Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 August 2011

England: A Tale Of Two Countries

What is the greatest division in England today? Is it the famous North-South Divide? Is it the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How about England’s world-famous class system? Or the division between rioters and non-rioters?

My answer is that it’s none of those things and, at the same time, all of them. But the biggest division in England today, and one which subsumes the others, is that between England and Britain, and between the English and the British.

Who are the English? Well, the rioting English – and let’s not pretend, as the British establishment has tried to, that these were UK riots – live mostly in what we shall call the ‘inner shitties’: shit, gang-infested areas and housing estates; attending shit schools that leave them ignorant and under-equipped for the modern work market; often in shit jobs on the minimum wage, if they’ve got work at all; and living in crappy social and physical environments where survival, and getting what you can get whenever and however you can get it, is just the norm.

Not all of the English live in the inner shitties, of course. Let’s not forget about the ‘country-shite’, where most of the low-paid, unskilled work is now carried out by Eastern European migrants; where housing costs are so prohibitive that families working in the country can no longer afford to live there; and where the situation has become so desperate for many farmers that they have the highest suicide rate of any section of the English population. But the riots were urban and weren’t about the country(side) – although they were about the country (England).

Where do the British live? Well, they were on their expensive foreign holidays when the trouble broke out. The English go on foreign trips, too, of course, though less now than they used to a few years ago, the Spanish Costa being the destination of choice. The British, by contrast, are a bit more selective and cosmopolitan in their holiday destinations: France and Tuscany, rather than Spain; and if you must do the Med, then at least make it somewhere a bit more exclusive than the major Spanish and Greek resorts – I don’t know, like Corfu, for instance, favoured by our wealthy chancellor.

When back in Britain, the British tend to live in the better areas that generally were not directly affected by the riots, with the exception of Ealing – though that’s near to the ganglands of Hanwell: Kensington and Chelsea, for instance; or Muswell Hill, where the TV producers and executives congregate, rather than neighbouring, ransacked Wood Green and Tottenham. From their comfortable islands of prosperity, it’s easy for the British to project the riots as a symptom of others’ failed morality, as these are depths of behaviour to which they’d like to think they’d never stoop and will probably never have to. From a safe distance, the British can generously characterise the violence and criminality as the expression of ‘sick’ parts of ‘our society’, for which they’ll set about prescribing remedies, including more ‘robust’ policing, and law and order measures that will keep the rioting English away from their doorsteps: a sort of ‘kettling’ and ghettoising on a grand scale.

In an excoriating attack yesterday on the hypocrisy of the British establishment in relation to the riots, the columnist Peter Oborne recounted the story of a posh dinner party he’d attended in West London, where the guests were talking of the ‘north-south divide’. He took them to mean the divisions between the north and south of England but eventually realised they were flippantly referring to the areas north and south of Kensington High Street. For him, this was an example of how the wealthy economic and political elite of Britain increasingly live in their own bubble, detached from the poverty and deprivation in many parts of England and their own cities, and feeling little sense of real ‘responsibility’ (Cameron’s favourite word) either for causing England’s social problems or for doing anything meaningful about them.

In fact, if there’s one thing the riots appeared to demonstrate, it was that there is much less of a north-south divide than is often acknowledged – in England, that is, as opposed to the divide between Britain and England. The riots, as a popular, on-the-ground phenomenon, spread like wildfire from the south of England to the north but did not spread across England’s northern and western borders: clearly, an England-wide and English-national phenomenon, with young English people throughout the country expressing solidarity with each other, of however crazed and destructive a kind, and wreaking mayhem for the same reasons.

And what were those reasons? Can ‘mindless’ violence, as the British termed it, have a rational cause; or can senseless destruction have a meaning? It’s too easy to jump to conclusions and provide ready-made explanations that often tell us more about the person offering the analysis than the events they’re trying to explain away. Isn’t the point, precisely, that actions that appear meaningless, to the British at least, express the fact that, for many English people, their lives themselves are without meaning?

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being devoid of meaning, the lives of many urban English people have come to be seen – by themselves as much as by the British – as stripped of any intrinsic value. The only things that have any value for them are valuable things: merchandise that can be bought and sold for a high price. And if the rioters’ humanity has been debased by a life of humiliating relative poverty and feeling personally under-valued, then it is not so surprising that they in turn strip out the shops in their neighbourhoods that are the repository of the valuable items they think will give them a surrogate worth they don’t hold in themselves, and that they’ll leave those shops gutted: visual metaphors for the impoverishment of their own hearts and souls.

Feeling devoid of value also means lacking a narrative. Many commentators have spoken of the terrifying fact that the rioters appeared to feel they had nothing to lose in their brazen confrontation with the forces of law and order, and their wanton acts of violence. Feeling you have nothing to lose means you have no hope in a better future: no narrative about your life that gives you a reasonable expectation of making progress and gaining some of the good things in life – education; a fulfilling career; a home; a decent family life; a reasonable standard of living. It’s these things, these terribly ordinary, mundane things, that many of the rioters feel they have no prospect of as well as no past experience of. This is what life has become for many urban English: rubbish schools; crap jobs or no jobs, and little dignity in work; crap housing, as decent homes have been priced way beyond the purse of the poorer sections of society; broken families; and declining living standards. It’s enough to provoke a riot! Oh yes, it just did.

