Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 June 2015

British values, English society and Islam

Recent examples of, and thinking about, young ‘British-Asian’ Muslims who have been radicalised, and gone to fight and die in Syria or Iraq, have suggested that one of the main reasons for their actions is the need for a stronger sense of identity and belonging. The young people in question are said to feel isolated from and rejected by ‘British’ society, being cast as ‘Pakistani’, for instance, even if they are from a second- or third-generation ‘immigrant’ background, i.e. they were born here. But if they go to visit their families in Pakistan, they are frequently dismissed as ‘English’. So they feel they neither belong in Britain nor in Pakistan.

Joining extremist Islamist organisations such as IS, so the argument goes, makes these young people feel as though they belong to a greater community and movement, and indeed to a ‘state’: a trans-national ‘caliphate’ that serves a higher purpose and unity than existing, established nation states, and which in turn enables them to justify treasonous and violent acts against those states, whether the UK, Syria or Iraq.

Media and political commentary frequently articulates astonishment and dismay that such people could have so comprehensively rejected ‘British values’, as if it were obvious what these values are and that every British citizen should automatically subscribe to them. Attempts to enumerate these values usually include general qualities such as tolerance, respect for the rule of law, a sense of fair play, civic liberties, and non-discrimination along the lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or creed.

How could such youngsters, who’ve enjoyed the benefits of a society that embodies these values during their upbringing, turn their backs on that society and seek to destroy it? By implication, those minority-ethnic young Muslims should jolly well be grateful that they’ve enjoyed the benefits of British tolerance, law, fairness, and protection for their freedoms and minority rights, and should be grateful for what this country has given them, not turn against it.

But such an assessment of the phenomenon seems grossly incommensurate to the scale and nature of what those youngsters are embracing: not just an adolescent-type rejection of their parents’ decent values and moderate lifestyles, but a movement that actually celebrates barbarity, genocide, philistinism, and the rape and enslavement of women in the name of a self-consciously medieval reinterpretation of Islam. ‘Sorry, mum and dad, I reject your “British values” as inconsistent with Islam; and so I’m going to go and behead people who disagree with my interpretation of Islam, and commit sundry acts of slaughter, rape and pillage for the glory of Allah’. Or, ‘sorry, mum and dad, I don’t want to be married to a nice respectable Bradford small business owner, so I’m going to hitch myself to a psychopathic IS warrior and become his chattel for ever more’. This just doesn’t seem to add up, which is why it leaves the commentators flummoxed.

Perhaps the problem is in part the very ‘British-Asian’ identity that’s being offered to such young people: a hybrid, schizoid identity that is neither fully British nor fully Pakistani (or Bangladeshi, for example). This certainly does not denote an integrally Muslim identity, let alone a ‘British-Muslim’ or, dare I say it, even an ‘English-Muslim’ identity. One of the motivations for these young people, clearly, is that they are seeking an identity and sense of belonging that have a religious (i.e. Islamic) foundation; and, at the same time, they evidently don’t feel they belong in English society. I say ‘English’, rather than ‘British’, deliberately: the Muslims we hear about in the news invariably come from English cities and, as far as I know, there isn’t much of a problem of radicalisation of Scottish Muslims.

So the young people in question wish to affirm their identity as Muslims, over and above their merely British nationality or citizenship, and over and above their ‘Asian’ ethnicity. And, at the same time, they’ve grown up feeling alienated and estranged from the modern English society and communities around them, which are also increasingly secular and irreligious.

The solution, it seems to me, is to seek to foster the inclusion of Islam within English society, as opposed to the adoption of ‘British values’ by, or the imposition of those values on, Muslims living in England, as the latter approach merely partakes of the alienation and non- or counter-Islamic narrative those young Muslims are reacting against. At the same time, the adoption of an increasingly English identity by Muslim communities in England is what would really help overcome their alienation from British identity. This is because once you are, and are accepted as, English, then you truly become an integral part of the British political and cultural landscape in a way that mere acquisition of British nationality or citizenship cannot bring about.

What would such an ‘English Islam’ mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the ‘islamisation’ of England, as some people fear. What I’m thinking of is an opening up of Muslim communities to English civic society, and an embracing of Muslim communities and individuals by English civic society.

For example, Muslim communities and mosques could get involved in existing English community activities and charitable events, or create new ones open to all comers and benefiting the whole community, along typically English lines. These could include things like jumble sales, fêtes, sponsored runs, charity fundraising events, voluntary work, charity shops, etc. Conversely, Muslim communities could be invited to participate in such activities organised by churches or non-church community groups and organisations. In the light of the terrible atrocities being perpetrated by organisations such as IS in the name of Islam, it is sometimes hard to accept the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace and charity. Getting involved in ‘English’ charitable activities and events would be a powerful way to enact that truer form of Islam and demonstrate a counter-narrative to IS.

Similarly, churches and mosques should invite each other’s members to experience their worship and community life, and learn about each other’s faith, as guests. This doesn’t mean being made to participate in the other religion’s acts of worship and other observances, but rather it involves witnessing, and witnessing to, each other’s faith, religious practices and communities. This could only help build a deeper and more affectionate sense of mutual understanding and belonging in a shared community (beyond the narrow confines of each other’s churches or mosques), to which both faiths have a duty of care as fellow servants of the one true God.

It could well be that, as a result of such an extending of the hand of friendship across the religious divide, some Christians might convert to Islam. But equally, some Muslims could be drawn to Christian faith. That’s a challenge that would test the friendship and co-operation between the faith communities. But in resolving those tensions, a more solid and enduring mutual acceptance would surely be forged. In any case, Christian and secular English communities will either have to draw closer to the Muslims in their midst, or the present divisions and mutual distrust will continue to fester and generate recruits for IS. There is, ultimately, no positive alternative to this coming together of English and Muslim communities in a shared, renewed and plural Englishness. And at the same time, it is in reality a religious obligation for both Christians and Muslims to extend that hand of friendship to brethren beyond the church or mosque wall.

Similarly, I would say that Christian and Muslim schools should be open to children from Muslim and Christian backgrounds respectively, and indeed to children from any religious or non-religious background. Indeed, I wonder whether there shouldn’t be quotas to ensure the multi-faith composition of all such schools with, perhaps, 50% drawn from the religion or denomination to which the school claims to belong, with the other 50% representing roughly the religious / non-religious make-up of the remainder of the school’s local community.

