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Opinion

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?

Government plans to sell off the Royal Mail are at odds with the prime minister's purported feelings about identity and British values

Royal Mail post boxes are one of the few identifiably British symbols left. Image: Francais a Londres on Unsplash

National identity is a curious thing. In his very long speech earlier this week, Rishi Sunak pulled on ideas of identity as his magnet for votes. I suppose that is easier than standing on your record in office.  He talked about British values such as fair play. This is an odd value.  

For a start, the idea of British identity is tough to stand up, such is the splintering and strength of regional senses of self. I’ve yet to meet a Scouser, for instance, who didn’t describe themselves as being from Liverpool first, then England, then perhaps Britain, or sometimes Ireland.

And while Sunak might have been keen on playing down national identities in a post-devolution world, the reality tells its own story. In Scotland, social attitude studies frequently put the percentage of people who identity first as Scottish rather than British at around 60%. 

Fair play, then, always feels more inherently English in bearing, something grown out of cricket and village greens and morris dancing. But it’s a loaded cliché, like claiming French identity is a striped jumper and a beret with a load of onions round the neck.  

As ideas of identity remain in flux, it’s easy to see why things of permanence, like flags and statues, become much more important and the thing to really cleave to. Symbols as status, with all weight and importance suddenly invested in them.  

This makes the sale of the Royal Mail to an overseas investor odder. There are few more clearly identifiably British symbols, right across the home nations, and internationally, than a red post box. Red phone boxes are increasingly rare, Mini Coopers were sold to BMW nearly 30 years ago and the BBC is hard to define. So, it’s left to that unassuming static box.  

This week, it was announced that Czech billionaire Daniel Křetínský offered £3.5bn to buy Royal Mail. That’s an expensive delivery. He already owns 27.6% of the company. The board of Royal Mail said they are “minded” to accept the offer. I haven’t yet heard any comment from the government about this most British of organisations going to overseas ownership.

One of Sunak’s other big statements was how he and his government could be trusted with national security. This isn’t to suggest the quiet billionaire is a threat to security. But rather it’s a casual way to treat something so important.  

The Royal Mail has not been in public ownership for more than a decade. It was mostly sold off in 2013. That generated around £2bn for the public purse. It is quite a valuation lift in 10 years, a lift that doesn’t help the public purse. It’s almost as if selling off national assets doesn’t ultimately deliver for the national interest.

The current state of water companies in England and Wales is clear, or murky, evidence of this. Other major nations don’t give up their infrastructure so easily. La Poste is still owned by the French government. Deutsche Post is privately owned, by DHL, but ownership is retained in Germany. There is much more supporting evidence around this, particularly in rail and in French energy production. 

If Sunak and the British government really want to get serious about pride in identity, holding onto some useful pieces of national interest would be a proper place to start. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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