In the past few years a peculiarly old-fashioned – and sinister – set of phrases has re-entered the political vocabulary of the Westminster establishment. New Labour ministers and their Tory shadows are increasingly talking about “British values” and “our way of life”.
The immediate context for this renewed obsession with “Britishness” is, allegedly, terrorism – specifically “homegrown Muslim extremism”, of the sort exhibited by the 7 July 2005 bombers.
According to this narrative, the problem with such terrorists isn’t so much that they blow people up on the London Underground, but that they are attracted to this sort of action because of a failure to integrate and sign up to “British values”.
The construction of a British identity also means the construction of another category – “non-British” – for those who are seen as different and opposed to us. Foreigners have traditionally been the people in this category.
But now some of those who live within Britain are seen as “non-British” because they apparently don’t subscribe to “British values”. This is how Muslims are now viewed.
The notion that it is un-Britishness that breeds terrorism is part of a wider moral panic about an alleged crisis of multiculturalism.
There are many examples of this panic and promotion of “Britishness” as a cure for its ills. The most prominent case is Jack Straw’s comments about the Islamic veil, which sparked a frenzy of Muslim-bashing in the press that is still raging over a month later.
Straw claimed that the veil constituted “a visible statement of separation and difference” that made “better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”. The “problem” is that by wearing the veil, Muslim women are volunteering to opt out of a common culture that allegedly binds us together. They are being un-British.
The suggestions by Straw are part of a pattern of pronouncements by senior New Labour figures and supporters over the past few years.
The most explicit statement of this ideology comes from David Miliband, a high flying New Labour figure who until recently was minister for communities.
In January of this year he delivered a lecture to the Scarman Trust on “building a community in a diverse society” calling for a new version of multiculturalism that “recognises minority groups, but refuses to give them primacy over national identity”.
This new multiculturalism would avoid both the “separatism” that characterised the old version – “distinct ethnic or religious communities with little interaction” – and the “assimilation” model whereby minorities simply adopt the national culture at the expense of their own.
Instead it proposes “hyphenated identities” on the lines of US notions of identity such as Italian-American. Under this model, I would become something like Bengali-British – British foremost, but with an exotic Bengali flavouring.
There are two key things to note about all this. The first is that it is built on a tower of falsehoods. British society is not on the verge of disintegrating into ethnic enclaves at war with each other. All the serious demographic evidence shows that ethnic minorities, including Muslims, are becoming more integrated, not less.
There is no evidence that ethnic minorities are less tolerant than white people. A recent study of schools in the north west of England found that Muslim children were far less likely to hold racial or cultural supremacist views than white children.
The paranoia over ethnic minorities in general and Muslims in particular segregating themselves from wider society is based not on reality, but on fevered imaginations of New Labour ministers desperate for someone to blame over the war.
The second point involves what this picture of national identity as cultural glue binding together disparate sub-identities fails to capture.
Even a fleeting glance at the nature of people’s senses of cultural identity reveals the poverty of pigeonholing people into mutually exclusive communities. Cultural identity is a fluid, complex, contested and subjective affair that bears little or no resemblance to the boxes on a checklist.
Moreover, the fact that discrimination exists against specific ethnic minorities, in housing, in education, in the job market, in the policing and judicial system – the fact that racism exists – is whitewashed out of this model.
But there is systematic and institutionalised prejudice favouring one community over another. The understanding of multi-racial society that anti-racist activists fought for throughout the 1970s and 1980s is wiped out at a stroke.
This conjuring away of racism is related to a deeper blindness that ignores the divisions within any particular community. Any cultural identity is itself internally divided by economic inequalities between the haves and have nots. These inequalities are increasing and they cut across all “communities”.
The ideology of Britishness and “community cohesion” is silent on the question of class, preferring an ideal fantasy of an organically integrated society to confronting the material reality of class struggle.
So New Labour’s Britishness is characterised by a triple denial – a denial of the complexities of cultural life, a denial of the existence of racism as a structural feature of our society, and a denial of class and economic inequality.
There is a particular history of nastiness about the concept of Britishness, that makes it something that the left cannot reclaim.
The legacy of the British Empire, which many of New Labour’s leaders and right wing historians want to defend, is one of slaughter and the impoverishment of oppressed people around the world.
