You can’t have your cake and eat it
A Lithuanian acquaintance, a graphic designer turned
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
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
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
The conditions for this partnership no longer exist. The threat of war in
A liberal optimist would welcome the fact that the old nationalism is redundant.
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.
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
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
The logic of globalization is that
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 décor. 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.