Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 March 2009

Shorts (2): Dominic Grieve and New Tory Britishness

Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary and an ‘original’ thinker on the English Question, has been setting out the blueprint for the prospective Tory government’s policies on promoting a more cohesive society, based on transcending the divisions created by New Labour multiculturalism and political correctness. Or should that be a more cohesive Britain?

While there is much to commend in Mr Grieve’s speech – and, indeed, I would commend it to anyone interested in gaining an insight into the direction Tory thinking and policy are heading in this area – parts of the text seem depressingly familiar:

“The laws and concepts underlying [multiculturalism] seem to me to drive people apart endangering our traditional sense of community based on shared values.  It is these values honed by history, that have created our legal and constitutional arrangements. But to the present government this historic sense of Britishness has been attacked as incompatible with modernity. . . .

“In schools, the dumbing down of history has resulted in a system where the teaching of a narrative of British history has all but vanished.  Instead of children being taught to take interest in and have respect for past events and individuals who have shaped their lives, they are encouraged to be contemptuous of people who in the past did not live up to the then unknown values of modern Britain.

“I am convinced that this approach has hindered more recent immigrants to this country developing a sense of belonging. Faced with a society that seems to be suffering an identity breakdown, should we be surprised that they find a common identity with their fellow countrymen hard to identify?”

So is the Tory prescription to the break-down of community cohesion through increasing cultural diversity more emphasis on ‘shared British values’; more teaching of ‘our country’s’ history as British history; and perseverance with engineering a modern British-national identity and even Nation of Britain, superseding Britain’s diverse ethnic communities’ originally discrete identities, such as that of Englishness? Plus ça change, as that traditional English saying goes!

There is one ray of hope, however. As Grieve says in his conclusion: “we will only succeed in developing  a community of values and a shared national identity if we allow all people the freedom to discover and to coalesce around their shared aspirations, arguing out areas of disagreement”. I take it from this that this ‘freedom’ includes the liberty to define one’s identity as English in the first instance, rather than British; and for this new Englishness to also provide an identity and set of values that other ethnic communities can embrace.

But the way Grieve describes the process again sounds depressingly similar to the present government’s orchestrated efforts to redefine the fundamental principles on which ‘this country”s governance and national identity should rest as British in the first instance, rather than English:

“This is why I believe that there is merit in looking to the creation of a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to help better define ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] prescriptions and ensure that the principles in the ECHR are expressed so as to be seen as being relevant to all people and not as at present an international obligation that seems on occasion to appear to privilege certain individuals over the rights of the law abiding majority.

“Preparing such a Bill would also provide us with an opportunity to engage in a national debate as to what aspects of our legal and constitutional framework constitute core values in the area of civil liberties that could merit better protection than the Human Rights Act itself currently affords.

“For example I believe that the right to trial by jury in indictable cases should be protected as a key feature of our participatory democracy. We may also wish to add to the right to freedom of expression in the ECHR and ensure that principles of equality under the law are spelt out-an important issue in countering the current lobbying for special privileges for different groups.

“There are also sound arguments for including the obligations of individuals to the wider community as well. While some rights are properly absolute, there is no reason under the ECHR, why the failure to act in a neighbourly and acceptable way should not be taken into account if an individual seeks to invoke rights.”

While I’m fully behind the goal of better defining and protecting principles such as trial by jury, freedom of expression and equality under the law, you can bet your bottom pound sterling that this ‘national debate’ about ‘core values’, and the ‘participatory democracy’ that enshrines and defends those core values, will be British and British only. For England, that is, of course: Scotland, as we know, is having its own national debate on these matters and may decide to go its own way. But no scope for a debate about English identity, values, freedoms and democracy under these Tories proposals. Not even if that’s what the people demand? And I especially dislike the last sentence of the passage quoted above, which seems no different from Gordon Brown’s attempts to make our ‘rights’ dependent on conforming to a prescriptive view of responsible, ‘acceptable’ behaviour. So long as we obey the law, and the laws themselves are reasonable, our rights are rights, whether we like the way people enjoying those rights conduct their lives or not.

But there’s just a glimmer – a little chink of ambiguity that could yet reveal itself as a chasm of differentiation between the suffocating embrace of New Labour’s Britishness and a future acknowledgement of England and Englishness. For is all this history that Grieve talks about British or English; indeed, are the values and identity of ‘Britain’ he talks about ultimately expressions of English culture and national identity? As I say, there’s just a hint of ambiguity here and there:

“From the Saxon moot court, through Magna Carta, the Glorious revolution of 1688 and onwards, freedom and equality under the law has been central to what English and with it British identity has been all about”.

“We have seen centuries old principles that a person’s home was inviolable to a bailiff seeking to carry out civil distress of goods overturned with impunity, so that the proud adage that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ will soon be but an historic memory”.

“What message for instance does the case of Binyam Mohamed convey in terms of our values when we are faced with accusations that we colluded with the USA in interrogation practises that were outlawed by the English Parliament in the mid 17th century?”

What indeed? And maybe we need a new English parliament to make sure our fundamental English liberty is defined and reaffirmed anew for the 21st century. And maybe the way to uphold the Tory principle of the freedom of individuals and communities to be left to pursue their own path, and negotiate their own way to live and work together in peace and prosperity free from state interference, is to assert this as an English value over against the prescriptive collectivism, political orthodoxy and authoritarianism of New Labour Britishness. Because this is both a fundamental Tory principle and a ‘core value’ of England.

Perhaps the fact that, if the Tories are voted into power at the next election, this will be entirely due to the electorate in England (even if they won’t secure the majority of actual votes in England), will eventually give the Tories the courage to make a break from the New Labour mantra that only Britishness can provide a base of core values from which to build a cohesive society: a belief set that is still all-too evident throughout most of Grieve’s speech. And maybe the Tories will come to the realisation that the traditional Britishness (as opposed to New Labour’s neo-British nationalism) is actually an expression of Englishness, which alone can form the basis for a cohesive society and participatory democracy for and in England itself.

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