The schools’ assemblies and other events should also reflect this diversity with, say, Muslim schools putting on nativity plays and Christmas carol concerts ahead of the Christmas holiday, alongside their celebrations of Muslim holidays and festivals, in which all of the schools’ pupils would be encouraged to take part. I went to a school where around 40% of the pupils were from Jewish backgrounds. Although there were separate assemblies for Jews and non-Jews on some days, on other days there were joint assemblies and prayers, and we had some wonderful Jewish speakers, which really helped me to gain an understanding and respect for the Jewish faith and post-war experience.

These schools, which would effectively be multi-faith, would in fact be an embodiment of the kind of plural English communities we need to be striving for: Muslims, Christians and others living, studying and working together, and sharing each other’s faith and experience. It’s hard to imagine a young Muslim brought up in such a school and community rejecting an Englishness that had been so inclusive, welcoming and friendly towards him or her and the Muslim faith: if there’s no conflict in such a young person’s mind between Islam and Englishness, then his or her Islam will not be used as a pretext to turn violently against England.

In other words, it’s shared Englishness that will bring about a sense of belonging to Britain on the part of young Muslims, not a British identity and set of values that are often not seen as compatible with Muslim faith and practice, and indeed are often advocated as a means to mitigate, control and relativise that Muslim identity. If Muslims feel that they and their faith are accepted as integral members and a valued feature of English civic society and communities, then it will make no sense – either religiously or psychologically – to turn against England. But conversely, we English will need to open our communities, civic society and hearts to Muslims and Islam.

We either love our neighbours as ourselves or make enemies of them. The choice is ours.

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

11 August 2011

England’s riots: if you keep trashing England, eventually England will trash you back

It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.

One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.

It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.

In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?

Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.

Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.

What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.

Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.

And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.

And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.

Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?

The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.

Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.

Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.

Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.

If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.

10 June 2011

The head of the Anglican Communion criticises the government’s English policies without saying ‘England’

“A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?”

These are the words with which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, concluded his article in the New Statesman yesterday criticising key coalition government policies on social services and welfare as being without a proper mandate.

My answer to this question would be, ‘how about an English democracy?’

The Archbishop rightly and powerfully articulates some of the central problems about the government’s social agenda with respect to the lack of any real democratic debate, scrutiny and consensus they may have received. Elsewhere in the article, Dr Williams writes: “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.

It is indeed true that the government’s policies in areas such as education, health, localism and the Big Society were not set out clearly and in detail in either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos at the last election, nor were they explained or debated openly and vigorously throughout the election campaign. And there was one very good reason for that: these policies are English policies.

At the election, none of the three major parties openly acknowledged and explained that their policies for education, health, communities and social services – all of which are devolved matters – related to England alone; indeed, their manifestos contained barely any mention of England (as I analysed at the time here, here and here). And as we know, almost the very raison d’être of the British government and establishment is to suppress the existence of any sort of English-national polity in which policies and laws intended for England are openly and honestly discussed as relating to England.

Accordingly, there’s a very good reason, Dr Williams, why neither the government nor the opposition are adequately explaining the thinking and priorities behind their radical policies, nor explaining what their likely impact will be on the ‘nation’ as a whole. That’s because they can’t even acknowledge the very name of the nation for which those policies are intended. Indeed, the policies themselves – in their actual content – express the drive to abolish any form of English civic nationhood in that they pass on the responsibility for the civic life of, and public services for, the English nation to the private realm: to individuals, small groups, communities, and not-for-profit or for-profit organisations that are now meant to take responsibility for education, health care, local services and amenities, and social services without any overarching national plan and vision.

There’s no national plan or vision because the nation that is being privatised and, as it were, ‘de-nationised’ is completely invisible: England.

And yes, these policies have not been voted for. And that’s not just because they weren’t adequately explained at the election but, more fundamentally, because they were not presented either to or for the nation in which they were to be implemented: no English-national electorate was either addressed or invoked during the election; nor was any English nation acknowledged for which these policies might represent any sort of blueprint for the future. No one voted for these policies, and they weren’t adequately explained, because to do so implies the existence of some sort of national political life in which those policies are a part of the public debate, and a nation for which those policies are intended. But none of that applies to these policies, because they’re English, and England was absent from the election, and is absent from government and the political process in the present.

So the answer to the Archbishop’s question at the end of his article is that these policies will be subjected to the scrutiny they demand, and a more participative democracy holding politicians to account will be brought about, and a positive vision for society and the common good will be developed, only when the nation for which those policies are intended is brought into the process and a vigorous, healthy English polity comes into being.

Why, therefore, did the Archbishop himself not mention the name of the country – England – where these policies are being implemented? Why is even the spiritual head of the Church of England not standing up for ‘England’ as such even where he makes such an impassioned plea for the creation of a more genuinely participative, democratic life in which English policies can be subjected to the scrutiny of the nation as a whole?

England is the great lack and absence at or from the centre of it all. And while politicians, media and archbishops cannot bring themselves to say ‘England’, none of them by definition can ever articulate a shared vision for England.

10 April 2009

England Versus Britain: Liberal Christianity Versus Fundamentalist Liberalism

I’ve followed the reaction to the Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s recent sermon on Englishness with great interest. On the whole, the response from the English-nationalist community has been highly positive. This is understandable, as Sentamu’s words add up to a celebration of Englishness, which – he argued – should in fact be formally celebrated by making St. George’s Day a national holiday:

“Let us recognise collectively the enormous treasure that sits in our cultural and spiritual vaults. Let’s draw upon the riches of our heritage and find a sense of purpose for those who are thrashing around for meaning and settling for second best. Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place in a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.”

This makes such a refreshing change from the continuous diet of Britishness that we are incessantly fed by the politicians and the media that Sentamu’s speech is itself something one feels like celebrating. As he himself says, “Englishness is back on the agenda”. Amen to that!

In view of this, it feels somewhat churlish on my part to point out that the Archbishop himself appears at times to have a weak grasp of the distinction between Englishness (and England) and Britishness (and Britain). This is a point I made in a comment to a posting on Sentamu’s sermon in the Cranmer blog, which I reproduce here:

“Archbishop Sentamu does appear to be confused about the distinction between England / Englishness and Britain / Britishness, slipping seamlessly between one and the other in this sermon. For instance, at the very start of his disquisition on the ‘realities of Englishness’, under the heading ‘England’s Debt to Christianity’, the Archbishop writes: ‘Historically, Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by the Christian faith’. Which is it, Archbishop: England or Britain? And which is ‘the nation’?

