Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 February 2011

David Cameron: British-national identity and British values as an antidote to British state multiculturalism

I suppose it was only going to be a matter of time before Ed Miliband and David Cameron started to develop their Britishness narratives. First, last Friday, it was Ed Miliband waxing lyrically, and hypocritically, about how politicians had broken the ‘Promise of Britain’. Then the following day, David Cameron chooses a security conference in Munich as the occasion for a speech criticising the way “state multiculturalism” had created the climate of separation and alienation on which Islamist-extremist terrorism thrives. Instead, the Prime Minister argued that, rather than “encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone”. A British-national identity only, of course, as far as people living in England are concerned.

In addition to fostering greater social unity around national identity, Cameron argues that Western societies in general need to take a more vigorous approach to confronting the ideology of extremist Islamism and to defending Western liberal values: they should adopt a new “muscular liberalism” instead of the “passive tolerance of recent years”. These liberal values read like a classic list of the ‘British values’ so beloved of David Cameron’s prime-ministerial predecessor: “a genuinely liberal country . . . believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things”.

We may or may not believe in all of these things; most English people probably do, in fact. But whether that defines us as a society, and defines what it means to “belong here”, is another matter. In any case, as far as UK-government initiatives to promote these values are concerned, they are confined, of necessity, to England:

“There are practical things that we can do as well. That includes making sure that immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum [e.g. the UK government’s Britishness classes and ‘British’-history curriculum in English schools only]. Back home, we’re introducing National Citizen Service [England only]: a two-month programme for sixteen-year-olds from different backgrounds to live and work together [pretty much compulsory]. I also believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power away from the state and towards the people [the Big Society: again, England only]. That way, common purpose can be formed as people come together and work together in their neighbourhoods. It will also help build stronger pride in local identity, so people feel free to say, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londonder [sic] or a Berliner too’ [how about, ‘but I am also English [since I live in London] or German too’?]”.

So British values and a uniform British-national identity are inculcated in young English people of all cultural backgrounds by teaching them to be British – not English – in schools; by introducing a form of semi-compulsory British-national civic service in England; by the British state withdrawing funding and responsibility for public services in England, which will somehow encourage people of all cultures to work together for each other; and by fostering local identities in England, but definitely not a national-English identity. Something doesn’t add up here.

Clearly, Cameron’s repudiation of ‘state multiculturalism’ is connected with his ostensible wish to see a transfer of power and social responsibility from the state to ‘the people’. State multiculturalism must therefore be an ideological, ‘artificial’ form of cultural pluralism imposed on the population by the state. However, Cameron wishes to replace this model of British multiculturalism with another form of ‘British’ multiculturalism in England-only that is equally imposed from the British centre and joins forces with the drive to assert Britishness as the uniform national identity for all people living in England – while it paradoxically also aspires to achieve more genuine, local, grass-roots integration by creating the conditions for people of all cultures to work together to meet their mutual needs.

We can perhaps shed some light on this confusion of different interpretations of multiculturalism and of conflicting ideological aspirations by looking at the various models of multiculturalism in Britain. I would argue that there are three main schools of multiculturalism and / or cultural integration, which broadly speaking are as follows:

  • ‘separatist’ multiculturalism: a ‘one-in-many’ model whereby ‘Britain’, rather than providing a civic framework for bringing about cultural conformity and uniformity, becomes the place and enabler of cultural multiplicity. In other words, Britain becomes defined by its very cultural diversity, rather than being identified primarily with a single dominant culture with which other cultures have been integrated and assimilated to a varying degree
  • ‘integrationist’ multiculturalism: a ‘many-into-one’ approach according to which the process of (multi)cultural integration is about assimilating diverse cultures within the framework of a unified set of shared civic values associated with (British) citizenship, including the adoption of secular norms for public life, and universal respect for and application of the country’s laws
  • ‘transformational’ multiculturalism: a ‘many-into-the-new’ process, whereby the dominant, host culture opens itself up to being transformed by the minority, incoming cultures, which in turn open themselves up to being even more substantially transformed by the host culture – resulting in cultural fusion and the creation of something new that owes its heritage mainly to the host culture but in which aspects of the incoming cultures, albeit themselves changed into something new, are now accepted as integral features of the host country’s culture.

The first of these forms of multiculturalism corresponds broadly to Cameron’s ‘state multiculturalism’. Cameron’s critique of this is a familiar one, which I in fact agree with in its essentials, although I disagree with his prescription for remedying it. As Cameron says in his speech: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

Cameron’s answer to the deficiencies of this first form of multiculturalism corresponds mainly to the ‘integrationist’ model combined with a thin layer of ‘transformational’ multiculturalism. In other words, Cameron believes that we need (i.e. the British state needs) to assert ‘shared British values’ in a more aggressive (or, as he puts it, “muscular”) manner in order to counter the views of extremist minorities, while actual integration of communities on the ground takes place in a more horizontal, organic way by people working together in partnership, thereby counteracting the sense of social alienation that drives extremism in the first place.

