Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Great Britishness

A recent Government green paper [PDF] says:

A clearer understanding of the common core of rights and responsibilities that go with British citizenship will help build our sense of shared identity and social cohesion. …
There is room to celebrate multiple and different identities, but none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British.

This is one of the more fraught areas of politics. Trying to define Britishness can lead to all sorts of pitfalls – but that tells us something. We’re uncertain (but not necessarily anxious) about what it means to be British these days, and we’re sceptical of official attempts to write in stone our ‘national character’.

Looking for a thorough and rigorous definition is obviously futile owing to the dynamic complexity of the country, but maybe there are aspects that do allow reasonably crisp statement, and other parts where broad-brush sketching and constructive ambiguity will suffice for a working description.

Two related questions: what sort of thing is Britishness? And what do we want it to do?

The point of all this recent debate is that people worry about how united the country feels, and that it would be good to have some common understanding of ourselves that brings us together. So how do we couch Britishness in a way that could do that?

The green paper talks a lot about “British values” and “British citizenship”, but “British identity” and “British nationality” are barely mentioned; “British culture” appears not once. This is wise.

To explain Britishness in terms of a particular way of life is to risk pushing cultural conformity. This is not only factually wrong in light of the country’s diversity, but also betrays the liberty we so insist on. Differences in lifestyle and outlook are an inescapable consequence of social and political freedom. In fact, even in the absence of immigration, ‘British culture’ would change and grow more variegated with time, especially given technological change and the globalisation of media and communications.

Obviously, an ethnically or religiously based understanding won’t do either. ‘Nationality’ is tricky as so many associate that with being English, Scottish, and so on. ‘Identity’ can mean pretty much any aspect of how one understands and presents oneself, so naturally it applies here, but in what way?

People viscerally cherish the strands of their identities relating to religion and nationality (whether from the UK’s four constituents or family ties abroad). For people to feel comfortable and secure enough to value identifying as British too, there has to be space for these to flourish (not the same as letting enclaves stagnate or superiority complexes grow). Britishness must supplement, not try to supplant, these identities, or else difference will turn into division.

In this respect we should aim to be nearer the Canadian ‘salad bowl’ than the American ‘melting pot’. You can be yourself, and be part of society by contributing to it in good faith.

Civic virtues

‘Citizenship’ construed merely as legal status is clearly relevant too, but may not carry much psychological weight in itself. ‘Values’ are often cited, but usually in the abstract. These last two, though, are where the potential lies. Notions of citizenship and values can work to create a civic/political/moral sketch of what it means to be British, in a way that’s neither too dry and abstract nor too prescriptive and contentious.

The relevant values fall into two rough categories. First, those associated with liberal democracy, which is the cornerstone of the British polity: legal equality; holding power to account; guaranteed rights and expected duties; rule of law; freedom of thought, speech and action (consistent with the freedom of others); and the willingness to hear dissent and concede defeat without forming enmities.

Second, a set of values more in the realm of down-to-earth manners than overarching ideology. Words such as respect, tolerance, acceptance, courtesy, and civility are all in this area. It boils down to acting on the assumption that your fellow citizens have just as much worth as you, however different they might be – unless they positively cause harm to others. (This is why we queue.)

This is less about obeying the letter of the law than accepting the spirit of it. People should see that these premises are vital for Britain’s health as a country, and accept that Britain is legitimately theirs and that their fellow citizens are legitimately British. This “essential minimum”, as Ian Kearns and Richard Muir put it, still leaves vast room for differences of politics, religion, lifestyle and personality:

It encourages solidarity between citizens and a belief in a shared set of citizenship values on the one hand but its liberal nature defends and maintains respect for diverse beliefs and practices on the other.

There are two more key ingredients: language and history. The importance of speaking a common language is evident from the fact that a shared civic/political identity depends on communication. So Ted Cantle argues that:

much greater emphasis should be placed on how we actually relate to each other, allowing relationships to grow. … Society also grows from political interaction, between the state and individuals and between individuals themselves. … Social and political capital, and the sense of trust upon which they depend, can only be built by dialogue and exchange.

To understand each other as fellow citizens, we need to, well, understand each other.

Coming together

On British history, Roger Scruton and Billy Bragg (perhaps uncharacteristically) agree that having a common narrative matters for a country’s sense of unity. Scruton says that what’s needed “is not necessarily the truth – it is a bit of the truth with a lot of embellishment – but it is a loyalty-creating story that gives people a way of attaching their emotions to each other, and in particular to strangers”.

And Bragg thinks that there’s now a problem here, partly because “the classic British identity is based on the Whig interpretation of history: the idea that we were chosen, and that the empire was an expression of that. But what that history can't do is deal with decline, because it is all about greatness.”

So we need a story to tell ourselves (and our children) that renders the ‘values’ we wish to promote intelligibly British, that narrates progress and demands more, that isn’t too ethnically or culturally exclusive or politically biased, and that has enough grains of historical accuracy. Bragg suggests:

Less than a century ago, most British citizens were excluded from fully realising their individual potential by class barriers; excluded from expressing their democratic will by gender; excluded from good health by poverty. All the way back to the Magna Carta, our history has examples of people standing up for their right to be treated fairly. It is this struggle for belonging that connects the majority of English people with the minority of recently arrived immigrants - a struggle to be accepted as part of society, as respected, responsible citizens.

