Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2009

It IS great to be British: Britology at its best

“It IS great to be British”. With its emphasis on ‘is’, this phrase reminds me of the opening of the song, ‘Oh, I DO like to be beside the seaside’. Brown’s latest eulogy of Britishness does indeed have something of that tone about it: well, we’ll all pull together, come rain and foul weather; there’s nothing like a crisis to get us going, and we’ll jolly well come up trumps in the end.

Well, that’s all right then. Evidently, we’re in safe hands. If you want an example of what I understand by the term ‘Britology’, this is a prime example. All the motifs are there in concentrated form. I was tempted to produce a detailed, blow-by-blow critique; but, like Brown, I’d just be going over old ground, and it would be dignifying the drivel (if not drizzle) in too high a degree.

If you feel like some bedtime reading to send you off into a fitful sleep spent endlessly turning over the same phrases in your mind, in the desperate attempt to squeeze out some meaning – any meaning; or if you fancy something to make your blood boil; then go ahead, take the plunge and read it. Here are just a few pointers to watch out for:

1) Britishness / Englishness: What Brown says about ‘Britishness’ could just as easily be called Englishness. And that’s because he IS essentially talking about Englishness, as the Britishness he outlines is what he needs the English to think of as their true, underlying ‘national identity’ – whereas, in reality, it’s Englishness that is the underlying national identity of Britishness: “We have shown over three centuries that a common ground of Britishness, of British identity, can be found in the stories of the various communities and nationalities that inhabit these islands. . . . On one side, our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities – now, of course, added to by many others . . . . On the other, carefully balanced and held in tension, the organisations and operations of a British state that, shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state”.

Eugh? Decoded: ‘British patriotism (patriotism, you understand, not nationalism) is the acceptable face of the English nationalism (and national identity) that originally subjugated the other British nations and the colonies, who are now (after three centuries) England’s equals within a common Britishness’.

2) Don’t say ‘England’, or – if you have to – marginalise it: In order for Englishness to be re-presented as Britishness in this way, Brown needs to suppress or marginalise all references to England. This is because the thing he has to avoid at all costs is referring to the real political history of Britain, which is that the British state has been predominantly driven and moulded by English national and economic interests; and that England could once again develop a national consciousness that, this time, could see its interests as being better served outside the UK, rather than inside. This marginalisation is evident in the above-quoted reference to “our nurturing Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities and sensibilities”: putting ‘English’ last in line after the smaller nations, as if England were only one and – by implication – almost the least important driver of British identity; well, the least distinctive element in Brown’s Britishness, that’s for sure.

Another example is a quite ludicrous passage referring to the recent financial crisis:

“I believe a debate on Britishness is well timed, because of its relevance to the recent financial crisis. When it struck, no one questioned the British state standing behind banks headquartered in Scotland [yes, they bloody well did!]. No one discussed what a Wales-only response might be to the selling of sub-prime mortgages, or wondered how Northern Ireland might find its own solution to changing global conditions”.

Yes, this is where the discussion ends. ‘What about England, you f***er?’ was literally my response on reading this (well, OK, without the asterisks, if you see what I mean). The point being that people did question whether England would be better off weathering the financial crisis on its own: that it wouldn’t have been so s***ing awful in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have had to mortgage the future of the next generation of English kids and NHS patients to prop up the Scottish banks (and Chancellors) that had been foremost in getting us into the mess in the first place. (While on the subject of the NHS, you’ll love the lyrical passage about how it is an example of our fairness and unity as a ‘nation’. What a load of absolute tosh: there are four NHS’s thanks to Brown and New Labour, and the English one gets the smallest per-capita funding of them all – really united and fair!)

3)  British values: While we’re talking about ‘fairness’, all the pantheon of ‘British values’ are paraded out here, especially – alongside fairness – ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberty’, along with the Brownian insistence on ‘responsibilities’ alongside ‘rights’. It is highly ironic to hear someone like Brown emphasising liberty so much (an irony that seems totally to escape him), given the fact that his government has been responsible for removing countless liberties that have been fought for and cherished by the English over centuries.

4) British, not English, history: What is even more outrageous is that Brown presents this historic struggle as British history:

“But from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our ‘gift to the world'”. 