“And again, under the heading ‘A Loss of Vision’, Sentamu writes: ‘a more serious development over the past century has been a loss of vision for the English people. Central to that loss of vision has been the loss of the British Empire, wherein England played a defining role. . . . As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe the United Kingdom became more self-absorbed’. Again, which is it: England, Britain or the United Kingdom?

“This uncertainty somewhat undermines the important point the Archbishop makes in this section, which is something I very much agree with: ‘there has perhaps never been a better time to re-state this question as to how England might re-discover a noble vision for the future? From my own standpoint I believe that it is vital that England must utilize the challenges posed by the current economic turmoil and in restating the questions posed by Bishop Montefiore, England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’.

“In restating those questions, England must ask them from the standpoint of England, not Britain. Indeed, the ambiguous interdependency between that nation and that state respectively is very much present in Hugh Montefiore’s sermon to which Archbishop Sentamu refers: ‘I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation?’ What is ‘this great country’ and which is ‘a nation’: England or Britain?

“This is not mere semantics but goes to the heart of the question about whether we can rediscover a sense of national identity (‘England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’) and purpose in the post-imperial age. This is especially critical, as Sentamu argues that we need to draw inspiration from that very imperial past to redefine our mission (including Christian mission) and values for the present and future. But can we succeed in defining and celebrating a distinctive Englishness and vision for England if we do not disentangle the core identity of England from that of Britain, as John Sentamu appears not to be able to do? As he writes: ‘Some English people don’t like to say anything about their heritage, for fear of upsetting newcomers. My question to them is simple: Why do you think we came here? There is something very attractive about the United Kingdom. That is why people stay! As a boy in Uganda, I was taught by British missionaries. Just as foreigners brought the Christian Faith to England and the rest of the UK, so British foreigners handed on the baton to me, my family and my forebears. . . . All I am doing now is to remind the English of what they taught me’. All very fine stuff. But who in fact taught him his faith: the English or the British? And which country is it that foreigners come to and like so much: England or the UK?

“As I say, the distinction is far from semantic, as we are living in a political and cultural climate in which England and Englishness are very much being suppressed in favour of Britain and Britishness, and a re-telling of the whole narrative of English history, values and identity is being made as that of Britain. Without defining and affirming an Englishness distinct from Britishness, there will be no English future to build for, the hope for which Archbishop Sentamu expresses at the end of his sermon. Just as he juxtaposes the traditional British patriotic hymn of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with the English hymn of ‘Jerusalem’.

“So perhaps I was right in my previous comment, after all, to say that the CofE needs to work out whether it is primarily English or British in order to be in a position truly to speak for England and express an authentic vision for England – as England”.

Thinking about this further, I wonder if this overlapping of England and Britain in Sentamu’s speech is not so much a case of confusion as a reaffirmation of the very anglo-centricity of traditional Britishness. In my last post in this blog, I described the way in which Gordon Brown’s Britishness agenda draws on English people’s traditional non-differentiation between Englishness and Britishness to enlist their identification with a new Britishness that makes no reference whatsoever to Englishness or England – literally: the words ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are erased from the official lexicon, and are replaced by concepts of Britishness and Britain that take over all the characteristics of their English precursors, including that of the sovereign national identity at the heart of the UK state.

This attempt to appropriate English nationhood and sovereignty to a British state that has hitherto been primarily an instrument of English power has brought about a profound schism in the English-British identity, with many English people coming to reject Britain and Britishness altogether because they no longer seem to represent a vehicle and expression of English-national pride and identity. These latter are what John Sentamu has affirmed in his sermon: but not as being ineradicably at odds with Britain and Britishness but as constituting and epitomising all that is best about Britain – in both its imperial past and its multicultural present.

As this restatement of the positive characteristics of Englishness is a reinstatement of Englishness at the heart of Britishness, it is not surprising that the Archbishop’s list of English values closely resembles similar lists of British values that are regularly trooped out: “fraternity, law, liberty, landscape, language, magnanimity, monarchy, a thirst for knowledge, and a reverence for titles and status. But along with these I would also add, an ability to cope and not make a fuss”. Lists such as these are of course highly disputable, both as typifying the English and in relation to whether they are more aptly extended to all the people of Britain, not just the English. However, the point I would emphasise is that even when adduced as a set of British values, qualities such as these are by default ascribed to the English, as it is the people of England that are intended to embody those values most ‘quintessentially’.

Another question, raised by the Archbishop himself, is whether these things are actual characteristics of English / British people or virtues, as the lists often include qualities with a moral tenor such as fairness, tolerance, honesty and respect for the rule of law. And again, are these ‘virtues’ that the English (and / or British) exemplify to a high degree in some way, or are they mainly characteristics that we hold up as ideals to which we aspire but which we very often fall short of in practice? The same could be said of some of the other qualities commonly termed ‘British values’, which are in reality political ideals or civic virtues, such as: liberty (ironically, a favourite of the oh-so un-libertarian Gordon Brown), equality, fraternity (in the Archbishop’s list), democracy, justice, and hard work. Are these typical characteristics of English / British society or do they merely reflect our aspirations for the way we would like Britain to be – some might say, all the more held up as an ideal the more they are in reality absent, as in the case of liberty alluded to above, or hard work, which Gordon Brown hammers on about increasingly as unemployment rises?

Come what may, whether we hold virtues or values to be more important or revealing about us goes to the heart of what we think should be the fundamental principles by which we live our lives as a nation – however much we do in reality live our lives by those principles. And there’s no doubt that Archbishop Sentamu’s intervention is part of an attempt to reaffirm Christian faith and traditions as the prime mover that has shaped the ‘moral character’ of England, and to reconnect English people to Christianity in the present:

“Whilst it has been suggested by some that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of any consideration of what it means to be English, the question as to where these virtues came from is usually overlooked. It is my understanding that such virtues and those associated with them, which form the fabric of our society have been weaved through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon this society.”

