Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 February 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 September 2010

What does the pope’s visit mean for Britain?

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, arrived in Britain for a four-day state visit: the first ever such state visit – i.e. as leader of a political state as well as church – by a pontiff, either since or indeed before the Reformation.

To be more precise, the pope arrived in Scotland yesterday and has now moved on to England, where he will be spending the remaining three days of his stay.

So what, you might ask? What’s so important about a visit from the leader of a brand of Christianity that even most Christians in this country reject? And what’s so important about making a distinction between Scotland and England?

To that question, I’d reply with another: which country, or countries, does the pope think he’s visiting? Sure, from the perspective of worldly politics, this is the head of the Vatican State visiting another state, the United Kingdom. But from an ecclesiastical and pastoral perspective (pastoral in the sense that the pope is the supreme pastor, or shepherd, of the Church’s respective flocks in Britain), the pope is visiting two distinct provinces of the Church of Rome – two distinct ‘countries’: Scotland, and England and Wales. The visit does indeed recall and hark back to a time, before the Reformation and the Acts of Union, when what we now know as Great Britain comprised two Christian kingdoms, not one United Kingdom. From the point of view of the Church, that is, they still exist as such – as fully distinct entities.

This fact alone ought to give pause to those English men and women among us who are inclined to rail against this invasion of damned ‘popery’: the very distinction between Scotland and England that is so important to patriots in both countries is a continuation of the ancient separation of the two lands into distinct ‘Roman provinces’ – in the Empire and Church of Rome – that persists to this day in the Roman Church. In secular life, that distinction was carried through to the present in part as a result of the very different course taken by the Reformation in Scotland and England & Wales, resulting in two established churches with radically distinct characters: the more Protestant, Presbyterian Church of Scotland, without any supreme head; and the more Catholic Church of England (and its Welsh counterpart) that still to this day acknowledges the King or Queen of the United Kingdom as its Head – continuing the role that a King of England, Henry VIII, expropriated for England from the Bishop of Rome. The same Bishop, in fact, who acknowledged Henry as ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title reproduced to this day on the side of British coins showing the monarch’s head.

Ultimately, therefore, the present British state owes the whole authority of its leaders, the spiritual focus of its identity and the ground of its sovereignty to a sacred mission originally conferred on an English king by the pope in Rome, and taken over by that king in his own name: to defend the Catholic Christian faith in this land.

As English men and women, we should therefore pause to reflect whether, in rejecting out of hand the Catholic faith and its unfashionable doctrines, we are not also in a profound sense conspiring with the ruin of England’s identity, indeed its soul. In ‘dogmatically’ asserting liberal and anti-Catholic (or at least, anti-Papal) views – perhaps in our own way out of adherence to what we regard as infallible secular ‘truths’ – on matters such as condom use, ‘gay rights’ and abortion, do we do so in the name of a secular Britain that is poised on the verge of wiping out Christian England?

Those liberal beliefs and values do not necessarily need to be articulated as ‘British’; they could be claimed as English, too. But I guarantee that during the pope’s visit, the clash of values will be presented as one between Roman Catholicism and British multi-culturalism, pluralism and secular modernity. The secularists of the present age are trying in many ways to complete the work begun in the Reformation: to smash up the Church of Rome. But in so doing, they would also finally wipe out the Catholic Christian heart of England, in the name of Britain.

So when the pope, in England, urges us to be mindful of our Christian heritage, the spiritual abyss of radical, atheistic secularism against which he is warning us does not just involve moral self-destruction but the annihilation of England as a Christian nation. Radical, anti-Christian secularism is a form of universalist humanism that has not only veered away from the very Christian roots of liberal humanism itself (‘radical’ meaning ‘at root’) but also does not recognise the validity and importance of distinct national traditions and cultures – unlike, ironically, the Universal (Catholic) Church.