Ahem: excuse me, Sir, but weren’t Magna Carta and the Civil War part of English history, before ‘Great Britain’ even existed? Not in Brown’s school of history, they aren’t. Just as a common Britishness – not England and Englishness – is the centre and driving force of Britain, for Brown, so ‘Britain’ is the ultimate telos of the history of these islands: the goal to which it inexorably tends and from whose standpoint alone the definitive history of these islands will be told. Or, in other words, those founding events in English history are indeed confined to history; whereas their continuing effects are now framed as part of the British present and future, which transforms those events retroactively into ‘British history’ (no longer English) and a founding part of the British identity. 

This appropriation to Britain of the narrative of English history is dependent on the suppression of the fact that the struggle for modern liberty began in England and is a constitutive part of the English national identity. Indeed, one might even contend that a hidden (or not so hidden) driving force behind Gordon Brown’s suppression of ‘our liberties’ is his urge to suppress England itself: the nurturing mother of freedom. 

5) Nations and regions: Just a few overt instances, made all the more sinister by the general talking up of Britain as the nation [is it my imagination, but are politicians and the media increasingly referring to Britain as a / the ‘nation’ nowadays, almost as much as they call it ‘the / this country’?], while references to England as a nation are avoided at all costs and the ‘regions’ are clearly meant to be English (although they could also be read as referring to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, too): 

“There is the changing role of the state and its relationship with our regions, with communities and individuals”. Is that his way of referring to devolution, which he doesn’t mention explicitly anywhere else?! Or is this just a reference to the non-mandated, centrally imposed regionalisation of England; the equally non-mandated reforms of local government; and the steadily advancing encroachment of the state into the lives and liberties of the individual? 

Or again: “a strong sense of shared patriotism can be built that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion”. Race, region or religion – the new ‘3 R’s’! Oh, I get it: ‘region’ is the new collective term to refer to what Brown previously christened the ‘nations and regions’. It’s what you might call a more politically correct revision of that previous designation: it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ‘regions’ of England, by simply referring to them all as regions. Well, that’s all right then. Except we know that, in reality, those nations do now have new national institutions (their own parliaments and governments), whereas we English are lumbered with the ancient and unchanging institution of the UK parliament – unless you count the unelected regional authorities as the new institutions for England. And, of course, this way of looking at it makes Britain the nation, as it is frequently termed in Brown’s essay. 

Elsewhere, Brown refers to Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and England (let’s get the order right) as ‘nationalities’, not explicitly as nations. This implies that there aren’t four nations in the UK but just four distinct national identities that have fused to form a single British nation. But, ironically, this bizarre coinage makes the indigenous peoples of these islands seem like uprooted immigrants to Britain: having a nationality distinct from the nation (Britain) in which they now live. In fact, ‘nationality’ is more commonly used to refer to a person’s official national identity: their citizenship. We talk of ‘British nationality’ but of the ‘nations’ and national identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and Cornwall, for some). 

This linguistic confusion marks out the way Brown turns the realities of British national identities on their head: ‘British’ is in reality the name of a ‘mere nationality’ (citizenship, statehood). But Brown wants to make Britain out to be a nation and the core national identity of its citizens. If Britain becomes a nation, then the ‘lesser’ term of ‘nationality’ can be applied to the UK’s historic national communities. And yet, ‘nationality’ is in fact the more ‘proper’ (official, legal, formal) name for a person’s ‘national identity’ – so that ascribing ‘nationality’ to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish suggests that these – not Britishness – are the founding national identities of the UK. But then, all that is left for Brown to hook his concept of ‘proper’, true British nationhood on to are attributes of citizenship and statehood – those above-mentioned civic British values and the institutions of the state: “the organisations and operations of a British state, . . . shorn of nationalistic baggage, are the patriotic aspect of the nation state. . . . I believe we are discovering that what unites us is far greater than what separates us, and that the values we share most are those that matter most. Recognising them, and with them the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, will strengthen us as an open, diverse, adaptable, enabling and successful modern state”. The state as nation; and the nations as superseded, nationalistic ‘nationalities’. 

Well, I’m sorry; I ended up doing the lengthy demolition job after all. Familiar ground, but endless permutations of the same delusional reasoning and twisted logic. But it’s true, there is one thing that IS great about Britain: you’re never far from the water. Deep water in Brown’s case.

