For most of my political life, ‘British identity’ has been a no-go area for liberal and left discussion. Widely associated with imperialism and racism it was assumed that any strong British identity would be inimical to progressive politics. (Other nationalisms grew in strength in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In a rather confusing way, these nationalisms which rejected English domination and the English appropriation of Britishness were seen as progressive.)
Britishness was still discussed of course. The mainstream right and the far right made promoted their concepts of Britishness; trying to define what sort of people we were, what sort of nation we were and, by extension, what our relations with the rest of the world should look like.
The pernicious effects of BNP racism are obvious. But the left has only slowly accepted that the broader question of British identity is enormously important for progressive politics. The field cannot be conceded to the right. Uncertainty about who we are and what sort of country we want to be is now creating an obstacle to successful progressive politics.
The corrosive reaction against asylum seekers, the difficulty of winning a progressive case for the EU, the growth in electoral support for the far right, the openly expressed concern even in ‘liberal’ circles about the Muslim presence, the sense that somehow ‘the British’ are being taken for a ride by others: all these are familiar to anyone who knocks on doors for Labour. They have practical consequences for progressive politics. We are in retreat on the EU and on further enlargement. It will become harder to sustain a consensus on tax and public services if the integrity of access is questioned. The reaction to immigration makes it hard to avoid policies that implicitly define newer communities as the problem. The ‘progressive consensus’ that Gordon Brown is seeking requires a society with a stronger sense of community and common purpose than Britain displays today.
The white majority community expresses these concerns most strongly. But while British identity is far stronger in minority communities than many assume, there is still a strong sense that the Britishness of the majority does not include the minorities. In parts of the Muslim community, the difficulty of finding a British identity that embraces a commitment to Islam is particularly sharply expressed and, for a small minority can lead to dangerous consequences.
There are, of course, many successful stories to tell about immigration, settlement and integration of the new communities that are now in their third and fourth generations. The story of changing Britain is by no means entirely negative. But this does not mean we are a country at ease with our new selves. The sense that Britain is changing in unexplained and ill-defined ways, in response to internal developments and external pressures is widespread.
We need an inclusive British identity that can meet our needs in the 21st century. Most attempts to do so start from the assumption that there is a real ‘core Britishness’ that we need to discover, articulate and require everyone – particularly newer communities – to share. There are real difficulties with this for progressives. Historical Britishness cannot deny the strong strands of racism, exploitation, and class division that have been interwoven with the more amenable parts of our history. Some people try to get round this by detaching ‘core values’ from any historical context. But this merely begs the question of why such core values can in any sense be British.
The other problem with ‘discovered Britishness’ is that it seems to place all the obligation to change on the newer communities and none on the majority. While incomers will always have the greatest adjustment to make, those of us who grew up in a Britain that was overwhelmingly white and confident in its imperial history need to know that Britain has gone for ever. The question cannot be ‘who we are’ but ‘who we want to be’.
A 21st century British identity will have to be created not discovered. In part, it will grow from the natural interaction of the people who share our country, but we need more than this. All national identities have been created rather than given; most have owed something to the conscious efforts of politicians, historians, artists and others.
We need to learn to tell our history so that it explains why so many people have roots in other parts of the world. Telling the story of Empire as fact rather than good or bad thing has an important role to play. A greater honesty about our migrant history would bring surprising unity amongst those who currently see themselves as divided between the naturally British and others.
We have to find ways of explaining the values we hope to share by drawing on past history. Our tolerance of religious difference is all the more powerful if we can explain how has come from the experience here and abroad of religious intolerance.
We need to examine whether our national institutions reflect the inclusive identity we need. The composition of Parliament, the armed forces and other public bodies has an importance that goes way beyond equality of opportunity. The symbolism of citizenship ceremonies could be extended more widely. Schools have a critical role in fostering this sense of identity, yet citizenship education is rooted in a rights and responsibility agenda which is largely devoid of national identity or history.
We need to be conscious of the power of the images we create of our society. The moving image of London that was used in the Olympic bid was a true description of the London we want, rather than the one that currently exists.
We need to be more sharply aware of the rubbing points that undermine the creation of a coherent identity. The enlargement of the EU was a positive step, but we should be less sanguine about the impact of large new populations in areas where wage rates have been forced sharply down. Migration cannot be judged or welcome solely on its national economic benefit.
A 21st British identity will, of course, be for each us just one strand in our complex and multi-layered identities. But it is the only the can define the common ground we share as citizens of the same state, and is all the more significant for that.