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Saturday, August 06, 2005


Our way of life

One outcome of the recent terrorist attacks in London is a renewed debate about what it means to be British. Presumably the idea is that, if we expect Muslims living in Britain to be more British, we ought first to have some idea of what this obligation actually means.

This assumption was implicit in Tony Blair's
statement on Friday about terrorism, when he said:

If people want to come here, either fleeing persecution, or seeking a better life, they play by our rules and our way of life. If they don't, they are going to have to go because they are threatening our people and way of life.
This begs the question: just what exactly is "our way of life"?

One concept of Britishness we need to clear out of the way is the idea that British identity is all about recovering some imaginary golden age. This nostalgic approach was dealt with wittily at
The Sharpener. The question we should ask is what Britishness means now, not in the 1950s.

With this question in mind, the Daily Telegraph commissioned YouGov to conduct an opinion poll (published 27 July), reported under the headline "What does it mean to be British?". YouGov's figures are
here. The Telegraph's commentary on the results by Professor Anthony King is here. The Telegraph drew some conclusions in its leader (also 27 July), which suggested a list of ten "non-negotiable components of our identity".

The YouGov poll produced some interesting results but raised more questions than it answered. There was no historical comparison with similar polls at any earlier date, so we have no idea how opinion is moving. There was no breakdown of results by region or age group, so we have no idea how Scottish and Welsh perceptions vary from those in England, how views in cosmopolitan big cities vary from those in more rural areas, or whether there are any significant differences of opinion between the generations.

Look also at YouGov's list of phrases that respondents were asked to assess. Some are qualities one could find in any democratic country, such as the top-ranked phrase, "British people's right to say what they think". Regardless of the accuracy of this phrase, is free speech a distinctively 'British' quality? Some phrases (such as the second-ranked, "Britain's defiance of Nazi Germany in 1940"), though distinctive, are historical and will recede in people's consciousness over time. And what was going through the minds of the 12% who rated "the motorway network" as a "very important" element in Britain's identity?

Reading YouGov's list of criteria as a whole, there were many disparate elements but no obvious coherence. To be fair, though, this may be as much a reflection of YouGov's poll design as it is of the British people's views.

One result of the poll was particularly noteworthy - and reassuring. The individual Briton of whom respondents felt most proud is the black athlete Kelly Holmes, which must give scant consolation to any racists seeking to exploit the current turmoil.

The Telegraph leader's stab at defining British identity was curious in that its list of ten 'core values' focused very much on constitutional and legal criteria. We are left with some idea of the important features of Britain's governing structure but little idea of the life that goes on within the country. Hardly surprising, really, since looking at Britain's culture would have entailed the Telegraph coming to terms with the results of other recent opinion polls, which tell us that Britain's most popular meal is chicken tikka masala, and that a majority of British people would rather emigrate to a warmer climate.

Where can a consensus about British identity be found? How can the integration of immigrants be achieved?
Jonathan Freedland, writing in Wednesday's Guardian, suggested the answer could be found in the USA. He examined both the French and American models of integration, and opted for the American system of diversity (the 'hyphenated American') as more appropriate to Britain than the French system, which expects people to shed their differences.

There are two obvious flaws in this argument. First, there has been sufficient ethnic strife in both France and the USA to suggest that neither country is a model of harmonious integration. Contrary to Freedland's claims, the USA is not immune to terrorist attacks committed by its own citizens, most notably in Oklahoma City. And the creation of the 'hyphenated American' has encouraged a corrosive culture of whining, rights-obsessed special-pleading.

But more significantly, both countries, unlike Britain, were consciously conceived as projects. Both were effectively invented by revolutionary movements in the late eighteenth century and are perceived as not just a nation, more of an ideology.

In contrast, Britain has evolved without any single great founding moment or blueprint. If forced, which seminal event would we choose? 1066? The Magna Carta? The Glorious Revolution of 1688? The Act of Union of 1707 or that of 1800? The Reform Act of 1832? The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 (when the UK assumed its present borders)? They are all significant events in British history but is the anniversary of any of them today worth organising fireworks and a military parade, like Independence Day or Bastille Day?

Britain's identity, such as it exists, is not static but dynamic. Over the past thirty years, there has been a marked decline in respect for the Royal Family, once regarded as the fulcrum of British identity. A majority of the Scots and Welsh now professes a stronger affinity to Scotland or Wales than to Britain. In Northern Ireland, there is no consensus about national identity, for obvious reasons. The people in the biggest muddle, though, are the English, who for many years subsumed their identity within Britishness and, now that the Scots and Welsh have made their preferences clear, are no longer quite sure who they are.

If the British can't agree about their identity, they are hardly in a position to define a consensus policy for cultural integration beyond some strictures on the rule of law and respect for democracy, which would apply equally in any other democratic country. All we can do is say that certain things, such as shariah law or suicide bombs, are so outrageous as to be beyond the pale.

There are no easy answers, but we can begin by recognising that a national identity cannot now be contrived from the centre, either by the government or anyone else. The fiasco of New Labour's 'Cool Britannia' branding exercise should have taught everyone that. And since there is no consensus about British identity, it cannot form the basis of a strategy for anti-terrorism or race relations.

Simon - trying to define somethign and then finding that so-doing is like grasping a handful of dry sand, is a common philosophical problem. My favourite goes something like: "This assertion cannot be proved." If you prove it, its wrong, if you don't, your system is incomplete.
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