Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

31 March 2009

Britain: The Self-Undermining Nation-State

Britain: the English Empire

While other countries formed nation-states, the English built an Empire. If all we English had been bothered about back then in the 18th and 19th centuries had been nation building, then I’ve no doubt we’d have had a unitary Nation of Britain long since: our little island fortress, with our sights and ambitions set merely on looking to our own affairs and keeping our European neighbours out of them.

But that sort of thing was for them, not us. So many of the European nations that emerged from smaller and larger entities alike during the 18th and particularly 19th centuries were landlocked or hemmed in by bigger powers. Not so we English. The open seas stretched out before us, and after we’d seen off first the Spanish Armada and then Napoleon’s navy, we ruled the waves as far as the Americas, Africa, India and Australia.

I’m not justifying all that our world-conquering ancestors did back then in a different world; but let’s not pretend either that our European rivals would not have done the same given half the chance. Indeed, the fact that they had to break out of a land lock helps to explain why the mid-20th-century Germans needed to fight for European domination first as stage one of their plan to rule the world.

The English Empire – what an achievement! Totally un-PC, of course, to speak in such terms – but our modern globalised world and, indeed, our multi-cultural Britain would simply not exist had our mercenary and missionary forebears not sailed off to drag half the world into the modern era. Un-PC, perhaps above all, to dub it the English Empire, not British. But it was the English that were the driving force and the power behind the imperial throne – albeit that many Scots, too, were happy to seize the opportunities for wealth, power and self-advancement that the Empire afforded them, for good or ill.

Should we English be proud of the Empire? To say simply ‘no’ is to conspire with the Britologists that would have everything that is great about ‘this country’ reflect back on ‘Britain’ and lay the blame for all that is bad on England and the English. For them, the English are essentially individualistic, aggressive, even violent; hostile and arrogantly contemptuous towards other cultures, which we supposedly blithely trampled over in the Empire; conservative, narrow-minded and insular. Yet in almost the same breath, they’d have us believe that the Empire in its British essence (as opposed to the ‘English’ aggression and opportunism that drove it) embodied the values that are still true, relevant and British for us today: tolerance, liberty, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. Values, in fact, which – according to Gordon Brown – could and should define a contemporary British ‘Nation’.

Well, I say ‘no’ to that British version of our history: that all-too simplistic dividing of the past into the English ‘black’ and the British ‘white’. You don’t get ‘greatness’ without it containing a little ‘grey’. The Roman Empire was great; its civilisation and technology were prodigies of its time; its law, literature and language, and later its conversion to Christianity, left an enduring legacy throughout Europe and the whole of Christendom. And yet, Rome was built on the back of military conquest, slavery and dictatorship. In the same way, our Empire spread English civilisation, industry, law, language, democracy and Christian faith throughout the world. And yes, it did so on the back of military conquest, slavery and imperial – though not dictatorial – rule. You can’t have one without the other; be proud of one without the other; have your British Empire without your England. You can’t say the ‘good’ values were and are all British but the ‘bad’ actions were all those of the English – because it was the actions and beliefs of the English that created the world in which those values stand today as our enduring legacy: our English legacy. And of that I am truly proud.

Others created nations; we English created the modern world. But as we rightly and democratically surrendered our imperial dominions to their own people, and as other global powers entered the stage, our horizons narrowed to our British island. Without the rationale of overwhelming mutual interest, and without the common enterprise of Empire, the marriage of convenience between England and Scotland that forms the bedrock of the United Kingdom finally looks set to be breaking down. Those who still cherish the ideal image of ‘Britain’s’ imperial greatness – conveniently forgetting the hard realities of domination and exploitation that were an integral part of that story, or ascribing them to England – now seek to build that Britain into a nation; rather than let it slide inexorably into the history books – the books telling the history of England, that is.

Britain never was, still is not and pray God never will be a ‘nation’ in its own right. For some of the Britologists, this is what it should have been from the beginning: from the time of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. If this had happened – say, for instance, if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar and our energies had subsequently been turned in on ourselves instead of Empire – Britain would now be a European nation-state comparable to those of a similar scale, such as Germany and Italy, that were put together from a collection of kingdoms and principalities during the 19th century. This is how Brown and his ilk would like Britain to be today, fearful that a break-up of Britain into its constituent nations would diminish ‘this country’s’ standing among its European neighbours and weaken its ability to defend its interests within Europe and the international community – albeit peacefully in the present era, thank God.

