Being British . . .

I’m British.

I’m British – from England. Not Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland (although half my genes are Irish in origin, whatever that means in strictly genetic terms). Nevertheless British. And it will be sad day, I believe, if the Scots decide to terminate the Acts of Union (1707) and go their own way. Unity in diversity, I say. And let’s celebrate the diversity that defines this country of mine.

But what does it mean to be British? I started thinking about this the other day as I was watching the hearing of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee on the LIBOR scandal which has so far embroiled international bank Barclays.

Up before the Committee was former CEO, Mr Robert Edward “Bob” Diamond, Jr. – an American. Throughout the hearing Diamond responded to each member of the committee by their first name, and also referred to third parties not present by their first names as well. The MPs assiduously called him ‘ Mr Diamond’, often icily.

There was quite a furore the next day in the press – Diamond’s assumption of familiarity was not only seen as a faux pas on his part (and his advisers), but also extremely discourteous in what was a rather formal situation. But to cap it all, it’s just not the British way – to use someone’s first name without being invited to do so. I have to say it irks me when I receive a cold call and the person on the end of the phone – who’s trying to sell me something, and who I don’t know from Adam – addresses me as ‘Michael’.

Nevertheless I think we are becoming a little more relaxed about this whole issue in our day-to-day relationships. I remember reading some years ago a short newspaper piece on this very topic, in which the author decried the American custom of using first names from the outset – at least for the first 30 minutes! Having worked abroad for most of my working life, using first names is something which I grew to be comfortable with.

Foreigners often are baffled by we British, as this recent article in The Guardian indicates. In the late 1990s, when I was contemplating a career move, I asked my staff in the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI to assess my strengths and weaknesses (which they did quite openly). One of my colleagues, a French population geneticist stated ‘British’ as one of my strengths. On the other hand, my main weakness was ‘Very British’! I’m still not quite sure what he meant.

So what makes me British? Is it an obsession with the weather (although we could be forgiven for this right now, given the appalling weather we’ve had since April)? Or is it the self-deprecating humour, a nostalgia for an imperial past, or our high culinary standards such as fish and chips. Maybe it’s the appreciation of warm beer. On the positive side is our sense of fair play, not winning at any costs (play the game and play it well!), our ability to queue, and cricket, of course (although this does not hold the same status in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as it does in England).

I like to think that the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish are all British – in their own ways. I appreciate our ‘national’ differences within a single nation, and that we will be competing as one in the Olympic Games – although I still don’t understand why we are Team GB instead of Team UK. The Commonwealth Games are another thing, however, as is football when nationalism comes to the fore. But those are among the idiosyncracies of proudly being British.

Incidentally, I just attempted (on 8 July 2012) the practice UK Citizenship Test, and scored only 58% (14 correct out of 24). When will someone be along to confiscate my passport? I have to say that many of the questions had very little to do with what it means to be British. And I guess many other native-born Britons would fail the test, as it stands. When faced with choices of say ’10 million, 11, 12 or 13 million’ as the number of under-16s, for me it was a random choice. Not sure what knowing this actual statistic has to do with me being a bona fide British citizen.

The Home Secretary, Teresa May, has announced recently that the test will be revised to include questions of more relevance – information about the rich history and culture of these isles. I just tried out the ‘test’ on The Guardian website and scored 87% – the two I got wrong were random choices – I really did know the answers to the others.

It’s all part of the ‘performance’ culture that grows by the day, which seems to be an obsession these days.

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