Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 April 2009

England Versus Britain: Liberal Christianity Versus Fundamentalist Liberalism

I’ve followed the reaction to the Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s recent sermon on Englishness with great interest. On the whole, the response from the English-nationalist community has been highly positive. This is understandable, as Sentamu’s words add up to a celebration of Englishness, which – he argued – should in fact be formally celebrated by making St. George’s Day a national holiday:

“Let us recognise collectively the enormous treasure that sits in our cultural and spiritual vaults. Let’s draw upon the riches of our heritage and find a sense of purpose for those who are thrashing around for meaning and settling for second best. Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place in a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.”

This makes such a refreshing change from the continuous diet of Britishness that we are incessantly fed by the politicians and the media that Sentamu’s speech is itself something one feels like celebrating. As he himself says, “Englishness is back on the agenda”. Amen to that!

In view of this, it feels somewhat churlish on my part to point out that the Archbishop himself appears at times to have a weak grasp of the distinction between Englishness (and England) and Britishness (and Britain). This is a point I made in a comment to a posting on Sentamu’s sermon in the Cranmer blog, which I reproduce here:

“Archbishop Sentamu does appear to be confused about the distinction between England / Englishness and Britain / Britishness, slipping seamlessly between one and the other in this sermon. For instance, at the very start of his disquisition on the ‘realities of Englishness’, under the heading ‘England’s Debt to Christianity’, the Archbishop writes: ‘Historically, Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by the Christian faith’. Which is it, Archbishop: England or Britain? And which is ‘the nation’?

“And again, under the heading ‘A Loss of Vision’, Sentamu writes: ‘a more serious development over the past century has been a loss of vision for the English people. Central to that loss of vision has been the loss of the British Empire, wherein England played a defining role. . . . As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe the United Kingdom became more self-absorbed’. Again, which is it: England, Britain or the United Kingdom?

“This uncertainty somewhat undermines the important point the Archbishop makes in this section, which is something I very much agree with: ‘there has perhaps never been a better time to re-state this question as to how England might re-discover a noble vision for the future? From my own standpoint I believe that it is vital that England must utilize the challenges posed by the current economic turmoil and in restating the questions posed by Bishop Montefiore, England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’.

“In restating those questions, England must ask them from the standpoint of England, not Britain. Indeed, the ambiguous interdependency between that nation and that state respectively is very much present in Hugh Montefiore’s sermon to which Archbishop Sentamu refers: ‘I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation?’ What is ‘this great country’ and which is ‘a nation’: England or Britain?

“This is not mere semantics but goes to the heart of the question about whether we can rediscover a sense of national identity (‘England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’) and purpose in the post-imperial age. This is especially critical, as Sentamu argues that we need to draw inspiration from that very imperial past to redefine our mission (including Christian mission) and values for the present and future. But can we succeed in defining and celebrating a distinctive Englishness and vision for England if we do not disentangle the core identity of England from that of Britain, as John Sentamu appears not to be able to do? As he writes: ‘Some English people don’t like to say anything about their heritage, for fear of upsetting newcomers. My question to them is simple: Why do you think we came here? There is something very attractive about the United Kingdom. That is why people stay! As a boy in Uganda, I was taught by British missionaries. Just as foreigners brought the Christian Faith to England and the rest of the UK, so British foreigners handed on the baton to me, my family and my forebears. . . . All I am doing now is to remind the English of what they taught me’. All very fine stuff. But who in fact taught him his faith: the English or the British? And which country is it that foreigners come to and like so much: England or the UK?

“As I say, the distinction is far from semantic, as we are living in a political and cultural climate in which England and Englishness are very much being suppressed in favour of Britain and Britishness, and a re-telling of the whole narrative of English history, values and identity is being made as that of Britain. Without defining and affirming an Englishness distinct from Britishness, there will be no English future to build for, the hope for which Archbishop Sentamu expresses at the end of his sermon. Just as he juxtaposes the traditional British patriotic hymn of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with the English hymn of ‘Jerusalem’.

“So perhaps I was right in my previous comment, after all, to say that the CofE needs to work out whether it is primarily English or British in order to be in a position truly to speak for England and express an authentic vision for England – as England”.

Thinking about this further, I wonder if this overlapping of England and Britain in Sentamu’s speech is not so much a case of confusion as a reaffirmation of the very anglo-centricity of traditional Britishness. In my last post in this blog, I described the way in which Gordon Brown’s Britishness agenda draws on English people’s traditional non-differentiation between Englishness and Britishness to enlist their identification with a new Britishness that makes no reference whatsoever to Englishness or England – literally: the words ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are erased from the official lexicon, and are replaced by concepts of Britishness and Britain that take over all the characteristics of their English precursors, including that of the sovereign national identity at the heart of the UK state.

This attempt to appropriate English nationhood and sovereignty to a British state that has hitherto been primarily an instrument of English power has brought about a profound schism in the English-British identity, with many English people coming to reject Britain and Britishness altogether because they no longer seem to represent a vehicle and expression of English-national pride and identity. These latter are what John Sentamu has affirmed in his sermon: but not as being ineradicably at odds with Britain and Britishness but as constituting and epitomising all that is best about Britain – in both its imperial past and its multicultural present.

