Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 June 2016

EU referendum: A battle for the (English) soul of Britain

It is funny how, when supporters of the campaign to remain in the EU seek terms with which to criticise the supposedly narrow, nationalistic focus of the Leave campaign, they resort to the dismissive language of ‘Little England’, to which a UK remaining part of the EU is deemed by contrast to be a ‘Great Britain’. On Tuesday of last week, Prime Minister Cameron made this very contrast in the head-to-head with Nigel Farage on ITV.

Similarly, on Thursday of last week, in the same channel’s debate between three politicians on either side of the argument, one of the Leave campaigners Amber Rudd also dismissed the ‘Little Englander’ mentality of the Leave side – only to then tie herself up in knots as she referred to the country post a Remain vote as “England”, to which she then had to hastily add “Scotland” and “Wales” given the presence on her side of the studio of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon! It is as if there is a core of traditional national feeling and identity within ‘Britain’ that is instinctively designated – and usually disparaged – as ‘English’.

The EU referendum is indeed a battle between two competing British identities: a national (and at core English) Britain versus an international Britain (European, multi-national and multi-ethnic). The debates around governance, control of migration and even trade ultimately centre on questions of identity. Is your Britain essentially a projection and extension of an English identity rooted politically in the historic English traditions of Church, monarchy, Parliament and common law? Or is it a ‘modern’ Britain that no longer sees itself as having English roots but views itself as essentially European, grounded in the Western liberal-humanist-rationalist tradition, and as offering a civic identity that transcends ‘narrow’ national identities, ethnicities and creeds? Both of these latter aspects of the modern Britishness are also encapsulated in the magic term ‘British values’.

The table below compares the longer-term future for the governance of England and Britain under the scenario of either a Leave or Remain vote. My assumption is that, following a Leave vote, the UK would necessarily be thrown back on to its historically English constitution and forms of governance, and that ultimately Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly even Wales might eventually split off, leaving the English form of government to apply in fact to England alone. Following a Remain vote, on the other hand, the UK – and with it England – could increasingly be absorbed into the process of European political union, creating pressure to abolish the English constitution (and with it, effectively, England) altogether.

Leave Remain
·     Reassertion of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and of Parliament as the seat of English government ·      Transfer of further ‘international’ governmental powers (e.g. borders, security, military, foreign policy, pan-European matters) to the EU, with transfer of Parliament’s national (i.e. English) powers down to ‘regions’ and cities, resulting in a hollowing out of the English-national layer of government
·     The Church of England remains as the established Church and official religion of the land ·      As government is increasingly viewed as having a purely secular-humanist character (in keeping with the EU Treaties and practice), the pressure becomes irresistible to disestablish the Church – meaning the UK loses a foundational element of its grounding in the history of England as a Christian nation
·     The constitutional monarchy is preserved, safeguarding a line of succession that reaches back into England’s deepest history. The monarch remains the temporal head of the Church of England ·      As the Church has been disestablished, and as politics has shifted away from Parliament up to Brussels and down to ‘the regions’, the monarchy is seen as increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. Eventually, as an elected EU presidency is established, and the European Parliament acquires genuine powers of legislation and scrutiny, the UK decides to replace the monarchy with an elected – and itself largely ceremonial – president
·     The supremacy of English and UK law is re-established, based around parliamentary statute and common law, with the Supreme Court in London as the ultimate instance in the justice system ·      The areas of application of EU law and regulation are increasingly extended, and a more integrated EU justice and policing system is developed. The English legal and justice system are slowly subsumed into the EU’s Civic and Roman Law-based system, and the European Court of Justice grows in power as the ultimate instance
·     A new Scottish independence referendum is held and is won by the nationalists. Brexit also catalyses a project to unify Ireland, with enough moderate unionists supporting this as a way to get Northern Ireland back into the EU (with EU protections for Protestant-minority rights) to ensure a majority in favour. Brexit also gives Plaid Cymru in Wales a massive boost, with traditional Labour supporters now seeing independence as the best means to get Wales back into the EU and free her from English dominance. If Wales does opt for independence, the English constitution now applies to England alone. (That does not mean it cannot and is not reformed and modernised over time – but then it is England’s constitution, not that of a polity that denies nation status to England.) ·      The redistribution of power to the EU and the English ‘regions’, along with the other changes outlined above, are consolidated in a new ‘British Constitution’, establishing a new ‘Republic of Britain’. This recognises Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall as historic ‘nations’ with parliaments or assemblies to manage their own regional affairs (these areas also largely correspond to European ‘regions’). England, however, ceases to exist as either a historic or a present-day political nation, and is broken up into its constituent Euro-regions. There is no Parliament dealing with exclusively English matters, as ‘English’ matters are now regulated by the regional assemblies. ‘England’ is also no longer officially a Christian nation, as the Church of England has been disestablished. No more ‘Kingdom of England’, either, since no king. No more English law, since that is incorporated into European law. As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have achieved much of what they wanted from the EU (a ‘progressive’ politics and nullification of a once-dominant England), demands for independence and Irish unification fall away. ‘Britain’ becomes the civic nation to which all former constituent UK nations and British citizens originating from across the world all belong, without any distinction between them. The unity of the once-UK has been preserved, but at the price of England’s abolition.

