Sunday, 5 February 2012

The debate on Britishness

One of the more unusual features of the last decade in politics was a debate on British identity and "Britishness".  Though this has to a large extent been eclipsed by the financial crisis and the recession, it is worth reflecting on how the debate arose and what emerged from it.

The failure of multiculturalism?

Large-scale immigration has been a feature of British life since the end of the Second World War.  While this almost inevitably led to a growth in racism and community tensions in some parts of British society, the widespread progressive view was that the best response to immigration from Asian, African and Caribbean cultures was multiculturalism rather than French-style assimilationism.  In its strong form, multiculturalism first came into its own in the 1980s, but its founding principles were older.  In 1966, the great reforming Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said:
I do not regard [integration] as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think that we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman… I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.
Lord Parekh, the leading academic theorist of multiculturalism, has this to say about it:
It is based on two basic beliefs. First, culture matters to people as an important source of their values and ideals, the basis of family cohesion, and the source of continuity. It therefore deserves respect and should not be undermined in a zeal for assimilationist integration.

Second, no culture is self-contained and self-authenticating. It has its strengths, and limitations, treasures and blind spots, and needs to engage in a critical dialogue with others. A multicultural society is one where cultures interact and learn from each other rather than one composed of sealed ghettos.
The other side of this coin is that Britishness was seen as a reactionary and backward notion.  Linda Colley famously argued in 1992 that Britain was
an invented nation heavily dependent for its 'raison d’etre' on a broadly Protestant culture, on the threat and tonic of recurrent war, especially war with France, and on the triumphs, profits, and Otherness represented by a massive overseas empire.
To be sure, there was a tradition of patriotic feeling on the left, in which national pride was qualified by an awareness of the social injustices in contemporary British society.  George Orwell is exemplary here:
In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions.... Where are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a certain point. The English electoral system, for instance, is an all but open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways it is gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class. But until some deep change has occurred in the public mind, it cannot become completely corrupt. You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote, nor are the votes miscounted, nor is there any direct bribery.... The hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England. He is a symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape.
Nevertheless, progressive thought both eschewed the notion of native British national sentiment and favoured cultural pluralism as a mechanism for addressing the issues arising out of large-scale immigration.

Britishness and British identity, by contrast, didn't pose a problem for the right, in either its moderate or militant guises.  Most notoriously, there was the crude racism of the National Front, together with the slightly less crude ethnic chauvinism of the Powellite right.  Then there was more traditional conservative patriotism, which was last on show in all its anachronistic pomp at the time of the Falklands War (it survives, in a more camp and less militaristic register, in the Last Night of the Proms).  Finally, and increasingly, there was the anti-immigrant sentiment of the new right (as exemplified by this typically charm-free offering from Mark Steyn).

It was around the turn of the millennium that things started to change.  Immigration and culture rose up the political agenda.  The number of immigrants increased significantly in the 1990s, and asylum claims in particular increased substantially after Labour won the 1997 general election.  The influential Parekh Report on multiculturalism was published in 1998, followed in 1999 by the Macpherson Report, which accused the Metropolitan Police of "institutional racism".  In 2001, there came the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which raised questions around the relationship between multiculturalism and radical Islamism, and the "milltown riots", involving working-class white and Asian communities in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley.

What developed was something very strange, at least by comparison with what had come before.  Multiculturalism began to be attacked from the left.  An early example of this was articulated by the Conservative politician David Willetts in 1998:
The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties which they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state. People ask, "Why should I pay for them when they are doing things I wouldn’t do?" This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided that you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the US you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. Progressives want diversity but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests.
A lively debate developed on the centre-left.  In February 2004, David Goodhart published an article in the Blairite magazine Prospect entitled "Too Diverse?", and the magazine returned to the subject again the following year.  The Fabian Society got interested in the issue too, and subsequently chose as the theme of its 2006 conference "Who do we want to be? The future of Britishness".  In 2005, Vince Cable wrote in a report for Demos:
While ‘multiculturalism’ may have played a positive role in encouraging respect for other faiths and traditions it has had the negative effects of stereotyping, of encouraging exaggerated deference to unrepresentative ‘community leaders’ and creating in the political world the dangerous – and erroneous – idea that Britain’s ethnic minorities are ‘vote banks’ rather than aggregations of individuals. And as Trevor Phillips among others has argued, it also detracts from the important task of creating a sense of shared identity called ‘Britishness’, and allows racialism to flourish behind an outward veneer of politeness and respect for different ways of life.
Demos followed this up with a further pamphlet by Goodhart entitled Progressive Nationalism.