The British, by contrast, can afford to send their children to good schools; or, if they can’t or won’t send them to private schools, they can afford to move to the areas where the top-performing publicly funded schools are located, thus pricing working-class people out of the housing market. The British have an expectation, indeed a sense of entitlement, to decent careers in the professions, business and the public sector. They can afford to give their children a better start in life, more expensive things (the latest laptops, smartphones, designer goods), and enjoyable and educational experiences. And if they can’t always actually be there with the children because they’re working long hours or their marriage has broken up, then they can at least afford better child care and material compensations for the children. And as the pressures on middle-class incomes mount, the pressures to get around the problems through little dodges such as tax evasion, expenses claims, back-handers and bankers’ bonuses also increase. But as ‘we’re all in it together’, this starts to become morally acceptable, even normal.

Now clearly, it’s simplistic to make out that all the ‘winners’ in English society are British while all the ‘losers’ are English. Many middle- and upper-middle-class people in England think of themselves as English and view their country as England. However, the narrative, or even meta-narrative, they tell for their lives – past and future – is much more likely to be British. That is, the account they give of themselves, and the meaning they give to their lives and identity, are far more likely to involve seeing themselves as included and playing a positive role in ‘British society’ and a ‘British nation’, and hence ultimately as being British.

Why is this so? Because ‘Britain’ represents the established political and economic order in England, and those who feel they have a stake in that order, and have made a success of their lives by adapting to it, are more likely to identify with it and give it their allegiance. The British narrative is of a country called Britain – or its carelessly bandied synonym ‘the UK’ – where it’s possible to be successful by playing the game: making sure you can get into the right schools, the right universities, the property ladder in the right areas, the right careers in the most promising economic sectors, and picking the right partner in life to be the mother or father of your children, and support each other’s career goals. And British politicians cater to that market – that demographic – rightly concluding they will be unelectable if they don’t help create conditions in which this British ethos and this British dream can prosper; because it’s mainly the British voters on whom election results depend and who, in England at least, bother to turn out to vote because they believe they have a stake in the result.

So the British narrative is one of success, where success and social inclusion is defined mainly in economic terms: being a successful agent in the market economy – indeed, in the market society. By contrast, the English narrative is one of failure: a story of break-down – economic, social and moral. Or rather, the English narrative is one that is set in the past tense only: one that can only look back at what we had, or believe we had, in the past; not one that looks forward to any future. It’s a narrative of exclusion, precisely because the discourse of inclusion in the successful society is British. Indeed, the British identity can be said to be ‘inclusive’, in the multi-cultural sense, mainly because immigrants who do prosper in England rightly conclude that they owe their success to Britain: to the British economic and political order. What immigrant would want to be proud to be English when the English have been systematically stripped of pride in their own nation?

Perhaps, then, rather than saying that England is a ‘tale of two countries’, as I suggested in my title, it would be more accurate to say that England is a country of two tales: two narratives that mutually exclude each other – the British narrative of success and meaning, which systematically denies any positive English story, relegating the English to the scrap heaps of history and of their own burning cities.

But at the same time, the British and the English are the two sides of the same coin: the acquisitive greed of the rioting English is but the naked face of the materialist, individualistic greed of the British, with their debased currency of economic success at all cost. The madness we saw on English streets is but a reflection of the madness of a Britain that has sold out to selfish materialism, and the success and entitlement culture.

In short, the madness of our English streets is the bedlam you get when the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

3 July 2011

The Demography and Economics of England and London: Time for a separation?

This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced its estimates for the UK’s population for the year to June 2010. This revealed that the number of people living in the UK rose by a staggering 470,000 over this period, to 62,262,000. Net migration (the difference between the number of people immigrating into the UK and the number of those emigrating) in fact accounted for less than half of the population growth: 230,000. (Well, that’s OK then.) The majority of the growth resulted from increased birth rates (797,000) – including from more inward migration of women of child-bearing age – and a reduced death rate.

What the headline figures and the media headlines didn’t comment on was the distribution of the population growth across the different countries and regions of the UK. However, these figures are available from the ONS, and they paint an interesting picture. According to the ONS, the estimated resident population of England rose by 424,300 (or 0.8%) to 52,234,000 in the 12 months to June 2010. This means that 90% of the UK’s estimated population growth in the year to June 2010 occurred in England, whereas England’s population as a whole constituted 83.8% of the UK’s population at June 2009. In other words, England is bearing a disproportionate share of the UK’s massive rise in population. The ONS does not break down England’s population growth by ‘natural’ causes (i.e. births vs. deaths) and net migration. But it’s a fair bet that as 90% of the UK total relates to England, around half or just under half of England’s population growth resulted from net migration.