Of course, logically, such a break-up would by definition diminish this country’s standing if ‘this country’ is defined as Britain: Britain – as a would-be nation-state – simply would be no more. But this would not lessen England’s standing. On the contrary, England would re-emerge from Britain’s shadows as the great nation it always has been, both before and through the period of Union with Scotland: comparable but superior in its past achievements to those other empire-building nations and former rivals France and Spain. England did not need to build a nation of Britain. It already was a great nation at the time of the Union, and the uncomfortable truth is that, from day one, ‘Great Britain’ was more the name of England’s Empire than that of a nation subsuming England. The Union with Scotland was in reality more of an annexation of Scotland – followed one century later by Ireland – into the English Empire, which was already beginning to expand across the globe by the beginning of the 18th century.

In fact, one way of thinking about it would be to say that ‘Britain’ itself was England’s ‘home Empire’ (hence, ‘Great Britain’) as opposed to the Empire ‘abroad’. Scotland and Ireland would then be described as having been originally English colonies, subsequently absorbed into the same political state as England: union within a common state (the English state, renamed ‘Britain’ / the UK to reflect its enlarged geographical extent) but not a common nation. Commonwealth of nations, not British Nation. Unlike a power such as France, whose colonies were all assimilated into France itself, each of the ‘British nations’ (both the other nations of the British Isles and those of the broader Empire) retained or developed distinct identities as nations: distinct from England, that is.

British ‘nationhood’: nothing if not England

So the ‘British’ designation of the other British nations in fact signifies their difference from England – in the past and in the present – as well as England’s enduring difference from Britain. At the same time, however, the British nations’ Britishness mediates a continuing union with England – politically, culturally, socially: a state (in both senses) that can persist so long as England, too, continues to see and describe itself as British. England is the central point of reference and underlying national identity of Britain. This latter term also denotes the commonality and ‘sameness’ of Britain, as well as the place of the ‘properly British’: where Britain is thought of as present to itself and in possession of itself, providing a centre of original and authentic Britishness that can be imagined as remaining present through its dispersion across multiple different British nations. But, because it serves this purpose, England cannot define itself as distinct from Britain; it cannot set itself apart from Britain, and / or see itself as superior to the ‘other’ British nations, because this would mean that it was not ‘one’ with – an equal partner to and the means for the unity of – the other nations: the guarantor and foundation of a common Britishness.

These mutually dependent pulls of shared identity / union and continuing difference help to explain why it is over against a distinct, ‘superior’ England that the ‘British nations’ both define their own difference and assert a shared Britishness: a Britishness shared with England, that is, but which is predicated on the suppression of an England that is itself distinct from Britain, since England has to serve as the place (literally) of a continuing Britain and ‘proper’ Britishness that those other nations can then both share and differentiate themselves from.

‘We are Scottish and British but not English’. This is still a view, I think, held by the majority of Scots. But it’s ironically connected with another common Scottish perception, which is that English people simply see themselves as ‘British’; that when they refer to England, they tend to mean Britain – and when they say Britain, they generally mean England. (For the moment, forget about the whole British government thing of saying ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even when England is meant; I’m talking about the traditional Scottish assumptions, which are of course related to present British-government practice.) This is ironic because it exemplifies the conflicting pulls and ties of shared identity and difference with and from England that are mediated through ‘Britain’: Scotland is ‘one’ with England but only through Britain; but then again, an identification of England with Britain is asserted (which is what would in fact make that Union with England through Britain truly a union) but is itself framed as an ‘error’, and as the expression of ‘English’ arrogance, imperialism and will to dominate. So, through and as ‘Britain’, England is seen as both one with Scotland and different from it: an identification of England with Britain (and hence, a fundamental union between Scotland and England) is at once asserted and denied. Or putting it another way: Scotland sees itself as both ‘a part of’ Britain and ‘apart from England’ – but only if England and Britain are seen as both the same as each other and different from one another.

I think the same line of reasoning could be applied to the relationship between England and Wales; perhaps more so given the two countries’ much longer and deeper ties of shared and differentiated nationhood within ‘Britain’, which arguably go back to Roman times (or even earlier), when the actual colony of Britannia comprised roughly the territory of England and Wales today. The relationships are more complicated and painful in Northern Ireland. Here, I think the pulls are not so much between Ireland and England within Britain – on the analogy with Scotland and Wales – but between Ireland and Britain ‘as a whole’; although this structure still depends on England providing the ground and basis on which Britain can be viewed as a proper nation, as opposed to a collection of three or four nations. And hence, alongside the Union Jack, the Northern Irish Loyalists fly a flag that is essentially the Cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster in the centre: as if to say that Ulster’s British centre is England.

So, in order for the other nations of Britain to be seen as nations that are distinct from England, on the one hand, and which are still fundamentally and authentically united with – one with – England in the Union, England itself has to be seen as (and see itself as) one with – identified with – Britain. This provides a core and foundation of ‘proper’ Britishness (British national identity) that the other British nations can then both share and ‘own’ (rather than having to share and own Englishness) at the same time as they can differentiate themselves from and within that Britishness insofar as it is also seen as a self-attributed (and self-defining) ‘property’ and national characteristic of England.