New Labour attempted to use legislation and executive orders to bolster British identity, notably in the form of school citizenship classes (2002), citizenship ceremonies (2004), the "Life in the UK" citizenship test (2005) and a relaxation of the rules on flying the union flag on public buildings (2007).  (When I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, you didn't regularly see union flags flying in public, either on public buildings or elsewhere.  Displaying the flag was not far off being a political act - and a right-wing one to boot.)  In 2008, Lord Goldsmith produced a report entitled Citizenship: Our Common Bond (which I blogged about here).  Towards the end of the 2000s, both Labour and the Conservatives flirted with the idea of a British bill of rights to complement or replace the Human Rights Act.

Gordon Brown's interest in Britishness was well-known.  One of his first acts in office was to publish a green paper entitled The Governance of Britain, which contained a section on national identity and citizenship.  Two other Labour ministers, Ruth Kelly, and Liam Byrne, wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in 2007 on the same subject.


This stuff matters

This debate cannot be dismissed as a frivolous jeu d'esprit which has rightly slipped down the agenda, to be replaced with more important matters now that the economy has crashed.  Anxieties around culture and identity are central to the rise of extremist parties across Europe, from the Front National in France to Jobbik in Hungary:
[A]ll of their supporters share one core feature: their profound hostility towards immigration, multiculturalism and rising cultural and ethnic diversity. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that these citizens are motivated by feelings of economic competition from immigrants and minority groups, feelings of cultural threat are the most important driver of their support. For these citizens, the decisive motive is the feeling that immigration and rising diversity threaten their national culture, the unity of their national community and way of life.
In 2005, the ETHNOS consultancy found that there was a sense of resentment among white Brits about perceived favouritism shown to members of ethnic minorities, coupled with feelings of victimisation among those minorities themselves:
[M]any white participants said that they did not know any longer what it meant to be British. They felt strongly that many of the attributes which they thought of as essentially British were no longer observable in their everyday life.... [A] large proportion of the discussion focused on the decline of some idealised notion of Britishness that had existed in the past....

This was accompanied by confusion and dejection about contemporary Britishness. There was no equivalent sense of loss and decline in the groups made up of people from ethnic minorities. Their views were more focused on the difficulties of the present....
Most white participants in the study attributed what they perceived as a decline in Britishness to an increase in the ethnic minority population of Britain, which in turn placed financial demands on welfare services and encouraged the growth of moral pluralism, and the ‘politically correctness’ of national, regional and local government and of the European Union in dealing with ethnic minorities. Both white and Muslim respondents felt victimised, and the former predicted civil unrest as a result of growing tension between the white majority and the ethnic minority, especially Muslim, populations.

Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia

Since the 1990s, Britain's Muslim community has been at the centre of debates about integration and identity.  This was something of a new development.  Prior to the 1990s, the community fault-lines had been defined by race or national origin ("Black", "Asian", "Pakistani") rather than by religion.

The Satanic Verses controversy in 1989 was instrumental in this regard.  Also of significance was an influx of Islamist ideas from abroad (spread by organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir and preachers like Omar Bakri) and concern over the fate of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya.  Increasing concerns about the perceived threats of Islam and Islamophobia grew.  In February 1997, the Runnymede Trust produced a milestone report entitled Islamophobia: A challenge for us all.  The BNP shifted its generalised racism and anti-semitism to a focus on the Muslim community.  Then came 9/11, followed by an influx of Muslim immigrants in the 2000s (the Muslim population reportedly increased from 1,591,000 in 2001 to 2,869,000 in 2010).  Anxieties about culture and identity were not assuaged when Muslim schoolgirls unsuccessfully tried to use the Human Rights Act to challenge bans on wearing forms of Islamic dress (R (Begum) v Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School [2006] UKHL 15; R (X) v Head Teacher and Governors of Y School [2008] 2 All ER 249).

