Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 June 2007

British Values Or Scottish Values?

  Tuesday night this week was Andrew Marr Night on BBC Two. I’ve missed most of the BBC journalist’s History of Modern Britain series – just one of a whole wave of programmes recently that have been carrying out broad-sweeping reviews of aspects of British culture, history and politics. Unfortunately, I caught only the end of Tuesday’s programme, the final one in the series. Just in time to see Mr Marr, London skyline behind him, extolling the virtues of Britain as the former centre of empire in which now all the peoples of the world have converged, making it a microcosm of the global economy and culture. Concluding words to the effect that anyone who has the fortune to be born in Britain is truly blessed. Amen.

I did, however, manage to catch all of Mr Marr’s The Age of Genius later on in the evening: history of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the contributions made by the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith. Mr Marr concluded his interesting account by urging us to revisit the great Enlightenment thinkers and reignite our passion for their rational-progressive values, which was all the more necessary given the threat our civilisation faces from religious extremism and violence. One particularly lyrical passage celebrated the fact that the American Revolution and Constitution had drawn their inspiration from Hume. Did I catch a certain tinge of regret that Hume’s original vision of a federal Commonwealth including Britain and America, with an elected president and a constitution based on rational, secular principles, had not been realised? Certainly, the rallying call at the end of the programme suggested that we might now wish to re-evaluate the relevance of such constitutional ideas for Britain today . . ..

These two programmes helped to consolidate my thinking about the nature of Scottish engagement in Britology: to what extent is the emphasis on British values as the agent of social cohesion and national integration shaped by the fact some of its principal exponents are Scottish? Certainly, the leaders of our main political parties are all Scottish or of Scottish descent. GB [Gordon Brown] and Menzies Campbell are obviously so (their accent betraying them straight away). David Cameron, too, not only has a Scottish name but a Scottish father and paternal family. Blair, of course, also has a strong Scottish background. On top of which, all the parties have increasingly converged around both social liberalism and free-market economics – philosophies which Andrew Marr would doubtless trace back to the founding fathers, David Hume and Adam Smith respectively, whom he discussed on Tuesday night. I even heard Cameron utter the ‘P-word’ (‘progressive’) in relation to the Conservative Party on Tuesday . . ..

But my intention here is not to mount some sort of critique of Scottish Enlightenment liberalism as manifested by the parties today. I’m interested merely in pointing out that this philosophical and Scottish background does inevitably inform the Britology of these persons. It’s an obvious point in one way: Scottish commentators and politicians who wish to exercise any meaningful influence or power over the future of England have no alternative other than to play the Britain card. There’s actually no language available to them other than Britology; otherwise, people would inevitably ask, ‘who does this Scot think (s)he is telling us what values we should profess and how to run our affairs?’

By this, I’m not trying to imply that the only interest that motivates such Scottish politicians, thinkers and writers is that of wanting to wield some disproportionate and undemocratic influence over the people of England. On the contrary, it is evident that many of them feel profoundly attached to England, and concerned for its well-being and security. But, to use an analogy drawn from another area of human experience, theirs is a love (for England) that dares not speak its name. They cannot celebrate English values, people, history, institutions and traditions as English, because of the resentful reaction they’d receive (as described above), and because of the incredulity and indignation this would provoke from their more nationalist-minded countrymen. And so the only language in which they can express their engagement in English affairs is that of Britology: British values, British people, British nation.

Perhaps it would be better, and perhaps this may one day be possible, for anglophile Scots such as these – resident and working in England, their home – to refer to themselves as ‘Scottish Englanders’, in the same way that I have expressed the hope that other inhabitants of our country should also refer to themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British: Black English, Asian English, Irish English; and not forgetting English English (English without a claim to any supplementary nationality or ethnicity) and of course British English (an ethnically British English national; a category which could also be used to describe Scottish English or Welsh English people, for instance). Andrew Marr’s vision of Britain as a marvellous melting pot of different races, religions and nationalities is not that far from my own. The difference is that, as a Scot, he’s constrained to call it British; whereas, the reality he’s referring to is predominantly that of England and of the global culture that has sprung from her.

But there is one important aspect whereby the Scottish Britologists (or closet anglophiles, if you wish) are motivated by the wish to mark the English project that is Britain with a distinctively Scottish stamp: to take Britain as a whole in a direction that perhaps appeals more to Scottish than English hearts. And this is where the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment is felt. Marr’s appeal to Hume, as an exemplar of the ‘British’ values that could serve us well in today’s climate, is obviously associated with leanings towards secularism, rationalism and republicanism. Marr clearly felt sympathy towards Hume’s anti-clericalism and favour of a society whose founding principles were those of reason rather than supposedly ‘irrational’ faith: Enlightenment principles versus irrational religion-based movements – read Islamism but also conservative, establishment Christianity. By overthrowing the English monarchy, you would be killing two birds with one stone: creating the basis for a republic, and removing the Church from the heart of the constitution and the foundations of our civic values.

I’m not accusing Andrew Marr of republicanism (maybe he is a republican, I don’t know). But it’s true that a constitutional republic is the form of state that most closely matches Hume’s thinking. And in such an egalitarian framework, Britain would belong to all its citizens equally, perhaps for the first time. There would be no need for Scots to feel like second-class citizens – or second-class Englishmen, for ever slightly removed from the centre of power. Britain, and with it England, would indeed belong equally to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and all the other nationalities, races, creeds and philosophies of the world that have made it their home. But perhaps not to the English, at least not in any special way that defines who the English are, and gives them a history and a sense of mission for the future.

Such a United Britain might well appeal to our (Scottish) Enlightenment minds; but would it speak equally to – dare I name the word? – the English soul?

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