The denial of a distinct England (and England’s self-abnegation) is in this way the precondition for a ‘proper’ British nation to exist: England must be Britain for Britain to be – and for the other nations to be semi-detached parts of Britain not annexes of England. I have to say that I think it is this fundamental structure that allows a phrase such as ‘a Britain of nations and regions’ to make any sense at all. Analysed from a purely logical perspective, this is a complete non-sequitur if you presuppose a logical hierarchy whereby regions are smaller dependent subsets of nations. If Scotland and Wales are the ‘nations’ here, and the ‘regions’ are the sub-national territories formerly known as England, what does that make Britain? A nation or a ‘supra-nation’? Well, yes, perhaps the latter – another word for ‘supra-nation’ being ’empire’, which is what – in my contention – Britain always was: the core of England’s Empire. Or alternatively, if Britain is a / the nation in this phrase, then shouldn’t Scotland and Wales be described rather as regions on the same basis as the [formerly] English regions? Yes, of course they should. But the structure isn’t logical in this way, or rather it obeys a different logic: it is the identification of England with Britain that enables the ‘other’ nations of Britain to affirm a distinct national identity while remaining organic parts of Britain; while, if England has become Britain, the smaller sub-national units into which it has been divided are then aptly described as regions of a British nation.

This paradoxical structure results from the two conflicting pulls within New Labour’s attempt to fashion a new British Nation – integral Britishness, on the one hand, along with devolution for some of its parts, on the other. This leads to the need to assert a strong core of British national identity at the centre, allowing the smaller countries at the periphery to be both distinct nations and partakers of a shared British identity: the British identity of England, that is – turning the whole edifice into an integral British Nation. This is in contrast to what I describe as the original and historic character of Britain as essentially the core and name of England’s Empire, with the other British nations as dominions or ‘possessions’ of England. The two structures could be illustrated as follows:

 

Imperial Britain


 

Nation of Britain


 

Comparing the two diagrams, it is noteworthy that a former hierarchy of nations (England as the central sovereign national power within the United Kingdom both governing and ‘owning’ the other British nations) has been replaced by a hierarchy of governance: the central UK government exercising governance / sovereignty over the ‘nations and regions’ in some matters but devolving power in other areas. Or at least, that was the blueprint for the [English] regions until the electorate in the proposed North-East region scuppered the idea. But, as we know, the present government has continued with its regionalising agenda, although the Regional Authorities now are little more than unelected arms of central government. So a more accurate rendition of the present situation would perhaps have been to draw the above diagram with a thick arrow going one-way from the centre down to the regions.

This replacement of inter-national UK governance by inter-tier UK governance reflects the fact that devolution as implemented by New Labour did double duty as a process of delegating to the ‘nations’ certain aspects of governance previously handled by the England-dominated UK government alongside a process of developing a new regional tier and structure of governance. That’s to say, this is regional governance effectively within the context of a new integral Nation of Britain. To complete this structural transformation, ‘Britain’ is promoted from its position as England’s ‘dominion’ within the imperial set up (the territory over which England exercised sovereignty and which England ‘possessed’) to the position as the sovereign national power in its own right. Accordingly, England is demoted to the status of a mere territory over which the central British government exercises sovereignty and which it ‘possesses’ as its own; to the extent that it feels entitled to dispose over – indeed, dispose of – the English territory as it chooses by parcelling it up into smaller administrative units.

But this also means that ‘Britain’ governs the UK in England’s place. In other words, Britain both takes England’s place as the sovereign and central power within the structure, and represents (indeed, re-presents) England within the continuing inter-national aspects of the system. Or, putting it another way, ‘Britain’ in the new structure continues to also be effectively England: it rests on the British national identity of the English, or the identification of England with Britain; and it exercises and takes forward England’s historic role and responsibility of governance over itself (i.e., in this instance, over the ‘regions’) and over the other British nations. This is still effectively governance from the English centre, albeit that this cannot be acknowledged, as it is supposed to be a unitary system of British governance, with British nations and British regions standing in a relation of equality towards one another within an all-embracing Britishness.

Conclusion

So the Britishness is really just an overlay over a much more long-standing structure, with Britain taking over and taking forward England’s historic role as the power in the land. This system, as it stands, is dependent on ‘Britain’ both being and not being England. Firstly, for Britain to have a ‘national identity’ in its right requires that the people of England (continue to) identify as British / identify with Britain, providing a[n English] core of Britishness that the other nations of Britain can both see themselves as sharing and uniting with in a profound way (as it and they are both British), while differentiating themselves from it in a manner that defines their own national identities as being distinct from that of England / English Britishness.

