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Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Friday, 20 March 2009

It's just not cricket


What is it to be British? For columnist Katharine Whitehorn, it is to refuse to countenance torture, to speak English, and to respect the law of the land - and nothing to do with enjoying the thwack of willow upon leather.

Who do I think I am? Who do we think we are? What makes for loyalty, or a sense of what class or nationality or religion we belong to? The conviction that we are a certain sort of people. We behave in a certain way, we have certain rights, certain taboos - and certain values.

We see ourselves as British because we will insist on doing this , and are absolutely not the sort of people who ever, EVER, do that .

Binyam Mohamed leaves RAF Northolt after being released from Guantanamo Bay
Binyam Mohamed says he was tortured due to British involvement in his case

At least so I thought. But now it becomes increasingly clear that if we didn't actually torture anybody ourselves, we did the next best thing in helping Americans, or at least profiting from their use of torture.

I know that we the British haven't had too good a record in the past on this - we apparently tortured Barack Obama's grandfather, and it's still a matter for debate whether the good we may have done in the way of missionaries, commerce, occasionally schools (not enough), stopping people burning their widows and so forth, does or doesn't outweigh the brutality we undoubtedly inflicted while keeping the Empire under control.

But by now we hoped that was all in the past, which people can surely put behind them. We're constantly told that nice young Germans are not Nazis, that people in this or that Pacific island don't eat each other any more (whether or not they actually ate only a few significant bits to partake of the strength of their enemies, or were simply after the healthful protein). What we're talking about is now.

The standard we aspire to, our only claim to be better than our enemies is that we are more civilised than they are; that whatever the provocation there are things that we simply do not do.

Torture is one of them. I can't remember who it was who said that it wasn't winning that was difficult, but winning without becoming too like your enemy. Torture certainly doesn't bring any tactical benefit big enough to justify the appalling loss of one's principles and integrity; an English common law ruling as long ago as 1783 said anything got by torture should not be given any credibility.

The United States has come to realise, I suppose, that however useful the information they got from Guantanamo Bay, it is puny and negligible compared to the massive and catastrophic damage it did to its reputation.

Ends and means

There is more than one view on torture, of course - the Michael Ignatieff view is that one establishes firmly that one does not, in any circumstances, sanction torture. But that if you knew you had in front of you the one man who had the plans and the means to blow up all London, and the question was whether you stuck to your principles and didn't use the thumbscrew - or did use it and saved London - you would have to do it, but would be forgiven.

Katharine Whitehorn

Language, too is a vital part of the interface between those who grew up here and those who didn't - and it's another problem we share with the US

Anthropologist Jeremy Swift, who has one of the most subtle minds I know, says no. If it was ever the right thing to do, the only honest thing you can say is: "In some circumstances I would." I don't know who is right on that one.

Until now, people like me - who have lived in the US, been inspired by its ideals, have close friends and a son there - have sympathised with them for having a Bush government that allowed things like Guantanamo and so let them in for the world's obloquy. Well, now it's us, who thought - hoped anyway- that such things were just not British.

So what is being British? It has nothing to do with knowing about Agincourt, the Corn Laws or the Kings and Queens of England, since half our allegedly educated young Britons born here do not. And certainly nothing whatever to do with cricket, or I'm a Bolivian.

For me, it comes down to two things: to be British you must speak English and respect the law. Note I don't say obey the law, as too many Britons obviously don't, much of the time. And of course there are differences between Scottish law and English.

But even burglars and swindlers still reckon they'll be hauled up in front of the courts, subject to one or another form of British law, with all its safeguards, achieved bit by bit over centuries.

Whatever the minor discrepancies, it's a question of what you consider to be the law - not thinking women should be stoned to death if they sleep with the wrong man; not thinking you can get away with murder if you belong to the right church; and certainly not thinking Sharia law, that would more or less negate all the rights that two centuries of British women have fought for, should supersede ours.

Which stands for being the sort of people who don't pull people's toenails out; who obey the Geneva conventions; who have at least an idea of fairness and honour.

Mother tongue

So where does speaking English come into all this? Language, too is a vital part of the interface between those who grew up here and those who didn't, the others, the outsiders - and it's another problem we share with the US.

They require those becoming citizens to learn English for very good reason - the constitution and all it implied was formed in English, and if you wanted to uphold it, benefit from it, you had to learn it. (A friend of mine had met a man who, as a child, had always thought that English was something that declined with age, like sight or hearing; because he spoke it perfectly, his mother pretty well but his grandmother - the original immigrant - was really bad at it.)

Spanish-speakers in California
Immigrants flock over the US/Mexico border in search of better prospects

At one point the flood of Spanish-speaking immigrants in California was such that they decided children should be taught initially in their mother tongue, Spanish. After quite a few years it was the Spanish-speaking parents who asked for this kind privilege to be stopped, as they realised that the children of Oriental immigrants got ahead far faster - they weren't hampered by having to learn the national tongue as a second language.

A lot of liberally minded people would say that requiring English is restrictive, makes things hard for the less brainy or more elderly. That it's more civilised to accept that we have a lot of languages spoken here, and it's only fair to interpret for them.

I absolutely don't agree, for two reasons. The first is that if you don't understand English, you can't understand what's going on - you are second class citizens and can't effectively take part in any public debate.