As this restatement of the positive characteristics of Englishness is a reinstatement of Englishness at the heart of Britishness, it is not surprising that the Archbishop’s list of English values closely resembles similar lists of British values that are regularly trooped out: “fraternity, law, liberty, landscape, language, magnanimity, monarchy, a thirst for knowledge, and a reverence for titles and status. But along with these I would also add, an ability to cope and not make a fuss”. Lists such as these are of course highly disputable, both as typifying the English and in relation to whether they are more aptly extended to all the people of Britain, not just the English. However, the point I would emphasise is that even when adduced as a set of British values, qualities such as these are by default ascribed to the English, as it is the people of England that are intended to embody those values most ‘quintessentially’.

Another question, raised by the Archbishop himself, is whether these things are actual characteristics of English / British people or virtues, as the lists often include qualities with a moral tenor such as fairness, tolerance, honesty and respect for the rule of law. And again, are these ‘virtues’ that the English (and / or British) exemplify to a high degree in some way, or are they mainly characteristics that we hold up as ideals to which we aspire but which we very often fall short of in practice? The same could be said of some of the other qualities commonly termed ‘British values’, which are in reality political ideals or civic virtues, such as: liberty (ironically, a favourite of the oh-so un-libertarian Gordon Brown), equality, fraternity (in the Archbishop’s list), democracy, justice, and hard work. Are these typical characteristics of English / British society or do they merely reflect our aspirations for the way we would like Britain to be – some might say, all the more held up as an ideal the more they are in reality absent, as in the case of liberty alluded to above, or hard work, which Gordon Brown hammers on about increasingly as unemployment rises?

Come what may, whether we hold virtues or values to be more important or revealing about us goes to the heart of what we think should be the fundamental principles by which we live our lives as a nation – however much we do in reality live our lives by those principles. And there’s no doubt that Archbishop Sentamu’s intervention is part of an attempt to reaffirm Christian faith and traditions as the prime mover that has shaped the ‘moral character’ of England, and to reconnect English people to Christianity in the present:

“Whilst it has been suggested by some that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of any consideration of what it means to be English, the question as to where these virtues came from is usually overlooked. It is my understanding that such virtues and those associated with them, which form the fabric of our society have been weaved through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon this society.”

Interviewed for the second part of Matthew D’Ancona’s two-part Radio Four series on Britishness (which is basically a plug for a book on the same theme D’Ancona has co-written with Gordon Brown – play-back available only till Tuesday 14 April), the soon-to-retire Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor also emphasised the precedence of Christian virtues over secular values. This was, O’Connor explained, because virtues were unchanging principles that give order and meaning to people’s lives, while secular values are continually evolving in line with changes in social mores and material circumstances. A solid core of belief in timeless virtues thus provides a sense of rootedness in a world that can otherwise appear alarmingly mutable and unstable. From a Catholic perspective, these universal principles by definition transcend the individual nations that attempt to live by those principles. All the same, one implication of Cardinal O’Connor’s words was clearly that the principles of Christian faith make at once a higher and deeper claim to our allegiance than the merely civic and secular values that Brown and D’Ancona identify as the founding principles for a multi-cultural 21st-century Britain.

What was even more thought-provoking was D’Ancona’s interview with the leading cleric in the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This was firstly because of what it left out. On the preceding Sunday, on the Radio Four programme of the same name, they played an excerpt of D’Ancona’s interview with Williams where the author was trying to get the Archbishop to talk of the ways in which Christianity had helped mould Britain’s ‘national identity’. Williams deftly side-stepped this trap by agreeing that Christianity had been formative of “England’s national identity, let alone that of Britain” right from the very start of England’s history as a nation, when it helped to bring together the different Anglo-Saxon tribes into a unified kingdom – a history which Archbishop Sentamu also makes reference to in his sermon. So Rowan Williams refused to allow the Church of England to be used to support D’Ancona’s Britishness agenda by confirming a narrative whereby England’s Christian history had been one of many strands contributing to the development of something such a British national identity and set of values today – which would in fact confine the Church and England to the status of historical entities, rather than as continuing communities with beliefs and traditions distinct from those of modern secular Britain.

As I say, D’Ancona’s interview on the Britishness programme itself was revealing through its omissions, one of which was this very excerpt, which was conveniently edited out of the final broadcast. The part of the interview that D’Ancona chose to focus on in the programme was where Williams was making out a case in favour of the Church of England retaining its established status. Williams argued that this actually helps to anchor a multi-cultural society as it provides a solid foundation of core values, mutual respect, and a model for interaction between all the different ethnic groups – whether or not they fully subscribe to the religious basis for those principles. Indeed, Williams maintained, it was his experience that those of other faiths and of none often told him they valued the established status of the Church of England for this very reason. Clearly, those coming to England – especially those with a strong religious background – value the fact that there is a religious voice and an ‘official’ faith at the heart of the British Establishment. This corresponds to the experience of their own cultures, where there is often a formal, state religion, or certainly a majority religion; and it also constitutes something like a formal set of fundamental English beliefs that enables them to better understand how some of their own cultural and religious practices might conflict with English traditions, and to negotiate a path of integration into British society based on respect for its most deep-rooted norms and values.