(He also reminds us that, as the majority of postwar immigration has been from Commonwealth countries, most ethnic minority citizens can say as surely as the BNP’s target voters that they are descended from subjects of the British Empire. Vast numbers from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent fought and died in World War II. So when anyone sneers that being British is about the blood that pulses under white skin, we must recall that Britain’s freedom and survival owes much to that transfusion of spilt blood from its dark-skinned subjects.)

This feels workable: a shift from Britain as ‘a free country’ to a country whose people progressively seek and earn more freedom; from a world power (now enfeebled) to a land where power flows increasingly to the people.

We do have a story now about “greatness”. Having been an engine of empire, projecting power across the globe, the only future for Britain is as a network that smoothes and manages the relationships among the people that live here. Today, the ‘common purpose’ is to hold the people of this land together, allowing them to make it theirs and to constantly remake the many strands of Britishness.

And this is supremely worthwhile: it’s better that the state exists for the benefit of the citizens than the citizens for the glory of the state. We do, though, still make Britain what it is – and it’s a better society now then 50 or 100 years ago. Greatness, in the only sense really worth aspiring to, isn’t a measure of might but a quality of the heart. And together, we can make the British character great.

Of course, this is pretty simplified and idealised, powered by emotion as much as fact. But a country’s story about itself must be a blend of the descriptive and the normative. We all sometimes fall short of our own standards; the same is true of governments and also of majority public opinion. The point is that those standards make some sense in light of our history and that they can be rallied around to judge the present and shape the future.

As Bhiku Parekh puts it: “To love [one’s country] is… to want it to be the best it is capable of, and to be proud or ashamed of it when it respectively meets or fails to meet one’s moral expectations of it.”

There’s a lot more that could be said: about housing, education, welfare, policing, terrorism, voluntary groups and their funding, prejudice, areas where deprivation and exclusion can feed defensive insularity… but I’m not trying to write a book here. Public policies matter hugely, but that’s a different level of debate, taking us beyond the core of Britishness.

Liberal democracy, mutual acceptance, a common language, a story of moral progress: these are the fundamentals. The rest is up to us.


Sam said...

I write as a Canadian adopting the fine concrete of Croydon as home.

How easy will it be to promote Britishness without the Nationalism? Its a slippery slope, though I think you are right, the seemingly deliberate focus away from "identity" and "culture" would lead me to be more hopeful of the positives of this idea.

"British" values and stoicism (Alan Johnston emerging from 16 weeks as hostage: "sometimes it was quite terrifying" etc) are remarkable and unique traits. And admired. Uniting a nation behind these concepts could succeed: the queue, the understatement, and tea (not exclusive) could tighten relations in what is probably the most rigorous multicultural experiment ever attempted.

For one thing entrenched in the British consciousness is the tragedy of Nationalism gone mad. An important lesson some other powerful countries may not have taken to heart.

anticant said...

We really do need to stop pussyfooting around this issue. The current unease about Britishness stems almost solely from the fact that Muslims - unlike other religious and racial minorities who choose to live in Britain - don't subscribe to our traditions of social tolerance and free speech, and are very vocal in telling us so, at the same time asserting that they are "victims" and demanding special treatment more in accord with their religious beliefs.

Until this situation is addressed honestly and forthrightly by the government, as well as by both Muslims and non-Muslims, things can only get worse.

Tom Freeman said...

Croydon? Well, nice to have you in this green and pleasant land Sam! And yes, a kind of gung-ho nationalistic fervour would just cause trouble.

What I like about 'the British character' (if such can be said to exist) is the kind of wry cockiness, most apparent in attitudes to sport. However many defeats we clock up (Tim Henman, the England or Scotland footy teams, and let's not mention the cricket) we're still verbally full of ourselves - while at the same time knowing that this attitude is ridiculous,and yet not really minding.

Tom Freeman said...

Anticant, that's true - although it's only one of the main reasons (post-devolution discomfort is another). And you're overgeneralising a tad.

You might fancy this paper by Bhiku Parekh, in which he draws a distinction between two ways that a Muslim identity can influence one's identification (or lack thereof) as British.

Some Muslims "accept British values and practices but derive their grounds and motivations from Islam. Like other Britons they too are loyal to the country and respect its values and institutions, but for their own reasons." But others "take a stand on [their] religious identity, judge British values and practices by it, and accept only those that conform to it. … A Muslim Briton who bases his entire life on a particular reading of his religion might also reject the country's secular and 'permissive' ethos and withdraw into an inner world of rage and revolt."

anticant said...

My worry is that Islam and democracy are antipathetic. Despite the current gormless fashion to blithely believe that anything goes with anything else, you can't square circles, mix oil and water, or blend chalk and cheese.

I've nothing against Muslims as human beings - I know some pleasant ones - but please show me just one Islamic state anywhere in the world that is democratic, pluralist, and grants non-Muslims equal rights.

I find the Parekh statement disturbing - not reassuring.

Matt M said...


I think that any strong state ideology will undermine democracy - we have numerous examples in history of that.

But, one of the most overlooked predominantly Muslim countries, Indonesia, which enjoys a certain measure of democracy and pluralism, is proof that Islam and democracy can be made to work alongside each other.

Tom Freeman said...

"just one Islamic state anywhere in the world that is democratic, pluralist, and grants non-Muslims equal rights"

Not the issue. There's zero prospect of Britain becoming an Islamic state, whatever the democgraphic doom-mongers liek to say.

The issue is whether being a Muslim is compatible with believing in democracy, human rights and equality. Manifestly yes, usually accompanied by tactical Qu'ranic 'reinterpretation'.