This has clearly been a long-term trend as another set of data from the ONS suggests (this set looks at permanent residents and excludes those who are here only temporarily). Here, the English population at September 2010 is put at 51,363,000. Of this total, 6,472,000 people were not born in the UK: 12.6%. By comparison, only around 6.4% of the population of Scotland is estimated to have been born outside of the UK, while only 5.7% of the N. Irish population (much of whom presumably come from the Republic) and 5% of Welsh residents were born outside of the UK.

In terms of UK citizenship, of the 51.36 million English residents, around 4.02 million (7.8%) are estimated to be foreign nationals. (The difference, obviously, is that the remaining 4.8% of the English population that were not born in the UK have subsequently become UK citizens.) By comparison, 4.9% of the Scottish population comprises foreign nationals, versus 3.9% of Northern Irish residents and 3.2% of Wales’ inhabitants.

These figures clearly demonstrate that England has been impacted by population growth and net migration to a much greater extent than the UK’s other nations, and over a long time span. People will draw their own conclusions from these figures and use them at the service of their own agendas. But they at least put English people’s concerns about immigration into a clearer context: we actually have more grounds for concern than our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Having said that, these perceptions are distorted by the situation in London – of which, more below.)

England is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. I make it that England’s resident population of 52.2 million gives it a population density of 1,038 people per square mile. According to Wikipedia’s list of countries by population density (which curiously does not break down the UK figure by its four main nations but does include separate figures for Jersey and Guernsey, for instance), that would put England in 31st place. However, most of the countries or dependent territories with greater population densities are either small islands or territories that mainly comprise a single dense urban conglomeration, such as Macau, Monaco or Singapore, to name the top three. The only countries with any significant land mass ahead of England are Bangladesh (2,919 people per square mile), South Korea (1,261) and the Netherlands (1,041). And the Netherlands has only 32% of England’s land mass: so we’re as densely populated as the Netherlands but on more than triple the scale.

By contrast, according to the same Wikipedia, Scotland‘s population density is a mere 171 people per square mile, Wales‘ is 361, and even little Northern Ireland‘s is only 315 – which would make them (if you add them in as separate countries to Wikipedia’s list), the equal-142nd-, 80th- and 94th-most populous countries / territories in the world respectively. (Just for inclusiveness, Cornwall‘s population density, according to Wikipedia, is 390 per square mile: 79th.)

Population density is all well and good, but it’s not in itself harmful, at least not to economic prosperity, as the territories towards the top of the Wikipedia list are generally among the most wealthy and fast-growing in the world (Bangladesh excepted). The same might have been said about England a few years ago. Perhaps it’s not so bad, after all, to be a densely populated small island dominated by a single urban conglomeration. But it would probably be more accurate to say that even in the ill-fated ‘boom-without-bust’ New Labour years, it wasn’t so much England that was the prosperous small-island territory overshadowed by a single metropolis, but that London, the South-East and the M4 corridor on their own were the ‘island of prosperity’ that should be compared with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, the economy of ‘Londengland’, should we call it, was and still is rather similar to those of Singapore, Hong Kong and indeed Monaco: dominated by international finance and global trading links; a playground of the mega-rich; and a local economy fuelled by property speculation, and propped up by easy access to tax havens (which are also, strangely, among the most densely populated territories in the Wikipedia list) and other tax-avoidance scams.

According to the ONS, the permanently resident population of Greater London at September 2010 was 7.76 million. Of these, a staggering 34.4%
were not born in the UK, while 21.7% were non-UK nationals. And bear in mind, these figures relate to longer-term residents (i.e. people living in London for a year or more) and therefore exclude London’s transient population, much of which is also non-British. No wonder that whenever I go to London, which is quite frequently, I feel as though I’m in a foreign country: to a great extent, I am.

If we use the 7.76 million population figure, I calculate that Greater London has a population density of 12,792 per square mile, which would put London as a stand-alone entity in fifth place in the global league table, behind Hong Kong but ahead of Gibraltar. [Funny how so many of the most densely populated territories are present or former British colonies – including, arguably, England itself.] Conversely, if you exclude the population data for London from the English totals, you find that the proportion of the population not born in the UK declines to 8.7% (versus 6.4% in Scotland). Similarly, excluding London, the proportion of England’s population that are not UK citizens drops to only 5.4% (versus 4.9% in Scotland). And in terms of population density, without London, England’s total drops to 877 per square mile. This is still relatively high (it’s on a par with Japan) but a lot lower than the total including London. But bear in mind that this latter figure excludes shorter-term, very often non-UK-national, residents.

To summarise, if you look at England without London, the share of the population that is either non-UK-born or non-UK-national is much lower than the overall England totals, and is nearer to the levels in the other UK nations. Similarly, population density is also a lot lower: still high but not at the crisis level it appears to have reached if you include London. Looking at this the other way round, London is quite exceptional for England, and for the UK as a whole, in terms of the level of immigration it has absorbed and its population density.