Conversely, the absence of a strong religious centre to English and British life can engender a lack of respect and even fear towards our society on the part of migrants, which can lead migrant communities to retreat into their own ghettoes, and may in extremis even contribute towards fanatical jihadist ideas that Islam should become the dominant faith of Britain. Similarly, a lack of a grounding in true Christian principles – including loving the stranger and welcoming those of other faiths from a position of security in one’s own faith – can increase misunderstanding and hostility to those of other faith traditions, obscuring the fact that there is often more in common between people of different faiths (at least with respect to ethics and social values) than between those of any faith and those of none. This touches upon what Archbishop Sentamu means when he writes about ‘magnanimity’ as both an English characteristic and a Christian virtue. This goes beyond the mere tolerance that Gordon Brown and the Britologists spout on about, a quality which can imply division and lack of engagement with those of different backgrounds that one is tolerating. By contrast, magnanimity implies an openness towards the stranger, and a proactive effort to engage with them, to share with them what one has and is, and together to create community.

Matthew D’Ancona insidiously characterised Rowan Williams’s thoughtful reflection on the value of an established faith as ‘clever’ – implying that it was a sort of casuistic attempt to make out that the Church of England could provide a more pluralist, tolerant and even liberal basis for a modern multi-cultural society than the form of secular liberalism that D’Ancona clearly wishes to set up as the fundamental credo of a 21st-century British ‘nation’. This was clear from the end of the Britishness programme – immediately after the edited interview with Rowan Williams – where D’Ancona himself goes into sermon mode, arguing that it should be possible for secular British society to agree a set of fundamental moral and philosophical principles (“lines in the sand”, as he put it) that are non-negotiable. These would constitute a similar set of core British values to that which has hitherto been provided by the Church of England (as Rowan Williams would argue) and fulfilling the same sort of function – providing an ‘official’ statement along the lines of: ‘this is Britain; this is who we are and what we believe’ – enabling those of other backgrounds who settle here to understand and respect British society, and adapt to it.

The difference is that these new values are profoundly secular and liberal; and D’Ancona’s new British nation-state would undoubtedly be secular in its constitution – not an established religion in sight. Indeed, I would characterise these values as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘absolutist’ liberalism. For instance, two examples of non-negotiable values that D’Ancona skirted past in his final flourish were gay rights and women’s rights. No objection whatsoever on principle. But the anti-religious thrust of D’Ancona’s argument suggested that what we would end up with is more of what we have already endured under New Labour: certain so-called gay and women’s rights overriding and even obliterating the rights of religious groups to believe and do otherwise, and to preach and teach against certain practices – at least, from a government-sponsored pulpit. The ‘right’ of gay couples to adopt children taking precedence over the conscientious objection of Christian adoption agencies, forcing them to close; the ‘right’ of Lesbian couples to both use IVF to conceive children and be registered on the birth certificate as the genetic parents (even if neither of them actually are), obliterating the right of the child to a father; the ‘right’ of women to abortion, to the extent that – and this is quite conceivable – medical staff who refuse to support or carry out abortions could be prosecuted or struck off.

These and more are the kind of ‘British values’ that D’Ancona and Brown would have as the underpinning of their cherished ideal of a ‘Nation of Britain’ – indeed, Brown voted for them all, plus hybrid human-animal embryos, in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where he came very close to forcing Christian conscientious objectors among the Labour ranks to support the government or else lose the whip. This is ‘tolerance’ of extremes of Brave New World social, and indeed genetic, engineering pushed to such a degree that it tips over into intolerance towards those who dare to disagree out of adherence to more traditional beliefs and models of society. This is liberal fundamentalism, which relativises any claims to absolute truth, and any statements of fundamental right and wrong, other than its own.

And this is a Britishness finally stripped of any fundamental affiliation to the Christian faith and tradition. The English Christian faith and tradition, that is. To tear the English heart out of Britishness, you have to de-christianise Britain; and to de-christianise Britain, you have strip out its English centre. And that is because England is a Christian nation. The large majority of English people may no longer attend church services on a regular basis; but English mores and the English character have been moulded by the faith over centuries. And an England in touch with its roots is an England that recognises how much it owes to the Christian tradition.

Perhaps, then, the reawakening of a distinctly English national consciousness will also lead to a re-evaluation, indeed a renewed valuing, of England’s Christian character and heritage – its virtues even, and its vices. If so, the Church of England may feel increasingly empowered to speak out on behalf of England and in England’s name, and so provide the moral leadership that is necessary in the fight to resist both the total secularisation and the ‘Britishisation’ of our proud and Christian land.

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