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Living together after 11 September and the rise of the Right

Article by Mark Leonard, Director of The Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

Britishness rarely occupies the centre ground of political debate. But it often lurks behind and shapes some of the most controversial political choices: Should we join the euro? What should our immigration and asylum policies be? Should we intervene in Iraq? Should there be state funding for religious schools?

The thread that links these difficult and different dilemmas is the question of living together at home as the population becomes ever more diverse and globally as we come to terms with greater interdependence and need to devise new forms of governance to solve our common problems. Identity has always been a site of conflict involving choices and decisions about who to include and who to exclude. It is made up of a potent mix of symbols, myths, historic events, institutions, values and traditions. But the choice of our reference points (whether Margaret Thatchers celebration of Victorian entrepreneurs, John Majors nostalgia for the close-knit communities of the 1950s, or Tony Benns evocation of the chartists) is always heavily political.

In this collection of essays, we explore how a modern, inclusive, outward-looking notion of Britishness can be used as a guide through difficult issues and how it can become a reality. This collection aims to take stock of where the political project of forging a modern and inclusive patriotism has got to in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, the riots of summer 2001 and the elections in France and Holland. Together these pieces, which were written at various points following the attacks of 11 September, deal with four areas. Firstly, they explore the elements of what could be called a clear political project which will help us respond coherently to events which challenge. Secondly, they ask us to identify shared British values. Thirdly, they look at the elements in our community which have found it hard to integrate. Finally, they explore the idea of integration – how Britishness plays out in practice in local communities and labour markets.

Britishness as a political project

If British identity is defined primarily through a desire to preserve our political and cultural institutions in their current form, a pride in our heavy industrial heritage, and an adherence to Protestantism as the established religion, the policy implications will be clear: domestic policy will be driven by a fear of immigration on cultural grounds, and foreign policy by a defence of national sovereignty, and a mistrust of multilateral institutions.

If, on the other hand, we define Britishness according to values rather than unchanging institutions or a single religion, and celebrate Britains global links, its openness to other cultures, its democracy and its creativity, then we will have a foreign policy based on pooling sovereignty with others to solve shared problems, building effective forms of international engagement and immigration policies suited to our economic needs and global responsibilities.

This was the battle for Britishness which Tony Blair pledged to join in one of his first speeches as Labour Party leader when he promised to turn Britain into a young country. His determination to seize the flag from the Conservative Party was part of a political strategy that also led him to develop progressive narratives around the touchstone issues of crime, defence and the family. The importance of this strategy is underlined by the Conservative politician David Willets: What our opponents once most feared about us, and perhaps still do to this day, is that somehow Conservatives understood the drumbeat of national identity. We had an ability to reach the hearts of the electors and evoke instincts and emotions which were a closed book to the rationalist progressives.

On the surface the battle for the soul of the country has already been won. The multi-ethnic nature of the Jubilee celebrations showed how the Monarchy is joining a growing range of institutions from the BBC and the Foreign Office to the Metropolitan Police and the Army that are seeking to become more representative of the make-up of contemporary Britain. Perhaps the most visible sign is the change in tone from the Conservative Party. When the comedian Jim Davidson arrived up at Tory Central Office on election night in 2001 he said, “I’m just scratching my head thinking, am I part of this country now? William Hague had claimed that asylum seekers and the European Union would turn Britain into a foreign country and British voters had comprehensively rejected him. Today, the Conservative Party beams with pride over the appointment of a Hindu as vice-chair, a new unit in Conservative Central Office is scouring the country for candidates from ethnic minorities, and their home affairs spokesperson, Oliver Letwin, poses as the voice of reason, patiently lecturing David Blunkett over his choice of language. As Matthew DAncona states in his piece, these moves are in part a return to the traditions of the Conservative Party which do not tell law-abiding people how to live their lives, raise their families, or practice religion.

