Monday, 15 May 2006

Clem's bluebell pictures

...from near Bristol. Wivenhoe wood is also looking pretty nice.

My entry for the Pimlott Prize

I wrote this for this year's Pimlott Prize, but didn't get shortlisted so I decided to put it up here. It's quite on the gloomy side but I am reasonably persuaded that the fundamental analysis is valid.

You can’t have your cake and eat it

A Lithuanian acquaintance, a graphic designer turned London scaffolder – better cash – took me on a tour of his neighbourhood, Plaistow in East London. We stopped at the Pakistani family whose home he shared, then visited the local beer hall. After a couple of pints, he asked me if I wanted to see “the whites-only pub”. We wandered in. It was dingy and depressing, not frightening (to me). A fat glum barmaid waited for customers. Silence and decay reigned.

The Left has decided that, after decades of peeling paint and lost custom, British identity needs a makeover – and a new, non-racist ownership. The renewed interest started with David Goodhart's essay in Prospect magazine, “Too Diverse?”, which claimed that too much cultural diversity could undermine solidarity, and that shared values might depend on a shared history. As radical Islam hit the headlines, the argument had legs. Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality attacked Goodhart as a “liberal Powellite”, but also broke with multiculturalism. Gordon Brown has weighed in with a speech on British identity. The debate has been lively and open-minded. Cultural relativism, the once-common view that value judgments could not cross cultural boundaries, is rarely heard. Neither are there calls for a return to bland ethnic uniformity. Instead, participants struggle to define Britishness as the core minimum that everyone in our society can and must accept. Do we need shared values? Attachment to institutions? Or a broader sense of history and heritage?

To see why this question has hit the agenda, take the family friend who arrived recently from Pakistan's North-West Frontier. A teenage girl, in Liverpool to study computing and business, she was scandalized by the locals: “No culture! No values! And” (lowering her voice) “we get abuse if we go out alone.” Talk of British identity is not just a response to religious extremism: there is also the guilty sense that our civic values are not what they once were. Hence, when the Home Secretary announced a “Britishness test” for immigrants, the wry cartoons of new arrivals answering questions on Burberry and binge-drinking.

How will redefining Britishness work in practice? You don't have to be a Marxist to think that a sense of identity can't just be developed by policy wonks, then handed out to the wider community. Before anything else, after all, national identity is about loyalty to a particular group: about whose side you are on. The English language, the common law, chicken tikka masaala, and other components of our national identity – warm beer and old maids on bicycles, as John Major put it, or liberty, fairness and civic pride if you prefer Gordon Brown's version – all ultimately rest on this foundation. At bottom a nation is just a group of people who are prepared to work together for their common good, what the philosopher John Rawls, in a slightly different context, called a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage”. So perhaps our first question should be, is there still a British nation at all?

Historically, British identity was like other nationalisms, bound up with war. National identity was needed because those that had it would defeat those who didn't. The high point of nationalism came after Napoleon's armies demonstrated the power of this principle Europe-wide. Modern warfare required mass citizen armies, which in turn required mass loyalty. In Britain, this loyalty bound classes together in an unequal partnership. Kipling, the poet of nationalism and empire, eulogized the working-class Tommy Atkins. For their part, the working classes in Britain and elsewhere notoriously sided with nation rather than class in 1914. (This was probably a wise choice: losing a war has worse consequences than losing some share of the surplus from economic development.) Historically, also, nations were communities of fate, in the sense that for almost all their inhabitants, migration to another country cost too much to consider except in dire emergency. It made sense to support the country you were born into, because there was no alternative.

However, the past was not an age of unambiguous national solidarity. The ruling classes could be passionately patriotic, but their attachment was to a particular idea of Britain, not necessarily to everyone within it. About a thousand Old Etonians were killed in the Great War – literally decimation, and an example of the disproportionate share of casualties taken by the officer classes – but at the same time the wealthy could teach their children, as George Orwell was taught, that “the lower classes smell”. David Cannadine’s history of imperial views, Ornamentalism, shows the mixed loyalties of British colonial administrators who might prefer native elites to their own countrymen: “in the Raj Quartet, Major Ronald Merrick, whose social background was relatively lowly, believed that ‘the English were superior to all other races, especially black’. But the Cambridge-educated Guy Perron feels a greater affinity with the Indian Hari Kumar, who went to the same public school as he did, than he does with Merrick… .” Kipling himself recognized that national solidarity waxed and waned as it seemed to be required: “... it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!' / But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot”. Britain was a partnership between classes, but an uneasy one.

