British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is probably sorry he asked. The British certainly have a glorious history and no shortage of stiff upper lips and other laudable national traits. But it turns out that they lack a national motto. So Brown recently invited the British public to offer some suggestions, hoping to tap into a reservoir of patriotism. Instead, he unleashed a flood of recrimination. A few earnest souls have put forth high-minded slogans such as “Great people, great country, Great Britain.” But many more have decided to vent. Among the printable submissions: “Wallowing in postcolonial miasma”; “Overpriced, overweight, overcrowded . . . over”; “No problem left untaxed”; “Once great: Britain”; and, of course, “Dentistry is not our forte.”

The Brits may have lost their empire, but not their self-deprecating wit. Still, the nation that gave us the Magna Carta, Shakespeare, and the Beatles should be able to come up with a reasonable national motto. The bar is fairly low, since most such mottoes are embarrassingly bad—incoherent strings of supposedly uplifting words, usually including “unity,” “progress,” and, for some reason, “work.” Nor do they tell you
all that much about national character. “In God We Trust” serves both the U.S. and Nicaragua, yet few would get the two countries mixed up. Dictatorships and democracies alike tend to invoke “the people.” But some national mottoes are revealing, if unintentionally. Humble Canada could come up with nothing better than a statement of geography (“From sea to sea”), while Cuba brooks no nonsense with its “Homeland or death.” Tiny Luxembourg really nailed it, though, with “We wish to remain what we are.”
Now there’s an aspiration to envy. - Eric Effron