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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 2008

Correction: the Proms are all right – just leave out ‘Jerusalem’!

What a marvellous thing serendipity is! I was just thinking yesterday that it was about time I did another piece on the English Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I took a brief break from work and wandered downstairs to make myself a sandwich; tuned in to my beloved Radio Four; and heard a news item on yesterday morning’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) by the English Minister of State for Culture, Margaret Hodge, entitled, ‘Britishness, Heritage and the Arts: Should cultural institutions promote shared values and a common national identity?’

The Radio Four item homed in on the bit towards the end of the speech where Ms Hodge criticises the Proms (the traditional summer-time series of (mostly) classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London) as being perhaps unrepresentative of the inclusive, culturally diverse, modern sense of Britishness that the cultural ‘sectors’ (e.g. the arts and media) should seek to express, as they hark back to the jingoism of Britain’s imperial past. The BBC wheeled on Nicholas Kenyon, the former director of the Proms, who defended this particular institution as precisely embodying the cultural diversity Ms Hodge was advocating – given that during the two-month-long series of Proms as a whole, a huge variety of musical styles and traditions from throughout the world are featured. It was just the traditional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ that could possibly justify Ms Hodge’s criticisms: much waving of the Union Flag and chanting of patriotic hymns such as ‘Rule Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

The Radio Four article was prefaced by the presenter indicating that they had invited Margaret Hodge on to the programme to discuss her speech and that she had initially accepted, only to cancel later in the morning because of some other commitment that had cropped up. The newscaster speculated whether Downing Street had stepped in to prevent her appearance, presumably out of displeasure that she had associated something that David Cameron was quoted as describing as “a great symbol of our Britishness” with something nationalistic, culturally exclusive and anti-progressive.

Indeed, later in the day, during another wonderfully fortuitously timed work break (coinciding with the PM news programme on Radio Four), it emerged that during a briefing at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman had clarified that, “DCMS had also stated that, in the view of Margaret Hodge, the Proms were a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution, which did a fantastic job to promote serious culture to millions of people; this was a view the Prime Minister very much agreed with”. Clearly, Ms Hodge had received a little slap on the wrist from GB [Gordon Brown] for having dared to criticise a tradition that provides an opportunity for people to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack and celebrate Britain as a great nation (which is not the same thing as old-fashioned British nationalism, you understand)!

To express the contrary point of view, the PM programme brought on the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg, formerly the bard of New Labour and latterly a critic of its more conservative tendencies. He defended Margaret Hodge’s earlier (but subsequently ‘moderated’) criticism of the Proms as being not particularly representative of, or conducive towards, a culturally inclusive Britain while balancing this point of view by agreeing to some extent with Nicholas Kenyon: that the ‘problem’ was only really with the Last Night, with its jingoistic resonances and parading of the Union Jack. And this is where things got really muddled: Billy Bragg then declared that, whereas he used to be quite sceptical towards the Union Flag because of its hard-right, nationalistic associations, he now felt more positive about it as a symbol of some of the great things that Britain had achieved, including through the Empire, and of an inclusive UK formed from the coming together of different nations [seeming to align himself with GB, then]. In support of this new-found pride in the flag, he compared this to the English taking pride in displaying the Cross of St. George; and ‘no one was going to try to stop them doing so’. Wrong; this is precisely what they (i.e. the government) do try to do: promote official flying of the Union Flag (as in the guidelines published by DCMS itself) and the discouragement (and actual banning?) of any official use in England of the flag of England.

Then Billy Bragg went on to claim that the association of the Union Jack with the imperialistic overtones of the Last Night of the Proms, and absence from that occasion of the other flags of the UK, was indeed a problem. Wrong again: in all the recent pictures I’ve seen of the Last Night of the Proms, there are many Flags of St. George alongside the Union Jacks, and also Welsh flags, banners reading ‘Cymru’, and even the occasional Saltire. So in fact, even the Last Night of the Proms could be given as an example of an inclusive, multi-national UK. I’m not sure, however, that this is a reason why GB would endorse the Proms: he for one, I’m sure, would prefer it if only Union Flags were on display in the Last Night, making it a celebration of a unified Nation of Britain and not of the different nations of the UK.

