Young wave goodbye to Britannia's rule

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Amanda Kelly listens in on a pupil debate about what it means to be British

PORTRAYING the British as a cardigan-wearing tea-swilling people whose idea of a good time is waving the Union Flag while attending the Last Night of the Proms has been a profitable pastime for writers such as Bill Bryson.

But for the youngsters who took part in the first of four Government-backed school debates on what it means to be British, these stereotypes rang few bells. In fact, many of the pupils at Hampstead comprehensive school, situated in a particularly ethnically-diverse part of north London, found the very idea of attempting to define a national identity unhelpful.

Coming on the day that Tory leader William Hague outlined the prospect of Britons becoming "strangers" in their own country, the young audience seemed especially keen to stress that their outlook was truly multicultural and anything that might fuel xenophobic sentiments was not only unwelcome, but wholly irrelevant to their experience.

"There are so many different races and cultures in Britain that I just don't believe in all this patriotic stuff," said Katy Drillsma-Milgrom, 17. "We have spent years trying to fight racism and division and I think it is wrong to try and fuel this nationalism again."

Her thoughts were echoed by Holly Baxter Baine, 16, who added: "Things like pound coins and drinking cups of tea don't make me feel British any mor than seeing Geri Halliwell wearing a Union Jack dress."

For 17-year-old Tim Jones, the term British was only useful as a geographical expression.

The debate was aimed at highlighting the potential of citizenship lessons to explore issues of national, regional, religious and ethnic identity and to promote respect and understanding.

Among the panel of speakers who shared their ideas was education minister Michael Wills, the Government's so-called "patriotism envoy". He said: "Our feeling of national identity is critical and that is why we are having this debate. What is vitally important, however, is appreciating that being British has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with common British values like decency and fair play."

Havana Wellings-Longmore, 16, agreed that being British was not determined by the nationality of her ancestors.

She said: "My grandfather is Nigerian, my grandmother Polish and my father Jamaican, but I was born in Britain and am totally British. So what really annoys me is when people ask where I come from just because my skin is not white."

Her status as a city-dweller rather than a Brit was more important to Kierra Box, 15. She concluded: "As a Londoner, I would have far more in common with someone from a city abroad than I would with another British person who lives in the countryside and spends their time fox-hunting or playing croquet."

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