This is the core problem with Brown’s Britishness agenda: the non-existence, precisely, of a core Britishness. ‘Britain’ is incapable of grounding its identity as a ‘nation’ within itself because it has always been, and continues to be, essentially a system of governance unifying a collection of distinct nations – now even more than ever, in fact, as the second of my above two diagrams illustrates: ‘Britain’ / the UK is just a hierarchical system of governance and a set of relationships between its constituent parts, not an integral nation in itself. This is why Brown and New Labour can define ‘core Britishness’ only in terms of a set of general moral and political values that themselves relate to the processes of governance and civic society: liberty, tolerance, democracy, justice, the rule of law, etc.

The reality is that the ‘core identity’ of Britain is the [only in part British] national identity of the English. And this is made up of a much deeper, broader, more concrete and personal set of characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can ever be encapsulated by a mere set of philosophical and political abstractions. It is of these things – the character, culture, society, history and traditions of a whole national community – that real ‘national identity’ is made. England has and is all of these things; Britain ‘of itself’ does and is not. So in order to be a nation, ‘Britain’ has to appropriate the national identity of England to itself (another way of saying it has to ensure that English people [continue to] see all of their English characteristics and values as essentially British). But Brown cannot engage with the question at this level, because if he did, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his British national identity is, at its core, none other than England’s by another name. And so, because he cannot acknowledge the concrete reality of the English people and identity as the real core of, and dominant culture and nation within, the UK (as it always has been), his Britishness can be articulated only at the level of abstract ‘shared British values’.

And secondly – and this is perhaps even more determining for the future of a continuing Britain – the other British nations also need this core Britishness and centre of Britain to be Britain-but-not-England and to still be England all the same. On the one hand, they need this, as I described above, to feel connected to a common Britishness (of which ‘England’ is the guarantor and foundation) that is the place of an authentic and equal Union between the nations of the UK, rather than being in fact just another name for a separate England of which they have historically been subordinate British-imperial ‘possessions’. And, on the other hand, the fact that this ‘British centre’ is also still England is necessary for them to define their own national identity as distinct [from England] through devolution.

In other words, the other British nations define themselves as nations through differentiation from the English centre of Britain; but they need that English centre to be British first and foremost in order to continue to feel anchored in a common Britishness. If, on the other hand, that Englishness of the British centre were somehow to be effaced altogether, then the other British nations would ironically lose the basis for their own distinct national identities, at least as contained within the British framework. They need England to exist in order not to be English; and they need England to be Britain in order to be British. Pull England out of the whole system – create a Britain ‘without England’ at its centre – and the national identities of the other British nations, and their sense of belonging to a ‘national-British’ community of any description, would be completely stripped of their present anchoring, and the constituent parts of what we now know as Britain would spin off into a chaotic existential abyss.

All of which doesn’t exactly make it easy to see what the way forward might be. But although the present system does shore up some sort of unitary structure for UK governance within the context of devolution – and while it does create a British anchor for the diverging and increasingly autonomous identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is hardly a sustainable, rational or fair set up for England, which is condemned to a limbo land of being and not being a nation, and being the prop upon which the whole UK edifice and its other nations depend for their present existence.

And the point is, if this is not sustainable for England, then it cannot be a sustainable basis for a continuing United Kingdom, either. That is because England is the core national identity of the UK; but a UK that seeks both to deny that fact and yet relies on it is an edifice built on a foundation that undermines itself.

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3 April 2008

New British Coins: Time For Change?

EMBLEMS50PENCE

I had mixed feelings when they announced a few months ago that the symbol of Britannia (the Boadicea-like female warrior that is a traditional emblem for Britain and the British Empire) would no longer be appearing on any of our British coins, as she does on the current 50-pence piece (see above).  Although she represents a militaristic, imperialistic Britain that in some respects we shouldn’t be too proud of, I contemplated with dread the more ‘appropriate’, ‘contemporary’ symbols of Britishness we were promised we’d be getting. On top of which, the ‘British’ lion seated next to the figure of Britannia could also be taken as a symbol of England: picking up the theme of the Crest of England that appears on the 10-pence piece.

EMBLEMS10PENCE

The new designs were revealed for the first time yesterday. They employ quite a clever idea, which is to depict fragments of the Royal Crest on each of the six coins from 1p to 50p, which – when placed together in the right configuration – compose the complete crest, which is then united in a single image on the £1 coin. This is indeed quite a contemporary-NEWDESIGNSFORMATION

looking design, which re-expresses the idea of a unitary United Kingdom in quite a subtle way. Each of the coins appears to focus on different ‘constituent parts’ of the UK – otherwise known as the nations of the UK. In this respect, England appears – for a change – to come out of it quite well, as in fact all but the two-pence coin show parts of the English Three Lions emblem. By contrast, apart from the £1 coin, the Lion Rampant of Scotland appears in any recognisable way only on the 2p piece: continuing an honourable tradition whereby the higher-denomination coins show British or English emblems, while lower-value coinage is reserved for the smaller nations of the kingdom, as in the present five-pence piece (Scotland) and two-pence piece (Wales).

