is Chief Executive of NatCen Social Research

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