On Thursday morning, some of my students wanted to talk about the attack at Westminster. One in particular seemed quite scared. “Do you think we’ll get bombed?” she asked. “What, here?” I replied. She said yes. I told her it was highly unlikely that a town in Norfolk would be targeted. I explained that terrorists probably want to have an impact on as many people as possible. High profile targets are more likely.
“But I go to London a lot. What if something happens while I am there? What if something happens when I’m on the Tube?”
I told her that there were protocols and procedures in place across the country, and that actually, as a nation, we’re well prepared for such an event. “Follow the instructions you are given”, I said. “The authorities will take charge. If you are on the Tube, you’ll hear instructions from the driver. Do what they tell you, in a calm and orderly fashion. People tend to pull together in a crisis.”
We really are pretty well prepared. We know that other attacks have been prevented. We know that terrible things have happened, but we also know that these terrible things haven’t beaten us. They haven’t destroyed our spirit.
My students are far too young for memories of the IRA, and so they were surprised to find out that Britain has lived under the shadow of terror before. It didn’t destroy us then, and it won’t work now either. The awful events of 7/7 couldn’t do it. Even the Blitz couldn’t do it. There is a determined streak within us, which is redolent of both pragmatism and sheer stubborn bloody-mindedness, and this is one of the things that I love about the human spirit: it speaks of our refusal to be cowed, and our rebellion against those who wish to incite fear. When people speak of the British stiff upper-lip, this is what I think of. We think of it as quintessentially British. It is why the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ memes refuse to die. It is the voice in our head that, when faced with something we can’t stomach, just says ‘nope’. It is the desire to wear the chin high, and say ‘not today’.
That’s why they won’t win.
They have been different foes over the years, but each has broken. The Romans found the Brits (such as they were, at the time) rather more trouble than they were worth. The Spanish were broken by the weather. OK, the Normans won, but hey, we absorbed them, and they are just part of us now. The Germans tried, but they couldn’t do it. We’ve lost battles and territories, certainly, but we’ve not lost ‘at home’ for centuries. Is it because the British Isles are “a fortress built by Nature for herself against infection and the hand of war”? That definitely helps. Is it because we are vastly superior, strategically? Probably not. Do we have the best military defences ever? Our armed forces are excellent, but I suspect it’s more to do with that bloody-minded toughness at the heart of our national identity.
“Is there such a thing as national identity any more?” I hear you cry. Sure there is. It manifests in different ways, of course, some less enlightened than others, admittedly. And much of it is an illusion, a tale we tell to define ourselves. But even if it is just a story, it is quite revealing about what we really perceive as ‘British Values’. For me, at its heart, ‘Britishness’ means a dogged determination to persevere, and an affinity with the mischief makers, the rebels, and the underdogs. Think of the odd stories that capture our hearts: the Tamworth Two, for example. Plucky piggies, making a bid for freedom. Think of our heroes. Robin Hood: the outsider with a heart of gold, who sticks it to ‘the man’ and gives to the poor. We cheered for Eddie the Eagle. We named a hill after Tim Henman. We love it when Prince Harry is a bit naughty. One of our greatest cultural exports is Harry Potter. Many people only started loving Andy Murray when he lost in his first Wimbledon final — it solidified his position as ‘one of us’. His apparent refusal to be all polished and ‘PR’ made him more engaging — turns out we quite like dour and slightly grumpy, if it boosts rebellious underdog credentials.
We love it even more when our underdogs win, of course. But rarely do we expect it.
Historically, this nation has done some things that were questionable, uncomfortable and downright horrible. And our place in the world has changed drastically over the years as well. We are no longer leaders of a massive empire. We have enemies at home and abroad. We are about to go through a messy divorce from the EU. Our ‘United’ Kingdom looks fraught with divisions, and is at risk of falling apart. But our spirit remains.
Because we say “Nope, not today”. We refuse. We will not be terrified. We will raise a defiant eyebrow, and keep on going. We will mourn our losses; we will pay our respects, and we will lower our flags to half-mast. But we won’t run, and we won’t hide.
We really will keep calm and carry on.
Be vigilant, my dears, and stay safe; but most importantly, don’t forget to be mischievous, rebellious, stubborn and pragmatic. In a crisis, follow instructions in a calm and orderly fashion. But let’s not live our lives like every day is a crisis. That isn’t freedom. And it means they have won.