The pope’s visit is, therefore, very much a call to England to value and return to its Christian roots, including as they are expressed in tolerant liberal humanism – just as the Church itself symbolises and takes forward in the present the Catholic tradition in Britain’s two great Christian realms: Scotland and England & Wales. This thought should persuade us to at least give the pope a hearing, even or perhaps especially if we find much of what he says challenges our present-day values – and to hell with the outright rejection and prejudice the anti-English British secularists would rather greet him with.

One essential precondition for killing England is to dethrone its official Christian faith and wipe out the memory of the medieval kingdom of England. Let’s not conspire in our own downfall.

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

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.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

24 April 2008

Saint George: Patron Saint Of Suppressed Nations

The flags of St. George were out in force in England yesterday: our patron saint’s day – England Day. The red cross on a white background was even to be seen flying outside 10 Downing Street alongside the Union Flag, as 23 April is now officially the one day of the year when the Cross of St. George may be flown outside UK government buildings that are endowed with two flagpoles (see the recent Constitutional Renewal white paper, p. 57). Where there is only one flagpole, the Union Flag takes precedence – surprise, surprise. Perhaps they would have done well to consider my previous suggestion about new country-specific versions of the Union Flag incorporating the national flags as an ‘insert’ into the Union Flag – then they could effectively fly both the Union Jack and the England flag simultaneously all year round without having to invest in a second flagpole! But they wouldn’t want to convey the impression that England is a distinct part of the UK – which is what such a flag might do – as this would challenge the way they govern England as if it were Britain.

Oh well, I suppose one shouldn’t grumble: so long as the Flag of St. George is allowed to be flown beside and atop UK government buildings, this at least represents some sort of official recognition that England exists as a nation – and, what is more, a nation with a continuing Christian tradition. Significantly, Britain, which is not a nation, has neither a ‘Britain Day’ nor a patron saint – although if the Britologists get their way, the first of these facts may soon change; if not the second.

But who was this St. George who, along with his flag, is supposed to serve as a symbol for England? According to the more realistic legend of his life (the non-dragon-slaying version), he was an ethnic Greek soldier in the Roman army, who refused to participate in a persecution of the Christians towards the beginning of the fourth century and was martyred as a consequence. As such, he could be seen as a natural symbol for a once proud but subjugated people – the Greeks – rising up against an oppressive empire (Rome). And this is one of the reasons why St. George is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is also the patron saint of Greece.

Indeed, when I looked into it, I was struck by the list of countries of which St. George is the patron saint or where St. George’s Day is celebrated, or both. These include: Bulgaria, Catalonia, England, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Russia and Serbia (and also Serb-populated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro). These countries all have one, in some cases two, things in common: their nation status, indeed their very survival as a nation, has been under severe threat from an oppressive state or empire – Bulgaria and Georgia from the Soviet Union / Empire; Catalonia from Spain; Greece from the Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which also persecuted Serbia and took over the Serbian heartland of Kosovo; Palestine from Israel; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, and subsequently from the Serbian-nationalist dream of a Greater Serbia; and England . . . from Britain.

I said that some of these countries had two things in common: Russia / the Soviet Union, Serbia / Yugoslavia and England / Britain have been as much agents of subjugation and aggression towards other nations as victims of such a form of suppression. It’s hard for us in the West to think of Russia as anything other than an aggressive, distrustful state that seeks to control and manipulate all the nations around it in a cynical, self-serving manner. However, Russia has in the past been the victim of terrible wars and persecutions that have come close to eradicating it as a nation, from the Mongol invasion of the 13th century to Hitler’s assault in World War II. Arguably, Russia – and certainly its Christian ‘soul’ – was as much a victim of Soviet totalitarianism as any of the other countries that lost their distinctive national identities when they became mere Soviet republics. Similarly, the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, suffused with a heady mix of previously suppressed Orthodox Christianity, owed much to the fact that, although the Serbs were the dominant ethnic group in Communist Yugoslavia, they had to submerge and deny many of their national traditions for the sake of the cohesion of a monolithic, ethnically neutral, ideological state.