Maybe the problem with the Last Night of the Proms for Bragg and Hodge, then, is not so much its UK-wide symbolism but the fact that it stands for a mono-cultural and nationalistic Britishness, as opposed to the multi-cultural, internationalist Britishness they both espouse. OK, what we’re really talking about here is an English Britishness. It’s the Englishness of this particular celebration of Britishess they don’t like; in particular, its ‘elitist’, white English middle-class character. This is the subtext of Margaret Hodge’s critique as well as the basis for Billy Bragg’s inconsistency over the Cross of St. George: OK as a symbol for the English working class but definitely not if associated with white middle-class British nationalism – the old type, that is, where Britishness was celebrated as an extension of English national identity and pride. Why else would Bragg say that we could still have a Last Night of the Proms so long as it no longer included a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’? I ask you! Of all the anthems traditionally performed at the Last Night, this is the only one that is universally thought of as an English hymn as opposed to the unmistakable Britishness of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Bragg then alluded to the fact that a bit of Vaughan Williams wouldn’t go amiss: echoes of the Vaughan Williams (non-jingoistic British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both English.)

The dichotomy that is at work in Bragg’s and particularly Hodge’s advocacy of a culturally inclusive Britishness, and indeed of a ‘culture industry’ that promotes social inclusion, is a common one within the ‘Britological’ promotion of Britishness over Englishness. ‘Britain’ is seen as culturally inclusive, open, internationalist; whereas Englishness is associated with all the worst aspects of exclusivity, narrowness and tribal nationalism that in the past were linked with Britain’s imposition of its rule and civilisation on the peoples of the Empire, and in the present is seen in hostility towards, and separation from, the multiplicity of peoples and cultures (again, many coming from the former Empire) that continue to settle in Britain. But the paradox of this British all-inclusiveness is that it is predicated on the exclusion of Englishness, the touchstone of the old mono-cultural, national Britishness: Britishness that was the expression of a nation – England – rather than a merging of multiple nations (including the ‘former’ nation of England) into a cultural (rather than ethnic-national) unity that has progressed beyond traditional nationhood and become truly international and global.

This helps to illuminate why Margaret Hodge’s criticism of the Proms is so fundamentally misguided: she rejects it as an example of an exclusive Britishness; and yet, of course, if the Last Night traditions were jettisoned on these politically correct grounds, it is they that would end up being excluded and censored in favour of the type of supposedly more inclusive, internationalist British culture of which Ms Hodge provides examples in her speech. Why can’t the Last Night of the Proms be retained as a relatively harmless expression of a now largely moribund British patriotism that was actually inclusive of the different nations of the UK – if necessary, alongside all those other cultural celebrations of multi-culturally inclusive Britain Ms Hodge supports? Isn’t that what true cultural diversity entails: mutual tolerance of difference, including different interpretations of Britishness? But again, it is perhaps the very native, ‘tribal’ quality of this particular celebration of national British identity that Ms Hodge objects to: the fact that it’s an English Britishness and by that very token perhaps evokes a Britain defined in terms of the four indigenous nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall) that were united – albeit in a contested form – in the English-controlled UK before devolution? In other words, it’s an ethnic-British, mono-cultural Britishness: inclusiveness limited to white British people and not extended beyond ethnic boundaries to all-comers.

Isn’t this the real subtext of Ms Hodge’s speech: the Proms as appealing to an insular, conservative, white audience – described as “a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds [in PC language, implies ‘ethnic backgrounds’] feel at ease in being part of this”? Or, as she describes the situation in her constituency of Barking in East London, “a retreat to the old narrow bonds of kinship and ‘tribe’” [in context, clearly in part a reference to English nationalism, or at least the nationalism of white English people] being associated with far-right, racist extremism. This is the big logical, ideological and political mistake that is made in arguments of this type. The fact that some people who call themselves English nationalists (or British, or indeed any type of, nationalists) are racist does not mean that any affirmation of English national identity/-ies is racist, or indeed even nationalist as understood as entailing hostility to other cultures. But somewhere down the road in the split that has occurred in the English-British identity, the British establishment has decided to try to secure a monopoly on the ‘good’ English-British values: Britain as inclusive of many cultures; England as nationalistic, exclusive and xenophobic. According to this view, by definition, only Britain and Britishness can provide the foundation for the blending of so many nationalities and cultures into something new – a new Britishness – because it is not a nationalism but an internationalism. To Britain are ascribed the positive aspects of British history and culture: the progressivism of the Empire, and the international (British) civilisation it spawned along with its liberal values.

