Andreas Whittam Smith: Lessons for the centre-left in how to be British

Not thinking about Englishness is itself an English quality. That is one of our defining features
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Like most English people, I have never spent time wondering what "Englishness" is or, for that matter, what comprises "Britishness". Nor, I suppose, do the increasing number of people who are displaying the flag of St George in preparation for the World Cup. However the pamphlet published this week by the editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart - Progressive nationalism; citizenship and the Left - suggests we should be more serious about it. With Gordon Brown, he argues that it behoves us to strengthen feelings of national solidarity if we wish to maintain support for the welfare state and when we are being challenged by home-grown terrorism, by substantial immigration and by far-right parties gaining a toehold in local politics.

In fact not thinking about Englishness is itself an English quality. Avoiding self-consciousness about such things is one of our defining features. That is why we have never had a day to compare with Independence Day, 4 July in the US or Bastille Day, 14 July, in France. In any case, my working assumption has been that newcomers gradually become as English, or as Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish as the rest of us - and thus as British - by the simple expedient of living here.

This notion was fortified recently by reading extracts from a book by Gianluca Vialli, the Italian footballer, published in this newspaper. Comparing the characteristics of English and Italian players, he wrote that when he arrived at Chelsea in 1996 after 15 years in Italy he thought he had consolidated his way of playing football. "Instead I found myself immediately caught up in the English spirit. And I saw my team-mates, many of whom were foreign, equally infected with the English style." Importing Continental footballers, it turns out, hasn't made English football more European; instead we have rendered them more English.

Nonetheless Britishness is undoubtedly losing its old props. Once we were a small Protestant power confronted by large Catholic blocs, the Bourbons in France and the Hapsburgs in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. We were parliamentary; they were absolute monarchies. We built an Empire and manned its territories and borders, the French and the Spanish lost most of theirs. We had a Royal Navy; the continental powers had massive armies. They also had revolutions; we forgot that we had had them, too.

We gave everything in the two world wars of the 20th century and weren't defeated. We did indeed once know this story and most of us did feel pride in it. It was an unseen glue in our national life. But now its adhesiveness has weakened. Schoolchildren aren't taught much history any more, the Protestant sensibility has thinned out. Nobody under the age of 60 has any direct memory of the Second World War.

Now Mr Goodhart writes about national identity as a man of the centre-left addressing people of similar views. In this milieu, nationalism has traditionally been unwelcome. The centre-left likes to think of itself as internationalist. It has no notion of patriotism. It sees nationalism and national feeling as a belligerent and xenophobic force. And the centre-left believes that the least a former colonial power can do is to open its borders to immigrants from its former territories.

Yet this is to miss a very important point, according to Mr Goodhart. We need a sense of national solidarity to maintain the things the centre-left holds dear. As he puts it: "The more different we become from one another - the more diverse our ways of life and our religious and ethnic backgrounds - and the less we share a moral consensus or a sense of fellow feeling, the less happy we will be in the long run to support a generous welfare state."

Hence Gordon Brown's interest in reviving the idea of Britishness. Mr Goodhart discusses how it might be done. It is quite a job - even assuming the government machine can be made to work again. Britishness has to make sense to the English, who aren't sure they need it, and to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, whose control over their own affairs has been or is being strengthened anyway. It also has to interest the large settled communities from south Asia, Africa and the West Indies. And it must accommodate Islam.

Actually, Mr Goodhart's proposals appear puny by comparison with the problem he describes. They include notions of teaching citizenship at school, making citizenship more visible with ceremonies, oaths of allegiance etc. He also advances the idea that migration should be welcomed to the extent that it can be shown to improve the lives of the least well-off British citizen without saying how this could be measured. But this doesn't matter. Mr Goodhart isn't addressing people like me with our unthinking patriotism but rather his colleagues on the centre-left with their unthinking cynicism about national pride.