And what of England and Britain? Surely, I’m not suggesting that the subordination of England to Britain (symbolised, for instance, by the Union Flag taking precedence over the St. George’s Cross) is on a par with the suppression of Serbian national identity under Yugoslavia; or indeed, that the control previously exercised effectively by England over other nations in the British Empire and British Isles is akin to the ruthless Soviet subjugation of the nations surrounding Russia, or Serbian persecution of ethnic Albanians, Croats and Muslims in the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s?

Well, obviously, these things are different; but arguably, different only in degree not in kind. The convulsions in Former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union both involved nations that had been the centre of powerful multi-national states losing their grip on that power and attempting to reassert it in their own name rather than in the name, and for the ideals, of the former state: as Serbia in the 1990s, and in the shape of the resurgent Russia of the present decade. Similarly, the English were once the driving force behind the British Empire and the political heart of the United Kingdom. That Empire and – since devolution – England’s control over the other nations of the UK through the British state have gradually slipped away. The main difference is that, rather than reasserting itself in its own name – as England – England has tried to hold on to the illusion that the old Britain still exists as before; or rather, it has attempted to affirm and define a ‘new Britain’ that is very much just a 21st-century update of the old – but which is a denial of the changed realities of this century. What is this New Britain? A Britain that supposedly embodies only the positive ideals and ‘greatness’ of the British Empire – a world power standing for civilised, humane values – and none of its violent lust for power and for control over the world’s precious resources; and which, by denying its aggression and its racism (characteristics which it likes to think of as ‘English’ and ‘nationalistic’, not British), actually gives that aggression power over itself, rather than taming it. Or a Britain that is still what it was – a cohesive unitary state, identified with England in all but name – and not a Britain that now cannot even acknowledge England by name in case this blows open the reality that Britain has already been broken up through devolution into four differentially governed nations, and that what is known as Britain is really now only England.

Why is the British establishment – political and intellectual – so afraid of this emerging separate consciousness of England as a nation in its own right, no longer indissociable from the Britain with which it merged its identity for so long? Perhaps they are indeed afraid that a resurgent England, rather like Serbia and Russia, will assert itself in the shape of an ugly right-wing, racist nationalism: rejecting the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lateral liberal consensus; taking England out of the EU; and even trying to reassert its former prerogatives over Scotland and Wales. Such an England would indeed seem to represent the suppressed dark side of the British imperial and national project, just as Serbian and Russian nationalism were a re-expression of the darker aspects of Yugoslav and Soviet Communism. Better, on this view, for England to continue to try to uphold an image of itself as a ‘benign’ Britain than to let its own unacknowledged demons of malignant, narrow, ‘English’ nationalism escape.

Except, of course, the two things are inseparable parts of the same process: one nation, whether you refer to it as England or Britain, seeking a new identity and purpose in the light of the collapse of former imperial grandeur and of national unity back home; and trying to come to terms with and ‘own’ both the admirable and the dark aspects of a great past. England will have to emerge from this process of re-examination as a distinct national entity because the old Britain with which it was identified is no more – just as Serbia and Russia need to come to terms with being merely Serbia and Russia now that their great multi-national states and dreams of empire are over. And really, we British have so much less to fear from English nationalism than Serbia, Russia and their former compatriots had to fear from Serbian and Russian nationalism. Why? Because those values that the political and cultural elite so desperately seek to uphold as British-not-English really are English values all along that we the English previously invested in the British Empire and state, and which we must now redefine and reapply as part of a more realistic, modest and internationally collaborative existence as the nation of England.

English nationalism and Britishness: two sides of the same coin through which the English are striving towards a new currency of distinct nationhood. But for those values to be constructively reinvested in the real world of today, and not to be a dangerous fantasy recreation and re-enactment of the past, the coin must land on the English side: for too long the flipside of the British ‘heads’, but now having no choice, for our own sanity and survival, than to be the vanquisher of the mythical, delusional British dragon’s ‘tails’.

The Britain that has suppressed and submerged our English identity is increasingly in retreat, despite the best efforts of the establishment to reinvigorate it. Soon, the dragon must be slain and will not needlessly fight again; and under the banner of St. George – the patron saint of suppressed nations – England will reclaim its freedoms and its good faith for the future.