But you could just as easily turn the whole thing on its head and associate the positive aspects of British history and culture as English, and the negative aspects (the nationalism; the aggression towards other peoples, both within the British Isles and throughout the Empire; the racism; the insularity; etc.) as British. Historically, it is probably more accurate to describe many of Britain’s great institutions and values as originally and primarily English: parliamentary democracy, libertarianism and the openness to the world beyond these shores, admittedly mixed with imperialistic and mercenary motives as the English began opening up what became the British Empire long before the Union with Scotland. The truth of the matter is that both good and bad aspects were indeed both English and British, insofar as the identity and destiny of the English merged with that of the other nations of these islands.

To ascribe the negative features of British culture and history to England and Englishness is therefore not only to perpetrate a huge historic and epistemological injustice towards the English but also has disastrous consequences in the present that militate against the declared aim to create an inclusive British-cultural identity. The first consequence is the exclusion of England as a nation in its own right, along with the English national identity – seen as ‘bad’, ‘exclusive’, ‘retrograde’ – from the new internationalist, multi-cultural Britain. This was seen in the example discussed above: a would-be exclusion of the Last Night of the Proms from the new culture owing to its old English-British-nationalist connotations. But because cultural expressions of a traditional national and ethnic identity, such as in the Proms, are mistakenly seen as nationalistic and, implicitly, racist, this results in calls for these traditions to be modified or banned. However, such responses inescapably cross over into inverted racism in their own right because they imply automatic suspicion, hostility and censorship directed towards any expression of anything redolent of ‘ethnic-English’, ‘ethnic-British’, ‘white’, or just plain self-consciously ‘English’ culture. The one nationality and ethnicity that then gets excluded from the new multi-cultural Britishness is Englishness. Indeed, one might even say that this exclusion is constitutive of the new Britain as an international entity, as opposed to its traditional status as the expression of English national identity. So we have a sort of inverted cultural apartheid: only those cultural expressions that are multi-cultural and international in inspiration are authentically British in the new ‘inclusive’ definition of the term; and there’s no such thing (at least, it’s not ‘acceptable’) as traditional white-English or white-British culture.

The second disastrous consequence of the negativisation of Englishness is that ‘immigrant’ communities are encouraged to identify as British rather than English. The illogicality of this as a supposed strategy for promoting integration is astounding. First, Britishness is positioned ideologically as an international / multi-cultural concept and identity; then you take international migrants and encourage them (through citizenship courses and ceremonies, and new forms of cultural expression) to identify as British, i.e. as international and multi-cultural. So then, what you are left with is the migrant communities affirming an identity as international-multicultural-British that is separate from the identities of the ‘native British’ people around them who identify typically as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In other words, rather than embedding Britishness in the already established, historic cultures and identities of the nations of the UK, and then encouraging international migrants to identify with those cultures, Britishness is elevated to an international plane; so that, in reality, no truly profound cultural integration with the existing nations of the UK on the part of migrants need take place. Instead of international settlers becoming British in the same way that British people are British (by virtue of being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish in the first instance), it’s Britain that is made international. The net result is virtually a reversal of the intended effect; instead of immigrants integrating with the national identities and cultures of the UK, a plural, international ‘cultural identity’ of Britain evolves with which the established nations of the UK are called to identify. We have to ‘get with’ the new ‘multi-culture’, since this is essentially the same as the global culture on which Britain’s future depends.

Well, we English at least have to accept these realities and relinquish our Englishness in favour of the new British internationalism. I don’t hear such a call being directed to the Scottish and the Welsh, whose quest to reaffirm their own distinct cultures and national identities (inclusive of those of migrant communities) was not alluded to in any shape or form in Margaret Hodge’s speech. And why should it be? She is after all only the English Minister of State for Culture (the Scots and Welsh having their own culture ministers); and her exhortations to embrace a new inclusive Britishness are therefore primarily – if not exclusively – directed to the English alone.

