Profile: Britannia

By William Langley, Sunday Telegraph


A trident in her hand, a lion at her feet, and a nation on its knees. Is the lady for returning?

Goddess Britannia, a Romano-Celtic goddess who was worshipped only in Britain. The Romans called this island "Britannia" after the goddess, which gradually turned into the modern word "Britain." Goddess Britannia was later revived during the Victorian Era as a personification of Great Britain - a symbol of Earth's mightiest power.

A conspicuous trait of Britishness is the need to ask what Britishness is. Can we still claim possession of it, or is it another of those things we invented, like football and television, that are now done better abroad? Would it be simpler to scrap the whole idea, and see ourselves, instead, as a kind of offshore holding centre in search of nationhood?

The Government doesn't know. Its latest wheeze is to teach what it calls "British values" in schools. You may remember, assuming you've been in the country long enough, that something similar has been tried before. Five years ago, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, introduced compulsory citizenship classes to instruct recent arrivals about Britishness.

The only flaw in the scheme was that while newcomers learnt the facts of British life, those born here were becoming increasingly ignorant about them. Last week Sir Keith Ajegbo, a former south London headmaster, delivered a report commissioned by the Home Office that criticised current efforts to teach Britishness, and suggested that we should replace them with… well, let Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, explain: "We must teach children about our shared British heritage while fostering an understanding of our cultural diversity and the uniqueness of our individual identity."

Now that's clear, it only remains to work out how. It won't be easy.

A nation's identity, in so far as it arises from anything, arises from its history, and the Government that now wants to encourage a core sense of Britishness is the same one that, two years ago, demoted history to an optional subject in secondary schools, leading to a calamitous drop in the numbers studying it.

Still, Mr Johnson, a sharp-suited, one-time Tesco shelf-stacker who left school at 15 with no O-levels, has an equally smart answer. The nation's youth can learn all the history it needs as part of his Britishness classes. As he explained to the BBC last week, the courses will cover such topics as the slave trade, colonialism and post-war immigration. And if that doesn't work, the kids can usefully consult Life In the United Kingdom, a new, 146-page Home Office guide to being British, which offers such advice as: "If you spill a stranger's drink by accident it is good manners to offer to buy another," albeit failing to add: "unless you want your teeth knocked out."

Behind all this activity is the Government's realisation that having encouraged mass immigration, and exacerbated the social consequences of it by promoting multiculturalism, it now desperately needs to firm up the mix.

Yet there is a solution. One the nation has turned to throughout its lengthy history.

We need a figure to rally around. And there is one. Her name is Britannia. In that stirring, quintessentially British image — trident raised, hair cascading from beneath a plumed Corinthian helmet, breasts proudly bared (at least until the prudent Victorians covered them up) — is the personification of our national character. From mystical beginnings more than 2,000 years ago, Britannia has become, as the historian Roy Matthews writes, "part of the collective consciousness of the island kingdom… with a place deep in the hearts and minds of the people".

When Britannia first appeared, Britain was a lot more fractured than it is now. The tribes were united only by their reluctant subjugation to Rome, and their chieftains routinely betrayed each other in exchange for favours from the CAEsars. The British were not, however, even at this unpromising stage of their national development, without recognisable traits. "How can these people be called good?" asked Ausonius, the 4th-century Roman scholar. "Drunk would be a better word."

From this unhappy mess arose an obligingly cohesive presence. Britannia's exact origins are unknown, but she is likely to have evolved from Brigid (meaning exalted), the Celtic goddess of fire, healing and unity. Certainly she was well enough known to the Romans to feature on coins in the reign of Hadrian. In this first appearance, she is shown in profile, loosely dressed in robes, with a spear in her left hand and her shield lowered.

Britannia on a British 50 pence coin

By the time the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, Britannia was widely accepted as the spirit of the land. For several centuries afterwards, she remained a reassuring, if remote, emblem and it was only in the 17th century with the uneasy coming together of the crowns of England and Scotland under James I, a togetherness now under strain from the resurgence of Scottish nationalism and calls for an English parliament, that Britannia once more came into her own. Again her cause was unity. Her image was widely promoted by supporters of the cause of Union, and in 1672 she was back on the coins of the realm.

Half a century later, James Thomson, a Scottish poet deemed too flowery for the Church, wrote his best known work:

When Britain first, at heaven's command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule Britannia, rule the waves.

(Rule Britannia)

It took the Victorians, though, to turn Britannia into a superstar. As Britain's military and industrial power grew, and the map of the world turned red, Britannia became the ubiquitous emblem of the nation's greatness. Now her shield bore the Union Jack, a lion lay at her feet, her face was imperious, and her demeanour was apparently untroubled by GCSE questions about the morality of colonialism. The Victorians may have had their imperfections, but they didn't need to be told who they were, or have their established values explained to them.

Britannia has been quiet for a while. A sure sign we need her again. New Labour, never slow to spot a gimmick, briefly resurrected her in the late 1990s as Cool Britannia, a mini-skirted, chardonnay-guzzling cross between Queen Boudicca and Patsy Kensit, who roundly embarrassed us in the eyes of the world. Delegates to the Commonwealth Conference in Edinburgh found that bagpipers had been replaced by a Rastafarian steel drum band, while visitors to Downing Street discovered, to their horror, the gormless Gallagher brothers propping up the bar.

Britannia has been in a sulk ever since. It is hard to blame her. Yet she remains our lodestone, a unique witness to our history, the richness of our roots and the formation of our character. The likes of Alan Johnson and Sir Keith Ajegbo would have you, or at least your children, believe that apologising for our past and the institutions it has given us will make us more acceptable to people who often come here out of admiration for what we are and the things we have achieved as a nation.

There is no doubt that the concept of Britishness is in trouble. It speaks, too often, of football hooligans, Big Brother, and tattooed drunks terrorising cheapo foreign beach resorts. We sense that our standards of behaviour have slipped, that we have lost the essence of our civility, and we hide away, those of us who can, from the ugly society we have created. Those who can't hide from everything, settle for hiding from each other, and the consequence is a nation at risk of becoming as fractured as it was when the Romans were here.

What can we do? Keep buying the drinks we spill? Sit around hoping that Mr Johnson's mea culpas packaged as citizenship lessons will work? Or give him a trident up the backside? The lady's out there. And she's waiting for the call.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 28th, 2007 at 05:54 AM..