Interviewed for the second part of Matthew D’Ancona’s two-part Radio Four series on Britishness (which is basically a plug for a book on the same theme D’Ancona has co-written with Gordon Brown – play-back available only till Tuesday 14 April), the soon-to-retire Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor also emphasised the precedence of Christian virtues over secular values. This was, O’Connor explained, because virtues were unchanging principles that give order and meaning to people’s lives, while secular values are continually evolving in line with changes in social mores and material circumstances. A solid core of belief in timeless virtues thus provides a sense of rootedness in a world that can otherwise appear alarmingly mutable and unstable. From a Catholic perspective, these universal principles by definition transcend the individual nations that attempt to live by those principles. All the same, one implication of Cardinal O’Connor’s words was clearly that the principles of Christian faith make at once a higher and deeper claim to our allegiance than the merely civic and secular values that Brown and D’Ancona identify as the founding principles for a multi-cultural 21st-century Britain.

What was even more thought-provoking was D’Ancona’s interview with the leading cleric in the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This was firstly because of what it left out. On the preceding Sunday, on the Radio Four programme of the same name, they played an excerpt of D’Ancona’s interview with Williams where the author was trying to get the Archbishop to talk of the ways in which Christianity had helped mould Britain’s ‘national identity’. Williams deftly side-stepped this trap by agreeing that Christianity had been formative of “England’s national identity, let alone that of Britain” right from the very start of England’s history as a nation, when it helped to bring together the different Anglo-Saxon tribes into a unified kingdom – a history which Archbishop Sentamu also makes reference to in his sermon. So Rowan Williams refused to allow the Church of England to be used to support D’Ancona’s Britishness agenda by confirming a narrative whereby England’s Christian history had been one of many strands contributing to the development of something such a British national identity and set of values today – which would in fact confine the Church and England to the status of historical entities, rather than as continuing communities with beliefs and traditions distinct from those of modern secular Britain.

As I say, D’Ancona’s interview on the Britishness programme itself was revealing through its omissions, one of which was this very excerpt, which was conveniently edited out of the final broadcast. The part of the interview that D’Ancona chose to focus on in the programme was where Williams was making out a case in favour of the Church of England retaining its established status. Williams argued that this actually helps to anchor a multi-cultural society as it provides a solid foundation of core values, mutual respect, and a model for interaction between all the different ethnic groups – whether or not they fully subscribe to the religious basis for those principles. Indeed, Williams maintained, it was his experience that those of other faiths and of none often told him they valued the established status of the Church of England for this very reason. Clearly, those coming to England – especially those with a strong religious background – value the fact that there is a religious voice and an ‘official’ faith at the heart of the British Establishment. This corresponds to the experience of their own cultures, where there is often a formal, state religion, or certainly a majority religion; and it also constitutes something like a formal set of fundamental English beliefs that enables them to better understand how some of their own cultural and religious practices might conflict with English traditions, and to negotiate a path of integration into British society based on respect for its most deep-rooted norms and values.

Conversely, the absence of a strong religious centre to English and British life can engender a lack of respect and even fear towards our society on the part of migrants, which can lead migrant communities to retreat into their own ghettoes, and may in extremis even contribute towards fanatical jihadist ideas that Islam should become the dominant faith of Britain. Similarly, a lack of a grounding in true Christian principles – including loving the stranger and welcoming those of other faiths from a position of security in one’s own faith – can increase misunderstanding and hostility to those of other faith traditions, obscuring the fact that there is often more in common between people of different faiths (at least with respect to ethics and social values) than between those of any faith and those of none. This touches upon what Archbishop Sentamu means when he writes about ‘magnanimity’ as both an English characteristic and a Christian virtue. This goes beyond the mere tolerance that Gordon Brown and the Britologists spout on about, a quality which can imply division and lack of engagement with those of different backgrounds that one is tolerating. By contrast, magnanimity implies an openness towards the stranger, and a proactive effort to engage with them, to share with them what one has and is, and together to create community.

Matthew D’Ancona insidiously characterised Rowan Williams’s thoughtful reflection on the value of an established faith as ‘clever’ – implying that it was a sort of casuistic attempt to make out that the Church of England could provide a more pluralist, tolerant and even liberal basis for a modern multi-cultural society than the form of secular liberalism that D’Ancona clearly wishes to set up as the fundamental credo of a 21st-century British ‘nation’. This was clear from the end of the Britishness programme – immediately after the edited interview with Rowan Williams – where D’Ancona himself goes into sermon mode, arguing that it should be possible for secular British society to agree a set of fundamental moral and philosophical principles (“lines in the sand”, as he put it) that are non-negotiable. These would constitute a similar set of core British values to that which has hitherto been provided by the Church of England (as Rowan Williams would argue) and fulfilling the same sort of function – providing an ‘official’ statement along the lines of: ‘this is Britain; this is who we are and what we believe’ – enabling those of other backgrounds who settle here to understand and respect British society, and adapt to it.

The difference is that these new values are profoundly secular and liberal; and D’Ancona’s new British nation-state would undoubtedly be secular in its constitution – not an established religion in sight. Indeed, I would characterise these values as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘absolutist’ liberalism. For instance, two examples of non-negotiable values that D’Ancona skirted past in his final flourish were gay rights and women’s rights. No objection whatsoever on principle. But the anti-religious thrust of D’Ancona’s argument suggested that what we would end up with is more of what we have already endured under New Labour: certain so-called gay and women’s rights overriding and even obliterating the rights of religious groups to believe and do otherwise, and to preach and teach against certain practices – at least, from a government-sponsored pulpit. The ‘right’ of gay couples to adopt children taking precedence over the conscientious objection of Christian adoption agencies, forcing them to close; the ‘right’ of Lesbian couples to both use IVF to conceive children and be registered on the birth certificate as the genetic parents (even if neither of them actually are), obliterating the right of the child to a father; the ‘right’ of women to abortion, to the extent that – and this is quite conceivable – medical staff who refuse to support or carry out abortions could be prosecuted or struck off.

These and more are the kind of ‘British values’ that D’Ancona and Brown would have as the underpinning of their cherished ideal of a ‘Nation of Britain’ – indeed, Brown voted for them all, plus hybrid human-animal embryos, in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where he came very close to forcing Christian conscientious objectors among the Labour ranks to support the government or else lose the whip. This is ‘tolerance’ of extremes of Brave New World social, and indeed genetic, engineering pushed to such a degree that it tips over into intolerance towards those who dare to disagree out of adherence to more traditional beliefs and models of society. This is liberal fundamentalism, which relativises any claims to absolute truth, and any statements of fundamental right and wrong, other than its own.