EMBLEMS5PENCE EMBLEMS2PENCE

Too bad for Wales with the new coins, though, as none of the parts of the Royal Crest contain any overt symbol for Wales – and it’s not as if the Principality is lacking in them: the Red Dragon, daffodils, leeks, even the rugby ball at a pinch! I can see the new coinage is going to re-ignite all the controversy there was last year over the absence of any Welsh element from the Union Flag. But then again, as a survey commissioned by the (English) Justice Ministry found only last week, the Welsh are the UK nation that feels the greatest sense of ‘belonging to Britain’ (more so than the English) – so perhaps they won’t mind too much (says he, tongue in cheek)! And don’t even mention the word ‘Cornwall’!

By contrast, the new designs appear to provide a definite promotion of the (Northern) Irish element, as the Irish harp appears in an obvious way in three of the six coins worth under a pound, compared with no Irish representation in the equivalent coins up to now. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the young designer, Matthew Dent, who won the contest to come up with the new images is from Bangor, Northern Ireland! [PS. I was corrected on this by a reader (see comments below). The designer is from the other Bangor, in North Wales, which only makes the comment about Welsh buy-in to Britishness all the more telling! Unless it’s just an ironic joke intended to provoke a row which, like the design itself, points to the disunited character of the kingdom, as Englisc Fyrd suggests.]

All this apparent focusing in on the emblems for the different nations of the UK could lead one to think that the new design was giving expression to a new consciousness of the UK as comprising distinct nations that are yet held together by the manifold bonds of history, tradition, loyalty to the monarchy (the Royal Crest theme) and that familiar old sense of ‘shared Britishness’. And yet the cleverness of the design is that it suggests that none of those separate national elements is sufficient in isolation: that it’s only when you put them together that you complete the picture and that you arrive at the national unity symbolised by the ‘one-ness’ of the one-pound coin. Of course, the very absence of any overt Welsh (or Cornish) symbolism might already have led one to the same conclusion: that these coins are not at all about celebrating the diverse consciousness and traditions of the nations of the UK but only about providing a modern symbol for the national unity of the UK in the same way that the Union Jack so cleverly embodies the concept of a unitary UK of (five) four three nations.

In fact, it’s the current coinage that does greater justice to the idea that Britain (as opposed to the UK) is comprised (notwithstanding Cornish claims of separateness) of England, Scotland and Wales – given the inclusion of separate English, Scottish and Welsh symbols on the different coins; the English benefiting from a traditional, but demographically proportionate, discrimination in having their emblems feature on both the 10p coin (see image above) and the 20p coin (below).

EMBLEMS20PENCE

But the new coins can of course be read in quite a different way. They could be viewed as symbolising the fact that the old Britain / Britannia is breaking up: a state whose imperial power and certainties acted as such a strong force for unity that the separate identities of England, Scotland and Wales could be celebrated without threatening it. Now, as the unity of the Royal Crest dissolves into fragments, we no longer have images on most of our coins that are complete symbols for either ‘Britain as a whole’ or indeed each of the constituent nations. Instead, we have disjointed bits of the Three Lions, the Lion Rampant and the Irish Harp, with elements from one emblem sometimes crossing over into the image of the other and sometimes not. As if to say that when we lose the vision of our distinct national identities as English, Scottish and Irish (let alone Welsh and Cornish), we lose the integral vision of Britain as a whole – of Britain as one.

Admittedly, this oneness is reunited in the new one-pound coin. But there’s something about this that doesn’t add up. Indeed, if you do add up the ‘values’ of the lower-denomination coins, you get 88 pence, not one pound. So the different values of the lesser coins (the different UK nations) from which the presence of distinct national symbols are deferred (‘differed’, changed) across the sequence of the coins do not properly come together in one-pound (one nation and one unitary (set of) value(s)); rather, they leave an unbridgeable difference.

Another word for that difference – 12p, to be precise – is change. So perhaps the new coins are an appropriate symbol for a changing United Kingdom, after all. But there’s no guarantee, like the comforting circular closure of the one-pound coin, that that change will preserve and reinstate a former unity whose brokenness is aptly symbolised by the fragmentary and incomplete symbols of the nations of Britain – whose search for new identity and values may yet produce even more difference.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

26 January 2008

British Values on ‘The World Tonight’: A Very English Debate

Listened to the debate about British values on BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight news programme last night. This was framed in the context of the government’s plans to produce a ‘Statement of British Values’ to which everyone in the country is supposed to be able to subscribe.

