Brits abroad: How national pride can help us achieve progressive international goals

FlagsBy Tim Finch

In the days when Britannia ruled the waves and many tens of thousands of Britons served in far flung outposts of empire, pride in being British was as enormous as it was insufferable. Perhaps as a hangover from those arrogant imperial days, many British emigrants since the second world war have struggled to find an appropriate way of expressing pride in national identity and loyalty to the UK. At one extreme, there are British enclaves on the Spanish costas or exclusive ‘expat’ communities in some developing countries where reactionary patriotism is strong. It is often coupled with a deep disillusion at how modern Britain has ‘gone to the dogs’ and a disdain for ‘foreigners’. (Irony is not strong among such Brits!) At the other end of the spectrum, however, are British emigrants who are almost embarassed to demonstrate any overt Britishness and who seem to retain their citizenship as little more than a passport of convenience.

In a new report called Global Brit: Making the Most of the British Diaspora, ippr shows that British emigrants are as confused as the rest of us seem to be about what it means to be British in the 21st century. In the report we identify six different categories of Britishness among the emigrants we interviewed in five case study countries, ranging from ‘Matter of fact Britishness’ – ‘that’s what it says on my passport’ – through to ‘Emotional Britishness’ – ”there are things that are great about England!’ (Pride in being British Irish, Scottish or Welsh was, if anything, stronger still.) However, the most common attitude seemed to be an affection for the country of their birth and continuing attachment through family, friends and institutions like the BBC, coupled with a strong intention to make a new life abroad. At its most encouraging, this manifested itself in a progressive, internationalist outlook, which is the very opposite of the notorious caricature of the narrow minded Brit abroad.

The evidence shows that British emigrants are younger, better educated and more highly-skilled than the stay-at-home British population. In our research we met many Britons who were innovative business people, who were active in their communities and who were keen to promote progressive goals, such as the extension of human rights and environmental sustainability. They had taken up opportunities overseas because they were adventurous, risk taking individuals who wanted to broaden their horizons. But they often identified the values that drove them as being in some sense ‘British values’ – though they also saw them as universal in their appeal. Gordon Brown would be encouraged by this expression of British identity as it definitively moves away from ideas of ‘blood, race and territory’ towards an identity based on shared values. National pride and international outlook are not seen to be in conflict, but as complimentary.

One of the objects of the ippr report was to highlight what an under-utilised asset the British ‘diaspora’ is. Other governments have been much more active in supporting and mobilising their emigrant populations to support the home state and advance its interests. But in making a case to the UK government to take ‘diaspora engagement’ more seriously, we felt that the approach to take was not one in which ‘beating the drum’ for British business interests should take primacy. Rather, we argue that the best of British emigrants constitute a valuable constituency for the deployment of ‘soft power’, acting as informal ambassadors for the UK in promoting broader progressive goals.

Of course, most British emigrants do not themselves talk in such terms! They are getting on with their own lives and pursuing their own interests. But as we struggle to find a way of building a new sense of pride in being British that does not tip over into narrow nationalism, British emigrants provide us with a promising model – one which combines some of the civic virtues we like to think of as quintessentially British, but combined with a strong sense of internationalism.

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