It was a lofty idea: Formulate a British “statement of values” defining what it means to be British, much like the Declaration of Independence sets out the ideals that help explain what it means to be American.
Because of the peculiarities of its long history, Britain has in modern times never felt the need for such a statement. But in an era of decentralized government and citizens who tend to define themselves less by their similarities than by differences of region, ethnicity or religion, the government feels that the time is ripe for one.
The proposal, part of a package of British-pride-boosting measures announced last year, raised a host of tricky questions. What does it mean to be British? How do you express it in a country that believes self-promotion to be embarrassing? And how do you deal with a defining trait of the people you are trying to define – their habit of making fun of worthy government proposals?
Detractors spread the rumor that the government was looking, not for a considered statement, but for a snappy, pithy “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”-style slogan that it could plaster across government buildings in a kind of branding exercise.
Nor did it help when The Times of London cynically sponsored a British motto-writing contest for its readers.
The readers’ suggestions included “Dipso, Fatso, Bingo, Asbo, Tesco” (Asbo stands for “anti-social behavior order,” a law-enforcement tool, while Tesco is a ubiquitous supermarket chain); “One Mighty Empire, Slightly Used”; “We Apologize for the Inconvenience”; and – the choice favored by 20.9 percent of the readers – “No Motto, Please, We’re British.”
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