The conditions for this partnership no longer exist. The threat of war in Europe has receded, as have the potential gains from military empire-building, and in any case mass citizen armies are redundant. Cheaper transport means that nations are more and more communities of choice, not fate. In particular, EU citizens have the right to live and work throughout the Union – a right which is particularly easy to exercise for the highly-skilled and rich. Peace and freedom are, needless to say, very good things, but they have removed the old bases for national identity. This is particularly true for political and social elites, who are increasingly integrated into global economic and social networks, and have correspondingly fewer connections with their own countries. (Here's a quick self-test to find out if you fit this description: how many times have you visited Paris? Now, how many times have you visited Liverpool?)

A liberal optimist would welcome the fact that the old nationalism is redundant. Britain can be a successful economy, attracting talent from around the world. In fact, if we pander to xenophobia by erecting barriers to trade or migration, we only harm ourselves by making our economies less efficient. Whose side should we be on? Nobody's and everybody's.

This perspective has undoubted appeal. It is uncompromisingly cosmopolitan and impartial: the welfare of a Chinese textile worker counts as much as that of a Scottish one, so why favour either over the other? And economic freedom, the creation of integrated world markets in goods and maybe one day in labour, genuinely does make the world richer.

The problem is that globalization, economic integration and freedom of movement affect different parts of countries differently and unequally. Divide the world into three parts: already rich, getting rich and getting poorer. London and Silicon Valley are examples of the rich parts – magnets of talent and ambition. People come there to succeed. They power the world's knowledge economy, and their inhabitants reap corresponding rewards. The rich areas nowadays source much of their talent from the “getting rich” areas: India provides about one third of Silicon Valley's engineers. Both sides benefit from the relationship. Workers from developing countries “send money home”, as Western Union's advert puts it, and often return themselves, bringing new skills.

But not everywhere is like this. Some areas are getting poorer – not absolutely, but relatively. They lack the skills and the infrastructure to compete with the rich areas, but have higher labour costs than the developing world. Consider East Germany. Capital from the West has streamed past it to Eastern Europe, while cheap workers have gone in the opposite direction. Since unification its population has shrunk by 2 million. Or think of Southern Italy, which is such a drain on national resources that the Northern League is calling for secession. (The cruel paradox is that political unity with the rich parts of the world, and the corresponding labour market regulation, is often what makes these areas so unappealing to globally mobile capital.)

If the people in these areas only cared about absolute wealth, the gains from globalisation would outweigh the no doubt temporary pains of adjustment to a fairer and more open world. Alas, humans aren't like that. Adam Smith suggested that it was better to be an English peasant than a king in Africa, who might be the absolute ruler of ten thousand people, but was worse clothed and housed. Stanford undergraduates have settled that question empirically: asked whether they would prefer being twice as rich as they were, if everyone around them were four times richer, or twice as poor but with everyone else four times poorer, they overwhelmingly plumped for the latter. This is not just about envy. As Mind The Gap, Richard Wilkinson's book on health and inequality, argues, relative poverty is fundamentally bad for your health, making you more stressed, more prone to heart attacks and likely to die younger.

The logic of globalization is that Coventry, say, will someday soon be poorer than Bombay, and less connected to London. (This inevitable development could not be changed by any improvement in our workforce's education, contrary to New Labour mythology. Large countries are more important markets than small ones, and their commercial centres draw on a greater pool of talent. Besides, why should developing countries be less able to improve their education systems than we are?) Whatever the absolute gains from free trade, this fall in relative status will be bitterly resented, and there will be enormous political pressure to interfere in the market. In effect, the poorer parts of Britain will ask the rich parts: whose side are you on?

Not everybody has yet understood the lost basis of traditional British identity. Perhaps it is least understood by those who have most to lose. The danger is that when they do, and when they see themselves falling increasingly behind the richer areas of the country, they will seek different repositories for their allegiance. These new groups will not represent Britain in the traditional sense – the old agreement between the classes – but they will call themselves British, and very likely define Britishness by ethnicity. Then our politics really will take on a grimly communal cast.

