Every few years, so it seems, there’s another attempt to define Britishness on the left. It always starts in the same way. There is a panic about identity. The panic either focuses on a manifestation of a Britishness – usually a violent racist one – from which we want to distance ourselves. Or it relates to the emergence of an identity which is in some other way opposed to or separate from a liberal conception of Britishness. There will be a a statement from a Government minister, a flurry of articles, and a vox pop by a pop star, and then the debate goes back into the drawer for a few more years. We’ve filled column inches and helped to pass the time. It hasn’t seemed that important.
In the last month, we’ve had an blizzard of articles about Britishness. Here’s an piece in the Telegraph setting out the “ten core values of the British identity“, which are significantly constitutional in nature, and include – bizarrely – “the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament“. In the Times, Michael Portillo chimes in with a broadside against “multiculturalism“, by which I think he means cultural relativism, and settles on “tolerance” as “our signature national quality“. This weekend, there was a very odd one in the Observer by Will Hutton which suggested that the real problem is that Pakistanis and Eritreans come from “broken-backed countries that have no proud history, culture or identity“, but which also said a few things that vaguely rang a bell with me:
“…multiple traditions, stories, tribes and eccentricities; belonging means little more than speaking the language, recognising the complexities and achievements while acknowledging the minimal rules that flow from the political arrangements…”
I read all this stuff, and frankly, I feel as embarrassed and bewildered as Stalky and Co do when a visiting M.P. addresses the School on “Patriotism” and starts waving the Union Jack around.
The truth is that I have a very strong sense of national identity, even though I may sometime have difficulty in pinning it down precisely. I know that my father emigrated here because he thought Britain a better place than South Africa. My mother was drawn here from the USA to write a PhD about Edmund Burke. I might cringe when I hear Billy Bragg singing about an identity which encompasses “morris dancing to Morrissey“, but I know what he is talking about. And I feel panicy if I’m out of the United Kingdom for too long.
One of the reasons that I write is that I do not doubt my conviction that open societies are better than closed ones, that pluralism is preferable to insularity, that friendship is stronger than brotherhood, and that submission to the will of others is inferior to the self-directed pursuit of happiness. I read Hassan Butt’s explanation of how his world fits together, not with envy, but with a recognition of the same confidence I feel in my own values.
This week, the New Statesman asks:
In order to persuade the unpersuaded to embrace rather than undermine our values, we need to display them as universal and not exclusive. To get to that point we need to agree exactly what values citizens and government should espouse, and how they should be put into action. This applies to clearly defined areas such as foreign affairs and education policy, as well as to more inchoate issues such as where tolerance of diversity begins and ends.
This isn’t the first time in history that families and friends have found their loved ones slipping away into the comfort of simplistic totalitatarianisms. To win them back, we have to overcome our shyness and begin to articulate without shame what it is that makes us proud to be who we are.