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

11 April 2008

English Nationalism and Christianity: The Case of ‘Jerusalem’

It was reported yesterday that the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, has banned the singing of the hymn Jerusalem in the cathedral on the grounds that ‘the words do not praise God and are too nationalistic’, according to ‘senior clergy’. The words of a spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark, as quoted by the article, were: “The Dean of Southwark does not believe that [the hymn] is to the glory of God and it is not therefore used in private memorial services”. Well, I once had a young work colleague who died in a tragic climbing accident, and Jerusalem was sung at his funeral service; and it was a highly moving and appropriate choice for someone who loved the open country and whose life on earth was snuffed out at about the same age as that of Christ.

Before I proceed, let us remind ourselves of those disputed words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The question I would want to ask of the Dean is what is the link, in his mind, between this hymn being supposedly un-Christian (or ‘not to the glory of God’) and its (English) nationalism? Are the two things separate, or is there an implied link: it’s not Christian because it’s an expression of nationalism?

Firstly, I’d have to say, as a Christian myself, that I have had doubts in the past about whether this anthem was truly Christian in spirit. The defence of Jerusalem that has been made against the Dean’s prohibition of it – that it is a hugely popular hymn and the English people’s choice as national anthem (and mine, by the way) – doesn’t of itself make it, or at least the original Blake poem, a celebration of Christian faith. I’ve tended to think of Blake’s vision as being that of a utopian, socialistic ‘New Jerusalem’ built by human effort and a more humane application of technology rather than the New Jerusalem of faith, which for Christians is consummated at the end of time, even though we do have a duty to begin to build it in this life.

But like any great poem, the words are capable of multiple interpretations, and Jerusalem can be seen as a sort of prophetic, genuinely Christian-inspired vision. The metaphor of the ‘Holy Lamb of God’ (authentic Christian reverence there) literally gracing the green mountains and pleasant pastures of England can be viewed as perfectly consistent with the Christian belief that the risen Christ is with us here and now, and that we have a calling to work in the present day for the establishment of his kingdom on earth. That is a truly inspiring vision relevant as much for Blake’s time (fighting against the grim conditions of life for industrial workers) as for the present day when there is still so much horrific exploitation of the poor and of children throughout the world by big business and greed. So while the poem’s concluding call to build “Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land” can indeed be judged as utopian and philosophically materialist (expressing an essentially secular vision of human progress), it can also be seen as a summons to Christians not to ignore the suffering of their brothers and sisters, and to translate their principles into action in defence of the poor and exploited.

So much for the charge that Jerusalem does not glorify God. If this view rests on very shaky foundations, is the poem’s nationalism the real problem – nationalism in general (and English nationalism in particular?) being construed as inconsistent with true Christian faith and worship? There certainly are ways in which the nationalistic tenor of the poem could be seen as problematic from a Christian perspective. The poem and the hymn have been associated with British imperialism. Although, in the present-day context, it is possible and in my view legitimate to dissociate English nationalism from the British imperialism of the past, there’s no doubt that at the time Blake was writing, and for much of the history since then, it’s been impossible to separate these two strands in the English popular imagination and sentiment. The Victorians thought of the Empire as England’s historic mission: to bring essentially English civilisation and English (‘Protestant’) Christian faith to the supposedly heathen and ‘savage’ millions that had not yet heard the Word or sampled the refined joys of the English way of life.

It surely must be these historical associations with imperialism and prejudice that make the ‘English nationalism’ of the hymn questionable in Dean Slee’s eyes. But on the one hand, even though we (the English, British, Christians, the West) no longer view the culture, religions and races of the former colonies of the Empire as inferior, and requiring conversion and elevation to our superior level, these associations of the poem are still the mark of a past when Christian faith and a sense of mission inspired thousands of English men and women to travel the world with a genuine ambition to spread the Gospel and witness to the Christian way of life – however misguided we now think some of their presuppositions and attitudes were.