The elitist attitude – the belief that we are “superior” to others, which was a crucial part of the empire – is a component part of the Britishness that New Labour ministers are telling us to embrace.
To understand why New Labour is peddling this ideology at this time we have to go back to the beginnings of the so called “war on terror”.
Elements of New Labour patriotism predated the 11 September 2001 attacks – including the Cool Britannia flag waving around the time of Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory. But it was in the wake of 9/11 that the new ideology of Britishness really took off.
An essay by then home secretary David Blunkett published in September 2002 asked the question, “What does citizenship mean today?”
Revealingly, it starts off by analysing the 9/11 attacks and their implications for “defending democracy”, “security and social order” and “tackling crime together”.
It’s not just the anti-war movement that says Labour’s policy over multiculturalism is driven by the “war on terror” – this analysis is shared by the government itself and, occasionally at any rate, openly admitted.
Of course, Blunkett’s analysis of 9/11 is anything but that. Rather than seeking to explain the events of that day, his intention is to mystify:
“The 11 September atrocity has come to crystallise the fear and insecurity many people feel in this new globalised age,” he solemnly intones. “It was such an appalling, inexplicable and morally unimaginable act of terror that it appeared almost to symbolise our vulnerability itself.”
The government’s response to this “inexplicable” existential threat to our way of life, it follows, has to be to shore up and bolster Britishness by developing “an active concept of citizenship” that can “articulate shared ground between diverse communities”.
This means telling off Asian families for not speaking English at home and constant pressure on Muslims to denounce “extremism” and keep quiet about “divisive” issues such as the war.
It also included last year’s introduction of “citizenship tests” for immigrants to grill them on issues that they are alleged to hold suspect views on, such as “religious and ethnic diversity” and “the role of women”.
It is ridiculous and patronising to make citizenship for immigrants conditional on them proving their Britishness while existing British citizens are under no such compunction.
Indeed, many people born and bred here would undoubtedly fail if they were tested for their knowledge of this country’s history and legal system, or their attitudes towards women’s equality, or views about religion and racism.
A section of the left has responded to this new ideology by attempting
to rescue the notion of Britishness for the left.
Billy Bragg’s new book, The Progressive Patriot, is a case in point, where he outlines an alternative vision of Britishness that is more acceptable to radical tastes than the flag waving cliches about queen and country.
But Bragg’s project founders on the fundamental problem that thwarts any attempt at promoting Britishness as a serious progressive political concept. This is what on earth is Britishness anyway?
New Labour usually dodges this question, apart from making vague noises about tolerance, fairness and diversity being British values – as opposed to French values or Chinese values or values full stop.
Bragg at least has the honesty to openly duck the question of what Britishness means – he explicitly declares that his book does not seek to define the term.
Bragg points to the radical history and tradition associated with British people, that the working people of this country have not simply and meekly accepted their rulers’ injunctions and prejudices.
But there is nothing about these episodes that means they are inherently British. On the contrary, they represent a turn away from notions of national identity towards an internationalist concept of political solidarity and struggle.
The struggles of the Chartists and the suffragettes were battles for political freedom.
But they are part of an international fight against oppression and exploitation. This fight is part of a global class struggle.
The Chartists and the suffragettes inspired people around the globe, just as the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the defeat of apartheid in South Africa inspired people in Britain.
Acceptance of “being British” goes far beyond simply our rulers. Many people at the bottom of society would describe themselves as being “proud to be British” and cling to that as an important part of their identity.
The past 25 years has seen a constant attack upon the notions of political solidarity and working class community. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government smashed the unions in the 1980s and let market forces rip through Britain.
These policies destroyed whole communities and led to a much harsher way of life for millions of working class people.
New Labour has continued this neoliberalism.
In these circumstances people can look for something to hold them together, other than class solidarity.
It is only from the standpoint of internationalist solidarity that the left can seriously tackle social ills such as racism at home and war abroad.
We need to state clearly that the left’s understanding of our society is based on acknowledging the reality of rampant economic inequality and class struggle.
Values, if they are to be worth that name, must be values for everyone, and not the possession of some imagined “culture” or “nation”.
Class divisions run through all communities and class struggle can shatter common sense notions such as “national unity”. These struggles can lay the basis for deeper unity.
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