 

I say that this is a battle for the ‘soul’ of Britain, as well as a battle between different identities and governance models, because what is at stake is whether we are ultimately a Christian nation (England – or Anglo-Britain insofar as the other nations of the UK are governed through the same historically English constitutional system) or whether we are part of a merely secular, international political union (the EU).

This is also what is at the heart of the discussion around sovereignty. Do we wish to be part of a polity in which sovereignty ultimately derives from divine sovereignty (political power exercised in obedience to the divine will via the God-given authority of the monarch as instantiated in parliamentary sovereignty), with the principles of individual freedom and conscience also deriving from the idea of the sovereign will answerable ultimately to God alone, over and above earthly political authority? Or do we wish to be part of a polity where authority is vested in a ‘rational’ law-making body (the Commission) acting in accordance with a liberal-humanist set of principles (the Treaties), and whose decisions and regulations are accepted by the collectivity with little or no dissent, because the collectivity (the ‘Union’ in an abstract sense) fundamentally subscribes to the principles and objectives that are embodied in the laws?

Fundamentally, this isn’t even an issue of one system being more or less democratic than the other. Both systems have their critics. On the one hand, many Remainers criticise the inadequately democratic character of the Anglo-British system, because of the very ‘absolute’ (and ultimately, divine) authority on which parliamentary sovereignty rests. The objection on this fundamental point is expressed in terms of criticism of aspects such as: the fact that sovereignty is indeed vested in Parliament rather than the people; the existence of a hereditary monarchy; the unelected House of Lords, with its historic origins in an aristocratic class system underpinned by monarchy; the established nature and privileges of the Church of England, including the fact that its diocesan bishops are guaranteed seats in the said House of Lords; and the elective dictatorship that is constituted by governments elected without a popular majority, owing to the disproportional voting system, but whose authority rests – precisely – on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as opposed to the ‘popular will’.

By contrast, Leavers regard the fundamental principles of EU governance as suspect in that basing power on an elite, ‘rational’ authority (the Commission), unchecked by either an appeal to a ‘higher power’ (God and moral conscience) or popular mandate, is seen as laying the foundations of dictatorship and autocracy.

A stark choice indeed confronts us on 23 June: a Britain that retains its deep roots in the historic Christian kingdom of England and in English identity (albeit often popularly conflated with ‘British’ identity itself); or a modern Britain containing no fundamental connection with England or Englishness – but instead being multi-national, secular and part of a pan-European governance system.

It’s not just in or out, remain or leave: it’s whether England itself remains, or whether we leave England behind.

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

1 March 2011

It’s official: English law discriminates against Christianity

Yesterday, a black Christian couple were told that Derby City Council had been right to bar them from fostering children because of their refusal to tell children in their care that the practice of homosexuality is a good thing, which contradicts their Christian views about sexual ethics. The ruling of the High Court in London stated that laws protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, and that if children were placed with carers who objected to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”.

This ruling may well be correct in law – I’m not qualified to judge – but if it is, it does legalise discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths. The very wording of the ruling implies this: if there’s a conflict between discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, then it’s better to discriminate against the people who hold the religious beliefs in question rather than (merely appear to) discriminate against gays.

Why? Apart from debatable technical reasons (i.e. “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”), the only reason for privileging sexual orientation over religious belief is that the moral rectitude, or at least the absence of immorality, of same-sex relationships has become unquestionable and uncontestable (including in law), whereas religious beliefs are now regarded as fundamentally questionable and are no longer accepted as resting on absolutes, either moral or epistemological (i.e. as being based on an objective theory of knowledge).