And this is a Britishness finally stripped of any fundamental affiliation to the Christian faith and tradition. The English Christian faith and tradition, that is. To tear the English heart out of Britishness, you have to de-christianise Britain; and to de-christianise Britain, you have strip out its English centre. And that is because England is a Christian nation. The large majority of English people may no longer attend church services on a regular basis; but English mores and the English character have been moulded by the faith over centuries. And an England in touch with its roots is an England that recognises how much it owes to the Christian tradition.

Perhaps, then, the reawakening of a distinctly English national consciousness will also lead to a re-evaluation, indeed a renewed valuing, of England’s Christian character and heritage – its virtues even, and its vices. If so, the Church of England may feel increasingly empowered to speak out on behalf of England and in England’s name, and so provide the moral leadership that is necessary in the fight to resist both the total secularisation and the ‘Britishisation’ of our proud and Christian land.

4 November 2008

Peace Day, 25 June: A Britishness Day Worthy Of the Name

There was confusion last week when it was first thought that the government’s plans for a new national British bank holiday – a Britishness Day – had been dropped, and then it was revealed merely that there were no definite plans or ideas for such a holiday but that the concept was still on the table. I am one who has derided the proposal for a Britishness Day, although I’m far from averse to an extra day off! Two, preferably: the most important one being St. George’s Day (23 April); and then, if they want to give us another one on top, I’m not complaining about the principle. It’s just the attempt to exploit such a popular idea to marshal the general campaign to expunge Englishness in favour of a spurious monolithic Britishness that I object to.

Let’s place ourselves in dreamland for a minute and imagine the government concedes the idea of public holidays in each of the UK’s four (or five, including Cornwall) nations coinciding with their Patron Saint’s Day. Is the idea of an additional holiday for Britain as a whole worth considering when we set aside all the Britishness malarkey? Some people have said they think Remembrance Day would be a suitable occasion; others have advocated a day celebrating victory in the Battle of Britain or even older battles such as Trafalgar or Waterloo.

It’s funny how so many of these symbols of Britishness have a militaristic theme! I think the Remembrance Day idea is not wholly inappropriate, and other nations celebrate military victories and wars of liberation as national holidays. France, for instance, has a holiday for both 11 November (which they call Armistice Day) and 8 May: ‘VE Day’, as we would call it. But the fact that we in Britain associate 11 November with solemn civic acts of remembrance would make it a rather sombre day to have a public holiday; and, in a way, it is a more eloquent tribute to our war dead if Remembrance Day falls on a working day and everything stops for two minutes’ silence at 11 am.

In addition, the use of Remembrance Day to try and whip up British patriotic fervour and identification with all things British seems cynical and inappropriate to me. Is Remembrance Day really a time to make us feel proud to be British? Sure, we can and should feel proud of the sacrifices of so many brave, and often so very young, men and women to safeguard our liberty, security and independence. But Remembrance Day properly is also a day to call to mind the tragic losses and destruction of life suffered on all sides, and by civilians as well as the military, in the conflicts of which Britain has been a part. Just as we rightly say of our fallen heroes, “we shall remember them”; so, too, we should also repeat to ourselves the lesson that so often we have failed to learn from war: “never again”.

The idea of using great national occasions and symbols such as Remembrance Day or the Battle of Britain to reaffirm and celebrate Britishness is of one piece with the way present conflicts and their victims are also exploited. We’re all supposed to rally round our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; to buy the X-Factor single to provide the support for their families that the government should be providing; and to laud our lads as the Best of British and applaud them as they march through our towns to remember their fallen comrades. All of this amounts to using military conflicts, and the terrible loss of life they result in, to whip up national pride: you can’t object to the generous support and affection shown to those who are prepared to risk their lives for their country, and to their families; and therefore, you have to embrace all the militaristic Britishness that goes with it.

Let me make one thing clear: I’m not saying we should not support or feel proud of those brave members of the British Armed Forces as they slug it out with the Taliban or come up against Iraqi insurgents. I have the greatest admiration for them; all the more so, in fact, given their skill, genuine bravery and (generally) integrity as they cope with what is frankly a bum hand that they’ve been dealt by their political masters: futile, unwinnable wars that have earned Britain many more enemies, and brought us much more disrespect, than they have eliminated.

And this is really my point: to celebrate such valour and self-sacrifice as illustrating the intrinsic nobility of the British, and the justness of the causes for which they are prepared to go to war, always crosses over into a celebration and justification of those wars themselves. It’s as if we can’t be proud of the amazing skill and endurance of British forces in Afghanistan without buying into the war itself as something that is genuinely in defence of our national security and way of life, as the politicians would have us believe; and the more we express support for our boys in Iraq, the more we’re supposed to accept that it’s right that they are there.

In actual fact, I think it’s disrespectful to the lives lost in such conflicts to manipulate those sacrifices to nationalistic political ends. Maybe some, perhaps most, of the families of the young men and women lost in these latest chapters of the history of the British Army take solace from all the affirmation of the meaning behind their loved-ones’ sacrifices. But, in reality, they will all have to struggle with the unbearable grief of private loss and the inevitable anguish from thinking that, perhaps, their losses were in vain: for a cause that wasn’t worth it and that will not prevail. Such thoughts will hardly heal over time, especially if – as seems to me inevitable – the British Army eventually leaves Iraq still in a state of great instability and insecurity, and the Taliban send the Western armies packing, because they don’t have the same absolute will to win at any cost: making the cost paid by those British familes who have lost their sons and daughters even more appalling.

Yes, of course, we should remember the names of the latest additions to the Army’s roll call of honour. But such ‘remembrance’ is usually synonymous with forgetting the suffering that goes on among families and traumatised comrades for the rest of their lives; and certainly also with justifying the ongoing pursuit of questionable wars, and the continuing inflicting of death on ‘enemy’ combatants and civilians alike. In reports of the return of some regiments to their Colchester barracks last week, I was struck by the way the commentary referred to the large number of British casualties on the tour from which they were coming home, with fatalities running into double figures. And then, probably in the very next sentence, they casually mentioned the fact that the same returning heroes had been responsible for thousands of enemy deaths – as if that was a good thing. But what of the mothers and the families that grieve for them? What of the innocent civilians that will inevitably be included in the ranks of those thousands? Is it any wonder that so many in Afghanistan and the Muslim world hate us, and back the Taliban as liberating heroes?

