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About A Week: Soul Searching

One in four Britons think that Winston Churchill was a mythical character, Peter Hinchliffe reports.

The map of the world on the classroom wall convinced us that Britain really was Great. From end to end there were huge swathes of pink, the color of the British Empire.

Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, large areas in Africa -- all pink. All enrolled in the greatest empire the world has ever known.

At the heart of this empire was little Britain, an insignificant collection of islands with a population at that time of no more than 50 million.

There was no official policy to brainwash us into Britishness. We simply accepted that we lived in the best country in the world.

We were governed by the Mother of all Parliaments, the rock of true democracy. Our laws served as a model of justice for all.

At the time I was sitting in that classroom, glancing at the wall map with its generous splashes of pink, a chap called Adolf Hitler was trying to impose his rule on Europe, and perhaps the world.

And little Britain, under the leadership of its inspirational Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was the bulwark of freedom, gallantly standing up to the hordes of fascist storm troopers seeking to destroy civilized life.

In the early 1940s patriotism was fashionable. We were all proud to be British.

Now, according to a poll featured in a national newspaper a quarter of Britain's population think that Winston Churchill never existed.

One in four says that Churchill is a mythical figure. The confusion could arise from the TV adverts for an insurance company called Churchill, which feature a jowly talking dog.

Many of those polled also thought that the Duke of Wellington and author Charles Dickens were also fictional characters.

On the other hand they thought that the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was a real person.

The poll suggests that young Britons lack basic historical knowledge.

However, a leading British educational institution recommended this month that patriotism should not be part of school lessons because British history is "morally ambiguous."

The Institute of Education said that loyalty to Britain should not be part of history and citizenship lessons. Teachers should not encourage pride in what are considered to be great events in the story of Britain because more shameful aspects of the nation's history, such as imperialism and involvement in the slave trade, may be downplayed.

Mindful of the large number of immigrants from all parts of the world that have settled in Britain, Gordon Brown's government is eager to use citizenship lessons to encourage pride in being British and a sense of belonging to the country.

The prime minister said, "There is a golden thread that intertwines the unshakeable British commitment to liberty with another very British idea: that of duty and social responsibility."

But the institute's report counters, "It is hard to think of a national history free from the blights of warmongering, imperialism, tyranny, injustice, slavery and subjugation, or a national identity forged without recourse to exclusionary and xenophobic stereotypes."

The institute's comments brought a flood of responses to news Web sites from people in most parts of the world -- most of them in favor of the teaching of patriotism.

"Great Britain has a lot to be proud of," said one. "They discovered Natural Rights, which is as important as the Greeks' discovery of Democracy."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the nation's leading churchman, triggered another flood of antagonistic Web site comment when he said that the adoption of some Sharia law in the U.K. seemed "unavoidable."

Dr. Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, said on BBC Radio 4 that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law could help social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He pointed out that some citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Williams' views were attacked by politicians from all parties and by community relations officials.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said, "To ask us to change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong."

For the Conservatives, shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi, who hails from the same Yorkshire town in which I went to school, said the archbishop's comments were "unhelpful." "Dr. Williams seems to be suggesting that there should be two systems of law, running alongside each other, almost parallel, and for people to be offered the choice of opting into one or the other. That is unacceptable."

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said, "The implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous."

The old British certainties have dissolved into the sands of time in the 65 years that have elapsed since I gazed at that classroom wall map with its abundance of imperialistic pink.

The nation that established citizens' rights with a 13th-century charter, the land that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and became a leader in international trade is no longer cockily confident of its place in the world.

Citizens do not instinctively stand to attention when the national anthem is played. The likeliest candidates to brandish the national flag are football fans.

A recent article by Michael Leung in Australia's newspaper, The Age, would strike a chord with many a 21st-century Briton.

It's Australia Day and all the flags and words are flying in the breeze," wrote Leung. "It is a day of fantasy, because nobody really seems to understand what it's all about and nobody seems to care too much, either. Perhaps it suits the temperament of the bewildering Australian landmass that the national song, the national day and the national flag are all rather wonky and not up to the task of nationalism somehow, and seem quite naturally and pleasantly just a bit insignificant.

The citizens, in their wisdom, seem mostly content with this quaintly ramshackle situation, sensing that the failure of earnest nationalism to take root in Australia is a blessing that constitutes for them a very special and delightful freedom.

Many Australians regard their flag and song and national day, not so much with awe, but rather, a casual, bemused affection, in the way that we may regard an eccentric uncle or a peculiar spinster aunty. They are ours but they are not us.

Would Britain perhaps be a friendlier, more hospitable country if more of its citizens shared this bemused attitude to patriotic flag waving?

Might the nation rediscover its "soul"?

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