As the BBC’s religious correspondent Robert Pigott, writing yesterday, put it: “This was the most decisive ruling against the idea of Christian values underpinning English law since judges ruled last year that to protect views simply because they were religious would be irrational, divisive and arbitrary. Today the message was that courts would interpret the law in cases like the Johns’ according to secular and not religious values”. So not only do the laws themselves enshrine secular values and philosophically sceptical views towards religion – including Christianity: England’s traditional faith – but secular interpretions of the law will ‘take precedence’ over religious ones where there is a conflict.

I suppose one should not complain too much if the law and its interpretation reflect general changes in society, and its views on ethics and faith. But my point is that, as a result of yesterday’s ruling, this is likely to result in egregious discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths, which ought to be prevented in law not defended. For a start, the Johns – the couple at the centre of the case – were not adjudged to have committed any act of discrimination against gays: they weren’t actively trying to prevent gay couples from fostering; although many people, not just Christians, would regard a married couple like the Johns as more suitable foster parents than a gay couple.

So in reality, it’s just the Johns’ beliefs that were regarded as discriminatory and as therefore potentially being a ‘bad influence’ on the children committed to their care; i.e. as encouraging children to take on similarly ‘discriminatory’ views, thereby damaging their welfare, which the Council is statutorily obliged to safeguard. But is the Court, and society in general, really saying there is such a thing as a totally neutral, non-discriminatory environment in which children can grow up? The ruling appears to imply that it’s wrong for Christian foster carers to tell children that gay sex is morally bad but it would be OK for atheist couples to tell children that Christianity is wrong, both morally and in terms of its claim to truth. Is that what we’re saying: it’s wrong for Christians to tell their foster or adopted children (and their own children, too?) that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – in fact, positively a good thing – for non-believers to tell their charges that Christianity is wrong?

Besides which, the Johns weren’t even insisting on the right to tell children in their care that gay sex was ‘wrong’, only that they couldn’t tell a child that “the practice of homosexuality was a good thing” [quote from Mrs John’s speech after the ruling]. In other words, the Court has decided not only that foster carers shouldn’t preach their Christianity to their children but that they should preach the ‘virtues’ of a gay lifestyle, i.e. actively promote homosexuality.

Let’s try to imagine a real-world situation: a child being looked after by the Johns is asking them about sex and relationships and, in the interests of that child’s rounded development, they’re supposed to tell him or her that it’s not only perfectly all right to be gay but that gay relationships are a positively good thing – just as good and valid as marriage (if not more so?) – even though the Johns don’t actually believe that last point to be true and their own lives are lived out on different principles. What nonsense! How is the child to make sense of that? ‘So, you’re telling me it’s OK for me to have gay relationships, even though you don’t think they’re right?’ How is that providing coherent moral guidance for kids?

No, what they would of course do is say that it’s OK to be gay (which virtually all Christians believe nowadays) but that, in their opinion, the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong and that the child should wait till he or she had grown up a bit more and was sure about their sexuality before deciding to enter into a relationship; and that after the age of 18, they would in any case be completely free to make their own decisions and that, whatever they decided, they would still be loved. This is being honest with the child and presenting him or her with moral guidance consistent with their own lifestyle, which the child can react against or not when they reach maturity. Plus it’s no different from what most loving parents would do, even in the case that their child came out as gay rather than just seeking guidance on matters of sexuality: they’d prefer their children not to start having sexual relationships until they were 18 and / or had left home.

If the Court thinks that providing children with strict moral guidelines together with loving care, up until the time that the child is legally old enough to make all his or her own decisions, represents a threat to the child’s healthy development, then it is the Court that is out of touch with English social mores, and it is the Court that is being discriminatory, not people like the Johns. Does the Court really think it would be more in the interests of a child’s welfare for its foster parents to say: “being gay is a good thing, and we’d be perfectly happy for you to start having a same-sex relationship just as soon as you’re over the age of consent”? That would appear to be what is being implied by the ruling: better to give children the ‘moral guidance’ that gay sex, and indeed any sex, is fine and proper so long as it’s legal. So one of the unintended (or perhaps intended?) consequences of this ruling will be to undermine the authority of parents to give their children any moral guidance about sex that might appear to limit their sexual freedom once over the age of consent.

