We Will Fire On Retreating Enemies: Identifying British Values

The problem is that we have no written values, mainly because we have no definitive, single, written constitution. We can't point to one specific document and say which particular truths we hold self-evident. The only written work that says anything about liberty or equality was written 800 years ago and applied only to land owners, and only English land owners at that. Our human rights legislation was written in a foreign country that we don't even share a land border with.

Our most recent constitutional document of any significance was three hundred years ago, and in September the second most populous of our kingdoms is voting on whether to rescind it. Right now that is serving to remind us that we are not one kingdom. The Scots vote is really bringing home to us that we are four separate countries (two kingdoms, a principality and territory on another island) plus a bunch of smaller islands of varying status, any one of which could choose to go their separate way at a moment's notice.

Britain has no identity. That's not a statement of philosophy, it's a statement of historical fact.

England, Wales and Scotland might be considered to have identity, but not a common one between all three. Northern Ireland certainly doesn't have a unique identity and is forever doomed to squabble about which other place it should look up to. The Channel Islands seem moderately content to mostly speak French, the Outer Hebrides are trying to organise a referendum to declare independence from Scotland before Scotland declares independence first, and the Isle of Man is just so damned weird that we're all, deep down, terrified of it and quite content to leave it to its own devices. Meanwhile the Shetlands might as well have been sold off to an oil conglomerate fifty years ago for all we know.

But even England's identity is pretty vague. As a kingdom which prides itself in history and heritage, unfortunately our own knowledge of our own history and heritage tells us that even England is not one country. At the base level you've got the north-south divide characterised by the Viking pact of Danelaw with the Angles, Saxons and Normans, which make the mostly dark-haired people who use the long Francophone nouns and accents of the south, somehow feel superior to the mostly light-haired people using the short guttural Scandinavian nouns and accents of the north. At a more detailed level you've got the Seven Kingdoms, places like Wessex and Mercia, which formed independent tribal states prior to the Norman conquest, and then you've got Cumbria (which a minority of historians argue was a nation which should have rightfully sat between the Scottish Highlands and England's Yorkshire, were it not for that damned Italian wall) and Cornwall, neither of which were part of the Seven Kingdoms and which have still (just about) got their own separate languages.

Now lots of other countries were formed from fragments and conjoinings of older, ancient countries. But those countries tend to now have a single, definitive, written constituion; mostly because they've all had a revolution since the popularisation of the printing press. Whereas we haven't, or at least not one that actually stuck.

I was trying to think of British values only yesterday; values which are shared across the whole of the United Kingdom. They certainly don't include "fair play" (which is an English value), nor do they include "financial prudence" (which is a northern English and Scottish value).

The only genuinely pan-UK value I could come up with, was:

"We will fire on retreating enemies"

Basically the only thing that I can think of that holds our four home nations and island realms together, is that if you attack us, we will kill every last one of you. And as a motto to hold a country together, something that doesn't sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie doesn't strike me as a good place to start.

But that one single value is the reason why we've stuck together for so long. There are lots of other countries in the world with a history equal or far longer than ours. But there are vanishingly few countries which have held together for so damned long without any significant revolution actually having any long term effect. Our values basically boil down to... "it's none of your business, leave us the hell alone".

Public Domain - Andrew Oakley - 2014-06-16

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