So what is it to be British these days?
Great Britain is not a country, it is a concept. It is an unification of nation states into a single identity. David Cameron has brought this issue to a head by seeking to establish and take a hard line on the imbuing of “British values” into our schools and into other aspects of our society.
But what quintessentially are those values? It’s quite fascinating that this debate has come into full swing at a time when some in our communities consider our borders under siege from the threat of immigration whilst at the same time, those North of the England-Scotland border seek independence.
It is a welcome debate in many respects. For years, politicians have celebrated diversity but done very little towards what true integration means in a multi-cultural, multi ethnic, multi faith society where simple assertions of this being a Christian country do not wash anymore.
We have seen different interest groups over or under represented in all aspects of life, the jobs market, the media etc, in an attempt to try to tackle this very difficult issue of how to be truly integrated.
Some would argue that any form of national identity is unnecessary in a pluralistic society, that with an increasing secular resume and the “howling winds” of the open market we should instead celebrate all forms of individualism. This is fine, but how do we ultimately come together in a collective at times of hardship, at times of war, at times of economic threat. We live in a world that is as unstable as it has ever been since the last world war. We have a burgeoning planetary population that ultimately will be hard to feed in 50 years’ time. We possess the technological ability to neutralise the planet through chemical, biological and other technologies that far exceeded any threat the cold war offered. We have a rapidly aging, frequently dementing population. Be in no uncertainty, individualism ends against the greater need to collaborate to face these challenges.
So how do we delineate British values? We debate them as much as the existence of God and the certainties are just about as nebulous, but there are some common things that history has laid down that politicians, activists and others could do well to better understand and be cognisant of.
We call ourselves a tolerant society and to a certain extent this is a central value. However, tolerance has been exploited by successive governments with ideological rather than pragmatic policies in relation to this mindset extending to members of our community that neither possess the same language nor the same identity. Whilst these are a substantial minority, it is the very public policy that permits this to be so that is the cause of the malaise not the ingress of people themselves.
You cannot socially engineer a country or a national identity. Attempts at social engineering, undertaken in the more wacky days of governments left or right, were about as doomed to failure as Hitler’s attempt to create a master race by selective inbreeding. If we are to have a stab at essentially what is the essence of “British” in order that we can parcel it up for people to own, we need to be more concrete about what we mean about our identity and look at the indicators. Tolerance yes, but there are other factors.
We have always had rich and diverse communities across the UK. These sub cultures and the celebration of these subcultures have been lost in the ethnic mix as they have been cast into the penumbra of the immigration debate. What it is to be a North Easterner or to be Cornish or Welsh has somehow fallen out of public interest next to the ingress of people from around the world or Christian and Islamic integration and such factors. It is these smaller inveterate subcultures, that are lost sight of during these debates and it is no surprise that increasing separatism is seen. Add to that the focus that to be in the UK is really to be part of a country that observes a London centricity where everything revolves around the capital, and you can well understand if you are closer to Edinburgh than you are to London why you might want to be ruled from an administration not a million miles from there! Very shortly, to be the key dominant value in this country will be to be a “Londoner”, however far you commute!
We are an island nation. We are part of a global economy and it is no accident we are about the fourth most affluent country in the world. But our island heritage has kept us safe from many things. It is an actual and psychological barrier to the rest of the world and we breach it with caution. One can remember the sensitivities when the channel tunnel was drilled and a physical connection to the continent was made where one did not have to travel across water (although maybe still under it!). I recall a generation that understands that water barrier was our main protection at a time when aggressors, whose countries now have great sway in the Council of Europe, would have converted our way of life forever and we stood alone for a while, that ring of water protecting us. We are sensitive to it being split over Scotland’s possible departure through referendum. The British “preserve” is, perhaps, that culturally and instinctively, we don’t easily keep “open house” and so our immigration policies, our sense of fairness in terms of access to jobs, social mobility and the North/South divide all have to be weighed in relation to this value. It has kept the country safe since the last time we really got pasted from abroad during the Norman times.
We are also a very assimilative culture. That very Norman Conquest gave rise to the Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which we are about to celebrate. Our very traditional fish and chips are a conjunction of French and Jewish cuisine; we have no difficulty with accepting ideas or people from abroad, it’s just the way the policy makers run it that creates the resistances. Surely within this is the importance of the greatest value of all, a sense of fairness for all. How we achieve this when the threat is not from those coming from overseas but from our very Etonian based elitist leaders who continually foster a society that serves, centres and orbits around London, is a moot point.
Then there is religion.
David Cameron is wrong this is a secular country, not a Christian country. It comprises many Christians, yet equally it includes many Muslims, Jews, Pentecostals and even Jedi, which is also one of the fastest growing religions in the world! I regret the force certainly isn’t with Mr Cameron on these issues. As a Christian country, years ago we eroded Christian ways for the market. Worship was not supported. We encouraged Sunday opening instead of “protecting the Sabbath”. We now have people working seven days a week and say the employment is a good thing whilst not counting the impact on people’s mental health and having a one day a week break from commercialism.
Let’s stay with work ethic and the successive governments who have manipulated benefits to render people dependant for long period on the welfare state in non-reckonable ways for unemployment statistics purposes. Such policies created avoidable dependency and reduced participation in our communities. This legacy is not down to indolence of the individual, as most people want to work and produce, it was the creative accountancy of politicians seeking votes that caused the malaise here.
Then there’s Europe. The original European project was started up to try to avoid war in Europe in the future but this seems increasingly irrelevant now. Companies from all over the world are buying up huge pieces of land and our businesses. Are you seriously going to invade something you already own and crowd fund? Equally there are non-elected individuals in Europe who still wish to undertake some kind of gigantic social engineering project. They still see a quasi or actual Federal Europe in their utopic dreams that are dystopic nightmares for most of the rest of us. This is ideologically driven. The ordinary person does not want this and it is only organisations like UKIP who have begun to raise the debate to the point where the dominant parties now can no longer ignore it.
And perhaps that’s the most important thing in British society, in common with all complex systems it is often a small beginning that can gain movement in a democratic society where it may be heckled, but ultimately not silenced; that is the strength of who we are. Within reason and good taste most people try never to censor nor control. Away from the more selfish vicissitudes of individualism, we respect “each to his own” and the entitlement of each individual to their own views provided it does not impact on another citizen.
Surely this is what is essential on our national curriculum, along with a good dose of moral philosophy and a decent appreciation of what a multi-culture/ multi-faith community looks like and how one identifies and belongs as a citizen within it. One thing is clear, in Britain we tolerate extremes of neither left nor right and long may that remain so.
As with all issues as knotty as this, there are no absolute answers. There is an ongoing debate that must neither be supressed, deprioritised nor stifled. Fundamental to all of this, however, is the debate around whether we are an island nation of multi-cultural and multi ethnic origins, including those that were incumbent to these islands, or are we all simply subordinate to London? None of the major parties are answering that question at present.
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.