Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 June 2011

The head of the Anglican Communion criticises the government’s English policies without saying ‘England’

“A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?”

These are the words with which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, concluded his article in the New Statesman yesterday criticising key coalition government policies on social services and welfare as being without a proper mandate.

My answer to this question would be, ‘how about an English democracy?’

The Archbishop rightly and powerfully articulates some of the central problems about the government’s social agenda with respect to the lack of any real democratic debate, scrutiny and consensus they may have received. Elsewhere in the article, Dr Williams writes: “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.

It is indeed true that the government’s policies in areas such as education, health, localism and the Big Society were not set out clearly and in detail in either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos at the last election, nor were they explained or debated openly and vigorously throughout the election campaign. And there was one very good reason for that: these policies are English policies.

At the election, none of the three major parties openly acknowledged and explained that their policies for education, health, communities and social services – all of which are devolved matters – related to England alone; indeed, their manifestos contained barely any mention of England (as I analysed at the time here, here and here). And as we know, almost the very raison d’être of the British government and establishment is to suppress the existence of any sort of English-national polity in which policies and laws intended for England are openly and honestly discussed as relating to England.

Accordingly, there’s a very good reason, Dr Williams, why neither the government nor the opposition are adequately explaining the thinking and priorities behind their radical policies, nor explaining what their likely impact will be on the ‘nation’ as a whole. That’s because they can’t even acknowledge the very name of the nation for which those policies are intended. Indeed, the policies themselves – in their actual content – express the drive to abolish any form of English civic nationhood in that they pass on the responsibility for the civic life of, and public services for, the English nation to the private realm: to individuals, small groups, communities, and not-for-profit or for-profit organisations that are now meant to take responsibility for education, health care, local services and amenities, and social services without any overarching national plan and vision.

There’s no national plan or vision because the nation that is being privatised and, as it were, ‘de-nationised’ is completely invisible: England.

And yes, these policies have not been voted for. And that’s not just because they weren’t adequately explained at the election but, more fundamentally, because they were not presented either to or for the nation in which they were to be implemented: no English-national electorate was either addressed or invoked during the election; nor was any English nation acknowledged for which these policies might represent any sort of blueprint for the future. No one voted for these policies, and they weren’t adequately explained, because to do so implies the existence of some sort of national political life in which those policies are a part of the public debate, and a nation for which those policies are intended. But none of that applies to these policies, because they’re English, and England was absent from the election, and is absent from government and the political process in the present.

So the answer to the Archbishop’s question at the end of his article is that these policies will be subjected to the scrutiny they demand, and a more participative democracy holding politicians to account will be brought about, and a positive vision for society and the common good will be developed, only when the nation for which those policies are intended is brought into the process and a vigorous, healthy English polity comes into being.

Why, therefore, did the Archbishop himself not mention the name of the country – England – where these policies are being implemented? Why is even the spiritual head of the Church of England not standing up for ‘England’ as such even where he makes such an impassioned plea for the creation of a more genuinely participative, democratic life in which English policies can be subjected to the scrutiny of the nation as a whole?

England is the great lack and absence at or from the centre of it all. And while politicians, media and archbishops cannot bring themselves to say ‘England’, none of them by definition can ever articulate a shared vision for England.

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.

24 February 2008

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

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

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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