This has happened already elsewhere. The debate over British identity was fuelled by the visibility of militant Islam, but in the long run a more important context may be the emergence of the radical nationalist Right across Europe. We like to think that our relatively weak Far Right is due to the British tradition of tolerance and moderation. In fact it probably has more to do with the first-past-the-post electoral system, which prevents extremists from getting a foothold. That, however, does not apply in political arenas beyond Westminster – arenas which will become more important, if the cross-party consensus in favour of decentralization has practical results.

This worry explains New Labour's sudden interest in defining Britishness, and in particular the focus on what can bind Britons of different races together. The intention is creditable. But if it is going to be more than a public relations exercise, it will require progressive opinion in this country to make choices for which it is rather unprepared, but which follow inevitably from the view that national identity is at bottom about loyalty to people rather than ideas.

The first of these is that you cannot lecture people on national pride until you have some yourself. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that people with a college degree are about half as likely to say they are “very proud” of being British than people without a qualification. Fair enough: nationalism lost popularity with educated people because of changing economic conditions, but also because it was correctly believed to be the root of many 20th century evils. We are now rediscovering the positive side, though, and would like a new patriotism for the 21st century. Doing that calls less for creative, multicultural redefinitions – we have plenty of those already – than for a new commitment to Britain by those who have the most choice in the matter.

Secondly, this commitment must be reflected in policy. Both major parties have rejected economic protectionism in favour of free trade and openness. Retreating into protectionism and populism would indeed be a terrible mistake. The best way to avoid it is to give greater priority, in social policy, to protecting British communities whose status is endangered by globalization. This requires a hard choice between competing values. Take a simple example. A new publication by the Young Foundation, The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict, describes the resentment felt by white East End families when the old system for allocating public housing, based on residence and connection to the community, was replaced by one based on need alone. From a universalist perspective, this resentment simply expresses a formerly privileged group’s unjust sense of entitlement. Residents might, and do, reply that they were owed something as Britons, partners in an ongoing social contract which should not have been broken for the sake of charitable motives. Both views are reasonable, but only one is compatible with talking about national identity.

Which leads unavoidably to an issue most Left-wingers won’t like. Bluntly, if you define Britishness without ethnicity, then you need some other way of defining national membership, and that implies a tough line on immigration. The logic of talking about British identity is to tell people in economically deprived and dislocated areas, “we are on your side, we are part of one nation, you can rely on us to help you through the pains of globalization”. That promise means nothing if the group you point at as the focus of your loyalty can be expanded at will to suit the demands of the market. It’s not a racial issue: opinion polls in 2003 showed that majorities of blacks and Asians, like their white compatriots, saw immigration as out of control. This is unsurprising. Pakistanis in Bradford, just like whites in Essex, face the threat of globalization. There are surely prejudices involved, but the most important one is the – no doubt very unjust – prejudice of disadvantaged and economically insecure Britons in favour of themselves.

Specifically, nobody yet knows whether openness to migration, in an age of cheap travel, can be combined with a generous welfare state, including universal free education and healthcare. On the face of it, it seems extremely improbable. More likely is the USA’s pattern of high growth but very large inequalities. (The United States has combined this with a strong sense of patriotism, and a national identity based on immigrants' dreams of prosperity and success. Perhaps the American dream is simply a myth to justify an unfair society. Whatever truth it has comes from the fact that most US citizens are immigrants or their relatively recent descendants: they or their forefathers – with the obvious exception of African Americans – chose to live somewhere with a lot of freedom but not much security. That is clearly not the case for Britons.)

The Left, and the British political system in general, faces a choice of values: internationalism or nationalism? The power and appeal of internationalism, a proud Left tradition, was shown in widespread support for the Make Poverty History campaign against European trade barriers which harm the developing world's peasant farmers. There is nothing wrong with wanting to treat Chinese and Scottish textile workers the same. But you cannot do that and simultaneously call for a renewed sense of national identity.

The Plaistow pub will probably still stand empty for a long while. Who would ever want to go back there? We could build something more modern, a warm, welcoming place for people of all races. But to do this, we need to rebuild from the foundations, rather than merely changing the d├ęcor. In other words, we need not just a different way of expressing national identity, but a new nation which citizens of all races and classes are part of. Alternatively, we can embrace the global market, stay on an economically liberal path (with a few prudent concessions to the misguided majority), let the world benefit, and let outmoded loyalties die in peace.