The French have their Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The Americans have “In God we trust”. Even tiny nations like Antigua and Fiji have stirring calls to nationhood, faith and solidarity.
Not so Britain. Remarkably, for a country with such a rich history and distinctive national traits, there have been no formal mottos to describe the British mission statement. Until now.
Keen to redefine an increasingly diverse nation and its values, the government has launched a quest for a national maxim. Meant to be “truly representative”, the motto will be arrived at by 1 000 members of the British public. Last week, the BBC and The Times news-paper jump-started the process by soliciting suggestions on their websites.
“Once Great: Britain” offered one contributor. “Americans who missed the boat”, read a second. “At least we’re not French” quipped a third. While some were genuine efforts, most were scornful in tone – revealing more about the British today than any motto could.
“It’s stirring up a good characteristic of the British and that is a sardonic humour towards any attempt by the government to do unnecessary and pompous things,” says Sir Bernard Crick, a former government advisor on citizenship. He says there’s a good reason why Britain doesn’t have a motto – it did not have the same grand cataclysmic moment of creation that other countries did.
“When the American states gathered together, they had ‘e pluribus unum’ and it was there right from the beginning, and it meant something,” he says. “We have no historical occasion like that. You have to take the British sense of history as a whole and I don’t think it can be summed up. It would either be vague waffle or terribly contentious.”
“You can’t encompass a whole national history in a slogan,” says Crick. “It’s ridiculous.”
Upon first taking office in the summer, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he lived by his high school’s hallowed maxim, usque conabor (I will try my utmost).
But one respondent to The Times’s survey turned the joke back on the prime minister by offering a faux-Latin motto -Dipso, fatso, bingo, Asbo, Tesco – which neatly addresses the country’s contemporary problems with alcohol, obesity, gambling, antisocial youth and materialism.
A Christian Science Monitor mini survey revealed a similarly jaundiced view. “Get blotto, play the lotto, that’s our motto”, was the only printable response.
Despite the mockery, however, Brown believes he has good reason to play the British card. Nationalism is rising in Wales, Scotland and England and disenchanted ethnic minorities are picking at the seams of British unity. Homegrown terrorism has added extra urgency.
But philosopher and author A. C. Grayling says that a new motto is not the way to go about this. “It’s characteristic of how we have done things, a rather cheap, slogan-based solution to what are more complicated problems,” he says.
“The sneering response from the public is characteristic of the bleak British sense of humour.”
The government says it has plenty of worthwhile suggestions and it now plans to decide on the motto and how it should be used.
But clearly Brown will have to “try his utmost” to convince his nation that it’s a worthwhile exercise.
As one contributor put it this week: “We’re British; we don’t do mottos.”
– The Christian Science Monitor.