It is no coincidence that David Cameron delivered his condemnation last year of "state multiculturalism" in the context of a speech on radicalisation and Islamist terrorism.  Indeed, it appears that cultural factors are an important driver of radicalisation.  The Government's anti-radicalisation "Prevent" strategy notes:
Some recent academic work suggests that radicalisation occurs as people search for identity, meaning and community.... We note that organisations working on Prevent have also found evidence to support the theory that identity and community are essential factors in radicalisation....

[The 2010 Citizenship Survey] has also shown that people who distrust Parliament, who believe that ethnic and faith groups should not mix, and who see a conflict between being British and their own cultural identity are all likely to be more supportive of violent extremism.

What is Britishness anyway?

There have been numerous surveys on this question over the last few years.

In 2004, the 21st British Social Attitudes Survey included figures measuring the importance attached by respondents to different elements of Britishness:
% who say "very" or "fairly important" 
Speak English - 87%
British Citizenship - 83%
Respect laws/institutions - 82%
Feel British - 74%
Born in Britain - 70%
Lived life in Britain - 69%
Sharing customs/traditions - 52%
Have British ancestry - 46%
Be a Christian - 31%
In 2005, the Commission for Racial Equality commissioned a survey on the same issue.  This survey found that, while different participants bought into the concept of Britishness to differing degrees, there was a general consensus on what it consisted of.  This consensus clustered around eight themes:
  1. Geography.  Britain was identified as an island nation with a distinctive topography of its own.
  2. National symbols.  In particular, the union flag and royal family were repeatedly mentioned.
  3. People.  The survey identified competing views of the British as being English; as being a mixture of English, Scottish and Welsh; and as being inherently diverse and multicultural.
  4. Values and attitudes.  Characteristically British attributes identified by the participants included freedom, fairness, tolerance, and also reserve, pride, a work ethic and a community spirit - together with drunkenness and hooliganism.
  5. Cultural habits and behaviour.  These include queueing, sport (football, cricket and rugby in particular) and certain types of food and drink.
  6. Citizenship as a legal status, and possession of a passport.
  7. The English language.
  8. Achievements - political and historical, technological, sporting and cultural.
This is as persuasive a list as any survey is likely to turn up.


Moving forward?

In a sense, this whole debate is artificial.  National identities are human constructs, not eternal verities dictated by God or Nature.  Ethnic and cultural homogeneity is a bit of a myth.  The American sociologist Professor Todd Gitlin has written, a little polemically:
[I]n the history of nations, there was rarely as much cultural homogeneity as partisans of purism imagine. Hyphenated nations, replete with complexities of language, religion and custom, were more the rule than the exception. A history of hyphenated identities is usually masked by the official cultivators of national uniformities. Bombastic jingos airbrush the complexities out and read their present day fantasies of monolithic nations back into the myths they call history.
Nevertheless, there are grounds for thinking that both the left and the right have got Britishness wrong - the right by distilling it into a narrow selection of icons and fetishes, and by linking it with a generalised hostility to immigrants, and the left by mistaking national identity for reactionary nationalism and trying to replace it with a multiculturalism which is too ill-defined to support a cohesive society.  A 2008 report suggested:
Those on the left have misunderstood the form and function of patriotism but those on the right have got it wrong too: they think patriotism means adherence to a set of institutions, historical narratives and deference to certain manifestations of the mystic nation.... What makes it into the right’s pantheon of patriotism is largely determined by a narrow, historical and sometimes mythological set of beliefs about Britain, which are unbendable, unchanging and increasingly inaccessible....
The fetishisation of particular institutions and traditions as markers of patriotism has contributed to a disconnect between what people believe patriotism is in principle and how they feel it in reality.... The right often answers this complaint with a call to arms – to re-engage the public with those symbols and institutions, but this, like the left’s attempt to provide alternative narratives, gets patriotism quite wrong....
The question of how to ride the tiger of British national identity without it turning into an ugly exclusionist nationalism is one that still requires an answer.