And there are other apparent unintended consequences or implications to this ruling:

  • The Court appears to be saying that it’s ‘better’ for children to be fostered and adopted by gay couples than by Christians with a strict moral code
  • A same-sex relationship is therefore ‘better’ than a conventional marriage lived according to Christian principles, as being brought up in such an environment is potentially damaging to children
  • It’s wrong to tell children that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – indeed, a good thing – to tell children that Christianity and other faiths are wrong
  • It’s legitimate in certain circumstances to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs, even when those beliefs do not result in discrimination against other people or beliefs
  • The legislature for England now gives greater ‘precedence’ to secular-liberal principles – even ones which conflict with general custom and practice in society – than Christian principles
  • The views of working-class black-English Christians are treated as less worthy of respect than the ideology of middle-class British liberals: would the Johns have been treated with the same contempt had they been middle-class white Londoners? Maybe; but maybe not.

In making its ruling yesterday, did the Court intend to imply all of the above statements? If not, an urgent clarification is needed – and, indeed, the Johns have called for a public enquiry on the issues raised. There are two fundamental issues at stake: the welfare of children and the law’s attitude towards those with religious beliefs. Without further clarification, yesterday’s ruling strongly implies a discriminatory attitude towards traditional religious faith: that it is somehow ‘objectively’ wrong, both morally and philosophically; whereas the belief in the moral rectitude of gay relationships has somehow been elevated into an unquestionable objective truth. On what basis? Are we really saying that if foster, adoptive and even genetic parents have strong religious views and moral principles, and they pass those on to their children, they are thereby damaging those children’s welfare and development?

Well, one unintended consequence of this prejudiced, stupid and ill-thought-through ruling is that the law has once again shown itself to be an ass: and an ass that, in matters of faith versus homosexuality, has got it completely arse over tip.

31 July 2009

Debbie Purdy: No unintended consequences from assisted suicide, please; we’re British

I’ve just lost most of the sympathy I had for Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who yesterday won a landmark ruling in the House of Lords meaning that the Director of Public Prosecutions must now clarify the basis on which people who assist chronically sick people in taking their own lives will be prosecuted under English and Welsh law.

Asked in a BBC Radio Four Today programme interview this morning whether she thought a change in the law ‘in Britain’ in favour of assisted suicide in cases such as hers would lead to situations where elderly and sick people are bullied into taking their own lives in order not to be a burden on others, or where there is a financial interest on the part of those helping them to die, Ms Purdy dismissed this possibility out of hand by saying – and I paraphrase – that she didn’t think ‘British people’ today would behave in such a manner.

Oh, wake up, Ms Purdy! Of course, people will do such things if they think they can get away with it. That’s just human nature, and the ‘British’ are no better, morally, than anyone else. While I have sympathy for people suffering from chronic or terminal diseases who can’t think of any way they can die with dignity other than taking their own lives, this casual dismissal of the unintended consequences that will surely flow from liberalising the law on assisted suicide exemplifies the selfishness and moral self-righteousness of those who argue for the right for what used to be known as euthanasia: ‘our despair and right to get other people to kill us is morally more important than the unfortunate consequence that others will take their lives or be killed when they didn’t really want to, or when other options for their care could otherwise have been found’.

On top of which, Ms Purdy and the Radio Four interviewer talked continually of the legal situation in ‘Britain’ and didn’t once mention that the change in the law that might follow from yesterday’s ruling would affect England and Wales only, not ‘Britain’. The phrase ‘this country’ also passed the lips of both Ms Purdy and the interviewer to further obfuscate which country they were talking about. I suppose whether the change in the law relates to England and Wales only or Britain as a whole doesn’t affect the ethical issue; but when Ms Purdy appealed to the decency of ‘British’ people as part of her bland dismissal of the claim that people will take advantage of legalised assisted suicide to accelerate the demise of those who wish to die naturally, then I’m afraid she lost me completely. If the woman wants to change the law, then at least she could have the decency to know which country’s law she is changing.

No doubt, though, if this legal change does pass through Parliament – which Ms Purdy suggested she would like to happen – then Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will help vote it through even though none of their sick and elderly constituents will meet an untimely death as a consequence. Whereas, of course, it’s up to MSPs to change the law in Scotland; and, indeed, the MSP Margo MacDonald has been proposing a similar change there. But at least, if assisted suicide is legalised in Scotland, it will be Scottish elected representatives only who are responsible.

