Britannia Rules No More: Britpop, Britart, Britlit and Britflix Have All Failed to Generate Enduring Cultural Myths. We Should Be Celebrating Plurality Not Homogeneity

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When the Ancient Greeks wanted to describe the distinctive characteristic of the inhabitants of this island, they chose the word for the local habit of body painting--Pretanoi. The Romans turned this into the Latin, Britanni--and so one word for our national identity derives from a bizarre cultural act, still practiced by football fans today.

The attempt to define Britishness by Sir Bernard Crick's Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group, which has suggested a cultural test, is only one of a series of projects designed to interrogate an increasingly slippery term. Earlier last month, Tate Britain, established less than three years ago, launched British Art Week, a nationwide series of events, exhibitions and lectures exploring the relationship between national identity and British culture. The first panel discussion asked: does "Tate Britishness" actually exist? In his lecture on "the Britishness of British art", critic Andrew Graham-Dixon noted that "British" art has not previously been considered worthy of such attention. (Suddenly sensitive to labels, I noticed that these events were sponsored by BP, a multinational corporation that has abbreviated its Britishness to a postcode.)

The historian Krishan Kumar (to whose recently published The Making of English National Identity I owe the story of the Pretanoi) writes that issues of national identity are being debated as never before. In particular, there is a crisis of Englishness: Tom Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain (1977), Linda Colley's Britons (1992) and Norman Davies's The Isles: a history (1999) made significant contributions to this inquiry. And Richard Weight's Patriots: national identity in Britain 1940-2000 was published last year.

These books reflect the current anxiety and confusion over national identity. Curiously, this uncertainty was present at what is normally regarded as the most nationalistic cultural event of the year, the Last Night of the Proms. This was not only because the master of ceremonies was an American, conductor Leonard Slatkin who wore a Union Jack bow tie. More significantly, the BBC mounted parallel concerts in Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow. In the interval, television viewers watched flag waving crowds enjoy their separate nationalistic epiphanies: Celtic keening from the Chieftains, a welcome from the hillside from Robert Tear, and a choir celebrating the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Ritual performances of Elgar, Wood and Parry followed, but as the London prommers got increasingly out of control, ethnic folk melodies from around the British Isles were seamlessly included in the programme. Slatkin described this as "uniting the four nations of the United Kingdom", an expression that may not have gone down well with everybody in the crowd outside City Hall, Belfast. Yet the BBC seemed to protest too much. The "Rule Britannia"(which has words by a Scotsman) that followed was curiously muted, and the contradictions in the national psyche were further exposed as the socialist "Jerusalem" was followed by the royalist national anthem, before the evening was rounded off by "Auld Lang Syne".

The rise of local nationalisms and the weakening attachment to Britishness measured by opinion polls is not a problem for the Scots, the Welsh, or even the Northern Irish, who can define them selves against "the other" of the economically, numerically and politically dominant English. …