Speech to the Great Briton Awards
"It's a great honour to be invited to present the 2005 Great Briton award.
And I'd like to start by thanking Morgan Stanley, the Daily Telegraph, and the Commission for Racial Equality for all they've done to make tonight such a fantastic success.
In the best possible way, these Awards already seem like they've been around for ages.
And long may they continue.
"Who is the greatest Briton of 2005?" is of course an almost impossible question to answer.
I've become used to tricky questions over the past few months.
The toughest one so far came not on Newsnight or the Today programme, but on Radio One, with Colin and Edith.
They gave me a calendar and asked which one of Girls Aloud I'd most like to take on a date.
As I sat there, mouthing like a goldfish at the microphone, the DJ, Colin Murray, leaned over and whispered to me "Just pick the one who looks most like your wife."
I was saved.
Back to this evening, and a celebration of Great Britons.
Britain has arguably always been better at achieving greatness than at celebrating it.
And yet we have so much to celebrate in every field of endeavour.
The journalist Anthony Browne recalls being told by a Norwegian diplomat that he had learned at school that Britain gave the world industrialisation, democracy and football.
So that's its economic system, its political system and its fun.
Not bad for starters.
Take some of tonight's prize categories and just consider British achievements in them.
Arts: The written and spoken word from Chaucer and Shakespeare onwards.
In 2005 alone, Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature and screens around the world were dominated by fantastic worlds that sprung from the fertile imaginations of CS Lewis and JK Rowling.
Business: Britain invented industrialisation, the engine of the global economy: our canal system fed the growth of industrialisation; we invented the train and built railways around the globe.
Later, it was a Briton who invented the jet engine.
Creative industries: Here, Britain ranks second in importance only to the United States.
Even in the US, Britons have an enormous influence - be it Howard Stringer running Sony, Jonathan Ive designing the iPod for Apple, or the likes of Ridley Scott directing great movies.
British fingerprints are there - and have been since the days of Charlie Chaplin.
Science and innovation: Britain is second only to the US in the number of Nobel prizes it has won — twice as many as France and seven times as many as Italy and Japan.
Brits unravelled the mysteries of two of the four great forces of nature — Newton with gravity and James Clerk Maxwell with electromagnetic radiation.
Darwin discovered evolution, Watson and Crick unpicked DNA; Sir Fred Sanger, as you have heard, sequenced it.
The electric motor was a British invention.
So was the telephone; And the television.
And the Internet, thanks to last year's winner Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Sport: When it comes to sport, it is almost easier to count the sports we didn't invent - (or at least codify) - than those we did.
Here are some: golf, cricket, football, rugby, lawn tennis, table tennis, squash, badminton, boxing, not to mention croquet.
Bored of the sports that could be invented here, we had to go abroad for new opportunities: Sir Alfred Lunn went to the Alps to codify downhill skiing in 1921 and slalom in 1922.
It is truly an incredible list of achievements and, as ceremonies like tonight remind us, it is being added to all the time.
Yet we have, at least in recent years, been very coy about celebrating it.
This coyness, this reserve, is, I always think, an intrinsic part of being British.
We are understated. We don't do flags on the front lawn.
Two events last year struck me as intrinsically British.
First, the extraordinarily generous public response to the tsunami. British individuals gave £422 million.
Second, the "business as usual" reaction of London commuters to the horrendous July bombings.
In both cases, we got clear glimpses of our national character, and I think it is significant that it was manifestly not thanks to any grand, organised movement…
…but in the spontaneous reaction of millions of ordinary Britons to extraordinary events.
Both reactions were of a completely understated nature, with no ostentation or display.
This, for good or bad, is the British way.
So many of Britain's virtues aren't really for parade.
They manifest themselves more subtly.
There have been many recent attempts to try and define Britishness.
The latest comes from research commissioned by the Commission for Racial Equality for these Awards.
Rightly, the British values identified by those surveyed included:
…upholding human rights and freedom…
… freedom of speech…
… freedom of the press…
… freedom of religion and protection of minorities…
… respect for the rule of law…
… fairness and tolerance…
… and respect for other people.
Wonderfully, the report found that the cultural ritual seen most to embody being British is queueing.
Queueing, according to the research, is a manifestation of British values of respect and fairness, law and order, politeness and courtesy.
But is a list of values that could, frankly, be applied to dozens of other countries enough?
Of course not.
Combined with values are institutions, history, buildings, places - and of course, what we are here to celebrate tonight - people.