In the light of the demographic and economic differences between London and the rest of the UK, it is not really surprising that the idea of London becoming ‘independent’, or at least more fully devolved, from the rest of the UK has recently been voiced (see here and here). Would it in fact make sense to make London a sort of semi-autonomous city state whose relationship with the rest of the UK would be akin to that of Hong Kong with China, or Monaco with France? We could let London do what it does best and be what it wants to be: a global city and magnet to finance, creative industries and people from all over the world, with a unique international culture – and a haven for super-rich tycoons seeking to avoid taxation in their countries of origin?

One of the articles outlining the case for London’s ‘independence’ even suggested that the rest of England could keep the royal family while London became a republic. On the contrary, I think it would be much more to London’s advantage to retain the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster as the seat of its government, while the rest of England could opt to become a republic if it wished to. Those old trappings of empire are a massive draw for the global travelling classes; and it would be fitting as a symbol of London’s transition to a fully ‘non-English’ British territory, inhabited by people from across the world, if the city retained at its heart some reminders of the former Empire that had first conquered the world in order subsequently to be taken over by it. London would become just another of those small but super-rich territories to whose confines the former riches of Empire had shrunk – leaving England free from British-imperial and Westminster rule to pursue its own destiny. The British royal family would then be one of those cardboard cut-out monarchies from diminutive European principalities and duchies such as Monaco and Liechtenstein. Indeed, London could even become the ‘British Kingdom of London’: the one territory in the former UK that retained Britishness as its national identity – leaving England to be England at last.

Of course, this is all a bit of a flight of fantasy, but there’s a serious point behind it: the economy and demographics of London and the South-East do distort those of the rest of England, which is a very different country from London. And London not only distorts the economic and demographic realities but also the perception of them, which is shaped by a London-centric politics and media. London is multicultural, international ‘Britain’ in a way that no other part of England or the UK is. And because London thinks of itself as the capital and centre of a continuing, and indeed continuous, British realm and historic legacy, it cannot get its head round the idea that, beyond London’s confines, there is in fact a diverse land of several nations that do not always look towards London as the template for their society, as the embodiment of their values or as the legitimate seat of power.

As a node of international trade, travel, culture and finance, it is inevitable that London sees itself as the capital of a country called ‘Britain’, because ‘Britain’ is the UK’s international brand: it’s the way ‘this country’ packages and markets itself across the world. And the UK state fosters a ‘British’-national identity for its – and even more so London’s – ethnic minorities in part because of the internationality associated with the British tag. This means that ‘British’ can serve as the label for the civic national identity of UK citizens, while ‘English’ (and ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Northern Irish’) is relegated to the status of ‘ethnic Britishness’. In this way, London is the capital of a civic, multi-ethnic Britain of which the ‘English’ or the ‘ethnic British’ are only one ethnic group among others – admittedly still the majority population in London, but for how long?

My point is that London, at least in official parlance, does not see itself as the capital of a country called England: it may be a part of England but it is also apart from England. And if the capital city that rules England increasingly neither sees itself, nor is seen, as ‘English’, how does this affect the way England is governed? Shouldn’t London’s rule over England be severed? And is that a condition for England to be free to govern itself?

I do seriously think that England will not be able to break free from the British political and cultural establishment’s stranglehold on government, the economy, values and perceptions of national identity until the ties between London and the rest of England are radically loosened. Quite what form this separation would take is hard to predict; plus it is up to the English people, not the British government, to decide what should happen to its historic capital. One possible solution is a London devolved from within England, which in turn would be part of a UK of federal nations, if not an independent state. Alternatively, London could become to all intents and purposes a separate federal UK nation (the site of the continuing ‘British nation’, as I suggested above), generating wealth and commerce that would contribute income to the UK’s coffers for reserved matters such as defence and macro-economics, but with most of its tax revenues retained for its own public services and investment. In short, London could become England’s, and the UK’s, Hong Kong.

I’m not sure that many Londoners would particularly like their city’s transformation into a capital for global trade and business – but that’s the way it’s going, and that’s the way many in the City, the media and the corridors of power would like it to go. But should England continue to be dragged along in London’s wake and thrall? Can we define a different path for England if the agenda is for ever dictated by London’s perceived and vested interests?

England is a different country from London. Is it time for London to be a different country from England?

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.

24 August 2010

Britishness and the Niqab: Walls Of Separation

There was an interesting item on British women who choose to start wearing the niqab – the Islamic full veil – on last night’s Newsnight programme on BBC2 (available for the next week on iPlayer). I say ‘British women’ advisedly, as the three young women interviewed persistently referred to themselves as ‘British’ and never once as ‘English’, despite the fact that their accents betrayed an English background.

The women claimed that it was entirely consistent with their identity and rights as British-Muslim women to wear the niqab. But it would have sounded incongruous if they had said wearing the niqab was an expression of English identity. Another, older, woman interviewed, who now wears only the hijab (head covering) but used also to wear the niqab as a young woman, argued that the niqab dangerously and needlessly reinforces divisions between Muslims and the rest of British society (yes, not even she uttered the ‘E’ word) at a time when tensions between the two communities are running high.