The embrace by the British people of a modern and inclusive identity is possibly one of the most significant (and under-acknowledged) achievements of the Blair Government in the first term. In spite of the medias mockery of Cool Britannia and the Millennium Dome, and the negative reactions to political speeches that saw Chicken Tikka Massala as a unifying symbol of modern Britain there had been a palpable shift in the way that Britishness has been defined and celebrated by people across the country. But, as Philip Dodd points out in his essay, the limits of this metropolitan celebration of diversity are being tested. And even more importantly, the concern with identity has been more about electoral politics than a way of anchoring a progressive political agenda in the national story. For this to happen the political account of Britishness must be more than celebratory: as well as setting out the values that must be celebrated (diversity, fairness, creativity, internationalism), we must also have a consensus on the British demons that must be exorcised (muddling through, racism, euroscepticism).

Though the contours of a modern and inclusive British identity are already supported across the political spectrum, our discourse on national identity has continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. The riots of 2001 created a heated debate about English language lessons which polarised people between demands for cultural assimilation and accusations of linguistic imperialism. And the rise of the far Right in Europe both played to British smugness (this couldnt happen here!) and led worried politicians to adopt the language of the Right and talk of swamping. The attacks of 11 September in many ways crystallised these paradoxes by forcing Muslims to choose their allegiance and fuelled prejudices against refugees and migrants.

What became clear is how easily events can throw the whole debate about Britishness into confusion. Take for example the recent dispute over faith schools. While the parameters of the debate would have been straightforward in a country such as France where secular education is enshrined in the Constitution, in Britain we found ourselves torn between the fear of further isolation among different groups and the belief in community rights which argue in favour of letting each group chose. Ultimately, the issue got brushed under the carpet and remains unresolved. British policymakers had no compass to navigate them through a complex debate which had huge implications for key areas education and community cohesion, among others.

What are British Values and will they help us make these decisions?

When conflicts arise, the political class searches for ties that bind. Both David Blunkett and Peter Hain recently declared that immigrants need to be more British but their invocation of British values merely highlighted the extent to which there is confusion about the content of British identity.

Fifty years ago when Herbert Morrison launched the Festival of Britain, he spoke of a new Britain springing form the battered fabric of the old. But the country he was celebrating was very different from the one which his grandson, Peter Mandelson, referred to when he reclaimed the slogan of New Britain for Tony Blairs new Labour Party. This shows how our definition of identity needs to reflect the nature of our times the interdependence of countries and growing migration, and the independence of citizens who no longer fit easily into the traditional categories of nationality, class, gender or race. In a time of peace and prosperity we must also accept that national identity will be worn more lightly it is unlikely to be something for which we will have to die, and our attachment to it will be contingent (my country right or wrong is not a sentiment felt by my generation).

But the fact that national identity must be lighter and more inclusive does not mean that it should be vague. Whatever the hopes of the liberal elite we cant just be global citizens. The failure of progressives to engage in the conflict about national identity simply leaves the field open for those with a more regressive agenda to set the terms of the debate. In the second section of this collection Michael Wills, David Lammy and Francesca Klug therefore try to provide a more precise definition of some of our national values.

Of course the quest to define British values must be related to a broader idea of citizenship and embodied in national and local institutions. As Michael Wills points out in his chapter, it is difficult to create a sense of belonging to a nation if people do not feel that being part of this imagined community brings them any benefits. One of the clearest signs that Britain was going through an identity crisis in the last decade was the collapse in support for most of the national institutions: the House of Commons, the Monarchy, the judiciary, and the civil service. It is interesting to note that a few institutions have managed to maintain strong popular support in the polls: the NHS, the Army, and the BBC.

These institutions are popular because they are becoming emblematic of the greater diversity of Britain, as we move from having an identity based on the idea of a majority host community with ethnic minorities living in its midst (or a community of communities, as Bkikhu Parekh calls it) into a mongrel nation with diversity at the heart of the identity of the majority. One could even argue that the reason these institutions stand out is because they remain the living embodiment of transcendental values which are at the heart of British identity: the NHS stands for fairness and solidarity, the armed forces for Britains internationalism, and the BBC for our creativity. Each of these values has a long history, but each is being lived out in new ways today, as David Lammys piece on internationalism shows. The biggest challenge is dealing with clashes of values in a diverse society, and Francesca Klugs piece shows that human rights and the Human Rights Act, can help to create a framework for defining and dealing with conflicts.