British internationalism versus English nationalism. Problem, though. GB [Gordon Brown] wants Britain to be a nation. All this talk about cultural pluralism and the repudiation of the Proms as a case of nationalist mono-culturalism does rather militate against the idea of both migrants and native British people converging in a monolithic, unitary Britishness of the kind that you could see the Last Night of the Proms as celebrating – if you ignore the flags of England, Wales and Scotland, that is. No wonder GB slapped Ms Hodge’s wrist! It’s not just the implication that GB’s flag waving, like that of the Last Night, has slightly jingoistic overtones. No, it’s the fact that Ms Hodge’s internationalist vision of Britain is not in fact a vision of a united Britain: it’s a multi-nation, not a nation. At least, in such a Britain, we English might be able to uphold our own national identity and traditions as one ‘tribe’ among many in the land; while we can hope that, in time, the madness of seeking to achieve cultural integration by denying the distinct cultures of the UK’s nations will recede. Then perhaps, the true conditions can be created for migrant communities to come together with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples; and we can develop shared multiple national identities, rather than a divisive, imposed Britishness – whether of the unitary, statist, Brownite variety; or the plural, cultural Hodgian kind.

So let’s keep the Last Night of the Proms for now. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let them remove ‘Jerusalem’ from the programme!

24 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Four): Privacy and the Problem of Nationhood

Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.

Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.

Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.

In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.

But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?

There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.

Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.

These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?

Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.

Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.

The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.

These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.

I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.

The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.

This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.

I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.

Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.

This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.

The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.

Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?

A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.

But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.

There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.

Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.

And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.

1 July 2007

Putting Out the Smoking Gun: Anti-Smoking and Anti-Terror Measures

Today, a ban on smoking in confined public spaces enters into force in England: in England, specifically, as the other parts of the UK already have similar measures in place. To me, this ban illustrates the British and, I suppose in this instance also especially English, attitude to things that society regards as intolerable: beyond the limits of the much-vaunted British value of tolerance. (See other blog entries on this topic elsewhere.) Instead of confronting and discussing openly the real causes and possible solutions to problems that threaten or appear to threaten our security and well-being, we tend to suppress them from the public domain and confine them to the private realm, with legal measures designed to ensure they remain there.

In the case of the smoking ban, this is exactly the effect it will have. Smoking is effectively now censored as an acceptable public activity, unless you count smoking outside in the street. And you could argue that, in our society, the street is an extension of the private realm; or rather, society is trying to transform external public spaces into controlled, orderly environments in which everyone can go about their private business without interference from others – apart, of course, from the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother: the censorship authority in the shape of the steadily encroaching CCTV. So, as you stand smoking outside your workplace or walking to the shops, you are effectively acting merely in your capacity as a private individual; whereas, as soon as you enter a public building, your actions are regulated by civil law.

But a ban of this nature does not address the reasons why people smoke in the first place; nor does it – directly, at least – offer any real help to smokers in quitting; although it could be said to add a further social incentive for people to give up through increased stigmatisation of their habit. But essentially, the problem is just shifted from the public sphere to individuals’ private lives. In other words, society is effectively absolving itself of its responsibilities towards smokers and their families, and saying effectively, ‘it’s not our problem now; we don’t want to know. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on with your anti-social behaviour or not’. So smokers go home and could well be more likely, not less, to light up in their houses (having not had their quota of nicotine during the day), with the consequence that the potential damage to their fellow residents’ health and safety is augmented.

One of the reasons why people start smoking is that it is – or used to be – quite a social habit: a chance to share time and a mutually enjoyable activity with other smokers in a relaxed if smoky atmosphere. There is or used to be a whole culture of smoking, with its conventions and rules governing social interaction and friendliness that were unique to the smoking situation. However, along with smoking itself, this aspect of sociability has been suppressed. I’ve been reading Watching the English by Kate Fox: an anthropological study of English behaviour and culture. The author discusses literally hundreds of unofficial but nonetheless binding ‘rules’ which, she says, govern English social interaction, including many rules relating to drinking and pub culture. But nowhere does she discuss ‘smoking rules’, even though smoking has been an integral part of English pub culture for as long as people can remember – until today, that is.