For me, it seemed rather that the niqab-wearing women featured in the programme were hiding behind their Britishness just as much as they were hiding behind the niqab. Both are an expression of difference and separation from English society and identity. This is an illustration of how British multi-culturalism (discussed in my previous post), which is the doctrine that makes plausible the women’s claim that the niqab is an authentic expression of British identity, in fact reinforces the divisions between migrant communities and cultures, on the one hand, and mainstream English society on the other. If the women had tried to appeal to the Englishness of the niqab, there would have been no hiding place.

This does not mean that women should not have the right to wear the niqab and the burka in public. Indeed, the whole point about those garments is that they are what such women choose to wear in public as opposed to at home, when one of the women said she wears Western clothes. I thought that was a rather striking admission, which should have been brought out more in the interview. English people would perhaps be less suspicious of devout Muslims if they were more aware of the extent to which, in their private lives, Muslim families identify with aspects of Western – and specifically, English – culture. Wearing the niqab could then perhaps be seen as an authentic expression of English-Muslim identity – a means by which young English Muslim women try to negotiate the contradictions of upholding their faith in a highly visual and sexualised Western culture – rather than as an aggressive assertion of a British-not-English Muslim identity.

Indeed, it was significant that all of these women, including the older one, had chosen to take up the niqab when they were at an age when non-Muslim English young women would be exploring their sexuality and having their first relationships. ‘Taking the veil’, as used to be the term for Christian women entering the convent, is a way for such women to abstract themselves from the pressures to have multiple sexual relationships, and to make themselves attractive, slim and sexy, that many Western women find so oppressive. I’m sure many English women would identify with that and would be more sympathetic if the Muslim women could be more honest about the psycho-sexual and cultural aspects to their decision to wear the niqab, rather than emphasising the fact that it was purely an expression of their faith, which non-Muslims could not relate to.

Ironically, after watching the Newsnight interview, I then listened to the ‘Word of Mouth’ programme on BBC Radio Four, which was all about the importance of body language as a complement to speech. The programme came to mixed conclusions: emphasising the importance of body language, in that we do all use visual cues and associations to make sense of what other people are saying to us, although voice and words alone can convey much of the same information and strength of emotional expression. In a sense, women who wear the niqab and burka are removing themselves from body language and making themselves pure voice. Indeed, the women implied that wearing the niqab had enabled them to find their ‘true voice’: to be respected and listened to for who they are – as British-Muslim women.

The question, though, is can they be truly known and loved not just by, in and for themselves, but by the English people around them as anything beyond the public wall of their British-Muslim identity: as women with a name, a face and bodily expression? As one of us?

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.

29 October 2009

Multi-cultural Britannia

As a kind of neat synthesis of and addendum to my previous three posts, relating to multi-culturalism and the BBC One Show’s failure to say ‘England’ when England is meant, I stumbled across this One Show article about ‘multicultural Roman Britain’.

The report, by black presenter Angellica Bell, focuses on the discovery in York of a fourth-century skull which, an expert explains, must have been that of a black-white mixed-race woman. And not a slave, either; but a wealthy person with a comfortable lifestyle – perhaps the wife of a Roman soldier stationed in the city.

But the bit that I find really hilarious is that the whole report is framed at the beginning by shots of Hadrian’s Wall: the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and the original border between Caledonia (Scotland) and Roman Britannia. This makes it quite clear that when the report that follows refers to Roman ‘Britain’, it actually means what we – or some of us – now like to call England (and Wales): the territory that constituted the Roman province of Britannia. Later, the report refers to York as a vital northern fortress city for Roman ‘Britain’; but in fact, it was a frontier city only by virtue of the fact that the Britain of that time corresponds to the England of now.

From a single skull, the report extrapolates to a picture of a highly multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan Roman Britannia, which is then explicitly compared with the multi-cultural character of ‘Britain’s’ cities today. But the report has gone out of its way to indicate that the ‘territorial extent’ of that multi-cultural Britain – then as now – is actually England (and Wales). As much as to say that ‘”Britain” has always been multi-cultural, even from Roman times’, i.e. from before the Anglo-Saxon invasions that transformed it temporarily into an apparently mono-cultural and mono-ethnic ‘England’.

And so the ‘multi-cultural Britain’ that has replaced the distinct, homogeneous, national and cultural identity of England under New Labour is projected by the programme back to pre-English times, making it appear somehow more authentic and historically rooted than the English tribe itself – now seen as just one of the many ethnic groups that have migrated to ‘Britain’ over the centuries and continue to do so. And yet what is referenced by the term ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is England only.

No wonder the One Show can’t seem to be able to say ‘England’ in relation to present-day English matters: for them, it seems, the country has only ever been ‘Britain’.

