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Acting local

The government is obsessed with our 'British identity' - but it is helpding destroy the things that create it

Comment Is Free, 1st April 2008

Try this experiment. Go to a search engine of your choice and type in ‘post office protest’. When I did so, Google gave me over a million results. Scan through them, and you’ll find a remarkable similarity in the stories. From Littlehampton to Blackpool , Nairn to Poulton, Kenilworth to Great Doddington, the furies are massing. The government’s sweeping programme of post office closures is bringing people out onto the streets in numbers that the Stop The War Coalition can only dream of.

Now compare this upswelling of popular passion to the mocking or scornful response when Gordon Brown gives a speech about ‘Britishness’, or suggests we should fly union jacks from flagpoles in our gardens. What’s the connection between these two things? The connection is the very thing that Brown is so desperate to get us to talk about: our national identity.

When politicians talk about ‘national identity’ they tend to be talking about one of two things: values or institutions. The Brown government thinks our ‘Britishness’ is based on certain values: tolerance, democracy, sarcasm, love of unfettered corporate power and the like. The political right has traditionally preferred to focus instead on the monarchy, parliament, the Church of England or Lord’s cricket ground: sturdy British rocks in a sea of globalised and suspiciously foreign chaos.

The trouble is that both values and institutions are often more divisive than unifying. Values vary from person to person; what you think of our national institutions depends on your temperament and your politics. But there is one thing that may have the power to unite us, despite our growing differences, and the post office closure protests demonstrate it powerfully. It is our landscape.

When I say ‘landscape’ I don't mean ‘countryside’ or ‘pretty views’, though those are part of it. I mean the places we all inhabit. The streets we walk down, the squares and gardens, the mountains and markets. This literal and cultural landscape unites our history with our present. And when it is threatened, people rise up.

They are rising up, now, all over the nation. Recently, researching a book on just this subject, I was surprised to see just how widely this is happening, usually far below the media radar. From community pubs to street markets, cafes to orchards, boatyards to farmyards, village shops to cattlemarkets – all over the country, the character of specific landscapes and identifiable places is being erased, to make way for identikit superstores, shopping malls and executive apartments. And almost everywhere it happens, action is met with reaction.

Why? Not because people are ‘nimbies’ who don’t like ‘change’, but because they have recognised in what is happening a threat to their identity. They have recognised that who we are, as individuals, as communities and – yes – as a nation, grows from the places we inhabit; that national character comes from local character. In this sense our places, unlike values or institutions, really do have the power to unite people of all ages, races, classes and religions.

The irony is that people are often uniting to oppose something which the government itself has set in train: post office closures; local pubs folding; rural life collapsing; superstores cutting a swathe through the high street. This is where we could all teach the Prime Minister a thing or two. For the true measure of our national identity is how strongly we retain a sense of place and particularity; and our values as a nation are being forged as we fight to defend these things from the depradations of this most identity-obsessed of governments.