The real purpose of remembrance, as I said, is firstly to express genuine sorrow and remorse for the loss of life – all life – that war brings; and particularly to celebrate those who gave their lives genuinely in the cause of freedom and justice, from which we have all benefited. And secondly, it is in fact to reaffirm our commitment to peace, not to celebrate and glamourise war in a manner that glosses over the real pain, horror and needless destruction it involves. Because that really is what is at play when remembrance gets shrouded not in the pall of death but in the bright colours of the Union Flag. It becomes a celebration of British values and the British sense that we are always on the side of right, backed up by our military muscle and memories of our proud imperial past. All of which conveniently brushes under the carpet the moral ambiguities and personal agonies of war’s violence, bloodshed and disaster.

So, by all means, let’s remember the dauntingly large list of British military personnel and civilians whose lives have been lost to war, military conflict or terrorism over the years. But, at the same time, we should reaffirm what is paradoxically the ultimate and only true purpose of war: peace. The purpose of war is the end of war; and this can ultimately and lastingly be achieved only when peace comes to reign in the hearts of men and women, and not hatred, mistrust and aggression. Until such time, we will continue not to learn the lesson of war: that war begets war; and that we must be at all times – in war and out of war – mindful of our absolute duty to seek peace and reconciliation.

Now that would be the kind of Britain that even I could be proud of: one that, instead of disingenuously celebrating and justifying its war-like genius in public acts of partial remembrance, were to resolve itself to be a genuine force for peace and reconciliation throughout the world – not a fomenter of hatred and violence. And that would be a Britishness Day worthy of the name: ‘Peace Day’. After all, my goodness, we need a bit of that.

Suggested day: 25 June. Neatly parallels Christmas; can be combined with celebrating and enjoying the summer solstice / Midsummer, which is such a lovely time of year. We also don’t have any other public holidays in June, and most people haven’t gone on their summer holidays by then. And there are many Christians, myself included, that hope that this will one day be a recognised feast – for all peoples – to celebrate the true peace that is our hope.

5 October 2008

Is there such a thing as ‘multi-cultural England’?

Yesterday, I went walkabout in multi-cultural Britain: in Wood Green and Tottenham in North London, to be precise. Time was, back in the 1970s when I was growing up not far from there, that the white English population was in a clear majority, even in areas such as Wood Green and Tottenham where there were concentrations of what we used to refer to as ‘immigrant’ populations: mostly black-Caribbean and Indian-subcontinental, with a sizeable Cypriot community around Tottenham. Over the intervening period – and at an accelerating rate over the last 15 years or so – all of that has changed. The area is now a complete ethnic melting pot, with large populations of Muslims from a variety of backgrounds (not just Pakistani, by any means) but also, it seems, virtually every ethnic group under the sun. While waiting in the remarkably orderly, English-style queue at the overcrowded Morrisons store, I estimated that no more than one in 20 of the people around me were ‘native white English’, judging from their appearance and voices. Such a ‘minoritisation’ of what is commonly designated as the ‘majority white-British’ population actualises on the ground the sort of minority-equivalent status that is given to white-English people in one of the proposed ethnic categorisations for the 2011 census in England, in which that category is indeed one of a list of 20.

Such a living, pulsating experience of multi-cultural diversity challenges the attitudes of people such as myself who remain deeply attached to the idea that the primary culture of England should be that of England, which has indeed been traditionally associated with the ‘native white’ ethnic group but which can in theory be just as easily embraced by ethnic minorities; and which, conversely, can also expand and adapt to accommodate greater ethnic diversity. In some respects, this has already happened with the waves of immigration into England from the 1950s to the 1970s, as a considerable degree of integration of those black and Asian communities has already occurred: meaning they have come to be seen as playing an integral part in English society and culture (and are accepted as ‘English’); while people of those backgrounds have increasingly adopted many facets of English life and culture into their own lifestyles and communities, and see themselves as English.

But, really, when one is confronted by the sheer volume of what is now more often referred to as ‘migration’ – rather than immigration – that has taken place in recent years, one does begin to feel a stranger in one’s own land. Virtually all of the more economically successful white people have now moved out of areas like Wood Green and Tottenham, establishing themselves in the greener suburbs, Essex and the wider commuter belt. Consequently, the white people who are left are often the poorest and most socially disadvantaged. As an evidently middle-class and seemingly – but not, regrettably, in reality – more wealthy white male, I stand out in the crowd even more than what used to be called the white working class. I find myself exchanging fleeting looks of mutual recognition with these fellow white Brits and sense that they feel pleased, even relieved, that there are still educated middle-class white people in the neighbourhood. Except, of course, I haven’t lived permanently in North London since the early 1980s when I was effectively among the first waves of mass migration of white people from the area.

I wonder whether, if I did live there, I would in my turn embrace and celebrate its multi-cultural diversity. On one level, there certainly is much to celebrate and take delight in. There is a huge variety of shops, businesses, people and languages from all over the world to engage the senses and enrich the mind. But, as someone from outside the area, I can indulgently dip in and out of it, and don’t have to be confronted and assuaged by the constant sights and sounds of real-world diversity day and, increasingly, night. I think that, if you were going to commit yourself to living in such an area, and to working to make it a more functional and truly cross-cultural community, you really would have to embrace its multi-culturalism whole-heartedly. By ‘multi-culturalism’, here, I don’t mean the now much discredited aim of facilitating different communities in retaining and expressing their separate cultures alongside one another, which has been accused of fostering divisions and hindering integration. No, I mean the sheer fact of multiple cultures co-existing and interacting, albeit that people might still walk around in their own cultural-ethnic-religious-linguistic bubbles, and the actual fusion of cultures is limited in extent, partly in consequence of the ideology of multi-culturalism itself.

That multi-culturalism is almost always labelled ‘British multi-culturalism’. I did so myself at the beginning of this piece, in part by association with a brochure on one of the much-improved local schools I found lying around our Tottenham friends’ house. This booklet made much of the school’s multi-cultural diversity: the fact that each culture was celebrated, learnt about and factored in to the teaching of each child; and the fact that there were 54 languages – at the last count – spoken by the children at the school. In summary, the school was characterised as a living – and functioning – example of ‘multi-cultural Britain’. I don’t question the fact, as attested in recent Ofsted survey results, that this school is indeed one of the most improved schools in ‘the country’. But I do wonder whether a) the fact that it is such a multi-cultural mish-mash was one of the main reasons why it previously had so many problems; and b) whether the English children at the school really have a better educational experience for being in such a small minority than if they were in a school that embodied and taught their English culture and identity first and foremost.