Similarly, it is this linkage of English nationalism with the worst expressions of British imperialism, bigotry, racism and indeed nationalism, in the distant and more recent past, that makes many liberals – whether Christian or not – shy away from any idea that celebrating Englishness and the English nation as such could possibly be a good thing. But there’s a form of duplicity or, indeed, ‘bad faith’ that is often at work here: England is used as the scapegoat and as the projection for all that is now thought of as bad and unacceptable in historical Britishness. This then strips ‘modern’ Britishness of all the negative associations with the Empire and xenophobic nationalism so that it can become the symbol of all that is now considered to be good and acceptable about . . . about what exactly? Well, about England, Englishness and the legacy of the British Empire, in actual fact: its internationalist, multi-cultural inclusiveness (like the Empire, including peoples from all over the world in the tolerant, law-abiding English British civilisation); its Christian-derived liberal progressivism and egalitarianism; and its continuing sense of itself as a great nation that stands for true values and the vision of a better world that still looks very much like Blake’s Jerusalem.

So, ‘Englishness = bad’ and ‘Britishness = good’. I doubt very much whether Dean Slee would regard the nationalist connotations of the hymn as nearly so objectionable if one substituted the word ‘Britain’ for ‘England’ in the text of the poem: ‘Britain’s pleasant pastures’ and ‘Britain’s green and pleasant land’. Who could object to those words (well, millions of English people who love the hymn, for a start – but it’s a rhetorical question!)? Suddenly, from a celebration of England’s (don’t you mean Britain’s?) nationalist-imperialist past, it becomes something that can evoke an inclusive, ecological Britain where all are equal, including those of ‘lesser’ social classes, religions or races once ruthlessly exploited by the . . . English.

Well, as I say, the poem is capable of multiple interpretations. And even though I’ve put words into Dean Slee’s mouth in attempting to understand his objections to Jerusalem, it does appear to conform to the liberal and, as I would call it, Britological logic whereby Britishness is viewed as inclusive and universal, while Englishness is thought of as exclusive (xenophobic and elitist) and ‘narrow’. Britishness is inclusive, yes; but only on condition that it excludes from itself any association with Englishness – something that is symbolised perfectly by the Dean’s literal exclusion of this archetypally English hymn from his cathedral.

Of course, this is nonsense; but it’s the way the champions of Britishness think. This view of the world involves a completely fallacious splitting up of the previously indissociable English and British identity whereby, as I’ve said, England is made the projection of all that is bad about our history and culture, and Britain is transformed into the natural inheritor of all the best bits of that history and civilisation. Our history, our culture; our Englishness. We English nationalists must resist this systematic denial of the very English history, traditions and collective endeavour that have created the Britain that the Britologists seek to dissociate from England, and from which they wish to evacuate English self-awareness and identity. And while not denying the mistakes and wrongs that English people have perpetrated on other nations and races through imperialism and an overweaning sense of superiority, we must hold on to and espouse as English those values and virtues that we cherish, and which the Britologists would have us believe are exclusively those of modern Britain: exclusive of England and Englishness, that is.

And for me, at least, those values include Christian faith, and a respect for religious faith in general. It seems to me that what is at stake ultimately in the Dean’s banning of a hymn that is at once very Christian in much of its inspiration (as I argued above) and very English is a quite mistaken dissociation of Christian faith from the English national identity. Does it really matter whether Blake’s poem conforms to either Biblical, Catholic or modern liberal-Christian orthodoxy if the great majority of English people experience it as a hymn of Christian hope for a better future for their country and as a celebration of the blessings that God (or simply good fortune) have bestowed on their beautiful land? National sentiment and traditions are inextricably linked with Christian faith in Christian cultures, precisely; and Jerusalem is an expression of just such a national, English Christian culture.

In an era when the survival of England as both a civic nation and as a Christian country is under severe threat, this Church of England Dean’s condemnation of Jerusalem as a non-Christian hymn is one of the most stupid acts of shooting oneself in the foot imaginable! I for one, as an English patriot and as a Christian, will continue to sing it – with greater gusto than ever.

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

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.

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