Dominic Grieve QC MP, Shadow Attorney General, explores the concept of Britishness, This is an abridged version of a speech he gave as the 10th Wilberforce Address for the Conservative Christian Fellowship this week.
That there is now confusion about Britishness is without doubt. Part
of the confusion comes from muddling different concepts. The
Government is equating State citizenship with Britishness. But people
cannot be told to be British, Britishness is identity which people have
to feel while British Citizenship is increasingly seen as a portal to
the consumption of State services with no little requirement to
subscribe to a common identity at all. These two ideas have clashed.
There has been for a long time a consistent pattern of those on the
Left attacking national symbols and culture for anti establishment
reasons – arguing that it reinforced traditional values and hierarchy
and was thus inimical to socialist progress in creating a new society.
They have sought to deconstruct it. And as social revolution has been
resisted by the innate conservatism of the population the preferred
weapon has been the imperative need to adapt Britishness to diversity
The ex Mayor of London Mr Livingstone, has been a supreme champion of
multiculturalism. He devoted a large budget to encouraging
compartmentalised self expression in each ethnic or religious grouping
under his patronage. The justification is that each has been a victim
of discrimination and requires support to assert itself.
Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me. The presence in Britain of people of many cultures is an enriching fact. In our age of global population movement it is vital that we understand and respect the contribution and value that other cultures can bring us. I believe that familiarity with diversity can add to our national well being, a larger pool of talent encourages creativity and broader comprehension of the human condition.
But most immigrants arrive here with the culture of their own country of origin and usually little knowledge of our own. Instead of the State taking active steps to help harmonisation, under the creed of multiculturalism, the opposite happens.
It is also clear from the disaffection felt by many Britons with the state of Britain that the apparent replacement of the recognition of older national ways with those based on multiculturalism does not seem to have provided adequate compensation for what is felt to have been lost.
This isn’t surprising. While Labour Governments have been earnestly emphasising the contribution of other nations and cultures to our polity, the one group that has received a disproportionate amount of opprobrium is the English and the English make up 85% of the population. .
I also noted with amusement that last week Martin Kettle, that apologist of New Labour attacked Gordon Brown for St George’s Day flag waving. He demanded “the potent English traditions that have nothing to do with flags and everything to do with the tradition of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Blake, Shelley, Morris and Orwell-of a free, shared and inspired England that has never existed but remains, in the Albion of our imagination, the England many of us desire.”
The English have also lost out on political governance. The British state in its old constitutional form was the English state adapted to encompass the diversity of new participants. But that is a different thing to what we now have after devolution. There is a widespread perception that England is now disadvantaged and disempowered by national institutions that give special privileges to all except the English. It is this as much as the narrower West Lothian question that produces the problems
We should not be surprised then that British identity has decayed seeing that the English contribution has always been its single biggest component by virtue of population numbers and history.
Being British is to accept as part of oneself an identity that includes one in an historical process, recognises the legacy of shared past endeavour, celebrates the present benefits of Britain and looks with hope to a shared future. From it comes a willingness to accept the constraints that allows that future to emerge through the democratic process.
People can be told that they are citizens and that by being so they have certain rights and civic responsibilities symbolised by being given a passport or an ID card. But it is what the citizens then do and think which has and will create a culture – it is this way around. Loss of a shared sense of Britishness is not a cause but a symptom of the real problem.
So returning to the question posed to me Britishness- useful or redundant? Should we and can we restore a sense of Britishness?
I believe that the things which unite us in common bond and can bring us together and command respect are still there but they are hidden beneath the surface.
I, therefore, suggest that one of the key problems we are facing at the moment is that state-imposed norms are inducing a sclerosis in the exchanges between individuals and groups, which is preventing the organic development and renewal of British national identity. Whether it is a Scottish Nationalist or Muslim Fundamentalist, the opportunity has never been better for those who wish to argue that the compartmentalisation of one’s existence into comfort zones with a narrow appeal is better than toleration and co- operation with others to achieve common goals.
If we want a common British identity and I believe we need one, then I would recommend that the first thing we must do as politicians is to let go a bit. If individuals and families are freed from the constraints of regulation and the dictates of political correctness to find their own relationships with each other, then the common themes which form any national culture and identity will emerge of themselves.
We can, in government, also take steps to facilitate this evolutionary process.
At present it is perfectly obvious from the level of discontent engendered that current levels are unsustainable. Rates of immigration are a matter on which existing citizens have a legitimate right to have a determining view. Attending to the views expressed by British citizens of every ethnic background is an essential step in promoting cohesion.
Secondly, we need to imbue citizenship with more status than it has at present. Its acquisition should not be seen as a consumer good but as a privilege that carries with it clear responsibilities to others. Both main Parties are feeling their way to a possible Bill of Rights that also may enshrine responsibilities. But if these to be effective they need to be taught as civics in schools in the context of a good understanding of our history.
Suppression of and damage to English national identity must be addressed. Given Devolution we must deal speedily with the West Lothian question and provide England with better control of its affairs restoring a sense of purposeful nationhood in England. This is to not to argue for any separatist agenda but to rebalance the relationships within the union
We need to restore the principles of freedom and equality under the law as central to our nationhood. Just as Britishness is being undermined by perceived inequalities in the treatment of the different constituent groupings of the UK, so it is also by a system of governance that gives privileges to particular ethnic and religious groups and not on the basis of need. Celebrating our heritage of freedom under the law means maintaining it for tomorrow and reversing the trends that are disempowering the individual against the State.
If we do these things then I think it is likely that the community of values we seek to create will coalesce round those things which people naturally share in common. If, therefore, we give them that opportunity, then the recreation of shared national identity will happen naturally.
If we can set the right political conditions, then we will acquire a national identity that is vibrant, rooted in our past history, resilient and flexible in accommodating newcomers. That will be as useful to us as the abstract process currently being carried out by New Labour to re-invent Britishness is redundant.