In his emphasis on muscular, state-driven liberalism and Britishness, Cameron is in fact largely re-stating New Labour’s approach. In the last Labour government, a distinct transition was effected from the separatist multiculturalism that had marked left-of-centre / progressive thinking and practice until then to the integrationist model. This took place partly in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7 July 2005. The British government clearly decided that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of ‘Islamist’ extremism was to encourage immigrant communities, especially Muslim ones, to sign up to the sort of roster of British values and norms I cited from Cameron’s speech above.

This concern to foster cultural integration and social cohesion by reinforcing British values fed into and augmented the broader Britishness agenda and the suppression of English-national identity, which then became such a massive feature of Gordon Brown’s premiership. The last thing the British establishment wanted to do was foster a sense of English identity on the part of migrant communities living in England, as the same establishment had embarked on a systematic programme to deny the distinct identity and culture of England and reinvent it as that of ‘Britain’ – a programme targeted at the existing English population. So migrant communities were encouraged instead to embrace British civic values, and respect for British institutions and law: the integrationist model.

The question, however, is whether merely buying into a set of liberal, civic values is sufficient to effect genuine cultural and social integration at the community level. Indeed, one might even say that the second form of British multiculturalism (the integrationist variety) is just as divisive as the first form (separatist multiculturalism) because it shares with it the same suppression of Englishness as the primary identity of England.

Separatist multiculturalism, that is, asserts that there is no primary culture in England or Britain as a whole, and that all cultures should be treated as equal; and, indeed, that this very pluralism is what we mean by Britishness and British citizenship, such that any assertion of a ‘primary’, ‘indigenous’ British culture such as that of England should be avoided and mistrusted as potentially discriminatory and racist. Integrationist multiculturalism, on the other hand, asserts that the primary culture of Britain, and particularly England, is Britishness: people from originally non-British backgrounds must buy in to Britishness as a condition of belonging; but English people just are British and nothing else – integration takes place as a merger into the Britishness that English people already are, and no distinct English identity or community is to be acknowledged or tolerated.

The denial of a distinct Englishness that is inherent within integrationist multiculturalism helps in part to explain the non-acknowledgement of the aspects of Cameron’s programme of muscular liberalism that are specific to England in the passage quoted above. But Cameron at least seems to recognise that something more transformational is required than merely encouraging all citizens to sign up to British liberal values: for Cameron, profound integration can take place only at the local level when people from all backgrounds come together to provide for each other’s needs – the Big Society model.

Again, I actually agree with this as far as it goes: true integration does arise when communities respect each other’s common humanity, recognise each other’s shared needs and dependencies, and open up to allow each other to provide services that cross over the community divides. But the trouble is, again, that the Big Society in practice is a model for English society (as communities and public services are devolved policy areas) but all reference to the English context is completely elided in Cameron’s language. Hence his emphasis on shared local identities rather than a shared Englishness: as a Westminster-elitist Brit, Cameron just can’t bring himself to embrace the amazingly transformational potential of people coming to say, ‘I’m a Muslim and English‘ and ‘I’m a Hindu and English‘ alongside the traditional ‘I’m a Christian – or, indeed, a secular liberal – and English’.

Now, that would be true integration: people from all cultural backgrounds coming together in a shared Englishness that unites them rather than a top-down-imposed Britishness that divides. That Britishness, whether in the many-cultures-in-parallel or the merger-into-common-Britishness multicultural mode, cannot but drive a wedge between the non-native and native populations in England because both modes seek to deny the core national identity and culture of the native population: Englishness. Equally, while most English people would broadly speaking have little difficulty in accepting Cameron’s list of British liberal values, it’s not this acceptance alone that will bring people together in a united community. This can happen only when both native and non-native English people come to see each other as part of the same community – the same nation: as English.

This is the real challenge of cultural integration in England – whether or not that actually helps combat Islamist terrorism: are the non-native communities going to be willing to see themselves as English in the first instance, i.e. to embrace ‘English’ as the label that describes the things that make their communities distinctive and mark out what it means to belong, say, to an English-Muslim community as distinct from a Pakistani- or Bangladeshi-Muslim community that is merely living in ‘Britain’ but separate from the English culture around them? And are we native English people going to be able to accept that Islam should become part of a shared English culture, albeit taking on forms of expression and a community life that are distinctive to England and differentiate an English Muslim from a Muslim from any other part of the Muslim world? Not that any English person is obliged to adopt any Muslim beliefs or customs at all if they don’t wish to, but they accept that it is the right of their fellow Englishman of any colour to do so. That is indeed what makes us different to the Islamist terrorist.

When we can accept the concept of an English Muslim, then we’ll have overcome the cultural divisions on which terrorist extremism thrives. But until we can do so – and so long as we think that non-native Muslim communities can be only British not English – those divisions will linger in our hearts and our minds.

5 February 2011

Ed Miliband: England is a promise politicians haven’t even made let alone broken

I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”

Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.

Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.

Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.

Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.

But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?

How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?

Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?

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