25 October 2009

The rise of the BNP is a consequence of New Labour’s de-anglicisation of Britain

The liberal political establishment and the British National Party uphold two opposing visions of Britain as a nation. The former, as typified by New Labour’s approach in government, involves the systematic stripping out from (Great) Britain of its traditional national core: England. The BNP’s conception of Britain, on the other hand, is actually closer to one of the traditional models of the UK as a nation composed of four constituent countries, of which England is the heartland. The BNP is careful not to perpetuate the old Anglo-British conflation of England and (Great) Britain, and emphasises the fact that Britain is made up of four distinct countries with their own cultures, histories and identities. But it still regards ‘Britain’ as a unified nation formed from the co-existence and interplay of the four countries. And, by very virtue of maintaining such a conception of Britain as a nation, the BNP articulates a traditionally English and England-centric view of the UK-as-Britain, in which the identities of England and Britain overlap and merge to a considerable degree.

By contrast, New Labour’s de-anglicisation of Britain – its creation of a ‘New Britain’ shorn of any reference to its foundations in English identity and traditions – has been a necessary precondition for re-casting Britain as a multi-national and multi-cultural nation-state. This is something of a paradoxical project: at once the attempt to craft a new identity for Britain-as-a-nation and, at the same time, the working out of a vision of Britain as a sort of ‘supra-nation’ – a nation-state formed from the confluence and melting together of virtually all of the nations of the world as a sort of macrocosm of the new internationalism and globalisation. But these two apparently contradictory goals have a common basis in the would-be eradication of England as the mono-cultural and unifying national core of the traditional Britain. Strip out the foundation of Britain’s identity in the unitary national identity and cultural traditions of England, and you can then shape a new national identity for Britain as the unique place of a convergence of multiple national and cultural traditions.

Putting it this way provides a new dimension to our understanding of New Labour’s systematic attempts to suppress English identity and nationhood. We, or at least I, tend to think of this within a very domestic British framework: how the liberal establishment has tried to re-work traditional language and symbols through which the structure and values of the British state are articulated. However, it seems we should now view New Labour’s attempt to abolish England as being just as integrally connected with the multi-cultural project as with devolution and the dispossessing of England from its traditional ‘ownership’ of the British project and identity. It is now emerging that the New Labour government opened the door to mass immigration with the deliberate aim of making Britain more multi-cultural, i.e. less English. Indeed, the two trends – ‘multi-culturalisation’ and de-anglicisation – are so interdependent that the very term ‘multi-cultural Britain’ should really carry the tag ‘formerly known as England’, because it is primarily England that is being referred under the heading of ‘multi-cultural Britain’. This is not just because England has absorbed a disproportionate volume of mass immigration but because ‘Britain’ has become the new name for England itself: once you’ve removed England as the core of Britain, then the only language with which you can refer to England is the language of ‘Britain’. This is ironic, because then you’re still left with a distorted version of anglo-centric Britain in that the core identity of Britain remains the territory and people of England (now known as ‘Britain’); and that ‘England’ becomes the nation of Britain from which the ‘other nations’ (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are semi-differentiated. Be that as it may, when the term ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is used, that very term is an example of the attempt to destroy a distinct, unitary English identity that New Labour’s British project has perpetrated, because it mainly refers to England alone while suppressing that very reference.

The BNP’s charge that the New Labour government has committed, or is committing, ‘genocide’ against ‘the British people’ by encouraging mass immigration has some foundation in truth, but not in a literal sense: New Labour has used mass immigration not so much to wipe out the ‘indigenous population’ of Britain but to destroy its traditional grounding in English culture, nationhood and history. This is erasing a nation’s culture and identity rather than wiping out its physical population; and it’s the erasure of the traditional culture of Britain in the sense that this was centred on English identity and traditions.

In this sense, despite the fact that the BNP does not advocate the establishment of a separate government and parliament (let alone state) for England, and the fact that it refers to the primary ‘nation’ of the UK as ‘Britain’ rather than seeing each of the nations and would-be nations (e.g. Cornwall) of the UK as sovereign entities in their own right, the BNP’s message speaks powerfully to English people’s sense that New Labour has profoundly betrayed them. This is not just because England has borne the brunt of mass immigration, with all the difficult changes and social problems that brings, but because Labour has deliberately turned its back on the very idea that there is a core British population and cultural identity: that of England. New Labour has not only abandoned its ‘core vote’ in the white working class of England, but it has rejected, despised and suppressed England itself. And until Labour, and indeed the whole liberal political class, starts to focus on the needs and concerns of English people as English people – and not merely as citizens of a multi-cultural Britain in which ‘England’ has no particular rights or claim for special treatment – then the BNP’s message will continue to attract many of those in England who quite rightly feel Labour has given them up to mass immigration and dispossessed them of their country.

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.

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 January 2009

Channel 4 Friday: What a load of (anti-English) rubbish!

Channel 4 used to be edgy and innovative; now it just seems to churn out the same old formula programming and anti-English bias as all the other terrestrial channels.

Witness last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new public-information campaign to combat obesity, ‘Change4Life’. Of course, if you didn’t already know that the Department of Health deals with health matters in England only, there’s no way you would have guessed from the Channel 4 report that this initiative is limited to England. They never once mentioned this fact, and referred to ‘national’ this and ‘Britain’ that, as if England and Britain were one and the same thing – which, with respect to health policy and this campaign at least, they manifestly are not.