But then again, sick and dying English and Welsh patients are British, really, aren’t we? We’re decent people and won’t want to be a burden on our relatively underfunded NHS, compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland, that is; or on our families that might otherwise have to pay for a protracted period of social care, unlike in Scotland where it’s free. So my advice is: do the decent thing; lie back, take the lethal injection and think of the Empire.

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.

24 February 2008

British Values and Islam: Can They Meet on English Ground?

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Nazir-Ali, is back in the news again today through his refusal to retract any of the remarks he made in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned certain parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Indeed, the death threats he and his family have received, along with a large volume of supportive correspondence, have confirmed him in his views.

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

1) The separation and isolation of ‘extremist’ Islamic communities that have become virtual ghettoes, according to the bishop. This means that non-Muslims feel threatened and are squeezed out, deprived of their right to live and work in those areas. The goal of multi-culturalism appears, therefore, to have spawned total separation, challenging the broader goal of integration; and, additionally, the extremist views that hold sway in such areas are turning the minds of youth, posing a security risk to the country as a whole.

2) The bishop fears that such Islamic extremism is filling a moral and spiritual void in Britain as a whole, caused by the erosion of the country’s Christian faith; and, as a consequence, there is a risk that Islam will in fact spread beyond the extremist ghettoes and pose itself as an alternative value system for the UK as a whole. As he says in the second Telegraph interview today (linked above): “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it. If people are not given a fresh way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian-based society then something else may well take the place of all that we’re used to and that could be Islam”.

An observation in passing. For me, this demonstrates one of the big flaws in the debate about so-called Islamic extremism, Islamism, etc. On the one hand, these are real, serious issues. There is a problem about how Muslim communities should best be integrated within our society; there are areas where non-Muslims feel isolated and unwelcome; and there is a real security risk from young people being indoctrinated into a false understanding of Islam that justifies hatred and violence against non-Muslims. But people’s understandable fears about such things are combined with a more pervasive, cultural unease about Islam that is indeed Christian in its historical roots: the fear of Islam as a violent faith that seeks to take over and Islamify Western-Christian culture and nations.

This is Islamophobia: an ultimately prejudiced dislike and fear of Islam. It’s this fear that makes many people equate all Muslims who seek to lead their lives more strictly according to the laws and ordinances of their faith with extremism. This fear also modulates the movement in Dr. Nazir-Ali’s thoughts between genuinely extremist and, by that token, distorted Islam and Islam per se as a potential faith-based value system for this country – genuinely accepted and embraced by millions of British people as an alternative to Christianity or secularism. It’s only irrational fear of Islam that could make this last scenario appear realistic; it is, however, plausible to imagine that at some point there could be a quite widespread assault on the British state from home-grown jihadis. But such people and their twisted beliefs would never be willingly accepted by the British people, or even by the majority of British Muslims.

Perhaps for tactical reasons – to ride the wave of the general reaffirmation of Britishness – perhaps also out of genuine personal experience and conviction, Nazir-Ali associates his appeal for us to reinvent a Christian society with British values and tradition. Indeed, the bishop asserts:

“Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”

While many of these things the bishop lists undoubtedly owe much to Britain’s Christian past, I don’t think many British people would accept that Christianity was the sole or main source of inspiration for all of them. Britain’s ‘value system’ has been decreasingly Christian for decades and centuries, certainly for longer than the 40 or 50 years the bishop refers to, i.e. from before the revolution in social mores in the 1960s. I’m bound to say that I think this perception of Britain per se (a 300-year-old state founded as our culture had already embarked on its gradual secularisation) as having been historically, and still being fundamentally, at root a Christian society reflects the perspective of an immigrant from a Muslim country; as indeed people coming to Britain from Pakistan do tend, at least initially, to think they’re coming to a Christian country and that that country is Britain – rather than England, Scotland or Wales – in the first instance.

So Dr. Nazir-Ali appears to oppose Christianity and British values, on one side, to Islam, on the other. Not surprising, then, that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech two and half weeks ago (discussed elsewhere in this blog) in which he called for consideration of the idea that sharia law could be incorporated in some way into English civil law is anathema to the Bishop of Rochester:

“People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that’s very different from saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be huge conflicts”.