Who is excluded?

The riots in the Northern towns did not just show the gulf between theories of a diverse identity and the reality of segregation on the ground. They also showed that problems of integration at the margins can create a major crisis for the core of our identity. The third section of this book looks at three instances of exclusion.

Ziauddin Sardar examines the difficulties of being a Muslim in Britain after 11 September, and explains how the traditional ways that we have thought of identity (related to geography, race or class) and the intrinsic secularism of Britishness make it difficult for Muslims to feel part of Britain.

Adrienne Katz looks at the pressures on young people in the inner cities. Many are victims of bullying and racism. As a result of being picked on they cannot feel part of the majority society, or their own communities. She describes the peculiar dilemma of fitting in or fighting back, and describes how a group of retaliators is resorting to gangs, weapons and violence to create an identity and sense of self-worth. Citizenship lessons and model youth parliaments will not reach this group in society, but responsive strategies which are in touch with the micro realities of young peoples lives (what happens during the walk to school or on the playground) can.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes about the biggest blind spot of the Left on identity. While Ministers will line up to talk about Scottishness, Welshnes and the value of diversity, Englishness is the final taboo. Englishness is usually dismissed as a meaningless level of identity (a pastiche identity of maypole dancing and nuns cycling in the mist) which must be broken down into its meaningful components of Cornish, Geordies, Socusers, etc. Part of the problem is the legitimate fear that tolerating English patriotism might lead to the lunacy of an English Parliament. But it is perfectly possible to give space to a debate about Englishness without thinking that an English Parliament would bring decisions any closer to the people than Westminster. The challenge, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown points out, is surely to get involved in defining an inclusive, progressive English identity rather than retreating from the debate altogether and leaving the ground clear for the peddlers of anachronistic nationalism.

These three instances of exclusion came together spectacularly in the Northern towns last summer: white English exclusion mixed with the anxiety of Muslims, and the alienation of the young retaliators from both of these groups.

Community and integration

Ultimately the success of the quest for a modern British identity will depend on the Governments ability to give British Citizenship meaning for everyone who lives in the country. David Blunkett shows that in an age of migration, it is essential for a society to debate and define its foundation values and to inculcate them in its own citizens and its newcomers. A clear pathway towards promoting citizenship for newcomers is an essential and progressive step towards creating a framework for migration policies which are dictated by economic and social needs rather than racial or cultural prejudices. Establishing that all people who live or are born in Britain are accepted as long as they accept the responsibilities of citizenship, is an essential part of creating a progressive account of citizenship, but it must not be used to marginalize migrants who wish to retain their original nationality.

Moreover, the trappings of citizenship will be meaningless unless we actually give people a stake in our local communities. In After Multiculturalism Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote about how multicultural policies which defend group rights and link the allocation of resources to ethnicity can lead to segregation and a perpetual sense of minority status amongst second or third generation children (including those of mixed races). Furthermore, as described in Shamit Saggars essay, these attempts to define citizenship in a way that celebrates diversity must go hand-in hand with policies to tackle the stark, racially defined differences that still plague the labour market. By using both gross measurements (which quantify basic statistics such as earning and unemployment levels) and net measurements (which relate these differences to other factors such as gender and education) of ethnic penalties the chapter reveals that minority groups score worse in both the net and the gross stakes. The chapter describes how, for example, how Pakistani and Bangladeshi men still earn on average 163 per week less than their white counterpart with similar educational levels. More worryingly, it shows how stories about the minorities who have made it, such as Chinese and Indian-Britons, may not be as representative in reality, with these groups achievements not being commensurate with their levels of education. As long as ethnic penalties affect certain groups more than others it will be impossible to talk of a nation at ease with itself.