To begin with, each of the five speakers was given three minutes to set out how they understood British values. First up was Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’ at the (English) Justice Ministry. Essentially, he’s the one overseeing the whole project. He outlined the government’s decision to carry out a truly inclusive process of consulting ordinary people (as embodied by a ‘representative’ panel of citizens) – a process not driven by politicians (yeah, right) – which was expected to result in the said Statement of British Values.

Which might result in such a statement, as one of many possible outcomes; or which would result in such a statement? Surely, if the whole process is orientated towards the production of such a document, this predetermines the course that the supposedly free-ranging discussion will take, and presupposes that sufficient consensus already latently exists in order for agreement on a set of genuine, shared values to be reached and formulated. And whose position is based on this presupposition, and who is driving the whole thing? The government, and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular: not driven by politicians, my a***!

To his credit, Michael Wills did say the word ‘English’ once, under his breath, when he referred to the multiple identities that are subsumed under Britishness, which is a supposedly more inclusive term than any other. I say to his credit, because the next three speakers did not utter the ‘E’ word in their initial monologues; and they also, in their different ways, ended up articulating ‘Brito-centric’ value systems. David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, argued that more important than values were the national [British] institutions that safeguarded and gave practical expression to those values, and which were rooted in ‘the nation’s’ history: Britain as establishment and Union. Author and senior member of the Secular Society Joan Smith argued that the whole idea of national values was out of date and tribal, and that we should be formulating a new set of values that were all to do with individual rights and freedom: Britishness as inherently involving a kind of transcendence over ‘narrow’ nationalism (e.g. that of England) and as being at once at the origin and the vanguard of secular-liberal-progressive values per se. And Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Birmingham city councillor, who argued that in multi-ethnic Britain, there was no need for a formal Statement of British Values to which everyone should be expected to assent, as this only marked out ethnic minorities as different; and that one of the most endearing characteristics of Britain was its people’s ability to absorb and accept difference: Britishness as multi-cultural, multi-national pluralism, rather than reduced to a set of fixed ‘core values’.

Which left the fifth participant, Neal Ascherson: the token Scot. He was the only one who talked any sense at this stage of the discussion and hit the nail on the head. For him, the really important constitutional and national issues for debate were the two ‘E’s – Europe and England; a position which, I have to say, was remarkably similar to my own. In the British context, all the debating around British values was a complete waste of time, as far as Ascherson was concerned, so long as it failed to address the right of England (eight-tenths of the Union and essentially its heart) to be recognised and be given an appropriate, democratic form of governance as a nation in its own right, just like Scotland and Wales.

What was then remarkable about the remainder of the discussion, structured around a loose set of questions and answers, was that the three speakers who had put forward less dogmatic points of view than the minister – but nonethless Brito-centric in their conception of the nation and its most important values – gradually shifted around to a more or less implicit concession that, indeed, it was really Englishness that mattered more to them than Britishness. David Willetts stated that, as Englishness had never [well, at least not since 1707 – ed.] been expressed politically through the state, it was more associated with culture and history, something towards which he clearly had a deep devotion. For instance, he repudiated the new-fangled notion of ‘British literature’: NO, it’s English literature.

Or is my memory confusing him with the author Joan Smith [now there’s the female equivalent of almost the archetypal English name: John Smith] who, it transpired, associated the specifically national character of the values she espoused (as opposed to their universal, rational-humanist dimension) with England. She admitted, in fact, that she felt profoundly English, primarily through the medium of the English language, which, as a writer, was not just the tool of her trade but the way in which she expressed her own inner truth.

And then Salma Yacoub went so far as to say that imposition of a formal statement of Britishness could be positively divisive and destructive of the multi-cultural tolerance which, for her, typified the authentic British spirit. As noted above, she’d previously observed that what ethnic minorities cherish the most is just being accepted for what they are in the places where they live by the people already there. In my book, that means being accepted by English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish communities simply as a member of the community, as one of us; rather than being seen as already different (by virtue of ethnicity and culture) and being made to become something different again through the obligation to identify formally with a ‘Britishness of values’ that is other from the Britishness of everyday life that, as David Willett’s put it, is not in fact deliberately chosen but just something to which one becomes emotionally attached.

A Britishness of the English, in other words. Interspersed in the discussion were two vox pops: one with little snippets from Scottish men and women on the street about how they see Britishness, and its relation to Scottish and English identity; and the other, from academics and commentators who have written on these matters, myself not included [immodest – ed.]. From the Scots folk, it emerged that they’re not nearly so hung up about national identity and values as the English; that they have a strong sense of community, national solidarity and belonging; and that they perceive the English as being a bit screwed up about always having (and frequently failing) to be the best at everything: including having the best set of values, it would seem. (Towards the beginning of the debate, one of the participants – I think Joan Smith – had repudiated the notion that British values were about national ‘identity’. Maybe not per se, but they are a metaphor mediating the English search for a national identity which – by virtue of being disseminated across Britishness – is perpetually elusive.)