For once, by contrast, the BBC got it right. The report on their news website correctly identified that the campaign related to England only, although it misleadingly suggested that the 2007 Foresight report on obesity related to the UK as a whole, describing it as “the largest UK study into obesity, backed by the government”. In fact, the report dealt with England only, as you can see for yourself here. The article also mentioned explicitly that Scotland already has a similar campaign of its own. The BBC 1 Ten O’Clock News did even better, making it clear on two or three occasions in its report that the Change4Life campaign and related statistics it referred to concerned England only. One of the illustrations even had a caption that read ‘Department of Health England’: a very pleasing, and accurate, juxtaposition of the official name of the government department and its territorial jurisdiction. Perhaps the BBC is finally getting the message; which is more than can be said for Channel 4, clearly.

Incidentally, the Change4Life website also goes extremely softly softly when it comes to broadcasting its England-only remit. On the home page, it does invite the visitor to: “Join the people across England who are already making a Change4Life”. This sort of wording is also typical of news reports that refer explicitly to England, including the above-mentioned BBC one: they say ‘in England’ at some point; but they don’t flag up in lights the fact that it’s an England-specific initiative on the part of the [de facto English] government. So much so, in fact, that visitors to the Change4Life website – attracted to it, perhaps, by the TV news reports that gave the impression it related to the whole of the UK – have to be informed at the bottom of a page about activities in ‘my local area’ that “Are you in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? This resource only covers England”.

What a contrast if you do follow the links to the campaigns in the other nations of the UK! The website for the Scottish campaign, ‘Take life on’, literally flags up the fact that it’s a Scotland-only initiative, funded by the Scottish Government: it is decked in the colours of the Saltire, with the flag itself in evidence in the top-right-hand corner of every page. Similarly, the Welsh campaign, ‘Health Challenge Wales’, couldn’t be more explicit about its Wales-only character, indicated – in addition to its actual name – by the mention on the home page that it is “brought to you by the Welsh Assembly Government”. And as for Northern Ireland, the opening paragraph reads: “Welcome to the get a life, get active website. We all need to be active, and most of us in Northern Ireland aren’t nearly active enough”. And the website is peppered with links subtly conveying its ‘national-Irish’ character through the colours of orange and green.

One wonders whether the people of England would be more responsive to this sort of government information drive if the powers that be paid them the courtesy of informing them that this was an initiative specially designed for England, addressing issues that are of concern to everyone in England. Better still, if the afore-mentioned powers were those of a properly elected English government. If they did this, perhaps there would be less of the instinctive reaction against the ‘nanny state’ condescending to us about our bad habits; because it wouldn’t be the UK state talking down to us from on high in Westminster, but a truly English government that we the English people had actually elected and which we might accept was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of England – just as the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no qualms about emphasising the fact that they have been put together for their nations by their national governments.

And, incidentally, we should not be surprised by the irony that the English anti-obesity initiative is the last one to be launched, despite the fact that we make up around 85% of the UK population. Undoubtedly, this is linked with funding issues. Change4Life is relying on sponsorship from food producers and retailers, including brands that you would not necessarily associate with healthy eating but which will be able to make use of the campaign’s logo and branding on their products and in their stores: Cadbury, Kelloggs, Pepsi, Tesco, etc. Even so, there are concerns that Change4Life will still not be adequately funded. By contrast, the partners for the Scottish and Welsh campaigns include no commercial organisations but only publicly funded bodies and charities. Clearly, government funding for such initiatives is not an issue in those countries compared with England.

Later in the evening, I had the misfortune to watch most of ‘A Place In the Sun Down Under’, which followed the eventually successful efforts to find a new home for a family desperate to quit these shores for brighter horizons in Australia. I’m not sure that this sort of fayre is really what we need in England right now in the midst of a miserable midwinter and an even more gloomy economic climate. The programme extolled the virtues of the sunny Australian lifestyle and economic opportunities, which it contrasted favourably to the bleakness of life back in ‘Blighty’; and it gleefully reeled off the statistics about the thousands of ‘Brits’ that are flocking to a ‘better life’ down under. It’s enough to make you comfort-eat and build up those weather-defying fat reserves! (My excuse.)

I suppose many of my readers can relate to this couple’s wish to escape from dreary, misgoverned Britain, if only they had £265k mortgage-free to throw around! The programme went on about Brits getting out of Britain to such an extent that I completely missed the fact, garnered only from the Channel 4 website, that the couple were actually from Wrexham (in North Wales). So they weren’t so much desperate to escape Britain as to quit Wales! During the programme, I did in fact think that the wife sounded Welsh, although the husband definitely came across as English. In fact, the repetitive references to ‘Britain’ and ‘Brits’ naturally led me to think that the couple lived in England, as – I thought – it would probably explicitly say ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ if that was where they actually lived: ‘Britain’ equalling England in Channel 4 speak. But then I didn’t think about the aspect that Scottish and Welsh people might ring or write in to complain about the negative impression that was being given about their countries. Better to just say Britain and let people think the derogatory portrayal related to England only!