The problem with the concept of ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is that it makes multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity an intrinsic characteristic or property of Britain and Britishness. Consequently, if one wishes to foster and engineer a multi-cultural country, the name of that country has to be Britain, not England. If Britain is the place of a multiplicity of cultures, then the singularity of the English culture and identity could be seen as just one among the many cultures that needs to be melded and shaped into the new diverse Britain. However, the difference is that the English identity is also thought of as being already British. This means that, if multi-cultural Britishness is to be affirmed and lived out in a school environment, there is no place for a singular Englishness that is distinct from the Britishness that embodies the ideal of diversity. Consequently, the singularity of the English identity is transformed into a unique form of deprivation: the English children alone are seen as having only one culture – that of (multi-cultural) Britain, not of a separate Englishness alongside, and giving life to, that Britishness. By contrast, the other ethnic groups are afforded the possibility of a continuing experience of cultural diversity that their children can ‘own’ and celebrate: ‘British’ and Polish; ‘British’ and Somali; ‘British’ and Pakistani; etc. In other words, only the English children do not have an ‘other’ (English) identity that is celebrated alongside their Britishness: they are British only. And this translates into the broader dynamic in the ‘British’ culture of England, whereby ethnic minorities are encouraged to own and affirm their original culture alongside their British identity; whereas English people are exhorted to be British and not English.

Clearly, the experience of Wood Green and Tottenham is at the extreme end of the multi-cultural scale. But, by that token, it also presents a test case to see if the multi-cultural experiment can work: if a viable multi-cultural school community can be created here, then it becomes a model for the whole of ‘the country’. That country by definition being Britain, of course. Wrong; because this particular form of educational ‘multi-culturalisation’ is limited to England. In Scottish and Welsh schools, they’re not trying to promote ‘multi-cultural Britain’ but, if anything, multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales, respectively. The schools in those countries seek to embody and inculcate a Scottish and a Welsh identity that is civic in character; which means that it reflects and takes forward the social, cultural and philosophical traditions of those nations. Because this identity is civic, and not ethnic, it can serve as the place in which all ethnic groups living in Scotland or Wales can converge, and affirm a common Scottishness or Welshness.

This comparison with Scotland and Wales helps to make clear that the project to create multi-cultural Britain in England involves the framing of Englishness as a purely ethnic category (but also only a hypothetical category owing to the non-acceptance of an Englishness distinct from Britishness), leading to a denial of any civic expression or extension of that (ethnic) Englishness within Britishness. The character of civic society – meaning the public, shared life, institutions and structures of the ‘nation’ – is applied only to Britain. Britain, not England, is the name of the civic society in which all ethnic groups and all cultures are expected to converge, including the ‘English’ that do not exist as such, since they are already British.

But the actual country in which this is supposed to happen is England, not Britain. And I don’t mean this just in the geographical sense that the UK establishment applies to England: a mere territory over which its writ applies absolutely, whereas that writ is partially devolved to elected bodies in the other ‘parts’ of the UK. No, I mean ‘country’ also in the sense that – contrary to what the establishment might wish – England exists as a nation: a real culture, a real people; with characteristics, social structures, ways of behaving, attitudes and traditions that are its own, and which are only partially reflected in those values that are so often said to be ‘British’. Multi-cultural Britain, if it is to become a reality, will in effect need to be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic England; just as the same cultural and ethnic diversity is being moulded into multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales across the northern and western borders of England. The majority culture – which is English – will remain the majority culture. For true integration of all the newer waves of migrants to take place (that place being England), this will have to involve English people over time coming to accept people of those other races and cultures as English: as part of the total experience of English life, society and culture. As I stated above, this has already happened to a considerable extent with respect to the black and Asian immigration of the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. But it’s taken time: the time for two whole generations to grow up and to experience an England where ethnic and cultural diversity is just a plain fact and an intrinsic part of their experience of England.

The only place – the country – in which further integration of the more recent migrants can occur is England; albeit that the challenges are even more acute this time round given the sheer scale of immigration and the greater diversity of the ethnic groups concerned. England is the real country and civilisation into which these newcomers must be absorbed if at all. And this means that the way out of a failed multi-culturalism is not to use the education system to inculcate a superficial Britishness (itself a sort of abstract ‘multi-culture’) but one which celebrates the country it is in – England (and, indeed, the cultural Englishness of ‘Britishness’ itself as lived out in England) – as the land that is welcoming other peoples and cultures to be part of itself.

It’s madness to think that by teaching and aspiring to a new multi-cultural Britishness – in England only – one can create it, as it were almost instantaneously. This is pure wish fulfilment: integration is a slow and painful process – the work of generations – and it can take place in England only. This Britishness – so abstract, so idealistic – is the fantasy of a harmonious, multi-cultural society we can live out now, simply by wishing it and thinking it; but it can achieve this, in its own mind, only by leaving out England, which is in fact its only basis in reality.

On a more general level, the ideology of multi-cultural Britishness, as propagated through English schools, is symptomatic of the madness of this present government and of the establishment as a whole that thinks itself to be the owner and guarantor of ‘this country’s’ civic values; but has in effect abstracted them from the only country, and the only culture, where they can truly take effect: England.

22 June 2008

Nationalism: Positive or Negative?

There has been much discussion recently, including on this blog, of what a ‘progressive’ English nationalism might mean. I can think of three main ways to configure this question:

  1. English nationalism could be viewed as progressive – itself a term that needs more precision; for the moment, let’s just say this means ‘associated with a liberal, left-of-centre social and political agenda’ – if it ascribes to itself many of the traditional values of English-British civic society, including tolerance towards and inclusion of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and ways of life. This would be civic English nationalism as opposed to ethnic nationalism. This was recently criticised by Arthur Aughey (see also the helpful review of Arthur Aughey’s critique here) as essentially just the same as British civic nationalism which, Aughey claimed, English nationalists have to demolish in order to set up English nationalism as a civic movement, at the risk of allowing ethnic nationalism to come in and fill the place left vacant by British civic nationalism. My response to this in essence is that British civic nationalism is really a product of English history, politics and culture in the first place, i.e. it is already English civic nationalism. So it’s just a case of refocusing English civic society on England and the English, with these terms not defined in an ethnic sense.
  2. You can also argue that English nationalism is a positive thing – let’s use this term rather than the ideologically loaded ‘progressive’ – on simple democratic and libertarian principles, as follows: a) the English nation exists; b) as a nation, on established human-rights principles, it has the sovereign and democratic right to determine the form of government it wishes for itself. In this form, English nationalism is merely the defence of the rights and freedoms of a people, i.e. the English people. This is irrespective of any ideological agenda one might have to ‘improve’ that people and its society (progressivism), and does not necessarily make any assertion about the English having particular characteristics (cultural or racial) that make them any better than, or exclusive of, other people – although defenders of English-national rights will generally do so because they love England and its people, for all their flaws. This is the closest to my position, although I would also hope that an independent or federal England would embody the best aspects of traditional, English civic society.
  3. The final way to look at this question, which is one I want to raise briefly here, is considering nationalism from an ethical (as opposed to ethnic) perspective. This is an angle that is not often explicitly explored; but the ethical dimension is implicit behind any questioning of the progressive, or anti-progressive, character of nationalism.

Essentially, the question is as follows: is nationalism, even in some of its civic and libertarian aspects – as defined above – always to some extent discriminatory and exclusive? That is, insofar as English nationalism embodies a focus on creating English civic society, and on defending the democratic rights and freedoms of English people, would this not always in practice involve some element of discrimination and preferential treatment in favour of English people over non-English people, whether these are from other British countries, from other EU states or elsewhere?

Without going into detailed, specific examples or hypothetical cases, I’m interested in highlighting an issue that needs to be thought through, which could be put pithily as follows: is nationalism – any nationalism, not just English – always a form of discrimination like other ‘-isms’, in that it involves favouritism and partiality towards a particular nation; in the same way that sexism involves favouring one sex over another, and similarly for racism, ageism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc.?

To some extent, I think this is a false question – and I’ll explain why in a moment. But I think it has bedevilled any attempt to establish English nationalism as a credible, positive idea. The fact that the question has not been posed explicitly has enabled ‘progressives’ to be unchallenged in positioning English nationalism in the wrong camp and in identifying it as a negative ‘-ism’ and as a form of discrimination in the way I suggest. The predisposition to answer the question I have just raised in the negative (‘yes, nationalism is always discriminatory; and therefore, English nationalism must also always be discriminatory’) has facilitated the negative association of English nationalism as an ethnic nationalism, via an easy slippage between ‘nationalism’ and ‘racism’.

If, on the other hand, you do raise this question explicitly, it forces a more honest, comprehensive answer. Yes, nationalism always to some extent involves being more concerned to protect the rights, freedoms, security and also economic interests of a particular nation, as opposed to those of other nationalities. But this ‘exclusion’ of non-nationals is the very condition upon which civic society and, indeed, democracy are founded and can be advanced. The society that is the civic society is a contingent, limited entity: limited in the number of people included, in the geographical space in which they live and – to a more relative extent – in its culture and traditions. The model of a civic society is therefore a polis (or polity). In the original Greek, this referred to a city state such as Athens – the words ‘civic’ and ‘city’ having the same Latin root; but in the modern sense, the starting point has to be a self-defining collectivity of people exercising its sovereign right to govern itself democratically. And the English nation is just such a collectivity.

This means that it is really down to the English – including those of non-British ethnicity who are British citizens and either live in England or consider themselves to be English – to decide, through properly democratic institutions, which newcomers can join the civic society and enjoy its rights, including social and economic rights such as education, training and the opportunity for dignified employment on a living wage. This is not necessarily discrimination – although, in practice, there could be instances where it was associated with discriminatory attitudes – but is, in essence, a society looking after its own, including those who have tended to be disenfranchised in British society, both democratically and economically. One would aspire to such an English civic society embodying values of compassion towards people of other nationalities (whether living in England or not), and openness towards the economic and cultural benefits of globalisation, while mitigating its negative social effects to a greater extent than has been done up to now. But it is a right – a human right – for a people to say: this is who we are and this is how we want our society to be; and if you are willing to accept us on our terms, we will welcome you and all you have to bring to our country.

Think what have been the consequences of the opposite attitude; and this is where the falseness of the assumption that nationalism is always to some extent discriminatory is revealed. The opposite view is one that simply can’t bite the bullet of nationhood and consequently won’t ask the national question, let alone the English question. ‘All nationalism is negative’ means ‘all nationalities are / should be included’; and this assumption has been at work in New Labour’s attempts to re-cast Britishness as a merely civic concept that ultimately replaces people’s old national allegiances (whether English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish or to any other nation around the world) with acceptance of a set of universal, civic ‘British values’.

In practice, the ‘all nationalities are included (more properly, ‘subsumed’) within Britishness’ approach has gone hand in hand with the government’s open door policies on migration: ‘all nationalities can be included (accommodated) in Britain’. This has been expressed in the view that people of any nation are welcome to settle here and eventually become British citizens so long as they contribute to society (i.e. in practice, largely, to the economy) and subscribe to said British values. No chance, in this context, to say: ‘wait, shouldn’t we be looking after the social and economic needs of English (and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) people first and foremost, and try to train up our own people to do the jobs (both skilled and unskilled) that the economy needs?’ No: quicker and cheaper to just bring labour in on the cheap from wherever it’s available; this is globalisation, after all. Putting the interests of English people before those from other EU states or those with skills to contribute would be (English-nationalist) discrimination, so the argument goes. But isn’t the opposite necessarily discrimination against the English? And isn’t the out-of-hand rejection of any argument that tries to advance the cause of a particular national group (i.e. the English) over that of any of the many and varied nationalities grouped into supra-national Britain also a form of discrimination? Hence, pushed to the extreme, ‘anti-nationalism’ is also a negative ‘-ism’: discrimination against, and prejudice towards, those who would defend the interests of a particular, limited group as opposed to that of a larger group (the British nation) that is able to deny that it is discriminating against any particular nation because it defines itself as based on the denial of nationality per se.

In either sense of the term ‘denial’, it’s England, Englishness and the English that are denied their civic, democratic and economic rights; and the British state is in denial of this fact, in that it can’t accept the existence of the England it denies. In this way, modern Britain demonstrates a curious paradox: a supposed civic society and democratic nation that denies the nation and nationhood on which it is built subverts its own foundations. In this way, a-national / supra-national Britain no longer represents the English nation who established it and which it exists to serve.

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