It will be very difficult to create the well-managed system of migration that David Blunkett advocates, unless we make the integration of newcomers work in real communities. Phoebe Griffith and Sacha Chan-Kam uncover how Britains self-image as a tolerant country belies great ignorance and deep hostility to refugees. They argue that the key to turning this around is to reshape the debate so that it no longer focuses exclusively on who should be allowed in or out, but rather on how the 50% of asylum seekers who are awarded the right to remain can be given the opportunity to make a full contribution to the British economy and society. They show that integration has to be a two-way process with newcomers having obligations such as learning English and looking for work but in return the Government must supply English lessons, sensible labour market policies, and conduct public education campaigns to try to reduce ignorance. This is essential as our policies fore dealing with refugees today could avoid the segregation which could lead to social unrest tomorrow.

Conclusion: a symbolic policy

In her Millennium Lecture, the historian Linda Colley said that politicians should spend less time asking agonised questions about the viability of Britishness. What would make people relate to Britishness, she argued, would be the success of policies which both made a difference to peoples lives and helped them connect tangibly with the debate.

The government needs to start thinking in terms of small, symbolic innovations which can send positive shock waves across the board and address peoples fears and concerns. In this context, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers will be key because it speaks volumes about the way in which we relate to both the rest of the world and with each other as a nation.

If the Government is going to bring its domestic policies into line with its rhetoric about global communities, it needs to devote some real attention to developing innovative policies in this area. One way would be to learn from some of the most positive policies around the world. For example, one policy that could seriously reshape our debate would be to adopt a UK Refugee Sponsorship Scheme based on the Canadian sponsorship project described in Chapter 11. This could do for the current programme of rejuvenating Britishness what Thatchers council house policies did for her economic reforms. Like Thatchers policy which has had a lasting impact precisely because it encapsulated the ethos of the Thatcher government spreading the message of property-owning capitalism to those considered working class a sponsorship scheme could help displace some of the demons that plague the debate about British identity.

While there is concrete evidence about the ways in which refugees in Canada benefit directly from this scheme, the dynamic of having a community sponsoring a refugee could yield both practical and symbolic rewards when it comes to promoting outward-looking and inclusive notions of Britishness.

Community involvement of this kind is an ideal way of turning around myths of scrounging and of promoting a debate about common needs. It would encapsulate what David Blunkett refers to as building community solutions to social problems in his chapter, by making British sponsors get to know refugees and giving them a stake in their future. The move would also be a straightforward means of injecting extra cash into the elements of the system which remain under-funded. Though the state will need to provide safeguards to ensure that the system is not open to abuse – checking whether sponsors are suitable, guaranteeing living standards, ensuring that the system does not descend into cherry-picking the funds for this scheme would be raised locally through voluntary initiatives. Arguments about special and preferential treatment will therefore not hold because sponsors will be acting voluntarily.

The potential symbolic impact of this scheme could be even greater. Firstly, the scheme could be held up as an instantly recognisable reflection of British tolerance and fair play. Secondly, it would stand as a reflection of our intrinsic internationalism. It will help address the clash which exists between the motives which drive our interventions in conflicts abroad, as in the case of Kosovo, and the fact that we somehow find it much harder to extend a helping hand when people fleeing those very same conflicts arrive on our shores. Finally, it would reflect British talent for creativity and openness to new ideas, opening people up to the fact that all newcomers are a source of creativity for societies which are ready to accept them openly. In short, a policy such as the UK Refugee Sponsorship Scheme could be held up as a useful living example of the best features of Britishness and could address some of the challenges brought out throughout this collection.

The frameworks which we adopt for making sense of a diverse British identity and the policies that they inform in local communities will be the key to deciding whether Britishness can become anchored as an inclusive identity. It is the labour market and social policies we adopt for managing integration of a few thousand, that will determine the lived reality for millions in the future.

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