Picture credit: linziloop
Reclaim our streets, reclaim our country! by Ellie Mae O’Hagan
When people talk about British values I’m never quite sure what they mean. Britishness could mean anything from tea and scones with the Queen to drunkenly vomiting outside a Wetherspoons in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning. So somewhere between fish and chips, Harry Potter and overcast skies, I am going to try and explain what Britishness means to me.
I’ve always thought fairness to be a fundamental attribute of British values. When our politicians woo us with platitudes, they talk about fairness. Labour once promised ‘a future fairer for all;’ the Tories’ mantra ‘we’re all in this together’ suggests fairness and equality by its very nature, and the Lib Dems… well. Actually never mind.
But fairness is equally mysterious a term as Britishness. What does it actually mean? To me, fairness means compassion. It means making an effort to understand the circumstances of others before you judge their actions. It means striving for equality, which requires an acceptance that not everyone begins from the same place. It means dignity.
In fact, one of my favourite definitions of fairness is Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came about as a direct consequence of the Second World War, and it was enshrined in Britain by the foundation of a Welfare State. In post-War Britain, we recognised that everybody deserves shelter, food and healthcare, regardless of how rich or poor they are. That’s fairness – that’s decency. We emerged from a savage and terrible war and decided to define ourselves by civility. That was Britishness.
Now I find it funny that we ask a woman in a hat of jewels to talk about crippling cuts and call that Britishness. Somewhere along the way, we decided to chip away the foundations of British values, or even just human values, and compensate with pomp and pageantry. So now there’s a homelessness crisis, a sharp rise in food banks, and the end of universal healthcare, and we’re throwing a party. We’re spending our money on peculiar rituals, fancy hats and stale traditions to try and force an idea of Britishness because we know that any meaningful definition has been erased. The government has destroyed substance, so it’s compensating with style.
I’m looking forward to UK Uncut’s Great British Street Party, because – to borrow a cliché from David Cameron – I want to put the Great back into Great Britain. I want people from other countries to commend us for having universal healthcare and try and emulate it in their countries. I want compassion to be more than an offering people make on a whim, but something that is institutionalised: a fundamental hallmark of who we are, not just as British residents, but as human beings.
The Jubilee provides politicians with a chance to define Britishness. Well I’m not going to let them. This is my home country, and I reject a notion of Britishness which celebrates the inherited wealthy while the most vulnerable are abandoned. This is an opportunity to reclaim British values to mean the things they did in 1948: fairness, compassion, decency. Those are the values I want my country to have, precisely because they are not simply the values of my country. They are the values of life – the values of humanity.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a columnist for Guardian Comment is Free and a community organiser in East London.