Within 3 years, the people of Scotland will be asked whether they wish to remain within the UK, or become an independent nation. It remains unclear when and what questions will be put to the Scottish people, but this will probably raise the question of Britishness, the identity that subsumes, or perhaps more accurately complements, the diverse identities found within the UK, including Scottishness. If the UK were to remain together as a coherent country, then it will be helpful to have some sort of cement that binds the different constituent nations and peoples. It is said that a nation is a something that is imagined, and it has to remain imaginable in the minds of the people of that nation for it to keep going.
In discussing what is Britishness, it has been very difficult to find something that is common among the different nations and peoples of the UK, but distinctive or unique to Britain so that it is recognizably British. For example, English may not do, because there are so many diverse regional and social dialects of English, and also because there are other languages within the UK, notably Welsh, but also Scots and Gaelic, and more crucially other peoples speak English as their mother tongue, hence it is not unique to Britain. Other qualities such as fairness is too diffuse, as if other nations and peoples are not capable of fairness.
Among some of the suggestions that I have received from Britons and non-Britons about Britishness, perhaps sense of humour is something that is distinctively British. While humour is very much according to personal taste, there are certain types of humour, hard to describe, that are understood or at least recognized almost universally within the UK, but are totally baffling to non-Britons, even if they speak English. Otherwise, there is, for example, the monarchy. The UK as is currently constituted is a historical, even accidental, product based on dynastic fortunes and misfortunes, so that would make sense. More generally, history and politics may offer something. The case for history is tricky though, especially because of the Irish history, and Britons are ambivalent about the Empire. Parliamentary democracy may be another candidate for defining Britishness, though it has changed since devolution, and in the context of the coming referendum on Scottish independence, it may be hard to sustain. The NHS has been mentioned as well, and for modern-day Britain that is built on a distinctive form of social welfare, and a new contract between the state and the people, it may be a viable candidate. My personal favourite has been that Britishness can be best summarized as moaning about the weather whilst queuing.
So what makes Britain and Britons British? Any suggestions?