The scenario of some aspects of sharia becoming official English legal procedure and legislation clearly plays on Nazir-Ali’s fear of Islam ultimately coming to replace Britain’s own laws and institutions, with their Christian foundations. Or should that be England’s laws, institutions and Christian foundations? As I stated in the previous discussion on Rowan Williams’s speech (linked above), one of the reasons why the media and political establishment came down so hard on the Archbishop was that he was suggesting that there could be constructive, creative and to some extent open-ended dialogue and co-operation between the English legal system (itself plural in its sources of inspiration, not all of which Christian) and sharia (also not a uniform, monolithic body of doctrine and established procedure but admitting of multiple cultural variations throughout Islam). This flies in the face of the political drive to construct and impose a normative Britishness, e.g. through the proposed British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a British written constitution. This effort to redefine a uniform Britishness is opposed both to the aspirations of many English people to define themselves primarily as English and to establish English national political institutions (such as a parliament); and to the aspiration of many Muslims to define their identity and regulate many aspects of their daily lives (including certain legal aspects) as Islamic in the first instance, and then British insofar as – and perhaps legitimately only if – British society and law allow them to retain and express their Muslim identity and beliefs.

So in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conceptual framework, if I’ve understood it correctly, there is, on the one side, a potentially monopolistic, secular British state / value system / law and, on the other side, a more diverse English legal system and sense of identity encompassing and striving to integrate both Christian, Muslim and secular influences. The key differences between Rochester’s and Canterbury’s positions are therefore threefold:

  1. Rochester assimilates Christianity to British values and tradition, while Canterbury opposes a more plural and, indeed, Christian-inspired English tradition to a narrow secular Britishness
  2. Rochester sees the primary national identity of this country as Britain / British, while Canterbury’s focus is on the English nation, Church and law
  3. Rochester sees fundamentalist Islam as inimical to British society and its Christian-centred values (or, another way of putting this: he sees Islam per se as fundamentally inimical to Britain and its Christian-centred values); while Canterbury believes that English pragmatism, backed by a universal vision of the basis for law and for human rights that is both religious in inspiration and common to all religions, can create the grounds on which Islamic beliefs, culture and customs can be profoundly integrated within English society, law and liberalism: the respect for freedom of conscience, belief and lifestyle.

Both men are agreed – and, in fact, I agree with them – that true integration between ‘British’ people and Muslims can take place only if the British come to respect and engage with the religious grounds for Muslims’ wish to retain particular practices and ways of living that separate them to some extent from other communities; and that, in order for this to happen, we need to get back in touch with the properly religious inspiration and foundation of the laws and freedoms we hold dear. But such a process of integration is not compatible with the would-be imposition of a monolithic secular Britishness that decrees that people’s freedoms should be dependent on their accepting the primacy of the British state in determining their social responsibilities and fundamental collective identity – rather than these being shaped as an expression of the English and / or Muslim values and identity.

As I stated in my previous discussion of Dr. Rowan Williams’ speech, the British media and political establishment tries to capitalise on any apparent concession to extremist or radical Islamic views to whip up Islamophobia and manipulate it to get English people (who otherwise might be quite anti the Britishness drive) behind the British values and way of life that are supposedly under threat. But is there not in reality more common ground between the defence of the English nation and the defence of the freedom of English Muslims to continue to make their faith the centre of their lives while contributing to the common good? Both positions are opposed to a secular and potentially authoritarian Britishness that seeks to deny any place in the core definition of British values, citizenship and national identity not only to Islam but to England, and its historical and continuing Christian roots.

So Nazir-Ali is right on one level – about rediscovering and reinventing our Christian heritage and roots – but he’s wrong in identifying those with Britain and British values, rather than England. The British values that the political class is currently pushing are just as opposed, in many respects, to Christianity as to Islam, and certainly seek to eliminate the radical Englishness of the British state (its roots in England’s history and identity) as much as radical Islam. The British state seeks to play divide and rule with respect to the English and the Muslims amongst them, setting them one against the other – urging Muslims to identify and, effectively, ‘convert’ to a secular British identity that only alienates them still further from the English population as it resists being dragged into an a-national British citizenry.

The English and Muslims must both resist this and find common ground in the defence of their identity, their faith – and their Englishness.

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

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