That’s all for the good, some people will say; it’s about time something was done about the problem. But then this is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach that typifies English / British intolerance: suppress something from interfering with my freedoms and rights as a private citizen, and that’s the problem dealt with – except it isn’t, it’s just suppressed and denied. And of course, part of the issue with smoking is the hypocrisy around it from the highest level of government: the state literally earns billions of pounds from smoking through the ever-higher taxes that are imposed on the habit. So the state is effectively attempting to salve its conscience and demonstrate to the non-smoking majority that it is serious about the issue; while at the same time, the fact that the measures taken don’t really deal with the problem suits the state, which is co-responsible for it along with the cigarette manufacturers themselves.

Talking of the highest levels of state, it occurs to me on a somewhat fanciful level that if smoking were permitted in cabinet meetings, this might engender more truly collective, collegial government. When smoking was widely permitted, tolerated and indeed indulged in by the majority, I’m sure that the fact that smoking went on during meetings fostered a more congenial and trusting atmosphere in which people shared more of their opinions and participated more fully in making the decisions – simply because smoking is, or was, such a friendly, sociable activity. It isn’t that long ago that cabinet offices and, indeed, council chambers and boardrooms up and down the land would have had ashtrays almost in front of every seat. When was the last great smoking cabinet? One thinks of Churchill and Harold Wilson: both great smoking PMs; the former with cigars, the latter with pipes. The era of more centralised decision making concentrated around the person of the PM came in with Margaret Thatcher. Was smoking in cabinet also banned at this time?

None of this, one might argue, really matters very much compared with the much greater threat to our public safety that is posed by terrorism – with the two defused bombs in London last Friday and the attack on Glasgow Airport last night in mind. But firstly, you could argue that smoking is a very much greater danger to public safety than terrorism, especially in terms of real loss of life – except, of course, it precisely isn’t a matter of public safety any more, which is precisely the point I’m making: government has washed its smoke-smelling hands of it.

And secondly, the official response to the ‘terror threat’ exemplifies the same approach as that to smoking: the issue is censored and suppressed rather than being dealt with in its root causes. So we have repressive measures such as Control Orders and detention without charge for 28 days (90 days if GB [Gordon Brown] has his way); but there is no compelling evidence that such regulations have any effect in reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks. That’s what’s so ridiculous about the government being fixated about supposedly eliminating ‘radical Muslim extremists’. ‘Radical’ means ‘at or from the root’. But the root of the problem is what you need to address and grasp with both hands, if the unwanted growth of terrorism is to be stemmed. And the root is not the extreme: at the root, there are real grievances; the extremism is the desperate outgrowth from those grievances, which lashes out at a government, society and culture that doesn’t want to know. An unacceptable and life-destroying form of behaviour, indeed, like smoking.

But just attempting to shut it up will not keep the gun from smoking. After all, a smoking gun is one that has already been fired not one that is about to go off.

25 June 2007

Islamophobia: Driver Of the War On Terror

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.

On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.

Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.

In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’

Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.

British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.

In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.

Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?

But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:

  • Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood

  • Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it

  • Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.

  • Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.

 

In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.

So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.

But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)

The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.

The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.

Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.

21 June 2007

The Scottish Home Secretary defends the Rushdie knighthood

By way of an ‘I told you so’, here’s a little news item from yesterday I’ve just stumbled across, in which John Reid defends the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. One of the most interesting passages is a quote from the Home Secretary: “we take the approach that in the long-run the protection of the right to express opinions in literature, argument and politics is of over-riding value to our society”. So Salman Rushdie has been set up as a cause celebre for British liberal values seen as locked in an ideological struggle with ‘extremist’ Islam. Quote from my blog entry about the knighthood from Tuesday now: “the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech”.

And it’s clear from Mr Reid’s words that the government did plan this out with at least this effect in mind: “We’ve thought very carefully about it. But we have a right to express opinions and a tolerance of other people’s point of view, and we don’t apologise for that”. So the inner circle of government have discussed this knighthood and thought it through, have they? So much for the award being to do with ‘services to literature’, which – as far I can tell – people in literary circles regard as a total joke. And it’s apparently about teaching Muslims a bit of a lesson about tolerance: the award itself is an instance of British tolerance towards a point of view that might be hurtful to some, like the Life of Brian was hurtful to some Christians. Naive of those over-emotional Muslims not to appreciate this finer point of our civilisation, really! But that’s all rather a twisted way of putting it: Rushdie’s views aren’t merely being ‘tolerated’ but rather they reflect what many of the evangelists for British liberal values themselves feel about Islam.