So Britishness exists.
I suppose the bigger question is: does Britishness matter?
For a long time, it was unfashionable to suggest that it might.
That tide is turning - and quite right too.
There's a widespread acceptance of the need for greater social cohesiveness and, in that context, a sense of national identity is becoming more, not less, important.
July 7th and its aftermath have provoked a healthy scrutiny of the part that national identity should play in a multi-ethnic Britain.
We're seeing an (admittedly somewhat un-British) public debate about what Britishness means…
…a debate that's essential if we're to build a national identity that is greater than the dead-end reached by calling our country, as a recent government-commissioned report did, a "community of communities."
In a state that comprises four countries, dozens of different religions and ethnicities, banknotes issued by eleven different issuing banks and, (crucially!), four national football teams…
…there is a real appetite for things that bring us together rather than drive us apart.
The demand comes as much from black and minority ethnic communities as elsewhere.
I've given up counting the times people have told me that they came to Britain to be part of something, not separate from it.
We should celebrate that.
There's proof of this in a sporting context…
…the public support for a British football team at the 2012 Olympics, and the huge enthusiasm in every corner of the land for the Ashes triumph over the Australians.
Look too at the seamless transition from Henman Hill to Murray Mound.
Over the course of a fortnight, an English enclave became a Scottish outpost with no discernible change of personnel or flags…
…because they were British, not English or Scottish.
So what should politicians do to build a healthy, and specifically British, patriotism?
As someone who is sceptical about an over-mighty state, I would like first to say what politicians shouldn't do.
Politicians should never claim patriotism for one party or one political tradition.
To do so is to completely miss the point, namely that patriotism should transcend politics; that its value is as a unifying, not a divisive force.
Neither should politicians try to institutionalise Britishness.
Britishness, as these awards recognise, is created by Britons.
As those Britons change, so, subtly, will Britishness.
Curries are already replacing cucumber sandwiches as a culinary emblem.
Top down approaches very rarely work.
Take the English language.
300 years ago, there was an attempt to institutionalise English with the creation of a British version of the Academie Francaise, the French body of 1635 charged with regulating French grammar and vocabulary.
In Britain, a bottom-up approach prevailed, thanks in part to Samuel Johnson's dictionary that ensured the enduring democracy of our language by defining the meaning of words simply by usage - by how people used them.
The results of the different approaches are clear for all to see.
While the Academie Francaise diligently, even today, comes up with French words for weekend and Walkman, sandwich and software…
…we're gleefully adding chavs, ASBOs and podcasting to the Oxford English Dictionary.
300 or more years later, with 1% of the global population, our language is the first truly global idiom.
The third thing politicians shouldn't do is go around trashing institutions and organisations that are part of our national identity, and replacing them with things that aren't.
Of course, since tonight is not a political occasion, I wouldn't dream of spelling out what I mean.
Instead, I'll just say a few words about the positive things politicians could do to strengthen Britishness.
Rather than banning things that may make people different, we should be encouraging things that bring people together.
Simple concrete steps to build a more cohesive society and strengthen the ties that bind us as a nation.
Making sure that those who come to live here are able to properly participate in national life by encouraging and incentivising all of them to learn English.
Putting British history at the heart of the curriculum, so that every child understands our shared heritage and values.
Outside the classroom, we should encourage more integration by promoting school exchanges that introduce children to other young people from different backgrounds…
…to make those personal, emotional connections that are at the heart of civilised relationships and a sense of community.
Earlier this week I met Britain's leading voluntary organisations to start work on a new programme for school leavers - a Youth Community Action programme.
It's based on the belief that the most powerful way to bring people together is to give them shared experiences.
But, ultimately, Britishness is not about government, it's about Britons.
It grows and evolves from the bottom up.
It can never be defined by an Institute…
…but by millions of individuals whose identity is shaped by many ingredients - our city, town or district, our religion, our parents and families.
This evening's winners are all fantastic role models, and in their different ways they each exemplify different aspects of what Britishness means…
…and, by their achievements, help to redefine it.
The truth is, we can all spend hours wracking our brains for the cleverest definition of Britishness.
But however clever the definition, it's nothing compared to what we feel…
…whether it's watching Kelly Holmes winning double gold…
…seeing veterans line up on the beaches of Normandy…
…or watching Ronnie Barker in 'Porridge.'
To me, that's what Britishness is all about.
And that's why I can't think of a better contribution to the Britishness debate than these wonderful Awards."