You can have the news and views interpreted for you - but who by? The local mullah? The head of the household - who may be very happy to have his wife unable to know anything he doesn't tell her? It reminds one of the prosecution's remarks in the famous Lady Chatterly trial: "Would you like your wife or your servants to read this book?"

Doctor with Muslim woman
An embarrassed translator won't be much help

Your seven-year-old son, who has learned English at school, can interpret for you - but do you want him to be the one who tells your medical troubles to the doctor?

A few years back the winner of a prize in medical communication was a pair who went around lecturing about getting through to difficult groups - deaf people, people with learning difficulties, people who didn't speak English. They had a marvellously telling film of an Asian woman consulting the doctor about pain in intercourse, using her cousin as interpreter - who instead said she had irregular periods, because that was more seemly - so the doctor prescribed for that.

And restaurant inspectors, I'm told, have given up using the children to relay their criticisms to the owners of mucky ethnic kitchens, as the kids don't want to say anything that might upset Papa.

Melting pot

There is no going back on the single fact that tribes and races and nations are now totally intertwined. The conflicts are not about to go away.

Nation's favourite dish
A true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences
Robin Cook in 2004

To my mind it doesn't matter what your meal times are, what clothes you wear, whether you keep birthdays or saints days or name days, what songs you sing, whether you think the world came from outer space, was made in six days or sits on the back of an elephant.

The nation that now has chicken tikka masala as its favourite dish can absorb almost anything - but only if it hangs on to the essentials that make it what it is - our language and above all our law. It can be improved, made more enlightened. Stripped of bureaucratic inessentials. Made fairer to both sexes, adapt to changing conditions. But keep its essential premise - that all are equal before the law. Not, as George Orwell's pigs in Animal Farm had it, that some are more equal than others.

Remember the exchange in the play A Man for All Seasons? Cranmer likens the law to trees, saying he would cut down every law in England to get at the devil. And Thomas More says "And when you have cut down every law and the devil comes after you, where will you hide?"


Below is a selection of your comments.

Must speak English? Does this mean that Welsh (or Gaelic) speakers are not British?
Daniel Titley, Aberystwyth

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I went to a local Catholic school where we were all 1st generation. Our parents spoke to us in poor English rather than their own mother tongues because they wanted us to be thoroughly, integrated Brits ... on Open Days, you heard lots of different accents but no different languages. Inside the home, no doubt, things were different. We certainly had a rather un-British way of preparing food. But we stood up for the anthem and cried with joy when we won the World Cup. What was wrong with that?
Parisian pen, Paris

"So what is being British? It has nothing to do with knowing about Agincourt, the Corn Laws or the Kings and Queens of England, since half our allegedly educated young Britons born here do not." ....and neither do the folks educated in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland know anything about these. How can you ask the question when it seems you don't even know the difference between Britain and England?
Keith, Bo'ness

I've thoroughly enjoyed this article. It echoes my personal sentiments on being British. Though we will never be flawless and though we'll be perpetually striving towards an ever-changing ideal we are nonetheless fantastic. Our flair, above all other attributes, is what I revel in. Not only are many of our institutions the best in the world in what they do but they do it with a style and panache which is unparallelled anywhere in the world. Being British has provoked enormous pride in me on countless occasions throughout my life and I've always had confidence in the collective integrity of the conduct of the British people. However, another defining British attribute is our reflectiveness and acknowledgement of making mistakes. We are often wrong or become wrong as society evolves but very seldomly is that wrong ignored and not rectified. We apologise for our past mistakes and we correct our faulty policies and practices as soon as they are discovered or acknowledged as bein g unacceptable. I realise that the majority of people from other countries will have these same patriotic feelings about their own country and I wouldn't argue or attempt to dissuade them from their view but this is my view and the older I get the more dearly I hold it to be true.
Richard, Glasgow

Being British in 2009? For me, it's about:
1) being terrified of urban teenagers;
2) being terrified of getting old;
3) wondering if I'll ever really be able to afford my own home.
Anon, London

You speak as if Britain still exists as one entity. I'm 27 and my generation know full well that Britain no longer exists as it is becoming very fragmented due to immigration and devolution. A sign should be put up in Dover "No Vacancies". Simple as.
Stephen, Cardiff

As an excellent Horizon programme some years ago pointed out, all Air Sea Rescue services around the world make use of data gathered by means of lethal experiments performed in concentration camps. Best not try to define yourself or anyone else in terms of torture! There are many people who call themselves British and regard the law with utmost contempt - ALF, campaigners against the extreme porn law, the weirdos over at, and so on. You and I are pretty sure they're wrong, but since moral relativism is another of those civilised values Brits treasure, can we be certain? In the last analysis, I think the thing which most defines me as a Brit is the myth of Britishness which foreigners admire - a US composer recently told me, apropos of not much really, "You Brits are good" but if pressed could probably not produce a list of irrefutably true reasons for that statement.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK

I would just like to say that I have a high regard for the 'Point of View' slot. As others before her, Katherine W presents a well considered point of view. It broadens my mind and holds to the high standards one expects from Radio Four.
Jack Briggs, Penistone, Yorkshire

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