Am I being paranoid? Maybe, a little. But the programme did gloss over the fact that the emigrating couple were from Wales and created the impression they lived in England. And there was so much negativity about ‘Britain’ (generally, a synonym or overlapping term for England) that it seemed to partake of the usual tendency to do England down. At the same time the programme constituted such a promo for Australia, you felt it must be receiving funding or other support from the Australian government. It’s as if it were saying to all us English folk seeking a healthier lifestyle: don’t bother with the English government’s half-hearted anti-obesity campaign, just de-camp to Australia, where you’ll get plenty of opportunity to ‘eat better, move more and live longer’!

Or you could check out Channel 4’s forthcoming serving of ‘The Great British Food Fight’, previewed after ‘A Place In the Sun’. Oh Gawd, I said inwardly; why can’t they just give all this ‘Great Britain’ malarkey a rest! Not content simply with the title ‘The Big Food Fight’ they used last year, they feel they have to stick the words ‘Great British’ in there to beef it up still further. Or should that be ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ it up, as two of the episodes – presented by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall respectively – will be focusing on the ‘British’ pork and chicken industries. Not that I am an expert, but I would be pretty confident that most pork or chicken labelled in the shops as ‘British’ (and therefore, by definition, almost all ‘British pork’ and ‘British chicken’ per se) is in fact produced and processed in England. ‘British’ is just a brand for these meats, as one pork-industry website explicitly states. That is, it’s the brand used for English meat, as the practice of supermarkets such as Tesco – which is the subject of Fearnley-Whittenstall’s programme – is to label anything produced in England (including, in my area, local East Anglian pork and milk) as ‘British’, while anything from Scotland or Wales carries the names and flags of those countries. So when Oliver and Fearnley-Whittenstall take British pork and chicken producers and retailers to task, remember that the objects of their criticisms are English producers that have to keep their costs down to a minimum to remain afloat against a tide of cheaper imports.

In fact, there’s not much about the content or the celebrity-chef presenters of the ‘Great British Food Fight’ that is properly British, as opposed to English only, unless you count Gordon Ramsay as Scottish because he was born there. And that includes the ‘Little Chef’ chain of restaurants (described by Channel 4 as a ‘British institution’) that are going to get the Heston Blumenthal treatment, only nine out of 185 of which are located in Scotland. Intriguingly, 15 Little Chefs are also to be found in Wales (including one in Wrexham, I note); so, based on the proportion of Little Chefs per head of population, you should really call them a Welsh institution – but then again, safer to imply they’re English (which they mainly are, to be fair) by calling them British! In short, the Little Chefs are another fat-filled reason to leave Wales
the country England – or at least to upbraid it for its supposedly low-quality and unhealthy food.

And what is ‘British food’, anyway? It always used to be called ‘English food’ or ‘English cooking’, which used to be negatively compared with French or Italian cuisine. I suppose the sub-text is ‘English food used to be rubbish until it was transformed by numerous multi-cultural influences and the healthy-eating fad, and became “great British” food’. But note: no one is suggesting that the recently elevated status of British food is down to traditional Scottish and Welsh influences, which would be a justifiable reason to call it British. So even in its ‘new improved’, healthy, multi-cultural Britishness, British food is still largely English in origin.

Which, fortunately, cannot be said of the ‘Big Brother’ concept: the TV one, that is (which is Dutch), as opposed to the original inspiration – George Orwell’s 1984 – which is English. How very apt that this evening of British nanny-state doing down of the English lifestyle and diet – combined with the lauding of celebrity ‘British’ chefs campaigning to make our food healthier, more natural and more original – should culminate with ‘Celebrity Big Brother’: a veritable fusion, as they say, of the ethos of the Surveillance State and our supposed obsession with celebrity. It is indeed fitting that a channel that can serve up such a sustained diet of anti-English tripe should also produce a programme that reduces the real intrusion of the UK state into our English liberties and privacy to the status of a game show, and to prurient tabloid-style curiosity into the private lives of the rich and famous.

In so doing, they debase a medium that could and should be dealing with the real reasons why English people distrust their unrepresentative and paranoid politicians (who in turn distrust them), why they live so unhealthily, and why they are flocking out of the country in droves – such as: inadequate disposable income to spend on healthier food; the power of the big brands and supermarkets that sell the processed and mass-produced ‘British’ foods (and drive down the prices to English producers) in superstores to which we increasingly have few alternatives, as the big chains plus the recession are driving the small retailers out of business; our money tied up in over-priced, under-sized housing that we can’t sell; dead-end jobs (if we’re lucky), excessive working hours, a high cost of living and intense stress levels; and a growing gulf between the richest and the poorest resulting in envy of, and lust for, wealth and fame.

Oh yes, and the rubbish fayre and trashing of England served up by the likes of Channel 4.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.