'Once Great' Britain searches for a national motto
The BBC and Times newspaper have solicited readers' suggestions, drawing telling responses.
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, 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. This week, the BBC and the Times newspaper 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 humor towards any attempt by 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 Professor Crick. "It's ridiculous."
Why Brown is playing the British card
Upon first taking office in the summer, 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' 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 Monitor minisurvey 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. The prime minister has already floated ideas like a new "national day" and new citizenship rules in a quest for greater social cohesion and peppers his speeches with the word British far more than Tony Blair ever did.
But philosopher and author AC 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 humor."
Even the upsides of Britishness were snubbed by respondents. One, referring to the popular slogan of the '90s, scoffed, "Cool Britannia, yeah, right, whatever ..."
'Shakespeare might to do the trick'
Still, a country like Britain has plenty of cultural landmarks from which to draw, from William Shakespeare to fish and chips. Author Chris Cleave, who writes about contemporary Britain in his fiction, thinks "something from Shakespeare might do the trick."
"I like 'Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful' (from "Measure for Measure").
But even he can't resist the temptation to ridicule. "How about something that encapsulates one of our most venerable sporting traditions, our national preference for a plucky underdog and our refusal to give up hope even when we are totally outgunned. How about "Come on Tim!" (A reference to Tim Henman, saluted perennially as a tennis hero despite never having got beyond the semifinals at Wimbledon).
Trying their best
Intriguingly, the younger generation may have more time for a new maxim than their more cynical elders. At Kingston University in southwest London, geography student Jeremy Puncher says he supports the government's attempt to instill greater pride in Britishness. Of the motto idea, he says: "It can't hurt. It should have something to do with togetherness, freedom, patience, acceptance of other cultures."
Leon Wright, another student, says that although being British doesn't mean much to him, the right motto could prove inspiring. "It should be something like 'try your best,' or 'be the best that you can be,' as opposed to 'love the queen."
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."