The academics and commentators included a Scot (whose name now escapes me) who basically expounded the view that British values are identical to English values: that if you asked most English people to list a set of fundamental English values, they’d come up with exactly the same qualities as if you’d asked them to define the core British values. Then the remaining scholarly vox pops seemed to have been chosen to illustrate that point, as they enumerated their versions of British values that were indistinguishable from what one would think of as typically English values – all articulated, it has to be said, in plummy English accents, like those of three of the debaters.

I can’t remember the specifics now; but these English-British values included things like fair play, tolerance of different points of view, liberty, free speech, etc. Neal Ascherson then underscored the assimilation of such values to England, rather than Scotland, by saying that the concept of ‘fair play’ reflected the perspective of the imperial overlord giving his subjects or enemies in battle a sporting chance; whereas the ‘Celts’ could think only of how they could get the better of those damned English, if necessary through sneakiness; i.e. the diametrical opposite of fair play. The same with tolerance: tolerance in debate, for instance – polite respect for the opponent’s point of view and a preference to seek some sort of middle-ground compromise solution – was an English characteristic and totally alien to Scottish politics, where you just try to thrash the opposition.

As if to prove the point, the very English-sounding Constitutional Renewal Minister, Michael Wills, indeed then tried to act as some kind of moderator, saying that each of the debaters had in fact articulated different views about Britishness; that this is what the wider national debate would all be about: a chance to air different perspectives, which, he felt sure, would be able somehow to coalesce into a unified Statement of British Values to which all could assent. And what, he was pushed to say, would happen if people chose not to subscribe to such a credo? Well, they could leave the country. When pressed further on that, he denied that that meant some sort of forcible purge of undesirables but that, merely, people would be free to choose to live elsewhere if they could not live here by the British Code Book (my term).

In other words, if you want to be different, you can’t be truly British. And if you want to be English, you’re not truly British, either. Because Englishness is both different from Britishness and the difference in Britishness. Englishness is what makes ‘British values’ truly distinctive in the way they are actually lived out, rather than just a bland, extra-national set of abstractions. And Englishness is what prevents Britishness from ever being fixed and present to itself (for instance, in a Statement of British Values) because the way in which Britishness is most authentically lived out – for actual English people – is through the diverse culture (and multiple cultures), history, institutions, value systems, religions and language of England (and for Scots, those of Scotland).

That’s true Britishness: the commonality in difference of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, and of all those who have come to live with us in our different nations. The government thinks it can converge all those differences into a single national Agreement. I feel that – in a very English way – we may just have to agree to differ.

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:

White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background

Chinese

White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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10 July 2007

Sir Alan West: Un-British Defence Of the British Way Of Life

On Sunday (8 July), Sir Alan West – Britain’s new security minister – went on record as saying that people in Britain needed to start behaving in an ‘un-British’ way and ‘snitch’ on people they suspect of involvement in terrorist activity: passing on information to the authorities about such people, who might be members of their own community or family, and who might expect not to be betrayed in this way.

No reasonable person could object to the proposition that there is an overriding moral duty to talk to the police about anyone whom one genuinely suspects of involvement in terrorism, no matter who they are. But does this constitute ‘snitching’? Could it not be seen as an act of loyalty to the people one reports on in this way, if they are part of one’s close circle of friends and family, in that one would be saving them from getting involved in criminality, and potentially from suicide?

The use of the word ‘snitching’ – admittedly employed deliberately by the minister to maximise the newsworthiness of his statement – is unfortunate in a number of ways. First, it plays into the general atmosphere of suspicion verging on paranoia towards Muslim communities, in that it feeds on an idea that these communities are full of actual or potential terrorist cells that are all busy hatching plots, which require ‘grasses’ on the inside to give them away. Clearly, one would expect the police and the security services to make use of informers in the fight against terrorism, as against any other form of crime. But the image implies that the minister is calling for something more extensive and extreme: that ordinary people in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, perhaps really everyone in mainstream society, should transform themselves into the eyes and ears of the security services. This puts me in mind of the Stasi in Communist former-East Germany, where reportedly one-quarter of the entire population were official informers. Under such circumstances, you would really have to be cautious about what you said or wrote in public about subjects such as terrorism and Islam in case someone took against you and reported you as a terrorist sympathiser.

