Speech at a seminar on Britishness, London 2007
Gordon Brown (Labour)
Let me say what a pleasure it is to be here at this discussion on our country's character, our values, our future.
I am here to listen, I am here to learn and I am here because I want to discuss with you during the course of the day what you think about being British, how important being British is to your identity, what you think characterises us as the British, what in particular could be said to be British values, what are the British values that make us proud to be British.
And I'm here to listen, because recent weeks have seen a renewed focus on what it is to be British and what we value about the British way of life:
· whether all the different countries of the union - Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland - all want to stay together, part of the union
· how we better integrate our ethnic communities and respond to migration
· how we respond to Muslim fundamentalism
· what is our role in Europe and the European constitution. And
· whether facing global challenges we need a stronger sense of national purpose.
And of course people's concern about gun crime and anti-social behaviour is also a concern about what is happening in our country today.
A few years ago less than half - 46% - identified closely with being British. But today national identity has become far more important: it is not 46% but 65% - two thirds - who now identify Britishness as important, and recent surveys show that British people feel more patriotic about their country than almost other European country.
One reason is that Britain has a unique history - and what has emerged from the long tidal flows of British history - from the 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships, from the uniquely rich, open and outward looking culture - is I believe a distinctive set of British values which influence British institutions.
Indeed a multinational state, with England, Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland we are a country united not so much by race or ethnicity but by shared values that have shaped shared institutions. Indeed, when people are asked what they think is important about being British many say our institutions: from the monarchy and the national anthem to the Church of England, the BBC and our sports teams.
But when people are also asked what they admire about Britain, more usually says it is our values: - British tolerance, the British belief in liberty and the British sense of fair play. Even before America said in its constitution it was the land of liberty and erected the Statue of Liberty, I think Britain can lay claim to the idea of liberty.
Out of the necessity of finding a way to live together in a multinational state came the practice of tolerance, then the pursuit of liberty and the principle of fairness to all.
Indeed Britain is a country that not only prides itself in its fairness, tolerance and what George Orwell called decency but - as we have seen in recent debates like that over the Big Brother show - wants to be defined by it, defined by being a tolerant, fair and decent country.
And there is a golden thread which runs through British history - that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 when arbitrary power was fully challenged with the Magna Carta, on to the first bill of rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country where parliament asserted power over the king, to the democratic reform acts - throughout the individual standing firm against tyranny and then - an even more generous, expansive view of liberty - the idea of all government accountable to the people, evolving into the exciting idea of empowering citizens to control their own lives.
Just as it was in the name of liberty that in the 1800s Britain led the world in abolishing the slave trade - something we celebrate in 2007 - so too, in the 1940s, in the name of liberty, Britain stood firm against fascism, which is why I would oppose those who say we should do less to teach that period of our history in our schools.
But, woven also into that golden thread of liberty are countless strands of common, continuing endeavour in our villages, towns and cities - the efforts and popular achievements of ordinary men and women, with one sentiment in common - a strong sense of duty.
The Britain of local pride, civic duty, civic society and the public realm. The Britain of thousands of charities, voluntary associations, craft societies but also of churches and faith groups.
And the Britain of fairness to every individual we see expressed most of all in Britain's unique national health service, health care free of charge to all who need it, founded not on ability to pay but on need - at the core of British history, the very British ideas of 'active citizenship', 'good neighbour', civic pride and the public realm.
Now for years we didn't think we needed to debate or even think in depth about what it was to be a British citizen. But I think more and more people are recognising not just how important their national identity is to them but how important it is to our country.
A strong sense of being British helps unite and unify us; it builds stronger social cohesion among communities. We know that other countries have a strong sense of national purpose, even a sense of their own destiny.
And so should we. And it helps us deal with issues as varied as what Britain does in Europe; to issues of managed migration and how we better integrate ethnic minorities. Today we have a citizenship test for newcomers wanting to be citizens - 24 questions on life in the UK that lasts for 45 minutes.
We also have citizenship ceremonies. We will soon have a stronger element teaching us about citizenship in the curriculum. But I believe when there is now so much mobility between nations and countries, when we feel strongly that being a British citizen is something to be proud of, then we should emphasise that British citizenship is about more than a test, more than a ceremony - it is a kind of contract between the citizen and the country, involving rights and responsibilities that will protect and enhance the British way of life.
Citizenship means there are common rules and accepted standards. There is now agreement with the proposition I made some time ago that for new citizens, learning English should be a requirement. New citizens should have an understanding of our history and our culture.
But in any national debate on the future of citizenship it is right to consider asking men and women seeking citizenship to undertake some community work in our country or something akin to that that introduces them to a wider range of institutions and people in our country prior to enjoying the benefits of citizenship.
Like you I'm very proud of being British; proud of British values, proud of what we contribute to the world. And like you I make to make sure that we consider today all that we can do to build an even stronger sense of national purpose which unifies us for the years to come.