OK, so should we see Rushdie as a champion and martyr for free speech, which we all hold dear? Different people will draw the dividing line in different places. One thing that’s clear, though, is that Rushdie’s was an exercise of free speech without what could be called due regard for the most sacred beliefs and feelings of many at whom it was directed. In this, it’s akin to racism, Islamophobia and what might be called ‘culturism’: prejudice and offensive behaviour towards another culture. Because the comparison with the Life of Brian simply doesn’t hold up. In our culture, most people just thought that film was a bit of harmless nonsense; even most Christians thought those who were offended made themselves look a bit silly. However, in Islamic culture, what Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses is basically a ‘mortal sin’, to translate it back into Christian cultural terms. In other words, it’s as grave a wrongdoing as rape or murder.

Now, while in Britain, we don’t think such things are punishable by death, in many Muslim countries, they still do. So who are we to say that, in their terms, they are wrong? And yet we still preach to them about tolerance.

13 June 2007

12 June 2007

Tolerance

I’ve got zero tolerance towards ‘tolerance’! Everyone seems agreed [hyperbole – you’ll find I go in for it] that tolerance is one of the most defining British values, perhaps the most defining one. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I question this. I’ve written about it extensively elsewhere, so I won’t belabour the point. Essentially, the criticism boils down to: a) what you define as tolerance; b) whether, using that definition, the ‘British’ are any more tolerant than other nations; c) what the limits of tolerance are, which tells us what the supposed tolerance is all about; and d) why tolerance is particularly useful for Britology as a form of ‘unificatory multi-culturalism’: the aim of assimilating all the cultures within the UK to a unitary Britishness without having to achieve this unity at any profound level that really brings people together.

Anyway, the religious correspondent of The Times Clifford Longley was at it yesterday in the Thought For the Day slot on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. (You’ll find this is a frequent outlet for the Britologists – visions of Saint Tony pontificating on the theme after he finally resigns as PM.) Mr Longley used one of the new metaphors that is circulating to encapsulate fundamental forces within British culture and history: Roundheads (the Puritans that supported the anti-monarchist Cromwell in the English Civil War in the 17th century) and Cavaliers (the monarchists in the said conflict). The Roundheads represent the puritan, earnest, hard-working, thrifty and bourgeois side of the ‘British character’ (exemplified, among others, by the PM in waiting Gordon Brown); while the Cavaliers represent the frivolous, hedonistic, humorous, creative and aristocratic side (illustrated by Tony Blair (really?) and the current opposition leader David Cameron, who actually does have some blue blood coursing through his veins). Map onto this the divide between Protestants and Catholics, and corresponding divisions within other religions (e.g. Shia’s and Sunnis in Islam); and, as the analogy suggests, also the class divisions within British society that work their way through into politics (the egalitarian tradition versus the sovereignty of the individual).

Mr Longley’s point was that Britain has always managed to hold these two traditions together by virtue of its inherent tolerance (er, apart from in the said Civil War itself, the Tolpuddle Martyrs [history, I’m afraid], the General Strike in the 1920s, the miners’ strike in the 1980s, etc., etc.). Through ‘tolerance’ (i.e. individual and collective restraint), all cultures and nations by definition manage to just about hold together their occasionally conflicting values and aspirations. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be nations: they’d just disintegrate, as we’ve seen numerous examples in recent history (e.g. former Yugoslavia).

So the affirmation of tolerance, while appearing to be a description of a distinctive characteristic of the peoples of these Isles [shorthand: the ‘British’], is in fact just a call to patriotism and an exhortation to display tolerance: it’s a manifestation of a fear that the nation might be falling apart because of a lack of any real consensus or shared vision of where we’re going. Hence, tolerance (refraining from seeking to impose any single vision of the country’s destiny or character over others) is a kind of negative virtue, rather than a positive value: an appeal to accept others as they are, to live and let live, and avoid conflict. But as such, it is not something that builds unity; merely, something that ‘affirms diversity’ in the sense of accepting it de facto and therefore, ultimately, just going along with the status quo.

How very British; or should that be English?

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