Secondly, the minister’s remarks exemplify an important aspect of the government’s approach to the problem of extremism / proto-terrorism in Muslim communities: it attempts to drive a wedge between so-called moderates and so-called radicals in the effort to bully and enlist the moderates into becoming agents in the fight against extremism. But this approach is built on a false dichotomy between the two groups, which itself rests on a misunderstanding of the root (‘radical’) cause of terrorism. This in turn is a form of terror, which ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Muslims share to some extent: the fear – which also verges in extremis on paranoia – that the West is embarked on a campaign to destroy Islam. By dividing Muslim communities – the Islamic ummah or fellowship – internally by encouraging the more ‘pro-Western’ elements to turn against the more ‘anti-Western’ groups, would an approach such as that advocated by Sir Alan West not actually increase the resentment and paranoia felt by the ‘radicals’, while reducing the influence the ‘moderates’ could exercise over them, as the trust between them would have broken down?

And there’s another irony in the whole scenario set up by Sir Alan’s use of the ‘snitch’ word – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! The minister is inviting members of the Muslim community, who are precisely the kind of people we’re supposed to want to integrate with British society (i.e. who are to some extent un-British) to start behaving in an even more un-British way (which is also framed as being ‘un-Islamic’) in defence of the British way of life! In this way, the best defenders of Britishness are the un-British Muslims who betray their even more un-British Muslim brothers. As if to say that we all have to be more like the Muslims and the terrorists to defeat them: more intolerant and repressive, more furtive and treacherous – more un-British indeed.

Sir Alan West’s whole premise is that the British way of life is under severe threat from ‘radical Islamist’ terrorists who want to change it. (I won’t now get into a discussion of what might be meant by that phrase; suffice it to say that the whole terminology that is used to describe who the terrorists are and what they believe in is a total mess and needs a hefty dose of (British) rational clarity injected into it!) Yet in the same breath, the minister says – and these are his actual words, if not arranged verbatim in the exact sequence he used – that we’ll all need to change our way of life in order to deal with the threat. But if we do that, doesn’t that mean that the terrorists have won: that they’ve actually succeeded in changing our way of life; turning us into a less open, tolerant society; and putting us into a permanent state of fear, which is in essence the whole purpose of terrorist activity – to provoke fear and to prompt the society it is attacking into acting violently and repressively out of fear, so stoking up the conflict and resentments which fuel the terrorist effort, and allowing the terrorists to make a credible claim that they are really waging a war?

Because this is basically what Sir Alan West’s language implies: that he wants Britain to go onto a permanent war footing and to believe that, and start acting as if, it is facing as severe a threat to its way of life as it did in the Second World War or at the height of the Cold War. The rhetoric of the War On Terror may have disappeared; but the underlying thinking is the same.

But does terrorism really pose the same level of threat to the British and Western way of life as did Nazism or Soviet Communism? While not wanting to underplay the seriousness of the specific terrorist plots that the police and security services are working so hard to foil, and have indeed succeeded in doing so on a number of occasions, how many people really believe that we have already entered into an all-out war with Islamism upon which the whole future of our way of life depends? Look around you; do you see a nation at war? What you see is a nation that is still intent on living the life that Sir Alan wants us all to renounce in favour of a sort of total war against the terror that lurks round the next corner – the enemy within our communities.

Who’s to say that the nightmare vision of a Britain laid waste by a series of utterly devastating terrorist attacks could never happen? I personally was sceptical about the warnings of imminent terrorist outrages ahead of the 7/7 bombings two years ago; and it seems from today’s news that I was wrong to suggest in my last blog entry that the 21/7 bombers might have deliberately bungled their attacks. But even if this nightmare came to pass, would that mean the ‘Islamists’ had succeeded in destroying the British spirit and British values, if by that is meant our love of freedom and respect for justice? Change our way of life, yes; such a scenario would inevitably bring about an impairment of our standard of living, new constraints to the way we lead our lives, and a great deal of life-changing suffering and pain. But would they change us, our commitment to democracy and our culture? Is it at all remotely conceivable – in the real world – that the ‘Islamists’ could impose Shariah law and Islamic faith on this nation; and, even if this one-in-a-zillion eventuality arose, would they succeed in altering our hearts and converting us into true believers?

Because there is a true war going on, and it is – as the political establishment so fondly likes to call it – a battle for hearts and minds. But the Islamists are never going to win that battle over us; nor are we going to win against them if we think we can overcome their commitment to the ideal of a world united under Islamic law through the sheer, British power of moderation and liberal reasonableness.

This war is indeed playing itself out in our hearts and minds, which are in danger of succumbing to a bunker mentality: nice, safe, moderate Britons and moderate Muslims on one side; and the vision of a radical-Islamic hell on earth on the other. But this is just a nightmare scenario, not the reality – not yet, and most likely not ever.

We have time – still – to prevent the nightmare from becoming a reality. But to do so, we must stop demonising the terrorist and start engaging with him as a human being. It’s when society dehumanises the enemies it fears that it itself becomes most like them: intolerant, hate-filled, un-British – united with the terrorist in the very fear that their world and culture is in peril.

13 June 2007

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